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.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.”

See also

teacher tutor student librarian 1137620335
SDI Productions/E+

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.


Student Well-Being K-12 Essentials Forum Boosting Student and Staff Mental Health: What Schools Can Do
Join this free virtual event based on recent reporting on student and staff mental health challenges and how schools have responded.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
Practical Methods for Integrating Computer Science into Core Curriculum
Dive into insights on integrating computer science into core curricula with expert tips and practical strategies to empower students at every grade level.
Content provided by

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Reading & Literacy What Is Morphology? Should Teachers Include It in Reading Instruction?
Teaching about word parts—such as prefixes, suffixes, and roots—may help students develop their academic vocabularies.
8 min read
A young girl peeks over the books on a library shelf
Reading & Literacy U.S. Parents Think Reading Instruction Is Going OK—Until They See National Test Results
Most parents also seem to favor phonics as an approach to word-reading, a new survey finds.
5 min read
Photo of mother working with young son on his reading.
E+ / Getty
Reading & Literacy Here's What Students Miss Out on When Their Schools Lack Librarians
Some administrators think school librarians are obsolete, but these schools prove otherwise.
6 min read
A quiet, secluded dark library with bookcases on either side and a bright light coming in through a window straight ahead with an empty chair near the window.
Reading & Literacy 'Science of Reading' and English-Learner Advocates Reach Common Ground
Two groups have aimed to find consensus in one contested area of the reading wars.
4 min read
Side view of mixed ethnicity school kids sitting on cushions against bookshelves and reading  books in a library.
iStock/Getty Images Plus