Many struggling readers in first- or second-grade would benefit from one-on-one tutoring. However, most districts do not have the resources for trained, professional tutors, and many educators are reluctant to use volunteers or teacher assistants who are enthusiastic but unskilled.
In a March 2006 article in The Elementary School Journal, Darrell Morris of Appalachian State University writes that educators should take a closer look at the idea of using volunteers and paraprofessionals to tutor at-risk readers. He describes a tutoring model that has been shown to be effective in five field tests. One of the key features of the model is that a knowledgeable teacher provides coaching and close supervision of the tutors.
“Coaching involves helping with lesson plans, modeling correct teaching technique, providing immediate performance feedback to the tutors, and guiding the tutors’ pacing decisions (i.e., deciding when to move a child forward in contextual reading or word study),” the author notes. “To be an effective coach, the reading teacher has to invest time in planning and on-site supervision of the tutoring lessons.”
“The tutoring model calls for six to eight noncertified tutors working two times per week with low-reading primary-grade students. The tutors’ task is to move the children through a graded set of contextual reading and word study materials, the article says. Other features of the model include:
•Engaging reading materials that are care fully graded in difficulty;
•A sequenced word study or phonics curriculum
•Regularly scheduled tutoring sessions (at least two per week); and
•A committed group of noncertified tutors.
In one field test study at the Howard Street Tutoring Program in Chicago, 30 low-reading second and third graders in a low-income community were tutored after school for one hour twice a week. The tutors were closely supervised by an experienced reading teacher who assumed responsibility for lesson planning (e.g. choosing books to be read, phonics patterns to be sorted) and observed all the tutoring lessons. At the end of the school year, tutored students gained, on average, 12.2 months in passage reading compared to the control group which gained only 6.6 months.
“In five studies that used variations of the same tutoring model, the tutored students consistently outperformed the control group: average effect sizes were .72 for word recognition, .84 for passage reading, and .71 for comprehension,” the author writes. “I know of no small-group instructional model, the traditional form of school based remedial reading, that has produced results of this kind.”
The researcher acknowledges, however, that there are several obstacles to implementing successful programs. They include:
Recruitment of tutors — Some reading teachers do not see tutor recruitment as part of their job and if they are slow pace to find tutors, it can lead to fewer lessons and smaller achievement gains for students. One solution is to hire a part-time person to do this work. Morris notes that once a well-supervised program is under way, many volunteers choose to come back year after year.
Supervision of tutors — Morris stresses that supervision requires a substantial commitment from the school-based reading teacher. The reading teacher must plan and observe the lessons if he or she is to assure quality control in the program. Paraprofessionals also require close supervision, at least at first, but may eventually need require less supervision.
Identifying a knowledgeable supervisor of tutors — While the school-based reading teacher is the usual choice, others, such as an experienced primary- grade teacher or a retired reading specialist, could supervise an after-school program. According to Morris, the supervisor’s role includes “helping with lesson plans, modeling teaching techniques, providing performance feedback, and monitoring the pacing of instruction. It also includes encouraging a tutor on days when everything does not go right.”
One of the reasons finding a qualified supervisor can be a challenge is that such responsibility is not usually included in the professional training of reading teachers. Morris suggests that training for supervisors could be provided by universities, outside consultants, or by teacher “experts” within a school district. A three-week summer practicum can provide a good approach for training numerous supervisors in a short period of time, he says.
Tutoring programs have had mixed results in the past. In the late 1990s, President Clinton advocated nationwide volunteer tutoring as a way to help all children learn to read by the end of grade 3. But, Morris says, “History shows that nothing is simple or easy when it comes to preventing reading problems in U.S. schools.
Ups and downs of volunteer tutoring
After a burst of initial enthusiasm, the volunteer tutoring concept seemed to lose momentum and, five years later, educators are off on another course, this time attacking the reading problem by using ‘scientifically based’ reading materials.”
Working with uncertified tutors requires that reading teachers restructure their jobs. “They must be willing to work ‘through’ other adults to extend and intensify the instruction offered to early readers,” the authors write.
While supervising and guiding volunteers and paraprofessionals demands another commitment from the teacher or other educator, this study finds that these efforts can result in raising reading achievement at a critical juncture for students learning to read. Tutoring programs are affordable and also flexible. The tutoring programs can be held during or after school.
“Using Noncertified Tutors to Work with At- Risk Readers: An Evidence-Based Model” The Elementary School Journal Volume 106, Number 4, March 2006 pps. 351-360.
Published in ERN May 2006 Volume 19 Number 5