Cross age tutoring: alternatives to the reading resource room for struggling adolescent readers

Douglas Fisher

Peer tutoring has been suggested as an appropriate educational intervention for young readers. The students in this study were middle school students identified as struggling readers. Students at one school peer tutored in first and second grade classrooms. Students in the control school attended a remedial reading class. Outcomes suggest that peer tutoring was beneficial for the students who did the tutoring. The data suggests this is due to: 1) an authentic reason for literacy; 2) regular feedback and modeling; and 3) integration of writing into the curriculum.


The question of appropriate educational interventions for adolescent youth who struggle to read continues to challenge education professionals. In many school districts, adolescent readers who struggle with text are required to attend remedial reading classes or are placed in special education programs (McLeskey, Henry, & Axelrod, 1999). Concerns about these remedial and/ or segregated placements have been raised (Vaughn, Moody, & Schum, 1998). Some argue that these separate educational interventions do not result in significant educational gains and believe that a more inclusive and student-centered approach is warranted (Kennedy & Fisher, 2001; Klingner &Vaughn, 1999).

Evidence from successful middle school reading efforts suggest that students need to read texts at their instructional level, be provided opportunities to engage in dialogue about texts, and to write about their responses and reactions to the text (e.g., Fearn & Farnan, 2001). Peer tutoring is one way that middle school teachers can accomplish these instructional goals (Thorpe & Wood, 2000). Peer tutoring, specifically cross age tutoring, provides students with opportunities to read texts written for much younger students, but to do so for a specific purpose. Cross age tutoring also provides students with an opportunity to plan instruction for others. Cohen (1986) noted that planning instruction for others facilitates retention and comprehension.

The process of cross age tutoring involves an older student, under a teacher’s guidance, who helps one or more younger students learn or practice a skill or concept. In other words, cross age tutoring provides learners with an authentic reason for practicing and thus improving their reading performance (Giesecke, 1993; Haluska & Gillen, 1995). In addition, there is evidence that cross age tutoring promotes positive reading attitudes and habits (Caserta-Henry, 1996; Newell, 1996).

While there is evidence that cross age tutoring is successful, the present study compared the outcomes of a cross age tutoring program with a traditional remedial reading class at a nearby middle school. The remainder of this article focuses on the implementation and evaluation of cross age tutoring for less proficient adolescent readers who tutored students in first and second grade.


Three schools were purposely selected for participation in this study. Both middle schools that were selected had implemented a required reading class for students who were assessed to be “significantly below average” according to the state achievement tests. At each of the middle schools, 1 reading class was selected for participation. The 22 students from class at James Dunn Middle School were provided the opportunity to cross age tutor at a nearby elementary school. The 23 students from the class at Paul Mason were not. The elementary school in which the cross age tutoring was implemented served as a feeder school for both of the middle schools. These three schools were in the same geographic area and served a similar student population. Each of these schools was representative of other inner city schools in San Diego in terms of ethnic diversity, number of languages spoken, and socioeconomic status. Both of the middle school classes were provided with the same books (see Table 1 for works cited).

Table 1

Works Cited

Baker, J. (1991). Window. New York: Greenwillow.

Bemelmans, L. (1939). Madeline. New York: Puffin.

Briggs, R. (1978). The snowman. New York: Random House.

Crimi, C. (1999). Don’t need friends. New York: Doubleday.

Fleischman, P. (1999). Mind’s eye. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Kirk, D. (1994). Miss spider’s tea party. New York: Scholastic.

Lewin, T. (1990). The day of Ahmed’s secret. New York: Mulberry.

Mikaelsen, B. (1998). Petey. New York: Hyperion.

Morris, A. (1995). Shoes, shoes, shoes. New York: Mulberry.

Most, B. (1980). There’s an ant in Anthony. New York: Mulberry.

Ormerod, J. (1982). Moonlight. New York: Viking Penguin.

Popov, N. (1996). Why? New York: North-South Books.

Rohmann, E. (1994). Time flies. New York: Crown.

Rowling, J. K. (1999). Harry Potter and the prisoner of azkaban. New

York: Scholastic.

Sachar, L. (1998). Holes. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Sendak, M. (1963). Where the wild things are. New York: HarperTrophy.

Shaik, F. (1998). The jazz of our street. New York: Dial Books for

Young Readers.

Suess, Dr. (1963). Hop on pop. New York: Random House.

Turner, P. (1996). The war between the vowels and the consonants. New

York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Weatherford, C. B. (2000). The sound that jazz makes. New York: Walker

& Company.

Zimelman, N. (1992). How the Second Grade Got $8,205.05 to Visit the

Statue of Liberty. Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman & Company.

Implementing the Cross Age Tutoring Effort

The cross age tutoring class followed the Strategic Reading class recommendations developed by Thrope and Wood (2000). As noted in Table 2, the class followed a specific structure each week. Students were provided with texts that would interest the students they would tutor in the elementary school. These texts also provided the middle school students with experiences with common spelling patters, onset and rime structures, high frequency words, and decodable texts. Throughout the year, more difficult texts were added as both the tutors and tutees developed their literacy skills. During the first nine weeks of class, all tutors used the same books. Starting in the 10th week of class, tutors were encouraged to select a text that they believed their tutees would enjoy and, if possible, work on that text with a partner.

