Struggling readers show big gains when they tutor younger readers facing similar challenges

A pretty African American university woman reading at the parkStruggling readers often have deeply entrenched negative feelings about reading, so teachers have the “double duty” of improving reading and mending their negative attitudes toward reading, write two researchers in an article in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. One strategy for building the confidence and improving the reading skills of these struggling readers, who are often labeled reluctant, resistant, alliterate or remedial, is to have them tutor younger struggling readers, propose the researchers.

A promising cost-effective program

“The results of our study suggest a promising avenue for cost-effective programs that can improve reading attitudes, increase motivation and self-efficacy, and provide authentic opportunities to perform strategically in a structured and supportive academic environment for students who are too frequently abandoned by the system,” the researchers write.

By the end of the year-long program six tutor-students had recorded gains of three grade levels or more in their reading levels, one student gained five grade levels and another seven grade levels. Eight students reached grade level 9 or higher (Standardized Test for Assessment of Reading [STAR]). On average, the tutor-students’ reading levels improved by two grade levels. Average pretest score in September was 6.3 (range 2.6-10.2) and average post-test score was 8.2 (post-test range was 4.1-12.9)

In this study, one tenth-grade and 29 ninth-grade students in a year-long remedial reading program were asked if they wanted to participate in a tutoring program for second- and third-graders. Only one student opposed it. He was given the choice of staying with another reading class or accompanying his class to the elementary school and assisting with materials, supervision and organization. He chose the latter.

The high school students walked to the nearby elementary school for the tutoring sessions. Throughout the year-long program, the teacher and guest reading specialists from the school district gave students instruction in how to use reading strategies and presented model lessons. Students were later asked to write their own lessons plans using these strategies and incorporating phonics, context cues, expressive reading, paired and echo reading, sight words, prediction, questioning, etc.

During walks back to the high school, the teacher asked students questions about the tutoring sessions and students also maintained tutoring journals. Researchers collected primary data from presentations, interviews, photographs and tutoring journals.

Both schools were Title I schools (Title I is a federally funded program for at-risk students in the United States) with a highly diverse, low socioeconomic status student population. Because of the empathy they have for their young partners, high school tutors sometimes become passionate advocates for them.

The researchers identified the following themes from the data:

Mirrored their experience. “The young children were mirrors for the older students, reflecting what the adolescents had been like as younger students in school and bringing them to a greater awareness of their own academic needs and goals,” the researchers say.

Change in attitude toward external standards. “A common denominator among student comments regarding their initial reading ability was that their lack of success as judged by external standards was a matter of personal will,” the researchers write. “They vehemently maintained that they could read if they wanted to, but they simply chose not to.

“As the year progressed, students realized that they were making academic progress as measured by external standards and began to attribute that success to their own learning.” They frequently referenced outside sources as evidence of their progress. Instead of being instructed to complete reading or workbook assignments, students were now responsible for implementing learning strategies in an authentic way.

Learning through teaching. One of the best ways to learn something is to teach it to someone else, the researchers note. In trying to help their students, the tutors had to apply and modify strategies they had learned in their reading classes. “As a result of their teaching experiences, the high school students were able to articulate their own reading issues and identify specific strategies to improve them,” the researchers write. At first, all the students expressed doubts about their ability to be effective tutors, but these concerns diminished and their sense of self-efficacy increased as the program continued, the researchers write.
“Struggling reader to struggling reader: High school students’ responses to a cross-age tutoring program.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy Volume 49 Number 5 February 2006 Pps. 378-389.

Published in ERN April 2006 Volume 19 Number 4

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