The promise, and the limits, of tutoring

Tutoring can be an effective way to bring a struggling reader up to grade level. But, as I discovered when I volunteered with one highly regarded tutoring program, it isn't always easy. And it may not be the whole solution to a problem that is at the root of the achievement gap.

Photo of boy reading from Shutterstock.

If a child isn't reading on grade level by 3rd grade, chances are she'll never catch up. And in DC, only 23% of 4th-graders were reading on grade level according to national tests given in 2013.

One method that has been shown to work with at-risk readers is one-on-one tutoring. But it's expensive to have professional tutors work with all the students who need help. What about using volunteers?

According to a recent rigorous study, at least one program that uses volunteers actually works. Students got the equivalent of one-and-a-half to two months of additional growth in sight-word reading over the course of a school year, as compared to a control group. The study also found statistically significant results for comprehension and fluency.

The program, called Reading Partners, is active in 7 states and DC. It works with about 600 students in kindergarten through 5th grade in the District, and deploys about the same number of volunteers. This past school year I was one of them.

I decided to volunteer for two reasons. First and most obvious, I wanted to help a child in need. Second, I had learned from a previous tutoring experience how important it is to spend time in schools if you're interested in education, and especially if you're writing about it.

The challenge of Keisha

I suppose I imagined getting an adorable, bright-eyed child who would be grateful for the attention I was showering on her, and whose progress would be gratifyingly obvious.

I know there are many such kids, but instead I got a 4th-grader I'll call Keisha. When I first met Keisha in January, she sat as far from me as possible at the small table in the school's reading center where we met for 45 minutes every Tuesday, turning her chair to face away from me. She was quiet to the point of being unresponsive.

I thought she would warm up as she got to know me, but her behavior was unpredictable. One week she'd be bouncing off the wall and the next she'd be back inside her shell, refusing to answer my questions.

Thanks to a goal-setting system I devised with the help of the Reading Partners site administrator, things eventually got better. But the difficulty of reaching Keisha gave me some idea of what classroom teachers are up against.

I did everything I could think of to establish a rapport, including bringing her a small damp bag of moss to illustrate a vocabulary word that had stumped her. But nothing seemed to work.

I confess there were busy weeks when I was less than eager to make the 90-minute round-trip journey to Keisha's school. But I reminded myself that all kids deserve to learn, regardless of their level of cuteness. (And to be fair, there were times when even Keisha was pretty cute.)

A focus on skills, not content

The other problem, though, was that it wasn't always clear to me that Keisha was learning. To be sure, there were some aspects of the highly structured program that seemed valuable. I liked the fact that Keisha was writing, at least a little, about what she was reading. And reviewing vocabulary words several times over a period of weeks seemed like a good way to reinforce them.

But the Reading Partners approach, like much of education today, is focused on teaching discrete skills rather than fostering an appreciation for literature or conveying a particular body of knowledge. Over the course of about 6 months, we covered only 3 skills: Sequencing in Informational Text, Making Inferences, and Summarizing.

At each session, I would explain or review the relevant term and make sure Keisha understood it. When it was time for her to read, the protocol required me to interrupt her every page or two to ask her about Sequencing, or get her to Make an Inference, or Summarize.

That approach tends to take the joy out of reading, and I couldn't really blame Keisha when she seemed annoyed by my questions. I found myself wondering why we couldn't read a book all the way through and then go back and talk about it in a more natural way.

I also noticed Keisha's level of engagement varied with how much she liked what she was reading. Some books clearly grabbed her. But because she was only reading at a 2nd-grade level, she found others babyish.

"I'm in 4th grade!" she said disgustedly about one of them. "This isn't a 4th-grade book." She may have been behind in reading, but she was no dummy.

Tying tutoring to classroom work

More fundamentally, I wondered if it wouldn't have been more helpful for Keisha to spend time with a tutor working on the material she was actually supposed to be learning in class. That's the kind of tutoring affluent kids get, paid for by their parents.

Keisha might have been more responsive to that kind of tutoring, as well. Not only would we have avoided the "babyish" problem, but she might have seen a more direct connection between tutoring and her education. At one point she told me she really ought to be back in class, where she'd be learning something.

But no doubt it would be difficult, if not impossible, to engineer that individualized approach for a large-scale program that relies on volunteers.

But perhaps I accomplished more with Keisha than I thought. At the end of the school year, my Reading Partners site administrator sent me an excited email announcing that Keisha had made over a year of growth in her reading skills in the 6 months that I and another tutor worked with her. She was still about 18 months below her grade level, but she'd narrowed the gap by almost half a year.

I also got a handwritten note from Keisha that read: "Dear Ms. Natalie, I had Fun with you & I Love how you ask me great questions." It was accompanied by a drawing of the two of us.

