Reading & Literacy What the Research Says

A Virtual Tutoring Program Boosted Early Literacy Skills. New Research Shows How

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 31, 2023 3 min read
Conceptual illustration of student standing in front of computer for online tutoring.
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Intensive, high-dose tutoring can boost early reading skills, even in a virtual format, according to a new experimental study.

Researchers from the National Student Support Accelerator at Stanford University tracked the reading progress of about 2,000 K-2 students in a dozen Texas charter schools. Half of the students were randomly assigned to attend class normally, while half received intensive remote tutoring for part of the school day, in small groups, through the nonprofit group OnYourMark, which serves K-2 students in seven states.

Through video chats, each tutor gave groups of one or two participating students supplemental lessons in phonics and decoding for 20 minutes a day, four times a week, from September 2022 through May 2023.

By the end of the school year, researchers found that the tutored students scored significantly better on the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS, and the adaptive Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP, both commonly used early reading tests. First graders in 1-1 sessions saw the most improvement, with tutored students performing about 6 percentile points higher on average than students who had not received tutoring.

The study did not include students with disabilities or English learners, and Stanford University co-author Cynthia Pollard noted that the results aren’t necessarily representative of most online tutoring programs, which don’t tend to be built into the school day or may rely on parents opting their children into the programs

“What is notable about the OnYourMark model is that it is really aligned to all the evidence-based features of what we think about as high-impact tutoring,” Pollard said, such as keeping students with the same tutor throughout the semester or year and providing initial and ongoing training and coaching for tutors.

“It seemed like they found a sweet spot there [that is] working for these young readers,” Pollard said.

The results hold promise for virtual instruction of children in the youngest grades who experienced significant reading achievement gaps after their schooling was disrupted during the pandemic. While some prior studies have shown that older students benefitted from virtual tutors, this is the first randomized controlled study of virtual tutoring with the youngest learners.

Potential option for hard-to-staff programs

Studies find frequent, intensive, in-person tutoring to be the most effective in helping students progress quickly. But according to the latest federal data from 2022, a little more than a third of public schools offer such high-dosage tutoring, and only 11 percent of public school students participate in it. In part, districts have found in-person staffing and other costs to be a major challenge for tutoring programs.

“Many places right now are struggling to find in-person tutors,” said Nancy Lynn Waymack, the director of research partnerships and policy for the National Student Support Accelerator, “so they were happy to have a consistent virtual tutor that they were able to provide for their young readers.”

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Many districts are exploring virtual tutoring as a potentially less-expensive format for intensive tutoring than in-person programs, once federal support for learning-recovery efforts runs out in less than a year. The current study did not conduct cost-benefit analyses of the virtual program, but the academic benefits for OnYourMark are smaller than those found in previous studies of in-person high-dosage tutoring. For early readers, studies have found intensive, in-person, individual tutoring was associated with higher average reading performance of .24 to .41 of a standard deviation, or about 9 to 15 percentile points.

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