For reading instruction to effectively capitalize on struggling readers’ (SRs) abilities to remediate their academic and social-emotional difficulties, schools must fully and accurately identify their abilities and difficulties.

Doing so is often far easier said than done. It requires updated knowledge about the complexity of reading and writing as well as the research on effective interventions.

“Assessment must reflect our best and most current understanding of reading and writing. Certainly, it appears that many traditional assessment practices have not provided information about important aspects of literacy,” write Professors Marjorie Y. Lipson and Karen K. Wixson.

Knowledge, however, is not enough. It also requires the ability to successfully put such research into practice. Few professionals (e.g., learning specialists and school psychologists) other than those with graduate degrees in reading and literacy have the experiences needed to transform knowledge into successful practice.

General and Special Education Classes

Teaching reading and writing to SRs with IEPs can occur successfully in both general and special education classes if they’re taught by highly competent and concerned teachers who:

  • Have strong supports (e.g., materials, co-teachers, encouraging administrators, highly competent class aides);
  • Stress research-supported instruction that systematically uses each SR’s identified abilities to address her (or his) difficulties; and
  • Use ongoing progress monitoring data to target instructional needs.

Too often, however, a critical ingredient is missing: Frequent consultation (e.g., twice monthly) from a master’s or higher-level reading and literacy specialist.

Unfortunately, not all SRs adequately benefit in general or special education classes in which other SRs have succeeded.

For SRs who have little chance of substantially improving their reading and writing in these classes, such as those who have wallowed ceaselessly in special education or general education classes, effective implementation requires a far more caring, personalized, supportive, and responsive approach, one that schools often deem “impossible, too expensive for our budget.” This is tutoring.


As Professor Robert Slavin of Johns Hopkins University, an outstanding educational researcher, has made clear:

“You can’t beat tutoring. Few approaches other than one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring have [had] consistent powerful impacts.”

Can quality tutoring help SRs who are or who are not classified as special education students? Absolutely. Is quality tutoring expensive? Perhaps.

But keeping SRs in reading and writing programs that offer continued struggles with little to no prospect for meaningful gains is far more expensive. Year-after-year of ineffective placements in general, inclusion, or special education classes rip large chunks out of school budgets.

Moreover, it’s debilitating for SRs’ reading and writing achievement — many fall further behind their average achieving peers — as well as for their social-emotional development. Often, in adulthood, this has devastating social, emotional, and economic effects.

Recently, Professor Slavin has shown how to substantially curtail tutoring costs without sacrificing quality. Based on his and his collaborators’ research, he concluded:

“Tutoring by paraprofessionals (teaching assistants) was at least as effective as tutoring by teachers. This was found for reading and math, and for one-to-one and one-to-small group tutoring…. Volunteer tutoring was far less effective than tutoring by either paras or teachers…. Inexpensive substitutes for tutoring have not worked.” [Italics added]

The Training of Tutors

To successfully implement a quality tutoring program taught by paraprofessionals requires that they’re well-prepared and supervised. Ideally, this involves quality training, guidance, demonstrations, ongoing emotional support, and initial assistance in giving and interpreting progress monitoring probes.

As I wrote in Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, “To a large degree [tutoring’s] effectiveness depends upon the tutor’s expertise: ‘Tutor expertise and development of tutor instructional skills are thought to be key to improving the nature of tutoring interactions and the positive effects of tutoring on tutored students.’... Part of this expertise may be the tutor’s skills in helping struggling learners’ transform beliefs that they lack the ability to succeed into beliefs that they have the ability: the former is called weak or low or inadequate self-efficacy, the latter strong, high, or adequate self-efficacy.”

To transform the counterproductive beliefs of many SRs, that reading is well beyond their abilities and if they try to succeed, they’ll fail, tutors need to directly and continuously structure instruction to enhance the self-efficacy of these SRs — their beliefs that if they make the effort and correctly use the right learning strategy, they’ll probably succeed.

Here, with light revision from my article, “Increasing Struggling Learners’ Self-Efficacy: What Tutors Can Do and Say,” are three suggestions:

  • When directly instructing and monitoring SRs, give them instructional-level work; when they work alone, without direct monitoring, give them independent-level work.
  • Teach SRs to credit their successes on instructional-level tasks to effort, persistence, modifiable abilities, and correct strategy use … By teaching them that success on instructional-level tasks is a product of their effort, persistence, modifiable abilities (e.g., attention), and correct strategy use, you can help counter the common lament, “I’m dumb,” while teaching them that success is repeatable.
  • Frequently provide academic feedback, reviews, and graph progress... Based on their research, Guthrie and Humenick … concluded that feedback indicating progress toward students’ goals could be highly motivating: it satisfies the fundamental need for perceiving oneself as competent in an important task. [Italics added]

The article has many other suggestions for tutors, with detail for implementation.

Parent Requests for Special Education Services

This sounds great, but if an SR is a special education student, can her IEP team arbitrarily deny her parents’ formal request for tutoring (e.g., “Out of the question. We don’t do tutoring.”) if her long-term reading and writing progress has been virtually stagnant and the school’s proposed IEP stresses “more of the same?” Can schools do that if both experts and a substantial body of authoritative literature strongly support tutoring?

Without offering a program likely to meaningfully accelerate progress, I doubt it. In its unanimous Endrew F. decision, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) declared:

"The nature of the IEP process, from the initial consultation through state administrative proceedings, ensures that parents and school representatives will fully air their respective opinions on the degree of progress a child's IEP should pursue. A reviewing court may fairly expect those authorities to be able to offer a cogent and responsive explanation for their decisions that shows the IEP is reasonably calculated to enable the child to make progress appropriate in light of his circumstances.” [Italics added]

"The IEP must aim to enable the child to make progress. After all, the essential function of an IEP is to set out a plan for pursuing academic and functional advancement. ... When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing 'merely more than de minimis' [trivial or minor] progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all. For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to 'sitting idly ... awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out' ... Every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives." [Italics added]

To me, as an educator (and not as an attorney qualified to give legal advice), these declarations imply that schools must have an explicit and creditable educational justification for rejecting parents’ requests. Their justification may require considerable objective data documenting substantial progress in achieving “challenging objectives.”

When faced with such a response, parents might, in a cooperative spirit, give their IEP team copies of Professor Slavin’s research articles on tutoring and a copy of SCOTUS’ Endrew F. decision that highlights the previous quotes.

Take-Home Points

Without highly competent tutoring in reading (and writing), the progress of many SRs will be trivial at best.

For poorly achieving SRs to succeed, their tutors need to be caring, well-trained, and well-supported.

For tutoring to have a good chance of succeeding, tutors need to systematically stress methods and activities that are well supported by research and responsive to valid progress-monitoring data.

The Supreme Court strongly supports the right of all special-education students to have IEPs that are reasonably calculated to produce substantial gains toward achieving objectives that are “challenging.... in light of [their] circumstances.” [Italics added]