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Volunteer Summer Tutoring for Preventing the Summer Slide

Is it Worth it?

Summer vacation is upon us. School is or will soon be out. For many children, the summer slide begins. Summer slide (or summer setback) is the tendency for some students to lose some of the gains they made in reading skills during the school year due to lack of reading over the summer. Perhaps you are concerned that your child is at risk for this problem. You probably know your child will not do much reading without a constant barrage of “encouragement” by you, either because your child lacks the motivation to read or lacks the skills necessary to be able to slog through the books she is trying to read. In the past few decades, there has been an increasing interest in the potential of volunteer tutoring programs to help ameliorate the issues that some children have related to reading. It is hoped that these programs might help to prevent the summer slide. You think, “Maybe I should sign my child up for one of these programs. I will have to arrange transportation to get there. I may have to fight to get my child on the list. I might have to buy or check out materials. I will have to convince my child to go. I will have to make room in my already busy schedule. Is it really worth it?” We have the same question so we looked to see what research has to say on the matter.

What kinds of programs are we considering here? Let’s restrict our attention for the moment to all those fairly informal low-cost programs run by charities and churches, or started by low-cost government initiatives (such as the Oregon’s SMART program). Such programs typically involve fairly minimal training for the volunteers. The programs recruit well-meaning community volunteers to work one-on-one with children to improve children’s reading skills. Boomers, who are now retiring in unprecedented numbers, often wish to give back to their communities in this way. Advanced high school and college students may want to polish their resume, they might want to try out teaching or some other child-related job as a future career, and/or they may volunteer for purely altruistic reasons. Businesses might set up workplace volunteer programs to be perceived as a good community partner, enjoying the increased worker morale and productivity that comes from volunteering. The programs themselves are often run by a volunteer. What these volunteer programs have in common is that they are populated by adults with little-to-no direct knowledge of the research on learning to read or teaching children to read. However, if we are going to ask volunteers to volunteer their time and energy on a program, it is important that it is worthwhile for both the children and the volunteers.

What we are not considering here are all those high cost programs run by trained teachers, highly trained tutors, or commercial tutoring services such as Lindamood-Bell, Sylvan Learning, Kumon, and so forth, which are financially out of reach or unavailable for many families. These programs usually have paid staff, specialized materials, and assessments. Parents are typically asked to commit to X number of sessions for their children. With the training and structure provided by these programs, children usually experience progress in reading skills. Volunteer programs having many of these same characteristics have been shown to provide benefits for children’s reading skills, too (Wasik, 1998), as one might expect.

One low-cost program whose effectiveness has been studied, although it is not explicitly designed to be a summer program, is the SMART program, initiated in 1992 by the governor of Oregon, and it continues today. The program asks volunteers to commit to tutoring students twice a week for 30 minutes per session, which is generally agreed upon as the minimum necessary to improve reading. Training consists of mainly logistics (Where are the books? Who are the children? When will I come to tutor?) and some soft guidelines (Make tutoring fun. Ask children questions. Have children read. Read to the children). There is a handbook with some more information containing suggestions for how a reading session might be organized and some suggestions for things to do. There is a coordinator with similarly limited background who organizes the schedule. Children are recommended into the program by their teachers. Experimental field trials evaluating this program (Baker, Gersten, & Keating, 2000) indicated that children attending the program over two years showed greater growth than word reading, reading fluency, and vocabulary than children not assigned to the program, which varied from small to substantial depending on the aspect of reading being evaluated. The children were less likely to be assigned to special education than their counterparts who had not received the program. Further, volunteers felt that the experience was valuable and that they developed a greater understanding of high needs children and schools over the course of their experiences. These findings square with our own experiences of bringing relatively uninformed college students into the schools for service-learning.

But what about programs fully directed at summer? Can children make any gains in reading skills over the summer? Summer school is a traditional way that schools address the issue of improving reading skills over the summer. Unfortunately, current research on the outcomes of summer school or targeted summer “camps” is abysmal. Children generally do not make any progress in these programs. The programs might help to prevent reading loss (Cooper et al., 2000) but, when children make reading gains, these gains tend to be fairly short lived (Cooper & Jo, 2005).

There are probably good reasons for this. Most of these summer school programs are fairly short (often four or five weeks for an hour or two a day) and uninspired. Children simply stop showing up after a while. Many children never attend at all. These summer school programs are often taught by teachers who coordinate the program and train any volunteers that work in them. Often, teachers instruct the children directly themselves in a classroom type of setting. With these issues, the lack of progress for children attending these programs is surprising and alarming given the ubiquity of the programs and the costs of running them. There have, however, been some exceptions for programs having longer reading sessions (i.e., most of the summer) and for programs that include consistent one-on-one work with volunteers (Schacter, 2003). In such programs, reading gains tend to be modest.

Another direction a concerned parent can take to prevent the summer slide is to look for programs that supply free books for their children to read over the summer. In our own community, Books for Keeps provides children attending low-income schools with the opportunity to obtain gently used books to read over the summer. Like the tutoring programs, the program is largely run by volunteers who procure donated books and coordinate with schools to run used book fairs to allow children to choose the books they might want to read. Having the ability to choose your own books is important for reading motivation, so parents should look for book giveaway programs that allow children to select their own books. Over time, these programs enable children to develop a small personal library of books that they can read and read again. When children grow too old for these books, their younger siblings can have access to them or the books can be donated again. In one study (Allington et al., 2010), low-income children received a dozen (new) books that they had selected from a book fair held at the school towards the end of the school year. Then these books were boxed up and given to children to take home on the last day of school. The findings of that study were that children who received these books performed somewhat better the state literacy tests after three years of summer book distribution than children do did not receive these books. Of course, if finances aren’t a problem, parents can just take children to a bookstore and allow children to select their own books. (It is advised that the parent scan the book for appropriateness.) Although the effect of this practice is not large, it does suggest that providing a small library of self-selected books at the beginning of the summer is part of the solution to ameliorating the summer slide.

So, back to our original question -- are volunteer summer tutoring programs worth it? We think that the evidence suggests yes. Even minimally guided volunteers have an impact. Volunteers can directly tutor children or participate in community book giveaway programs. Children’s skills can benefit as long as they attend the programs often enough (i.e., nearly every day) and read enough of the books in their personal library to matter. Although the effect of such programs on children’s reading skills are relatively modest, they generally have some positive impact and are probably worth trying.


Allington, R. L., McGill-Franzen, A., Camilli, G., Williams, L., Graff, J., Zeig, J., ... & Nowak, R. (2010). Addressing summer reading setback among economically disadvantaged elementary students. Reading Psychology, 31(5), 411-427.

Baker, S., Gersten, R., & Keating, T. (2000). When less may be more: A 2‐year longitudinal evaluation of a volunteer tutoring program requiring minimal training. Reading Research Quarterly, 35(4), 494-519.

Schacter, J. (2003). Preventing summer reading declines in children who are disadvantaged. Journal of Early Intervention., 26(1), 47-58.

Schacter, J., & Jo, B. (2005). Learning when school is not in session: A reading summer day-camp intervention to improve the achievement of exiting first-grade students who are economically disadvantaged. Journal of Research in Reading, 28, 158-169.

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