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Tutoring Reading Online: What Research Says.

Updated: Aug 31, 2023

In my last blog, I talked about how and why I chose to do my tutoring online instead of in person. It was a personal story about why I ended up with my business online. In this blog, I am going to share with you the things I learned when researching online versus in-person reading tutoring.

I am a person that believes in children being outdoors doing physical stuff. Too much screen time is very bad for everyone. So I felt conflicted about choosing to have my tutoring business online. I have read so much about how screen time is detrimental to children. I know that they are exposed to so much screen time at school already. How could I justify doing my tutoring business online? And yet this is what I ended up doing. So when I choose a topic for my master's thesis I decided to research how effective online tutoring was.

children need lots of time to run and play outside in nature

Take Flight is the curriculum I happened to learn while taking my master's program. My professor told us many times that we were learning to be dyslexia specialists. We should not be tied down to one curriculum. But we needed to go all the way through a good curriculum designed for dyslexia at least once. After that, we would be able to be diagnostic and prescriptive with our students. Then we would be able to use other programs and whatever we thought best for our students. Take Flight is a very good choice for learning to teach children with dyslexia. It is the curriculum used by Children's Hospital to teach children with dyslexia. So I did my research about teaching children online versus in person using the Take Flight curriculum.

Here is what I did to conduct this research:

The literature review

First I read lots of articles about teaching and learning online. These articles made up the literature review part of the research paper. Here are some of the things I learned from the articles.

Young children do not learn from screens. I am talking about children under 3 years of age. Even if the person on the screen is interacting with them as you would on zoom. It helps if the child has a parent in the room to direct the child's attention to the things that you desire them to learn. But under the age of 3 children should not be learning from screens even with a live person such as on zoom. (O’Doherty et al., 2011; Troseth et al., 2019), (O’Doherty& Saylor, 2018; Strouse et al., 2018), (Troseth et al., 2006).

We do not want young children to be on screens.

Several studies have been done on Lexia core 5. Lexia Core 5 is a program used in many schools to help children with reading. All these studies showed growth for the students using Lexia Core 5. But only one of the studies had a control group that was not using Lexia. In that study the students using Lexia Core 5 did not make more progress than those who only learned reading instruction from the teacher. (Baron et al., 2019; Kazakoff et al., 2018; Macaruso et al., 2019), (Ness et al., 2013).

This was consistent with my own observations in classrooms. I have seen children using Lexia in many classrooms. I like Lexia and am pretty impressed with it. But I notice what struggling readers typically do when on any computer program. They click buttons randomly until they finally hit the correct answer.

Struggling readers must have direct, explicit instruction from a teacher. Teachers need to point out to them specific things they need to attend to. Do expect them to pay close attention to instructions read to them by an electronic device.

recieving tutoring from a human rather than technology is best

Here is what we have learned from this, and other studies. We know that using technology is not detrimental to learning. But receiving tutoring from a human rather than a computer program is much better. Students will have better gains than if they use technology alone. (Suhr et al., 2010; Ness et al., 2013).

Sometimes students use assistive technology that will read assignments and textbooks to them. This is a good idea. Studies show that it is not harmful to students' social-emotional wellbeing. I am not sure why it would be, but evidently, someone was worried that it was, so they did a study on it. (Lindeblad et al., 2019).

This technology does not teach students to read. It only helps them keep up with the things that they are learning about in class. All students with dyslexia should learn how to use this technology. In fact, everyone, no matter their age should read audiobooks. It's a great way to learn things while cleaning, cooking, driving... But it is no substitute for becoming a better reader.

There are some concerns to consider. One of them is that studies have shown that people learn more and remember better when they read things on paper rather than on a screen. They can read at about the same speed. And they often think that they understood as well when reading on screen. But they actually don't understand as well. (Halamish & Elbaz, 2020).

It is possible that this difference in comprehension is caused by the way that the students engaged with each medium (Lim et al., 2021).

On paper, you can highlight and write notes in the margin. There is a specific place on the paper where your brain can remember seeing those notes. Students who are reading on screens may need to be taught that they need to slow down and think about what they have read before moving on.

The research part of my paper.

