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Higher Education, International TrendsSCHOOL

Lee Shumow

Art Farlowe

Mark Bray


Tutoring typically involves two individuals, a tutor and a tutee. The tutor is more knowledgeable or expert than the tutee and attempts to help the tutee learn, usually in an academic area. Age is not necessarily a factor in the tutoring relationship–the tutor and tutee may be the same age–as long as the tutor has greater knowledge or skill than the tutee. Traditionally, tutoring has involved one-to-one instruction, but some tutoring programs do involve a tutor and two or three tutees.

Scholars have long considered tutoring the most effective form of instruction. Numerous research studies provide evidence on which to base this conclusion. The American public appears to be aware of the value of tutoring. According to a 1998 Newsweek survey, 42 percent of Americans strongly believe that children should receive private tutoring outside of school. In addition to providing extra practice, tutoring appears to be successful because the intensive individualized attention allows the tutor to identify the student's level of expertise. When the tutor has a clear idea of the next steps in the learning process, he or she is then able to present tutees with materials at their precise level of understanding. Tutoring also is thought to be effective because of the social support and modeling inherent in the process.

Tutees run the gamut from students performing far below grade level to students vying for Ivy League admissions. A wide range of options exists for students who need or desire tutoring. Those options vary in cost, availability, quality, and effectiveness.

School-Based Tutoring Programs

Tutoring is a component of numerous educational programs designed for the prevention of, or intervention with, students at risk of educational failure. These programs are to be delivered by professional or paraprofessional teachers in schools. Reading has been the focus of many school-based tutoring programs. For example, tutoring by certified teachers with special training is a component of Success for All, a comprehensive program designed by Robert Slavin for at-risk primary-school children. More than one million students have participated in Success for All. Studies have documented the effectiveness of the program, and it has been extended to other academic subjects with the Roots and Wings program. The Success for All program is most effective in schools that fully implement the model, and when it is maintained into, but not beyond, middle school.

Reading Recovery is another popular program–it was used by more than 9,000 schools in the 1995–1996 school year. Reading Recovery identifies first graders performing in the lower 20 percent of their class in reading, and these students receive thirty minutes of individual tutoring each day beyond the time spent in classroom reading instruction until they can read at grade level (on average, this takes three to five months). Tutors are certified teachers who have been specially trained in Reading Recovery methods. Numerous studies document that participants in Reading Recovery read better than control group students. However, some researchers point out that Reading Recovery has not been effective for somewhere between 10 and 30 percent of participating students.

Many school districts use Title I funds to finance Reading Recovery. Initially, teachers must be trained, a cost that varies from five to eight thousand dollars. In subsequent years, the costs involve teacher time for one-to-one instruction. Some schools have scheduled creatively so as to minimize that cost. Cost estimates are site specific, and vary from $2,500 to $10,000 annually per student, which is less than the cost of special education programs.

Reading One-to-One, a tutorial program for students in kindergarten through eighth grade who are struggling in reading, has been implemented in more than 100 schools in the United States and Mexico. The program builds on concepts of Reading Recovery and Success for All, but uses paraprofessionals rather than professionals to deliver forty minutes of individualized reading instruction several times per week. Only one study has been conducted on the effectiveness of Reading One-to-One. That study used few students, but found significant positive reading gains associated with program participation. The program designers state that seventy sessions are needed for students to make significant gains. Program costs have been estimated to be $600 per child per year to cover books, materials, tutor training, and paraprofessional salary.

Volunteer Tutoring Programs

Some tutoring programs depend on adult volunteers. Numerous schools throughout the country utilize parents as volunteer tutors. These parents often listen to children read, or they practice academic skills with students individually or in small groups. The circumstances, time spent, and the tutor preparation, skill, and knowledge vary enormously between programs. There are very few studies on the effectiveness of using volunteer tutors. Barbara Wasik reviewed the literature in 1997 and found only two programs that had used control groups in the evaluation. Those two programs were evaluated positively, but one of the programs no longer operates. A reading specialist supervised both programs, and training was provided to the tutors. The cost of both programs to the school districts entailed the salary of the reading specialist and any materials used during tutoring.

Dropout prevention has been the purpose of a number of other school-based mentoring programs. Mentors are usually volunteers from school staff or the community. There is some evidence that such programs are successful when mentors meet consistently with students and regularly monitor their progress. Social support and modeling appear to be the mechanisms through which those programs help to lower school dropout rates. The cost of those programs involves the time of the program coordinator at the schools.

Two nonprofit educational literacy organizations, Laubach Literacy and Literacy Volunteers of America, support the provision of free tutoring for older youths and adults who need basic literacy instruction. The two programs agreed to merge in 2002. Together, the program professional managers will support approximately 160,000 volunteers in 1,450 local, state, and regional literacy programs. Educational materials are published for tutees and for tutor training. Tutors receive information about approaches that have been found to be effective through experience and empirically tested theory. Laubach Literacy has developed a rigorous accreditation program for literacy tutoring programs.

