What Reading Research Says About Volunteer Tutoring

by Cathy Puett Miller, Independent Literacy Consultant

Thousands of articles have been written about tutoring assistance programs for elementary school students. Yet with the push for skills and accountability in the classroom, they often get little attention. The scene is further complicated when most major funding for such efforts is at present, and certainly will continue to be tied to research-based results. The effort, organization, structure and training involved in these volunteer efforts does create a successful environment for many struggling readers. However, unless success is documented objectively and supported by proven methods, such programs will not remain viable.

At first, you might respond as I did: Oh, no — more regulation! Once I read the abundant validated research available, however, I saw this as a positive step. It opens the doors for more effective possibilities. No longer will local efforts be bogged down in unproductive methods that cause little improvement in the students that they serve. No longer will organizers of local volunteer tutor efforts have to wonder how they should design and implement a program.

The evidence is available. Models such as the America Reads program, Reading Recovery, and Success for All lay the foundation for nationwide acceptance of research-based one-on-one tutoring as a valid intervention tool. Local programs will do well to review their programs in light of the latest research to make sure they are using proven methods for teaching reading and for organizing such efforts. Here’s information that will help with that evaluation.

“Best Practices” Reinforce Local Approach

The U.S. Department of Education’s Planning and Evaluation Service reports, “Well-designed tutoring programs that use volunteers or other nonprofessionals as tutors can be effective in improving children’s reading skills. Students with below-average reading skills who are tutored by volunteers show significant gains in reading skills when compared with similar students who do not receive tutoring from a high-quality tutoring program.” That’s a good sign, but how do we know our local program is research-based?

1. By comparing it to proven research-based models. That doesn’t mean local organizers have to adopt a national plan or take away the local emphasis. It simply means they must be willing to review what they are doing (implementation and results) and make changes if necessary.

Then children who have been left behind will begin to improve reading skills and move closer to becoming lifelong readers.

2. By examining the basic elements of local programs honestly and objectively, whether beginning a new effort or continuing an established one. Look at how the local program directly impacts individual students reading abilities and their overall attitude toward education. D.C. Merrill in his 1995 article “Tutoring: Guided Learning by Doing” reports that surveys of students who were tutored in reading have shown positive results for students’ self confidence as readers, motivation to read, and view of their control over their reading abilities.”

Does your program do that? Can you cite test scores or reading/language arts grades or other assessment tools that show progress in the childrens’ reading?

3. By training tutors adequately so they know what works. This includes not only teaching basic methods of skill-building but includes creating ways for every child to experience success, directly impacting student motivation. Michael Graves, head of the Literacy Education Program at the University of Minnesota, ties in the importance of motivation when he says,

A successful reading experience is one in which students understand the selection, learn from it, enjoy it, and achieve the goals you and they have set. Moreover, such an experience leaves students realizing they have been successful, recognizing that they have dealt competently with the selection. If students are to become successful readers — adults who can and do read, both to gain information and for the pleasure and satisfaction that reading can provide — the vast majority of their reading experiences must be successful ones.

Take a Lesson from Classroom Research

Extensive research documented by The National Reading Panel in their landmark report, Teaching Children to Read (2000), identified three key areas of emphasis in teaching children to read. These should be included in any local tutoring effort. Are they are part of yours?

ALPHABETICS (Including phonemic awareness instruction and phonics instruction.)
FLUENCY and COMPREHENSION (Including vocabulary and text comprehension instruction.)

Effective focus on these three areas includes training tutors with specific modeled activities. Although volunteer tutors may not be familiar with these terms, the concepts are well-grounded and easy to understand. A reading specialist from the local school or university can translate these into lay terms coordinators and tutors can use. The Panel also stated that “phonics instructions is never a total reading program” so the most successful tutoring efforts include a broader base with not only alphabetics but also such proven elements as guided reading exercises and a focus on reading as a purposeful, pleasurable and successful experience.

Michael Pressley supports this approach in his research as well (contributions to the Handbook of Reading Research) when he states, that fluency “strategies are taught over time and with plenty of practice.” Individual sessions with tutors should give students opportunities for this practice each time tutor and protégé meet.

