How Effective Are One-to-One Tutoring Programs in Reading for Elementary Students at Risk for Reading Failure? A Meta-Analysis of the Intervention Research

NICHCY’s Structured Abstract 3 describes the following:

Title | How Effective Are One-to-One Tutoring Programs in Reading for Elementary Students at Risk for Reading Failure? A Meta-Analysis of the Intervention Research

Authors | Elbaum, B., Vaughn, S., Hughes, M.T., & Moody, S.W.

Source Journal of Educational Psychology, 92(4), 605-619.

Year Published | 2000

A meta-analysis of supplemental, adult-instructed, one-to-one reading interventions for elementary students at risk for reading failure was conducted. Reading outcomes for 42 samples of students (N= 1,539) investigated in 29 studies reported between 1975 and 1998 had a mean weighted effect size* of 0.41 when compared with controls. Interventions that used trained volunteers or college students were highly effective. For Reading Recovery interventions, effects for students identified as discontinued were substantial, whereas effects for students identified as not discontinued were not significantly different from zero. Two studies comparing one-to-one with small-group supplemental instruction showed no advantage for the one-to-one programs.

Adult-delivered, one-to-one instruction is considered by many to be an ideal teaching practice, especially when used with students who are considered at risk for school failure or who have been identified as having reading or learning disabilities. Unfortunately, due to logistical and time constraints that are common across general and special education classrooms, teachers rarely are able to provide this type of individualized instruction. In response, many schools and parents have employed tutors (e.g., certified teachers, paraprofessionals, or volunteers) to provide additional instruction for their students.

In addition, research evaluating Reading Recovery, the most widely used, one-to-one instructional program, suggests that, indeed, the program works. However, many have suggested that flawed research methods have tended to overestimate the program’s impact. They recommend more cost-efficient strategies, such as a broader use of trained paraprofessional and volunteer tutors as well as small-group instruction.

Research Questions

  1. How effective are adult-delivered, one-to-one, instructional interventions in reading for children at risk for reading failure—that is, what gains, if any, can we reasonably expect for students taught using this approach?
  2. How do the outcomes of Reading Recovery compare with outcomes produced by other interventions?
  3. How do the outcomes of one-to-one reading interventions compare with those of small-group interventions?

Research Design

  • Number of Studies Included | 29
  • Number of Subjects | 1,539
  • Years Spanned | 1975-1998

Research Subjects
Elementary school children identified as being at risk for reading failure.

Age/Grade of Subjects
All students in these studies were in elementary school. Of the 42 samples of students who participated in the studies reviewed in this meta-analysis, the majority (28) were in 1st grade. Eight sample groups were comprised of 2nd and 3rd graders; 5 sample groups were comprised of 4th to 6th graders; and in one sample, students ranged from 1st through 4th grade.

Specified Disability
Students at risk for reading failure.

Students participated in one-to-one reading interventions delivered by adult instructors. Interventions were divided by the researchers into the following categories:

  • decoding and/or word recognition
  • comprehension
  • mixed (a combination of decoding, word recognition, and comprehension)
  • phonemic awareness and/or phonics
  • visual-perceptual skills
  • underspecified (not sufficiently well described to be coded).

Duration of Intervention
The duration of interventions that students received ranged between 15 minutes and 1 hour of tutoring per session, 2 to 5 days a week, for 8 weeks to 2½ years, depending on the study. The median* duration and intensity of intervention was 30 minutes of tutoring daily (5 times a week) for 1 year.


  1. Well-designed and carefully administered one-to-one reading instruction contributed to improved performance for many students who were struggling to read.
  2. Students taught in small groups of 2-6 students were able to make the same gains in reading performance as students taught in one-on-one sessions, including Reading Recovery.
  3. Certified teachers and reliably trained adult volunteers were equally able to help struggling readers in both one-on-one and small group settings.

Combined Effects Size
The mean weighted effect size* was 0.41, which in real-world terms corresponds to a jump in student performance from the 50th to 65th percentile on a standardized measure.


  1. Students at risk for reading failure can clearly benefit from quality one-on-one instruction. As a result of this strategy, below-average readers may eventually be able to perform at grade level. However, such intervention is probably not enough by itself to help students with more severe reading problems; these students would likely need ongoing support to keep up with regular classroom instruction.
  2. Well-trained paraprofessionals and adult volunteers in small-group settings can serve an important function in helping struggling learners to read, and can do so in a way that is more cost effective than expensive one-on-one reading programs that require the instruction to be led by a certified teacher or specialist.
  3. One-on-one and small-group instruction are both effective strategies for helping students to read but should be thought of as one part of a larger instructional program coordinated by certified classroom teachers who closely monitor the teaching and learning process.


* Terms Defined

Effect Size (ES or d) | A statistical calculation, often represented as ES or d, that measures the impact of an intervention. An effect size below d = 0.20 suggests that a treatment did not have a significant effect. An effect size of d = 0.20 is considered small or low; an effect size of d = 0.50 is considered moderate; an effect size of  d = 0.80 or above is large.

Meta-Analysis | A widely-used research method in which (1) a systematic and reproducible search strategy is used to find as many studies as possible that address a given topic; (2) clear criterion are presented for inclusion/exclusion of individual studies into a larger analysis; and (3) results of included studies are statistically combined to determine an overall effect (effect size) of one variable on another.

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