Private For-Profit Tutoring

Private tutoring paid for by fees is another tutoring arrangement. There have been no comprehensive studies of private tutoring, so little is known about the extent and effects of private tutoring. Parents choose to send their children to professionally trained tutors at private businesses to address concerns about student's educational progress or preparedness for examinations. Local tutoring businesses operate in affluent communities throughout the nation, and private tutors command as much as $125 per hour in affluent urban enclaves.

Several tutoring chains operate throughout the nation. Huntington, a corporation that has been operating since 1977, has centers located throughout the United States. Local offices provide tutoring in different subject areas and in test preparation for preschoolers through adults. Most instruction for children takes place in a ratio of three students to one certified teacher but individual (one-to-one) tutoring also is available. Tuition depends on the geographic location of the facility and ranges from thirty to forty-five dollars per hour for group tutoring and from forty to sixty dollars per hour for individual tutoring.

Sylvan Learning, which has been operating since 1979, has approximately 900 centers located in North America, Hong Kong, and Guam. Sylvan conducts their own testing to pinpoint student needs. Most instruction at Sylvan takes place with three students and one certified teacher. Sylvan tutors use the mastery learning approach, in which students must demonstrate proficiency on each skill or concept before progressing. Most students attend between 50 and 100 hours of instruction, with a recommendation of two to four hours of instruction per week. Sylvan uses an incentive system based on behaviorist principles of positive reinforcement, in which tutees receive rewards for their cooperation and learning. Several large urban school systems have contracted with Sylvan to provide reading instruction at public schools to those children who are struggling the most in reading. Sylvan has also introduced live online tutoring for students in the third through ninth grades. The electronic system entails having a student and tutor interact electronically, following the same principles as the center-based program.

The Kaplan organization began test preparation centers for standardized college entrance examinations. Kaplan has since expanded by forming Score! Educational Centers, which tutor students in basic skills and subject matter. Kumon Math and Reading Centers, which originated in Japan, have more than 1,000 centers throughout the United States. Kumon focuses on timed drills of basic skills.

Peer Tutoring

Peer tutoring often involves students of the same age or grade teaching each other one-to-one or in small groups. A host of research studies provide evidence that peer tutoring is effective for promoting both student achievement and positive attitudes toward both content material and individual differences. Peer tutoring is vastly improved when students are provided with information about how to increase interaction and provide feedback during tutoring. Some evidence suggests that peer tutoring is especially beneficial for children from ethnic backgrounds where cooperation is valued. Peer tutors often cannot help students in sophisticated ways, however. Instead, it seems that peer tutors help classmates succeed by increasing their attention to the learning task and their involvement in practicing.

Cross-age tutoring involves having older students tutor younger students. This method has been used with a variety of both students and subjects. Evidence suggests that cross-age tutoring can provide benefits for both tutors and tutees. Experts agree that providing tutors with guidance in tutoring techniques, content, and social interaction and behavior management skills increases the effectiveness of the programs. Some evidence suggests that primary-grade students can make gains even when tutored by minimally trained adolescents.

Computer Tutoring

Computer-aided instruction (CAI) is a relatively new form of tutoring that has become more popular as computer availability and use has grown. Three types of CAI are available. The first, and most popular, type involves drill and practice. Drill and practice programs present items for the student to answer and feedback about the correctness of the responses. Such programs sometimes provide helpful suggestions or vary the level of item difficulty based on the user's performance. Tutorial programs teach or reteach material geared to the student's proficiency level as measured by a pretest or performance record. These programs provide alternate paths depending on student responses during tutoring. Simulations present students with problems to solve, and students must learn new material, use existing knowledge, and test ideas to solve the problems.

CAI programs vary widely in quality. Most experts agree that many available programs are not high quality. Drill and practice programs have been criticized for providing less practice than old-fashioned methods. This is because the attention-getting features that have been added to many programs distract students from the material they are meant to learn, and actually result in little direct practice time. Tutorial programs are very expensive to develop and require the expertise of gifted programmers, educators, and instructional designers. Simulation programs might require teachers to be very involved in helping the students negotiate the challenging situations presented, thus necessitating that the teacher spend time with individuals or small groups while others wait for help. In 1999 Yukiko Inoue pointed out that evaluations of intelligent tutoring systems had resulted in little valid research on which to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of such programs.


A wide range of tutoring options exists. Tutoring programs are offered in public schools, by private corporations, and by nonprofit corporations. Tutors might be volunteers, professionals, peers, or computers. More studies are needed to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of tutoring offered by private corporations or by computers, but there is considerable evidence that one-to-one instruction by a more skilled or knowledgeable tutor, whether a professional, volunteer, or peer, contributes to the learning and academic development of students.


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