Tutoring improves reading among struggling first graders

iStock_000014442615XSmallFifty-seven first-grade students scoring in the bottom 25 percent for reading skills received either regular classroom reading instruction or tutoring in either word study or word study with reading decodable texts.

Patricia F. Vadasy and Elizabeth A. Sanders from the Washington Research Institute and Julia A. Peyton from the University of Washington studied the effects of phonics instruction with or without oral reading practice provided by paraprofessionals.

Since supplementary tutoring is costly for schools to provide, tutoring activities must be carefully selected for easy and reliable use by paraprofessionals, and for evidence of treatment effectiveness.

In this study, all tutors used Sound Partners as the core phonics-based program. It is a one-toone supplementary intervention for use by paraprofessional tutors with low-skilled first graders. Instruction includes letter-sound correspondence, decoding and spelling instruction, and reading practice in decodable texts. Tutors met with students for a half hour four days a week from October through May.

Word study vs. reading

Dividing the students into two groups, these researchers compared 30 minutes of daily word study to 15 minutes of word study combined with 15 minutes of reading. They sought to determine the effects of phonics-based supplemental reading interventions and, in addition, what adding oral reading practice contributes to the effects of word study.

All students who scored in the bottom quartile on reading tests at the beginning of the school year, including students identified for limited English proficiency or special education services participated in the study. Tutors received two to four hours of initial training depending on their experience.

Researchers modeled each instructional component and supervised tutors as they practiced the components. Training included explicit correction procedures. After training, tutors were provided with weekly on-site coaching and modeling throughout the year, during which researchers observed tutors for their fidelity to treatment procedures.

Word-study group

Letter-sound correspondence was taught explicitly for about seven minutes per lesson. A new letter sound was introduced and modeled in almost every lesson, beginning with single consonants and vowels, then two-letter vowel teams and consonant digraphs. Students also practiced the alphabetic principle with picture cards. Using word lists, they practiced phoneme segmentation for one minute.

For another 10 minutes they practiced decoding words, sounding them out without stopping between sounds. For this decoding practice, only letter sounds that had been previously taught were used in phonetically regular words. Students received extra practice on three to six words that they found difficult. They wrote these words from dictation. For about three minutes, students practiced reading irregular words from a list of common sight words. The last five to seven minutes of each word-study session was spent reading lists of 10 words to develop automatic word recognition.

The reading-practice group

Students in this group spent the first 15 to 20 minutes on almost the same word-study skills as the word-study group. Afterward, they spent 10 minutes reading aloud from storybooks selected to match the sequence of sounds and sight words introduced in the word-study lessons. There was a new book for every two lessons. (These books contained a total of 1200 words, of which three-quarters were decodable and the rest were sight words.) The student read the new book twice and then reread previously read books of their choice.

The tutor selected the most appropriate reading method for each student: independent reading, with the student reading most of the words with occasional help from the tutor; partner reading, with the student and tutor reading together; or echo reading, with the tutor reading one line of text and the student reading the same line after the tutor. Students read for 10 minutes a day for the first half of the year, increasing to 15 minutes in the second half of the year.

Tutored reading students improved

All students were pre- and post-tested using a range of tests covering receptive vocabulary, letter knowledge, phonological awareness, reading accuracy, word attack skills, spelling and reading comprehension. Reading passages were drawn from two decodable phonics books and one less-predictable end-of-first-grade book.

There were no significant differences in classroom reading instruction or the number of minutes spend on reading instruction in the classrooms involved in this study. There were no significant differences between the two tutoring treatments in terms of the number or length of lessons. On average, each tutor was observed 20 times during the year, with six observations per student.

Tutored students in both treatments outperformed non-tutored peers in reading accuracy, comprehension, and fluency as well as spelling. On most post-treatment measures, the tutored groups performed comparably. The exceptions were significantly higher reading accuracy and fluency for the Reading-Practice group. Word Study students who received more intensive phonics and word analyses instruction did not show advantages in reading or spelling accuracy. This study was limited to the use of decodable texts by the Reading-Practice group and researchers say outcomes might have differed if nondecodable tests had been used.

Practice in oral reading

These findings suggest that supplementary tutoring in oral reading significantly improves reading fluency and produces equivalent reading and spelling accuracy as compared with students who spent equivalent time on individual word study. After the initial 15 minutes per day of individual word study, additional word study did not increase reading accuracy or spelling skills. Scaffolded oral reading practice produced significantly higher fluency than word study alone.

The effectiveness of oral reading practice may depend on the type of support provided by trained tutors. Tutors in this study were taught to consistently observe two rules: students should always track the words they are reading with their finger and they must always reread a sentence in which they make a mistake.

Tutors routinely corrected students by: isolating the difficult sound in a word, directing the student to any familiar letter combination or feature, alerting them to sight words, reminding them to notice a final “e”, and by switching from independent reading to partner or echo reading as necessary. The decodable text in Sound- Partners offered students many opportunities to practice their emerging decoding skills and it consistently prompted paraprofessional tutors to provide appropriate assistance and cues to practice their new skills.

Tutors and parents might use these simple yet instructionally specific strategies to support oral reading practice for beginning readers. These researchers conclude that there are benefits of explicit training in word reading for low-skilled first graders and that this phonics instruction should be accompanied by oral reading practice in matched texts. They point out that although students showed significant improvement after tutoring, only about one-third of these students were performing at grade level by the end of the year. It is not known how much supplemental tutoring would be needed to raise the rest of the students to grade level.

“Relative Effectiveness of Reading Practice or Word-Level Instruction in Supplemental Tutoring: How Text Matters” Journal of Learning Disabilities, August 2005, Volume 38, Number 4, pp. 364-380.

Published in ERN September 2005 Volume 18 Number 6

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