A Scalable Approach to High-Impact Tutoring for Young Readers: Results of a Randomized Controlled Trial

A primary goal of early elementary education is developing literacy skills (Fiester, 2010), yet two-thirds of US students will not be proficient readers by the time they reach 4th grade (U.S. Department of Education, 2022). The COVID-19 pandemic rallied the nation around the need to catch students up and to address “lost learning.” However, even prior to the pandemic, millions of students across the country were not learning to read through classroom instruction alone (Lesnick et al., 2010). 

Decades of evidence point to an effective intervention to help struggling readers: one-on-one or small group tutoring (Neitzel et al., 2022). Research consistently demonstrates that tutoring interventions have substantial positive effects on student learning—often translating to an additional 3-15 months of schooling (Nickow et al., 2020). The evidence base for early elementary tutoring in reading is particularly strong, although the effectiveness of individual programs can vary greatly (Heinrich et al., 2014; Nickow et al., 2020; Wanzek et al., 2016).

The documented variations in tutoring-program effectiveness may be, in part, due to the wide range of interventions that people refer to as tutoring. While some tutoring may take the form of homework help and drop-in support (Robinson et al., 2022), reading tutoring interventions that provide students with one-on-one, personalized reading instruction consistently demonstrate the largest improvements in reading achievement (Cavanaugh et al., 2004; Gersten et al., 2020; Neitzel et al., 2022; Slavin et al., 2011; Wanzek et al., 2018; Wanzek et al., 2016). Specific programs may differ in delivery or approaches, but most effective reading tutoring programs involve students meeting for 20-60-minute sessions several times a week with a consistent educator and use evidence-based reading curricula (Galuschka et al., 2014; Wanzek et al., 2018; Wanzek et al., 2016). These features align with the definition of “high-impact” tutoring, which involves substantial time each week spent in required tutoring; sustained and strong relationships between students and their tutors; close monitoring of student knowledge and skills; alignment with school curriculum; and oversight of tutors to assure quality interactions (Robinson & Loeb, 2021).

High-impact tutoring programs drive the large effect sizes cited in the literature, but they can be hard to scale and require substantial resources to implement (Thomas, L.G., et al., 2022). Successful tutoring programs often require dedicated tutoring blocks within the school schedule and cost, at a minimum, over $1000 per student (e.g., Guryan et al., 2021; Sirinides et al., 2018). Given the large expected effect sizes, high-impact tutoring is quite cost-effective at improving student learning outcomes (Guryan et al., 2021). However, the urgent and growing demand for high-impact tutoring programs to build children’s reading skills (U.S. Office of the Press Secretary, 2022) and common implementation issues (Carbonari et al., 2022), may prompt district leaders to search for even lower-cost programs that fit within existing school schedules. 

In this brief, we present results from a randomized controlled trial of an early elementary reading tutoring program that has been designed to be affordable at scale. During the 2021-22 school year, over eight hundred kindergarten students in a large Southeastern school district were randomly assigned to receive supplementary tutoring with the Chapter One program. The program embeds part-time tutors into the classroom to provide short bursts of instruction to individual students each week over the course of the school year. The consistent presence of the tutors allows them to build strong relationships with students and meet students’ individual needs at the moment they might most benefit from personalized instruction. 

We found that students who participated in Chapter One’s program were over two times more likely to reach the target reading stage by the end of kindergarten (a 120% increase). The positive findings at the end of the first year of implementation provide promising evidence of an affordable and sustainable approach for delivering one-on-one personalized reading tutoring at scale.