Special Report
Reading & Literacy

The Benefits of Intensive Tutoring for Older Readers

By Ileana Najarro — January 04, 2022 6 min read
17 literacy sr 01 05 22 shafer 2
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

When considering how schools can best support middle and high schoolers struggling with either the foundational skills of reading or reading comprehension, experts point to a research-backed strategy that can help close academic gaps: high-impact tutoring.

The term refers to an intensive form of tutoring that is offered through a school, is informed by data on individual students’ needs, aligns to classroom work, and can be effective in getting students to grade level faster. Yet few districts have been able to implement that kind of programming prior to the pandemic because of such challenges as cost and staff shortages. New federal relief funds are helping more districts explore the possibility.

High-quality individualized tutoring has traditionally been something families have bought outside of school, said Susanna Loeb, the founder and executive director of the National Student Support Accelerator, which researches high-impact tutoring.

You’re not changing all of schooling to get high-impact tutoring in there, you’re really getting it in there to reduce the inequalities ...

As researchers and school districts look to close opportunity gaps in part by ensuring students with the most need have access to high-quality tutoring regardless of their families’ financials, they hope schools are able to find creative ways to invest in high-impact tutoring. That includes using federal relief funds tied to the pandemic that further exacerbated tutoring needs.

“In those instances where a student might need extra support for whatever the reason, then the school should be able to provide that,” said Tanji Reed Marshall, the director of P-12 practice at the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocating for students from low-income families and students of color. “It should not have to be weighted on whether a family has the resources themselves.”

How high-impact tutoring can work for older readers

The high-impact tutoring researchers point to goes well beyond after-school homework help. Sessions are often held three or more times a week in groups of three or fewer students for the whole year with the same tutor so they really get to know each other at school or immediately before or after school, said Loeb.

Because it’s tailored to individual students’ needs, Loeb added, high-impact tutoring is a good match for older students who need reading support, especially since those students have less time left in K-12 education.

If a middle or high school student hasn’t mastered learning how to read, a tutor can work directly with them on foundational skills, such as phonics. If a student needs help building reading comprehension in a subject like earth sciences, a tutor can focus on how that student can succeed in that specific class, reading for knowledge, as well as improving their overall reading comprehension.

Schools that are considering high-impact tutoring programs need to look at empirical evidence that shows the program is viable, and they also need to be sure they use data to identify which students need this extra support and what exact support they need, said Reed Marshall with the Education Trust. In working with older students, it’s important, for instance, that tutors use grade-level material to help reduce any stigma around the need for support.

“You need to know what it is you’re trying to get done so that you avoid just tutoring students who you believe need the tutoring versus tutoring students who actually do,” Reed Marshall said.

Take the Metro Nashville public schools for example. In the summer of 2020, the Tennessee district piloted a tutoring program connecting recent high school graduates with more-experienced college students to help their transition in the middle of the pandemic, said Keri Randolph, the chief strategy officer for the district.

The positive experience led to the district creating a high-impact tutoring program for 1st through 3rd grade literacy and 8th and 9th grade math, which began during the current school year. Research found those areas to be most in need of extra support and where high-impact tutoring could help most, Randolph said.

The district created its own tutoring curriculum and provided training for the variety of tutors it has, including community volunteers, educator-preparation-program students, existing classroom teachers, retired educators, and more.

As of December, about 1,000 students are part of the program across 46 schools, with both academic progress and social-emotional gains measured regularly, Randolph said.

Ensuring equitable access to quality tutoring

While the Nashville district is an outlier in terms of actually having a fleshed-out high-impact tutoring program in place, private top-notch tutoring has been a long-standing go-to for some families.

Private tutoring can add to the opportunity gap in districts where only some families can afford it and where the core curriculum doesn’t properly serve all its students, Reed Marshall said.

The demand for private tutoring, as well as inequitable access to the resource, has stretched back for years. There have been efforts, namely in response to the No Child Left Behind Act, to provide tutoring through schools rather than relying on family finances, Loeb said. But much of that resulted in less-intensive programs with mixed results.

