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How Short ‘Bursts’ of Tutoring Can Boost Early Reading Skills

Bite-sized tutoring sessions—only 5 to 10 minutes daily— may help nip reading struggles in the bud in the earliest grades.

Students who participated in Chapter One—a nonprofit tutoring program that serves elementary children in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom—in their first two grades had higher oral reading fluency and better performance on district reading tests than untutored students, according to a study released Jan. 16 by the National Student Support Accelerator, which studies ways to scale up effective models for high-intensity tutoring.

High-intensity tutoring—with trained tutors meeting individually or in very small groups for at least 30 minutes, several times a week—is considered the most effective tutoring model, but often it’s also the most expensive. This study suggests that districts may be able to get more bang for their buck by using short, tightly focused individual tutoring in the earliest grades.

Kindergartners and 1st graders in the Chapter One program have individual sessions with part-time tutors trained in highly scripted, 5- to 10-minute lessons on phonics, oral reading, and other early literacy topics. These “tutoring bursts” happen during regular class lessons three to five times a week, and students also complete tablet-based activities on their own to reinforce the lessons.

“If you’re thinking about teaching phonics—like a new sound—you can actually complete that in five minutes,” said Carly Robinson, a senior researcher at Stanford University and the Accelerator’s research director. “Thinking about the attention span of a 5-year-old, it actually might be more effective to layer bite-sized chunks several times for a few minutes, as opposed to try to reiterate [a new concept] in a 30-minute session.

Accelerator researchers randomly assigned more than 800 kindergartners in Broward County, Fla., to receive the tutoring or attend class as usual in 2021-22. By the end of the school year, kindergartners who received the tutoring in addition to regular classroom instruction performed on average about 11 percentile points higher on the district reading test than students who only received regular class instruction.

The students who then went on to continue the tutoring program in 1st grade were 16 percent less likely to be identified as at-risk readers by the winter of that school year. While 76 percent of the untutored students in the study read at least on grade level (called stage four or above) by the end of 1st grade, 96 percent of tutored students read at that level by comparison. The benefits were the same for both English learners and native-English speakers.

Cost effectiveness

The tutors all have college degrees, and many have education experience, but they are paid part-time. The program costs $350 to $450 per student annually, Robinson said.

“That’s on the much lower end of costs [for high-dosage tutoring] both because they have part-time tutors and through these short bursts of instruction, [tutors] actually can serve more students than they might be able to if it was, consistently, like 20-minute tutoring sessions scheduled every day or three times a week.”

While the tutoring program and the current study stops after 1st grade, researchers plan to follow the students through 3rd grade to find out whether the tutoring benefits are sustained over time.

“I think that some tutoring that is proving to be effective for early learners is also relevant for older 2nd and 3rd graders since the pandemic,” Robinson said. “We’ve been hearing [from educators] that in the past few years, interventions that they might normally direct at K-1 grades are needed at the 2nd and 3rd grade levels, too.”

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