16 October 2009 06:22 PM

Tutoring Works

by Dr. Rick

Regular readers of the Dr. Rick Blog will recognize this bit of advice I’ve given innumerable times:  If you suspect that your child is having academic trouble in one or more subjects, get help right away.  Don’t put it off.  Little problems grow into big ones.  The last thing you want is for your child to fall behind in school and his confidence to deteriorate.  Low confidence leads to negative feelings about school.


Low confidence.  Yuck.  We all know what that leads to.


Where to go for help?  There are plenty of teachers who selflessly and without much credit come to school early and stay late to work with students who need extra help.  There’s a special place in heaven for them.  There are National Honor Society high school students who can help.  And there are professional tutors who specialize in providing the extra leg-up students need from time to time.


The company I work for, Sylvan Learning (www.sylvanlearning.com), is the nation’s largest – and in my humble opinion the best – tutoring company.  It’s celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and has helped close to two million students catch up, keep up, or get ahead.  I’ve seen it work.  I wouldn’t stay here for so many years if it didn’t.


Yes, tutoring works.  It’s worked for centuries.  An expert in a particular subject works individually with a student.  The tutor watches the student’s progress each minute of instruction, recognizes when the student hits a rough patch, and smoothes the way, answering questions and providing help immediately.


Every classroom teacher wishes she could do this with each of her students.


If you’re considering tutoring but don’t know what to look for, here’s what research from the U.S. Department of Education says.  It specifically studied tutoring in reading, but the results are just as meaningful in math and other subjects. 

  1. Research is key.  Tutoring programs that incorporate research-based elements produce improvements in reading achievement.  Reading skills like word recognition, passage reading accuracy, spelling and comprehension made significant progress.
  2. The effects are broad.  Tutoring can also lead to improvements in self-confidence about reading, motivation for reading, and behavior.
  3. Work with the classroom teacher.  Tutoring works best when it’s coordinated with the classroom instruction.  No surprise here.
  4. Tutors need training.  Tutors who receive intensive and continuous training are more effective than tutors who don’t.  Again, no surprise.  If you’re looking for a tutor, ask about the training he’s received.
  5. Sessions need to be organized.  Structured tutoring sessions, designed with students’ needs in mind and well-rehearsed by tutors, work best.
  6. Monitor carefully.  Look for strong reinforcement of skills and progress, a high number of learning experiences in which the student moves from being fully supported to working independently, and plenty of explicit demonstration. 
  7. Frequency matters.  The research recommends frequent and regular tutoring sessions, with each session lasting up to sixty minutes.  More sessions a week result in greater gains.  As I’ve often said and written, learning – like sports or art – takes practice.  The more, the better.
  8. Interview your tutor.  Before hiring a tutor, check out his or her credentials, experiences, ideas about learning, track record, and fondness for kids.  Lots of people know math, for example, but not everyone can teach it.  
  9. Ask to see results.  Expect to see periodic results, your child’s work progress, examples of work, and improvement in school.
  10. Ask your child.  How does your child feel about the experience?  Can you sense her confidence improving?  Does her attitude about school seem to be improving?  A good tutoring experience can turn a kid around.

All of us parents, teachers, and significant adults in children’s lives want the very best for our kids.  We want them to enjoy learning, to get the best instruction from teachers who love children and who love to teach.  We want to give them healthy and useful attitudes about learning that will serve them well all their lives.  We want our children to have the great good fortune to come from families who value lifelong learning.


When a child encounters a speed bump along the way – what child doesn’t? – it’s up to us to get help right away and be informed about what help  is best.


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