A new study by Sarah Miller, Paul Connolly and Lisa Maguire of Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland suggests that while volunteer tutors can be effective at helping students improve their reading speed and ability to read aloud, volunteers with little to no training are unlikely to help a child improve his or her reading comprehension or reading confidence -- skills that may be more effectively taught by professional educators.
The study, published in the June 2012 issue of The Journal of Early Childhood Research, focuses on Time to Read, a program that pairs local business professionals in Northern Ireland with 8 and 9-year old students whom teachers have identified as struggling readers. Teachers from across Northern Ireland selected 512 students to participate in the research, and those students were then randomly assigned either to the control group (which received no extra tutoring) or to the Time to Read program. The students were given a pre-test assessment and then a post-test assessment following the conclusion of the program.
After two-hours of tutor training at the beginning of the program, tutors met with their student for half an hour twice per week over the course of one school year. Tutors were given some instructional materials, but could also improvise and use their own materials.
The study found that compared to the control group, students in Time to Read scored higher post-test on phonics, reading aloud, and reading quickly. There were no significant differences detected in reading accuracy (the ability to sound out whole words); reading comprehension; enjoyment of reading; reading confidence (as measured by the Reader Self Perception Scale, which asks students a number of questions related to how confident they feel reading); and aspirations for the future (this last outcome was desired by the program because tutors were asked to take students to their workplaces).
The study’s authors suggest “that volunteer mentoring programs such as Time to Read are therefore best focused on core reading activities if their goal is to improve children’s reading skills, rather than attempting to do this through indirect means such as increasing their confidence or enjoyment of reading.”
In 2003 Deloitte & Touche conducted a survey asking teachers, parents and volunteers about their experiences with Time to Read. Generally, those involved believed the program had a positive impact on reading confidence and reading enjoyment. One hundred percent of the volunteers believed “children showed greater understanding when reading.”
Those respondents may have been overly optimistic, but the Miller, Connolly and Maguire study shows tutors did make a real and significant difference when it came to helping children sound-out letter groupings, read aloud and read at a faster pace, all core building blocks to becoming a proficient reader. Understanding the limitations of tutoring can help programs focus on better preparing volunteers.