Peer Tutoring: What Can Be Done Tomorrow Morning in Every School
Post written by Gerald Grant, the Hannah Hammond Professor of Education and Sociology Emeritus at Syracuse University and the author of Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh (Harvard University Press, 2009). This post was originally featured in ASCD Express.
Ever since my visit to St. Luke's School, an elementary school in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the South Bronx, N.Y., in the 1970s, I have wondered why one of the best ideas in education—peer tutoring—has been so seldom adopted in American public schools. Despite its demographic challenges, St. Luke's reading scores were two years above average.
St. Luke's principal, an energetic nun in her mid-30s, created a peer tutoring system in which every child became a tutor. She matched the children in 1st through 3rd grades with a buddy in 4th through 6th grades. After morning prayers, the first 35 minutes of the day were devoted to whatever the younger student wanted to read.
The school provided a wide selection of materials, including comic books, and kids could choose whatever they wanted. A 1st grader might pick Superman or Dr. Seuss's Cat in the Hat. The buddy sometimes simply read most of the story or helped the student recognize and sound out "cat" and "hat." Third graders could read sports stories from the Daily News or recipes for making fudge. It was a relaxed form of peer tutoring, not formal instruction, which came later in the day. The idea was to enjoy reading.
Make Peer Tutoring a Requirement
Poor readers in higher grades could also benefit from peer tutoring—both as receiver and giver. A tutoring requirement could embrace each student's strongest skills or interests. High schools could make peer tutoring a graduation requirement for all students, perhaps three hours a week for one semester, as part of a community service program.
In one high school I visited in the Hudson Valley, N.Y., students auctioned off their courses to raise money. The range of their offerings was amazing: Spanish, algebra, playing the guitar, Chinese cooking, how to repair a motorcycle, and—of course—reading.
With peer tutoring, both tutor and the tutee benefit; both are learning new skills. Tutors need to
- find something they can teach,
- propose it to a mentor teacher or advisor,
- develop a plan to teach it, and
- write a short paper about what they learned from the experience.
In the process, tutors learn skills that will benefit them the rest of their lives: how to engage another, how to figure out how someone else's mind works, and how to get a concept across. They will also develop empathy for children who are different and enlarge their social networks.
Most students would tutor younger classmates in the same high school, or if nearby, they could tutor students in elementary or middle schools. Peer tutoring could reduce racial segregation both within and between schools while narrowing the achievement gap. Every student has something to teach, and peer tutoring shouldn't just be white kids teaching black kids or the bright teaching the slow. Sadly, students within many schools are often segregated by tracks. A high school tutoring requirement could connect kids across tracks.
Peer Tutoring Is Effective and Economical
Peer tutoring is one of the most effective and least costly practices any school could adopt. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have been doing it for years. Whether it's teaching other kids in the patrol how to tie knots or identify birds for a merit badge, the scouting institution relies on peer tutoring.
Some principals may say that there's no room in the schedule to squeeze in time for tutoring or that teachers would not want to teach peer tutoring. But in a school of 600 children, wouldn't it be fairly easy to convince teachers to take up those duties in exchange for a gain of 300 additional part-time teachers for 35 minutes each morning?
Although few public schools have employed peer tutoring on anything close to the scale that St. Luke's did, it is something that could be done in every school tomorrow morning at little or no cost.