Photo of child reading from Shutterstock.
Some observers are pinning their hopes on volunteer tutors as a low-cost way of narrowing the achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers. But there are limits to what volunteer tutors can do.
A leading nonprofit tutoring organization deploys minimally trained volunteers to teach reading comprehension as a set of skills. The problem is that to understand what they’re reading, kids need background knowledge, not just skills.
A study released last month concluded that Reading Partners, which uses community volunteers to work one-on-one with struggling readers, boosts students’ abilities. The program is active in eight states and the District, where it provides tutoring in 16 schools. Fewer than half of DC students score proficient in reading on standardized tests.
Reading Partners, which serves students in kindergarten through fifth grade, will probably soon be expanding its efforts in DC. Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced that as part of an initiative targeting male students of color, the District will recruit 500 volunteer tutors to work with Reading Partners and several other tutoring nonprofits in DC Public Schools.
Reading Partners is a well-run organization staffed by dedicated individuals. But after spending a year as a Reading Partners tutor and educating myself about reading comprehension, I’ve concluded that its approach in that area is fundamentally mistaken. The approach assumes that reading comprehension is a skill like hitting a baseball, which you can learn by practicing certain strategies repeatedly. If you practice keeping your eye on the ball over and over, for example, you’ll get better at hitting it.
Reading Partners tutors, who receive minimal training, work with students on comprehension skills like “finding the main idea” and “making inferences.” At the beginning of each 45-minute session, the tutor picks up a packet containing two or three books at the child’s reading level and a worksheet that focuses on the skill of the day.
The child chooses one of the books to read, and the tutor guides the child in practicing the skill. Children come to the reading center twice a week, and often miss regular class time in order to do so.
Because Reading Partners only works with students reading below grade level, a fourth-grader might be reading books on a second-grade level. Some of the books are fiction and some non-fiction, but the focus is on learning skills rather than on the books’ content.
The books cover a random variety of subjects, and there’s no effort to coordinate them with what children are learning in class. The theory is that once a child gets good at “finding the main idea,” she’ll be able to find the main idea in whatever text is put in front of her.
Reading comprehension isn’t a skill
The problem is that reading comprehension is, in fact, not a skill like hitting a baseball. It’s very dependent on how much you already know about the subject you’re reading about. To see what it’s like to read about something you’re unfamiliar with, try parsing this summary of a technical scientific article.
Generally speaking, low-income children start out in school with a lot less background knowledge and vocabulary than more affluent children. That makes it harder for them to understand what they’re reading.
So if we want to close the achievement gap, we need to spend time giving low-income kids as much knowledge as we possibly can. Giving them comprehension strategies rather than knowledge in elementary school means that by the time they get to high school, they’ll be hopelessly behind.
Why, then, did a study conclude that Reading Partners was able to raise student achievement? It did give students a bump, but the effect was not all that dramatic. As compared to a control group that was getting other kinds of reading help, the Reading Partners group made about one-and-a-half to two months more progress. They also spent about the equivalent of an extra month working on reading, so the additional bump is even smaller than it appears.
And studies have shown that teaching kids reading strategies can boost comprehension, but only up to a point. Kids who get 50 sessions receive no more benefit than kids who get six.
Beyond that, we need to look at how the researchers measured progress. They used an assessment that, like all standardized tests, treats reading comprehension as a skill. Let’s say a fourth-grader reading at a second-grade level manages to find the main idea in a third-grade-level text. That counts as progress. But when that student gets to ninth grade and is expected to, say, read a text about the Renaissance and Reformation in Europe, will he be able to find the main idea? Only if he acquires a lot of background knowledge in the interim.
Having tutored both elementary and high school students in high-poverty schools, I’m skeptical that he will. I have learned never to assume background knowledge on the part of students. When I’ve asked the fourth- or fifth-graders I’ve tutored through Reading Partners to find DC on a map of the United States, they’ve had no idea where to begin. And the high school students I tutored in the past had huge gaps in their knowledge. Among other things, they had barely heard of the Supreme Court and didn’t know the meaning of words like “admirable.”
Part of the problem is that many elementary schools focus on skills rather than knowledge. While DCPS elementary schools theoretically focus on knowledge, they apparently aren’t using methods that ensure kids will absorb it. And that continues to be a problem in later grades.
Kids want and need knowledge, not just skills
Aside from the fact that a skills-based approach doesn’t give students what they need, it’s also boring. One student I tutored, who I’ll call Keisha, was so resistant to coming to Reading Partners that she would sometimes enter a state of near catatonia, not answering questions or making eye contact. Eventually, she just refused to come.
While levels of enthusiasm vary, I personally know of several kids who were clearly unhappy to be at Reading Partners. And tutoring is unlikely to work if a student isn’t motivated.
Meanwhile, kids are hungry for actual knowledge. One boy I tutored wanted to know if you could get poisoned by eating a poisonous snake. Another asked his tutor if a hyena was more like a cat or a dog. These are good questions, and tutors can do their best to answer them. But giving kids that kind of information isn’t the purpose of the program.
In any event, kids don’t absorb and retain knowledge from hearing random facts once or twice. They need to spend several weeks on a topic, not only reading about it but also listening to their teacher talk about it in a way that may be beyond their reading level but within their ability to comprehend. They should also be writing about it.
Volunteer tutors might be useful in some areas. Math is one possibility. Tutors may also be able to help very young children learn the basic skill of reading, or decoding, as opposed to reading comprehension. Reading Partners also uses volunteers to do that kind of tutoring, and next week I plan to start working with a student who needs that sort of help.
I suspect it would also be effective to use volunteer tutors to meet with kids after school and help them understand what they’re supposed to be learning in class—assuming the kids are learning actual content and not just comprehension strategies. That’s the kind of tutoring wealthier kids often get. But it’s hard to see how you could get minimally trained volunteers to engage in that kind of tutoring on a large enough scale to make a dent in the problem.
Any tutoring program that relies on volunteers would do best to focus on giving young children the basic skills necessary to decode text. And schools and school districts, like DCPS, should ensure that classroom teachers are supplying kids with the knowledge and vocabulary they need to understand it.
Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.