School & District Management

Trained Tutors Found To Help in Reading

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — February 28, 2001 3 min read
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“How Effective Are One-to- One Tutoring Programs in Reading for Elementary Students at Risk for Reading Failure? A Meta-Analysis of the Intervention Research,” December 2000 by Batya Elbaum, Sharon Vaughn, Marie Tejero Hughes, and Sally Watson Moody, is available from the Journal of Educational Psychology.

One-on-one tutoring programs that tap community volunteers and college students to help improve children’s reading skills can be highly effective if the tutors have received intensive training, a meta-analysis of more than two dozen studies has found.

The review, published in December’s issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology, concludes that “well-designed, reliably implemented, one-to-one interventions can make a significant contribution to improved reading outcomes for many students whose poor reading skills place them at risk for academic failure.”

While the studies did not provide enough detail to determine the effectiveness of specific features of the tutoring programs, in general the lessons had the greatest effect on the students’ reading comprehension, the researchers found. Moderate improvements, in general, were seen in students’ phonemic awareness—or the understanding that words are made up of sounds and letters—as a result of tutoring.

“A key finding is that, overall, providing tutoring is better than not doing it. But there are some ways of doing it that yield better outcomes for children than others,” said Sharon Vaughn, a professor of special education at the University of Texas at Austin. “Most people will be impressed with how well college students and noncertified teachers do, if they’re trained.”

Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont tutors a 4th grader in 1998. Well-trained volunteer tutors can help students make major reading gains, a study says.
—Jessica Persson

Ms. Vaughn, who conducted the study with professors Batya E. Elbaum and Marie Tejero Hughes, and research associate Sally Watson Moody, of the department of teaching and learning at the University of Miami in Florida, cautioned that the research does not suggest that tutoring can replace good reading instruction in the classroom. In fact, Ms. Vaughn says, in the programs that proved most effective, tutors had regular contact with classroom teachers.

While children who met with tutors on a regular basis performed better on standardized measures than a comparison group, the improvement was not likely to help students with severe reading problems perform at grade level. “The benefit might, however, be great enough to allow these students to keep up with classroom instruction and to avoid academic failure,” the authors write.

Training Necessary

The meta- analysis, which looked at 29 studies involving 42 samples of students between 1975 and 1998, lends credibility to tutoring efforts that involve a strong training component, according to Barbara A. Wasik, a reading researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

“It was more evidence to suggest that if you are going to use volunteers to tutor children in reading, [the tutors] need to be trained,” Ms. Wasik said.

Four years ago, President Clinton’s plan to recruit an army of volunteers to tutor struggling readers netted criticism from some researchers, who argued that the $2.75 billion proposed for America Reads could better be used for teacher training. Ms. Wasik was among those who argued that amassing such a “citizen army,” while admirable, would not be effective unless the volunteers had some skill in tutoring children. Mr. Clinton’s initial proposal did not address the need for volunteers to undergo training.

Republicans countered the Clinton plan with the Reading Excellence Act, which primarily provides grants for research-based professional- development programs. But colleges and universities participating in the federal work-study and AmeriCorps programs were permitted to use the money to pay students to work as reading tutors.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as Trained Tutors Found To Help in Reading

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