Improving reading skills through volunteer tutoring

Evaluating the Time to Read programme has illustrated the potential of volunteer reading schemes. Sarah Miller explains

ONE-TO-ONE TUTORING, WHETHER IT IS delivered by peers, parents, or volunteers, is a popular way to try to prevent early reading failure. Research to date shows that tutoring is an effective strategy, which can result in meaningful improvements in reading ability. At the Centre for Effective Education in Belfast, we conducted a large-scale evaluation (randomized controlled trial) of a volunteer reading programme, called Time to Read. Our research showed positive results for the programme itself, and also illustrated the potential of volunteer reading schemes more generally.

What we know
● One-to-one tutoring can improve reading ability.
● Lots of opportunity to practise reading is important, especially at age 8 to 9 when children should be consolidating their decoding skills.
● Volunteer tutoring programmes should focus on core reading activities if the goal is to improve children’s reading skills.

Time to Read

Time to Read was developed in the late nineties by the charitable organisation Business in the Community. The programme is aimed at children aged 8-9 years old who are struggling with their reading. Volunteers are recruited through local companies and are trained in paired reading strategies that are specifically designed to improve reading fluency, word recognition, meaning, and comprehension. These strategies provide additional opportunities for children to practise reading using simple, familiar, high-interest materials. Tutors spend around 60 minutes each week working on a one-to-one basis with each child, and are also encouraged to take their tutees on a “workplace visit” to their company as part of the programme.

Our evaluation of Time to Read involved more than 500 primary school children aged 8-9 years old. We found that Time to Read resulted in small but significant improvements in children’s decoding ability as well as their reading rate and reading fluency. We looked at other reading skills and attitudes too (including reading accuracy; reading comprehension; enjoyment of reading; and reading confidence) but we were unable to find any evidence to suggest that the programme improved these particular skills as well.

Chall’s five stages of reading development

To understand how Time to Read might be working to improve decoding skills, reading rate, and reading fluency, we can look at the stages of reading development proposed by Jeanne Chall who led the “great debate” over the benefits and value of code-based (phonics) versus meaning-based (whole word) reading instruction. Chall’s theory identifies five stages of development, and these provide a very helpful framework for understanding how volunteer tutoring supports those children who might be struggling to transition through the developmental stages.

Stage 0 is thought to be the pre-reading stage, occurring between birth and the start of school, and is the time during which children’s language develops. The experiences of preschool children and their exposure to books and print are very important, both in the development of beginning reading and their progression to the next stage. Stage 1 primarily occurs at 6 to 7 years old and is also known as the decoding stage. During this stage, children start to match the printed word to the spoken word and begin to understand what the letters “do”. Consequently, during this period they are very focused on the printed text rather than the meaning of the text. It is when children reach around 7 to 8 years that they tend to progress to Stage 2, which allows them to reinforce what they have previously learned. Through reading familiar material and books, children can practise using their newly developed decoding skills and the more reading practice the child gets at this stage, the more fluent a reader they will become. During Stage 3, usually from ages 9 to 14 years, new knowledge is acquired through reading. Readers begin to “read to learn”, which leads to new thoughts and ideas and this becomes an additional source of information alongside listening and watching. As readers progress through Stage 3, they are able to reflect on different points of view and become more analytical about what they are reading.

The knowledge and skills learned in Stage 3 enable the reader to move on to Stage 4 and help to develop the ability to grasp new ideas and theories. Stage 4 readers (usually age 14 to 18) are able to process increasingly complex and nuanced materials. The final and most mature stage is Stage 5. Readers at this level are capable of being selective in what they read, taking what they need from it, and forming their own ideas and knowledge as a consequence. It is thought that not everyone reaches this stage, however, and Chall hypothesizes that there is interaction and movement between the stages and that, for example, an individual might read at Stage 5 for academic work and at Stage 2 for leisure reading.

The importance of getting enough practice

Reading development does not take place at the same rate for everyone, and the children in our evaluation who received the tutoring programme were those who were struggling readers aged 8 to 9 years. According to Chall’s theory, these children should be starting to transition from Stage 2 reading (a period during which they are consolidating their decoding skills) to Stage 3 reading (when they are starting to acquire new knowledge from the content of the material). Successful transition to Stage 3 requires a lot of practice in reading familiar materials, and children who do not have enough opportunities to read at home or at school may not get enough practice to make a successful transition. Chall suggests that such children would benefit a great deal from more opportunities to practise reading, so that they can be supported and helped to reach Stage 3 reading. Furthermore, the reading outcomes that are most likely to improve as children approach the end of Stage 2 are decoding and reading fluency. This is precisely the focus of the Time to Read programme and its associated activities, and this is just what our evaluation found: improved decoding ability, reading fluency, and reading rate.

The potential of volunteer programmes

We found that decoding ability, reading fluency, and reading rate improved for the children involved in Time to Read, despite the fact that we were unable to detect any changes in children’s reading enjoyment or reading confidence. This suggests that improvements in reading skills are not necessarily dependent upon attitudinal, non-reading attributes. Therefore, volunteer tutoring programmes such as Time to Read are best focused on core reading activities if the goal is to improve children’s reading skills, rather than attempting to do this indirectly by trying to increase children’s confidence or enjoyment of reading. Only a small number of research studies have evaluated the effectiveness of volunteer tutoring programmes like this one, which are loosely structured and use non-specialist volunteers as tutors. This study is one of the largest and most robust of its kind and our findings are consistent with other research, all of which demonstrates that volunteer tutoring programmes have the potential to play an important role in terms of providing reading enhancement opportunities for children who are struggling readers.

About the authors Sarah Miller is a Lecturer in Quantitative Methods in the School of Education at Queen’s University, and the Deputy Director of the Centre for Effective Education. She has a degree and PhD in psychology and her areas of research expertise are organised around three inter-related themes: programme evaluation, literacy (preschool and primary), and child development and parenting.

Further reading

Chall JS (1983), Stages of Reading Development. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Miller S, and Connolly P (2013), A Randomized Controlled Trial Evaluation of Time to Read, a Volunteer Tutoring Program for 8- to 9-Year-Olds. Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 35, 23–37.

Miller S, Connolly P, and Maguire LK (2012), The Effects of a Volunteer Mentoring Programme on Reading Outcomes Among Eight- to Nine-year-old Children: A Follow Up Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 10, 134–144.


May 2013