At Metro Nashville, demand for in-house high-impact tutoring exceeds capacity as schools are already seeing how the program can benefit a variety of students, including older readers, Randolph said. The intention for its inaugural year, however, was to serve the students most in need based on district academic data.

The challenges and opportunities ahead

Hope in scaling up the tutoring program in Nashville now lies in its sustainable design, Randolph said. Building it in-house, for instance, means the district is spending about $800 a year per student, saving thousands in what it would cost to buy a program. By spring, the district hopes to offer the program across 90 schools with about 7,000 students participating.

High price tags are a deterrent to many districts looking into high-impact tutoring, Loeb said. Really intensive programs can go for $2,500 per year per student, though often it can come out to about $1,000. There’s also the current labor shortages across the country that make it difficult to hire and retain trained tutors.

And whether it’s building a program from scratch or purchasing one, implementing high-impact tutoring across a district is a complicated process when many educators are stretched thin as it is, Loeb added.

At Cherokee Heights Elementary in St. Paul, Minn., investing in a partnership with the nonprofit Minnesota Reading Corps to offer high-impact tutoring in K-3 has paid off, said Principal Heidi Koury. The program began in 2020, and already, she’s seen students get on track in terms of grade-level reading skills. She sees this early intervention as a means to help students no longer need extra support later on.

Koury and Randolph both see federal pandemic-relief funds as a resource schools and districts can turn to for investing in these programs. Nashville, for instance, used philanthropic funds to jump-start the program but will rely on federal funds to continue with the program, budgeting for its future while knowing those funds won’t last forever.

The federal funds can help districts explore whether high-impact tutoring is the right fit for their students’ needs, especially as the academic effects of the pandemic and how to address them are still being deciphered, Loeb said. What’s more, if implemented effectively, the tutoring could double as an equity initiative and a form of intervention.

“You’re not changing all of schooling to get high-impact tutoring in there, you’re really getting it in there to reduce the inequalities, to give the students who need these extra supports the extra support,” Loeb said.

A version of this article appeared in the January 05, 2022 edition of Education Week as Intensive Tutoring Can Be Crucial for Older Readers Who Need Literacy Help


School & District Management Webinar How Pensions Work: Why It Matters for K-12 Education
Panelists explain the fundamentals of teacher pension finances — how they are paid for, what drives their costs, and their impact on K-12 education.
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
Strategies for Incorporating SEL into Curriculum
Empower students to thrive. Learn how to integrate powerful social-emotional learning (SEL) strategies into the classroom.
Content provided by Be GLAD
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.
School & District Management Webinar
Leadership in Education: Building Collaborative Teams and Driving Innovation
Learn strategies to build strong teams, foster innovation, & drive student success.
Content provided by Follett Learning

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 Photos Drama and Delight: The Faces of the National Spelling Bee
The 2024 Scripps National Spelling Bee came down to a high-stakes spell-off. Here's a look at the faces behind the event.
1 min read
Shrey Parikh, 12, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., reacts to a fellow competitor's word during the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, in Oxon Hill, Md., on May 30, 2024.
Shrey Parikh, 12, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., reacts to a fellow competitor's word during the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, in Oxon Hill, Md., on May 30, 2024.
Nathan Howard/AP
Reading & Literacy Q&A A New Plan to Raise the Lowest Literacy Rates in the Nation
Daily summer reading instruction for thousands of students is part of a bigger plan to improve literacy in New Mexico.
5 min read
Arsenio Romero, secretary of New Mexico’s Public Education Department, addresses the audience at the Albuquerque Earth Day Festival on April 21, 2024.
Arsenio Romero, the New Mexico secretary of education, speaks at the Albuquerque Earth Day Festival on April 21, 2024. Romero is leading a statewide effort to improve literacy.
Courtesy of New Mexico Public Education Department
Reading & Literacy Older Students Who Struggle to Read Hide in Plain Sight. What Teachers Can Do
Going back to basics may get to the root of the problem.
6 min read
Image of a seventh-grade student looking through books in her school library.
A seventh-grade student looks through books in her school library.
Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages