Tutoring Program Places High Stakes on Teaching Kindergartners to Read

High-dosage tutoring has proven to be an effective tool in helping students catch up on lost learning, especially in subjects like reading, where many students are significantly behind. According to The New York Times, a solution could be to start providing reading tutors to kindergartners right from the beginning.

A company called Once is currently testing this idea. Their early-literacy tutoring program aims to provide reading tutors to all kindergartners. The company believes that the results will be promising.

Once is contracting with schools to track the outcomes of their tutoring program. They hope that by demonstrating positive results, more schools and districts will invest in early literacy tutoring. According to Matt Pasternack, Once’s CEO and co-founder, the goal is to teach every child in America to read one-on-one.

The tutoring program includes daily 15-minute sessions during school hours but is flexible depending on the needs of the students. The curriculum is based on the science of reading, which emphasizes phonics and letter recognition. Students work with a tutor to learn how letters sound and blend together to form words.

Matt Pasternack

Pasternack hopes that by the end of the school year, all students in the program will be able to decode fluently, allowing them to become more independent learners in the future.

Accelerate, a national nonprofit organization, has provided Once with approximately half-a-million dollars in grants. This funding has helped the company scale its tutoring program and work with more students. In the 2022-2023 school year, Once worked with hundreds of students, and they plan to expand to over 1,000 students in the upcoming year. The program has been implemented in public, charter, and private schools across various states, including California, Hawaii, Texas, New York, Ohio, and Washington, D.C.

The cost of the program is approximately $400 per student, and it has been offered to entire classes as well as selected students in need of intervention.

Schools that participate in the program are responsible for providing personnel to act as tutors, such as paraprofessionals or existing school staff. Once provides a scripted curriculum and ongoing coaching. Although school staff typically do not receive additional compensation for their tutoring duties, Once is working on partnering with local universities to offer course credit.

Phonics Instruction in One-on-One Setting

The one-on-one instruction offered by Once simplifies the implementation of phonics instruction, according to Pasternack. He explains that teaching phonics in large classrooms can be challenging without near-perfect classroom management. In order to effectively teach phonics, it’s important to hear what each individual child is saying.

Rebecca Kette, an intervention specialist and former Once tutor and coordinator, emphasizes the value of one-on-one time with students. She believes that classroom teachers often struggle to provide individualized attention to their students. Without such attention, teachers may not be able to address the specific phonic needs of their students.

Patrick Proctor, an education department chair at Boston College, also acknowledges the importance of individualized attention for effective phonics instruction. He suggests that small-group lessons are not designed to meet every student’s needs, as they tend to focus on average expectations. Individualized attention is necessary to help children advance in their reading abilities.

Rebecca Kette tutors a kindergartener using the Once program. (Rebecca Kette)

Once tutors receive two half-days of training and ongoing support from Once coaches. The tutoring sessions are recorded and reviewed by the coaches, who provide feedback during weekly meetings. Joseph Salazar, an ESL teacher and Once tutor and coordinator, appreciates the comprehensive support and scripted curriculum provided by Once. He believes that even without prior teaching experience, he would feel confident delivering the lessons.

To ensure scalability, it is important to empower school employees who may not have previous experience in literacy instruction, according to Matthew Kraft, an education and economics professor at Brown University. Paraprofessionals offer a valuable labor pool for tutoring, as they already have experience working with students and are employed by school districts.

Early Results and Criticisms

While the research on Once is still in its preliminary stages, initial results seem promising. A report by LXD Research found that there was a positive correlation between Once lessons and students’ scores on the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) assessment. The more lesson cycles students completed in Once, the higher their scores were.

According to Salazar, all six students he tutored last year started below benchmark, but by the end of the program, five of them met or exceeded reading-level benchmarks. Rebecca Kette also observed significant improvements in her students’ oral-reading fluency.

Laura Justice, a distinguished professor at Ohio State’s Department of Educational Studies, acknowledges the effectiveness of small-group lessons in developing decoding and comprehension skills. However, she suggests that claims about Once’s impact should be assessed using experimental methods before scaling up the program.

Justice further points out that there is no evidence to suggest that one-on-one tutoring is more effective than small-group tutoring. Pasternack is open to exploring small-group tutoring, but he believes it would present challenges, as students need to say the exact same sound at the same moment to avoid distracting each other.

Pasternack hopes that Once

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