Photo of boy reading from Shutterstock.

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.

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 is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.