Next, I interviewed seven people about their experiences and opinions with using Take Flight online and in person. Only one person interviewed, M., started doing Take Flight online before the pandemic. M. is the owner and founder of Dyslexia on Demand. In the past, she worked for the public schools before opening a brick-and-mortar reading therapy business in her town. M. became aware that in the bigger cities within her state, there were qualified reading tutors available to most children. However, in the smaller rural areas, this was not available. In other states, there was very limited availability of reading therapy at all. She chose to take her business online to serve people from around the world who did not have reading therapy available in their local areas. She started this before the pandemic began. Because of the pandemic in March of 2020, she hired other tutors to work online.

Four other people I interviewed were working for M. They all started working there because of the pandemic. I also interviewed two parents of my own students. I interviewed all these people because I wanted to find out two things. First, do they believe that students were making as many gains online as they would have in person? I also wanted to learn from them and get ideas to make my own business better.

At first, I thought I wanted to collect data. The data would be test scores to compare before and after. But I decided this was not something I should do. You cannot compare the scores of any two students and think the comparison would be valid. I would have had to try to match students that had about the same level of difficulty reading. Also, most students who are learning in person are in groups. But students learning online are more likely to be learning 1:1. And I would have had to make sure they came to therapy the same number of times per week... There were too many variables. That is why this study did not include any test scores.

I did not collect official data. But I asked everyone if they believed that their students were making the same gains online as they would have made in person. Five out of the seven participants believed that the gains were the same online as they would be in person. One parent was not sure if her child was making the same progress online. But she was happy with the progress her child made. Several of the participants mentioned that online versus in-person is not the question they would be concerned with. Instead, the important question is group versus 1:1. If a student is receiving help for their reading in a school setting it will most likely be in a small group. But online reading tutoring is usually done 1:1. All except one of the participants agreed that 1:1 is best. One of the tutors explained that her own son had benefited from all the forms of tutoring. (In-person 1:1, in-person group, and online both 1:1 and group.) She believed that her son had benefited from all of these different forms of tutoring at different times and in different ways.

Four out of the five tutors thought that reading tutoring would be the very best if it were in-person. One of them stipulated that it would only be better if it were 1:1. This is my personal opinion also. 1:1 in person is probably the very best choice.

But there are many advantages to doing reading therapy online that are not true in person. The biggest one is availability. Many people do not have a qualified reading tutor near where they live.

Another big advantage mentioned was convenience. Even if you do have a reading tutor living nearby it is more convenient to go home instead of driving to tutoring.

This makes it much easier to fit into a busy schedule. (And cheaper especially now with the gas prices going up!) The parents that I interviewed said this was very important to them. They were experiencing success online and had no desire to ever be in person.

There is one area in which participants did not feel students made as strong of progress online. That was handwriting.

handwriting is an important part of learning to read

Students who receive therapy online may continue to have sloppier handwriting. The teacher cannot physically help the students. It is harder to make sure the child is holding the pencil correctly. It is impossible to guide their hand when you are online.

Handwriting is something that is no longer taught like it used to be. But it is very important. Studies show that learning to form letters so well that it is automatic helps free up space in the brain. Then students can think about what they are writing.

A good dyslexia therapist will teach handwriting along with reading. Online this is more difficult.

There are other things that are harder online. It is harder to see what the student is doing and they may be distracted by a toy or even by trying to go to other windows. But the reality is that for some students there are many distractions in person as well.

If you were meeting in person the teacher could place materials in front of the student but online you must wait while the student looks for things. Sometimes students come unprepared or they can't find the page you want them to be looking at. Online you cannot physically help. You must wait and this may cause tutoring to take longer online. Parents can help mitigate this problem. They can make sure their child is prepared and be aware of what they are doing.

All the participants agreed that the physical materials used in Take Flight need to be sent to the students. Every student must have the book to read and code with on physical paper. Students must build muscle memory by writing and not only using an interactive program. Every student must have the magnetic sound pictures to manipulate. Some other things were brought up as helpful but not necessary. They were an extra camera/ document camera, online books, and a touch screen tablet. Also, some students benefit from a helper, such as a parent, who can sit with them and help them focus and find materials quickly. This would especially be true at the beginning of the program.

There are not enough qualified reading tutors for all the children that need help. Especially in more rural areas. So, having reading tutoring available online is a big advantage. If you are interested in reading tutoring online you should not be worried. Reading tutoring online is effective and convenient.

By spending an hour several times a week online getting reading tutoring your child can become a better reader and then go outside and play or read!

child reading outside on the grass


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