I'm sure she wrote it because she was instructed to, but still, it made me tear up a bit. I've volunteered to tutor again next year, with Keisha if her schedule permits.

I don't know that tutoring is the whole answer to the problem of struggling readers. I suspect that the kind of tutoring Reading Partners does works best with younger children who are still learning the basics. For older children, I wonder if different classroom teaching methods are also needed.

But I'm not ready to give up on Keisha. And maybe Keisha's not the only one who learned something. It's possible that, with 6 months of experience under my belt, I'll be a better tutor.

Natalie Wexler blogs at DC Eduphile and is a contributor to the Washington Post. She serves on the boards of DC Scholars Public Charter School and The Writing Revolution and chairs the DC Regional Leadership Council of the Urban Teacher Center. She has also been a volunteer tutor in reading and writing in DC Public Schools. 


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I'm shocked that she wasn't excited about the damp bag of moss.

by Randy on Aug 7, 2014 1:36 pm • linkreport

Randy - Believe it or not, she WAS excited about the damp bag of moss! And so were some of the other kids at the reading center. It just didn't lead to much of a rapport.

by Natalie on Aug 7, 2014 1:47 pm • linkreport

It's my own experience with learning that its grind, grind, grind, and then revelation, revelation being I didn't know I knew that. The brain is a funny animal; it seems to work out things in the background and we are not even conscious of it. This may explain the lack of obviousness in conveying that immediately and physically.

by Ben on Aug 7, 2014 1:57 pm • linkreport

Even if she was asked to do it - I'm guessing Keisha didn't have to make that note so nice & she meant it.

by asffa on Aug 7, 2014 2:12 pm • linkreport

Thanks for being so honest about the mixed outcomes you experienced. My child was tutored by volunteers off and on for several years. Although I admired those people for wanting to pitch in, I did not want them working with my child! Like many children for whom reading doesn't come quickly, my kid has learning disabilities, which her school was slow to address, and needed very focused, expert help.

by A DC mama on Aug 7, 2014 2:37 pm • linkreport

I think your point about content is dead on. Skills focus makes reading too random, it misses how important it is to actually understand the vocabulary and context to understand what you are reading. I was recently reading a murder series set in India where about 5 pages were spent describing a cricket match, there was so much I could not get because I just don't know that game. The world does not come to an end if I don't know cricket but I can see how often kids feel like they are thrown into a foreign land. We need to have a solid sequenced curriculum to help these kids.

by DC Parent on Aug 7, 2014 4:14 pm • linkreport

Agree with DC Parent on the value of content. Good readers read for a purpose -- to find something out, to study or for fun (which is also a purpose!). Reading some formulaic text simply to practice a strategy sounds pretty dull.

by Willow on Aug 7, 2014 4:43 pm • linkreport

On the skills vs. content point: To be fair, the texts we were reading were actual books, some of which were really good (especially one called Thank You Mr. Falker, about a struggling reader). So the texts themselves weren't formulaic -- it was more the approach that I was talking about.

For those who are interested in the more general point about a skills-focused approach, I highly recommend the piece by Robert Pondiscio that I linked to in the post (

by Natalie on Aug 7, 2014 5:50 pm • linkreport

Natalie- Pondiscio is a big proponent of E.D. Hirshe's Core Knowledge program because of the need for building background knowledge.

Hirshe and many others argue we should minimize the focus on skills and instead build a broader content base. The analogy I would use is that you telling someone how to run marathon does not help them complete the race. You doing the daily and weekly training through content will get them there.

by DC Parent on Aug 8, 2014 9:49 am • linkreport

I would not be afraid to ask if you can include a book or two to read together if only for ten or fifteen minutes of your timer work on an assignment. Rewarding her with a small book she can read and have for herself when she achieves a goal might be helpful, too. Thank you for volunteering. Your mentoring and the role model you establish for Keisha are helpful, too. There has probably been little realistic opportunity for practical envisioning of what she might like or someday can do. You are planting seeds. All the best to you.

by A teacher and tutor, too on Aug 8, 2014 11:37 am • linkreport

I applaud you and other volunteers who help kids who are struggling. But my daughter didn't progress much until I paid for a certified reading instructor--not just someone who is well-intentioned (and good for you)and who loves to read, but someone who is trained to deal with the difficulties that many kids with learning disabilities and/or emotional issues face. Many school systems don't know this, and/or the need is so great that they're pulling people in from the streets or parental ranks thinking that more reading is better. Did you receive any preparation or training, Natalie, before being assigned a student?

by Wendy on Aug 8, 2014 12:09 pm • linkreport

What is an adorable kid, and why do we expect that every kid who needs extra support will be "cute"? It seems that there is a real cultural disconnect with your expectations, but you learned a lot in the process as well. So many kids in the District come from tough environments. How do you know what was going on in Keisha's life, and how do you know that she wasn't appreciating you all along but just didn't have the other skills to tell you? My guess is that she did, because clearly you are a part of her life, someone who showed up.

