When President Clinton unveiled plans two years ago to mobilize an army of volunteers to tutor children in reading, critics complained that the research base supporting the idea was weak. Too few studies had even looked at such programs, they said. And those that had were either not rigorous or had produced lukewarm results.
New findings from a scientifically controlled study of an Oregon tutoring program, however, may yet convince those critics. In a report published in the current issue of Reading Research Quarterly, researchers from the Eugene Research Institute conclude that even relatively untrained tutors can help youngsters improve their reading skills.
The researchers base their conclusions on a longitudinal study of 127 1st graders from six Oregon schools in poor, urban communities. All the students took reading pretests. Half spent an hour a week with tutors. The other half, whose pretest scores were identical, got no special tutoring.
At the end of 2nd grade, the tutored students were reading aloud at an average rate of 61.5 words per minute, compared with 45 words per minute for the other group. A year later, the researchers say, the tutored students’ reading speed had increased to 71 words a minute vs. 55 words for their untutored peers.
State reading scores also gave the tutored students a statistically significant edge.
The surprise was that most of the volunteers in the program, known as SMART, for Start Making a Reader Today, had received only an hour or two of training. The statewide, nonprofit group has since beefed up its training sessions.
At the time of the study, though, “it really counted on adults’ sense of what are good things to do with books that are by and large readable by children,” said Russell Gersten, the director of the Eugene-based institute and a co-author of the study.
He believes the tutors had success simply because their students spent more time reading than the other students did. The tutors’ own example, he added, also may have persuaded students to trust more in adults.
“For kids who may be kind of reticent in school and not volunteer so much, those are probably two important factors,” Mr. Gersten said.
A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2000 edition of Education Week as Volunteer Tutors Found To Improve Student Reading