Allington (1977) in the Journal of Reading identified that students who need the most practice in reading spend the least amount of time in actual reading. Further studies such as that of Cunningham & Stanovich, (1998) confirm the link between the amount of reading and reading achievement. Any effective tutoring program should not only provide direct instruction but also give students a structured weekly opportunity to practice reading skills aloud.

High-quality tutoring programs often encourage students to read beyond the sessions, extending the impact of practice into the child’s personal time. Marilyn Jager Adams documented in her book, Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print (2000), studies which cited “the need for practice in reading, for exposure to a lot of reading materials as input to vocabulary learning and for motivating, interesting reading materials.” Effective tutors incorporate techniques such as guided reading, paired or shared reading and learning to use context and other clues to help with comprehension and decoding.

High-Quality Practices Always Work

On a broad scale, research tells us that effective programs also include important components such as:

A comprehensive organizational design.

An ability to target valuable resources already in the school or community.

A clear, logical plan for building a cooperative effort.

Adequate, ongoing training and support for tutors.

Having participants and administration of the “governing” organization (be it school, community, parents or teachers) evaluate each of these areas gives verification of the programs effectiveness in each area. If you get the signal that one of these components is weak, check out the research to find out how other programs have managed that element differently. For example, in the area of organization, findings in the report from the National Reading Panel suggest that 25-30 minute sessions on average are most effective and the more frequently sessions occur (i.e. two – three times per week), the more effective the intervention.

My experience has been that anyone who wants to establish a quality tutoring effort can do so on a local level with community effort. It really begins “one child at a time”. My own review of research has highlighted several ingredients for a successful implementation. I share them here with you:

  • Initial needs assessment to identify parameters for student participation and support school objectives.
  • A plan of action, including a timeline and specific plan for initial execution of the model. This includes a plan for assessment of effectiveness and frequent communication between all parties involved.
  • Training of school staff or volunteers for on-going management and implementation of the program.
  • Tutor training in research-based methods for reading instruction.
  • Design of appropriate forms and introductory promotional materials for “advertising” the program.
  • Initial volunteer recruitment and building of continued collaboration within the community.
  • Follow-up to assure quality and consistency plus an assessment tool to verify results.

Still unsure that your program hits the mark? Find a reading specialist or literacy consultant who can help you evaluate your program by research standards. The mainstream references, the 1998 landmark book Preventing Reading Difficulties In Young Children, and readily available Internet documentation will be valuable.

America Reads planning and program development coordinator, Jana Potter, says:

In their rich diversity of organizational norms, tutor recruitment, placement, training and support, such programs show that there are many roads up the mountain. The common goal of all, of course is children across the nation becoming more adept readers.


Adams, Marilyn Jager. (2000). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print.

Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press. (13th printing).

Allington, R (1977): “If they don’t read much, how they ever gonna get good?” Journal of Reading 21, 57-61.

Cunningham, A. E., and K. E. Stanovich. “What reading does for the mind.” The American Educator, (Spring/Summer 1998): 8-15. (American Federation of Teachers).

Graves, Michael F. And Bonnie B. (1994). Scaffolding Reading Experiences: Designs for Student Success. Norwood, Mass: Christopher-Gordon, Inc.

Merrill, D.C. et al. (1995) “Tutoring: Guided Learning by Doing” Cognition and Instruction. (3). 315-372.

The National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction. Washington: National Institute for Literacy.

Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (1999). So That Every Child Can Read . . . America Reads Community Tutoring Partnerships. Washington., DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Pressley, Michael. (2000) “What Should Reading Comprehension Be The Instruction Of?” Published in M. Kamil, P. Mosenthal, P.D. Pearson & R. Barr (Eds.) Handbook of Reading Research (vol. 3). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Snow, C.E., Burns, S., Griffin, P (1998) Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Washington: National Research Council, Commission for the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children. National Academy Press.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of the Undersecretary, Planning and Evaluation Service (1997). America Reads Challenge Online Resource Kit: Evidence That Tutoring Works

Cathy Puett Miller has developed an organizational model for volunteer tutoring programs called “Reading is for Everyone”. She implements this model in metro-Atlanta schools and communities, and offers consulting services by phone for others. Her proven methods are being documented in a book outlining these strategies entitled “Reading is for Everyone: A Toolbox for Local Tutoring Efforts”.

Cathy Puett Miller, The Literacy Ambassador
Independent Literacy Consultant
Phone: 770-345-3001