We want our kids to love to read. But before they get to that place, they need to learn to read. While many will debate the merits of a skill-based approach, it is a foundation to getting kids to where they need to be. I'm not convinced that providing the same tutoring that the more affluent kids get would take Keisha to where she needed to be either. All kids need foundational skills, and those who work with them can benefit from understanding their cultural differences.

Thank you for working with Keisha. I am glad you are going to continue to help kids like her. Clearly you made a difference, and it is terrific you are continuing to work in the schools.

by Mother of two on Aug 8, 2014 2:28 pm • linkreport

I regret that I didn't have more space to go into some of the details of the Reading Partners program in the post itself, but I'm happy to do that here, to clear up any misconceptions. And I want to make it clear that despite my reservations, I think in many ways it's an excellent program.

To the point made by "A teacher and a tutor:" We began every session with me reading to Keisha for 10 minutes from a book she more or less chose herself (there was a group of books for her to choose from; sometimes she had trouble making a choice, and I narrowed the range). Generally, she seemed to enjoy that. Also, when she got to a certain point in the tutoring cycle (maybe once every 3 weeks), she got to choose a book and take it home -- and keep it. She was supposed to bring in a report on it, but as far as I could tell, she never did. So basically, the program is already doing just what you suggest.

To Wendy's question: First, I want to clarify that none of the students in the Reading Partners program have been identified as having a learning disability. Those students are getting services from a professional.

As for what training I got, not much -- I came in once and observed another tutor before I started. But the program is highly structured, so that even someone with little training can follow the steps, and another tutor can pick up where a previous tutor left off (most kids are tutored twice a week by two different people). And the site administrator is always around to offer support (which I frequently needed!).

And as for my expectation that the kid I was tutoring would be cute, I don't know that that was the result of a cultural disconnect. There are cute kids, and less cute kids, at all socioeconomic levels, I think. I've certainly met some cute kids from tough backgrounds.

Lastly, I agree that foundational skills are necessary. Keisha already had those, in the sense that she could decode pretty well. Her problem was more with comprehension, which may have had to do with a lack of background knowledge and vocabulary and may have had to do with her just zoning out sometimes. I'm no expert, but I think if a tutor had worked with her intensively on the content her teacher was covering, and done it in the right way, Keisha could have developed her comprehension skills AND gained a better understanding of what her classmates were learning.

by Natalie on Aug 8, 2014 2:49 pm • linkreport

I am glad you brought up that she didn't like reading books written at her reading level with content that assumed she was a 2nd grader.

I have that issue a lot with my high school students. The material that is available at their skill level is not at their developmental/social level.

People have spoken about this in the context of English and social studies before: that our students need content they can relate to even if they are not on grade level. But the same is true for math and science. We need Algebra books that don't assume you've learned everything you were supposed to know already. Differentiated books, in a sense.

So thank you for highlighting that. And for indicating that it gave you a better appreciation of what teachers are up against. It's not as simple as just believing in them and guiding them as they reach for the stars. (This is especially true in high school. My first job with many of my students is to re-legitimize the institution of school.)

by David on Aug 8, 2014 4:56 pm • linkreport

@David- There are way too many high school students reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid and other texts that are too simple. I wish we could figure out how to give every poor reader an audible account and mp3 player. Hearing complex texts and following them can help kids tremendously.

by DC Parent on Aug 8, 2014 5:40 pm • linkreport

David and DC Parent: I think having struggling readers read grade-level texts is a lot more complicated at the high school level than at 4th grade (this is based on my attempt to tutor kids at a high-poverty high school who were taking an advanced history class). A 4th-grader like Keisha may struggle a little with texts that are on a 4th-grade level because of deficits in her vocabulary and background knowledge. But those deficits pose far greater obstacles in say, 10th or 11th grade, when the reality of a student's abilities and the grade-level expectations may be much farther apart.

I'm not sure what the solution is. We don't want struggling high school readers stuck with Diary of a Wimpy Kid. But we also don't want them totally confounded by texts that are full of words and concepts they're unfamiliar with. Audio books can help, but if students are unfamiliar with a large proportion of the vocabulary, etc., I don't see that it's the whole answer. One obvious solution is to try to ensure that kids aren't so far behind by the time they get to high school, but that's easier said than done.

by Natalie on Aug 9, 2014 5:07 pm • linkreport

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