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Commentary: I Become a Tutor and Learn a Few Things

I had forgotten the geometric-shaped colors and mostly Lilliputian furniture which adorn elementary school classrooms when I entered Ashlawn Elementary as a volunteer reading tutor. My visit was prompted by concern about chronic student deficits in reading and mathematics. If students fall farther and farther behind, how could they succeed? What would the impact be in later years where jobs become more highly skilled and technical?

My student, Kevin (not his real name), was in second grade. It was almost the end of the school year and he was only reading at the beginning of the second grade level.

One nationwide study by Johns Hopkins University estimates roughly a third of students entering ninth grade need extra help in reading; a quarter do in mathematics. Reading with comprehension is an integral component of learning in all subject areas. As a result, as students progress through each grade level, unaddressed deficiencies escalate with each passing year.

No actual data has been published showing the percentage of students who are promoted from one grade to the next without the necessary foundation skills. However, the Virginia Department of Education Literacy Plan for 2011 reports that approximately 14 percent of both first and second grade students needed extra help in reading during the 2009 – 2010 school year. In the third grade, 24 percent needed extra help. A 2010 Annie E. Casey Foundation study concluded that 67 percent of all fourth grade students in 2009 were reading below grade level.

Virginia Deputy Education Secretary Jaraid Siddiqi has described third grade reading as a good gate keeper for academic success. This view is supported by a 2012 Annie E. Casey study: children who aren’t reading proficiently in third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school. Every student who does not complete high school costs our society $260,000 in lost earnings, taxes and productivity.

While little consensus has emerged about the benefits and disadvantages of holding children back a year, a number of research studies have shown that holding students back in grade has a negative impact on adjustment and ultimately in all areas of achievement. Such students were much more likely to become behavioral problems, drop out of school, have low self-esteem, and have poor peer relationships. As adults, they were more likely to be unemployed, living on public assistance or in prison than those who were not held back. While students may need support in a number of different areas, systematic assessment, continual progress monitoring and evaluation, and instructional strategies introduced as early as possible have the best chance of success. Volunteer tutors are vital to that effort.

Arlington County has a well-run, Reading Buddies program at several elementary schools. Buddies meet with a first or second grade student for 45 minutes twice each week. The program is staffed by a reading coordinator and supported through an annual grant. Tutors follow a reading plan prepared by the coordinator for each meeting. A separate reading room is set up just for students and their tutors.

Kevin’s principal interests were dinosaurs, super-heroes, and science. He also liked to read and tell jokes. We found books to support those interests. I never realized there were so many different kinds of dinosaurs! Our trip around the solar system via The Magic School Bus was a particular hit. I also used a strategy game we discovered called The Chocolate Fix which requires logical deduction to arrive at correct solutions. This work, in conjunction with asking him questions about the reading material, encouraged him to think about what he was reading, not just about getting the words right.

Kevin is not unique. A number of opportunities exist to tutor at all grade levels in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. In addition to public school programs, non-profits like Reading Partners in the District and Building Better Futures at the Campagna Center in Alexandria also welcome volunteers. You can do a Google search as well: “volunteer tutor [insert the geographic location of your choice]”.

On our last day together before the end of school, Kevin selected a really advanced book. I said, Kevin, that’s a long one; are you up for that? He gave me a broad, cocky smile, inserted the book into his backpack, and headed off to class.