For struggling 1st-grade readers, one-to-one interventions are hard to beat, study says

iStock_000016678101XSmallIn an ideal world, 1st-grade teachers would work one-to-one with 1st-grade students who are struggling to learn how to read.

But, one-to-one interventions are often not feasible given the budget constraints for many schools and districts. To help as many children as possible with limited funds, many administrators have opted for a small-group approach in interventions instead of the one-to-one intervention typical of the Reading Recovery program. How well does this work?

A new study in The Elementary School Journal finds that one-to-one interventions, while they may not be practical, are in fact, ideal. This study of 85 Reading Recovery teachers working with 170 at-risk students found that students working with teachers 1:1 fared better on literacy measures in trend analysis than students working in small groups of 1:2, 1:3 and 1:5. The children working with their teachers one-to-one scored higher in 8 of 9 literacy measures than the children in small groups.

“The results of this study demonstrated that group size is an important factor with respect to the literacy outcomes for these students, with the 1:1 instructional context providing the most support for their literacy learning,” the researchers write.

One caveat: Teachers in this study had extensive knowledge and professional development experiences related to 1:1 instruction. They were given no additional support for working with small groups of students, although many of these teachers did have experience with small groups as part of their teaching assignments.

Both teacher expertise and teacher-student ratio are factors in optimizing instruction for at-risk students, the researchers write.

“In preventing reading problems, the question should not be which intervention format is ‘best’, but rather which combination of teacher-student ratio, professional development, and curriculum emphasis is effective for which students,” the researchers write.

Students in the 1:1 and small-group condition received the Reading Recovery intervention for 20 weeks in daily 30-minute lessons. Daily instructional decisions were made based on the strengths and progress of the children. Teachers had been teaching Reading Recovery for at least one year—they were not participating in Reading Recovery teacher training during the study. Teachers volunteered to participate in the study. Each served as his or her own control by conducting both 1:1 and small-group interventions. Another group of 208 students who were reading slightly better than students meeting Reading Recovery screening criteria but were still at- risk readers served as controls; these students received interventions in small groups.

The lesson framework following the following structure:

  • familiar reading of previously introduced texts
  • a running record assessment on the text with teaching points
  • letter and word work
  • composition and writing of a story narrative with teacher support
  • reassembling a sentence strip taken from the text cut to emphasize units of text and words
  • introduction and supported reading of a new book

In group instruction teachers also used:

  • shared composition and writing with support
  • guided reading of new books

Student progress was monitored every week. When the student met the established criteria for a specific task 3 consecutive weeks, the teacher moved on to monitoring the next required task. All children received 20 weeks of intervention. Students were not discontinued if they met performance measures. The researchers note that if educators opt to work with children in small groups vs. 1:1, extending the length of the intervention might increase the effectiveness of a higher teacher-student ratio.

Students were given a number of pre- and post-tests to assess literacy performance for the study.

Based on the findings of this study and other research on response to intervention, the effectiveness of a school’s intervention system depends on several factors including teacher-student ratio, teachers’ professional expertise, the students’ entering literacy level, and the types and timing of interventions available within the system.

“The mix of individual and small-group services should be sufficient to reduce the achievement gap across first grade for 70% to 80% of the students who would struggle to make progress in the classroom context alone,” the researchers write.  “This requires careful monitoring of outcomes at the end of first grade and, if necessary, action to implment more intensive and effective systems of early intervention services.”

“Effects of Teacher-Student Ratio in Response to Intervention Approaches,” by Robert M. Schwartz, Maribeth C. Schmitt and Mary K. Lose, The University of Chicago, The Elementary School Journal, 2012, Vol. 112(4) pps. 548 – 567.

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