Table 2

Strategic Reading Class Structure

* Day 1 (at the middle school): Introducing

the literature to be used as the base of

instruction for first or second graders. Previewing

the specific instructional strategies

used with the tutees, including word identification

and comprehension. The middle

school teacher modeled the entire lesson

that the tutors were to conduct with their

tutees. Each tutor was then asked to completely

read the targeted literature book to a

peer in the class. Tutors were asked to

identify 5 difficult words and find the meaning

and appropriate uses of the word through

context, a glossary, or the dictionary.

Teacher ends the period with read alouds

from adolescent literature.

* Day 2 (at the elementary school): Tutors

worked in first and second grade classes and

taught their lesson to small groups of students

(no more than 4) in the class. After the

lessons, any remaining time was filled with

1:1 read alouds with either the tutor or tutee


* Day 3 (at the middle school): Whole class

discussions occurred with the tutors identifying

successes and challenges from the

previous day of tutoring. Students shared

their experiences including tutees’ attitudes,

motivation, cooperation, interest, and

achievements. In addition, each tutor wrote

an entry in his or her journal regarding the

tutoring experience. Teacher ends the period

with read alouds from adolescent literature.

* Day 4 (at the elementary school): Day 2 was

repeated in a different classroom.

* Day 5 (at the middle school): Day 3 was

repeated and students discussed their experience

tutoring with a partner in the classroom.

Teacher ends the period with read

alouds from adolescent literature.

In general, the teacher of the cross age tutor class developed lesson plans for the tutors to use. On Monday these lesson plans were modeled for the tutors and they had time to practice the texts and the questions they would ask. On Tuesday and Thursday they interacted with their tutees in first and second grade. On Wednesday and Friday, the tutors wrote in their journals about their experiences with the younger students. In addition, the teacher modeled reading of more difficult texts for her students and they kept journals on these books as well. Each day that they were at the middle school, the teacher read aloud adolescent literature including Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Rowling, 1999), Holes (Sachar, 1998), Petey (Mikaelsen, 1998), and Mind’s Eve (Fleischman, 1999).

The classroom teacher often developed a sample lesson for the seventh grade students to use with their tutees. For example, the lesson on Hop on Pop (Suess, 1963), provided students with five steps to implement with a small group of first grade tutees, including:

1. Ask the tutees about the word “pop.” What other words do they know for pop (soda, loud noise)? Discuss how the word pop can be used for dad or father.

2. Read the book Hop on Pop to the tutees.

3. Ask the tutees to write down all the words from the book that end in –op on their individual dry erase boards.

4. Ask the tutees to write one more word that ends with –op that wasn’t in the book.

5. Re-read the book Hop on Pop to the tutees, this time giving each tutee in the group a different ending to watch for and record (e.g., -up, -all, -ad, -ill).

Another lesson focused on the book Miss Spider’s Tea Party (Kirk, 1994). This lesson for a small group of second graders had six components:

1. Introduce the book Miss Spider’s Tea Party by looking through it together with the tutees. Do not read the words of the book at this time, only talk about what the pictures tell us. Have the tutees make predictions about what is happening on each page. Helpful questions are:

* What is the character doing?

* How is the character feeling about the situation? What clues helped you answer that?

* What is happening on this page?

* What do you think will happen next?

2. Tell the tutee that there are some hard words in the book that have to be learned before reading the book. Hard words are either difficult to pronounce or difficult to understand. Read each difficult word to the tutee. Then ask him/her read each word.

3. Have the tutee write each word on a 5×7 card. Also have him/her write a definition of the word and draw a picture that tells what the word means. Ask the tutee to tell about the picture that has been drawn. Have the tutee write one sentence using the word on the back of the card.

4. Edit and revise the sentences. Make sure that the tutee wrote a good sentence. Ask yourself, “was I able to read his/her writing?” Check for correct spelling, punctuation and capitalization. Suggest more interesting words, if the sentences need them.

5. Read aloud the book Miss Spider’s Tea Party to the tutee.

6. Ask the tutee to write a journal entry about his or her feelings about book.

Documenting the Progress of the Tutors

The literacy developed of these middle school students was assessed in several ways. First, data on reading comprehension was provided by the schoolwide assessment system, the Gates-MacGinitie Reading Tests (GMRT), Fourth Edition, a standardized reading assessment that focuses on vocabulary and reading comprehension skills. All students in the school participated in this assessment at the beginning and end of the school year. Thus, comparisons were made between the students who engaged in cross age tutoring and those who did not. Second, the statewide assessment system Stanford Achievement Test (SAT-9) was given to all students in both schools. Again, comparisons were made between students who engaged in cross age tutoring and those who did not. In addition to these quantitative measures, I was able to observe tutoring sessions in the elementary school on a weekly basis. Observations were conducted in three classrooms per week for approximately 20 minutes each. Field notes with representative quotes were collected during that time and shared with the members of the research team on a monthly basis.

Outcomes for the Tutors

The literacy-related outcomes for the tutors, all of whom were struggling readers and/or identified with reading disabilities, all demonstrated significant increases. In terms of the GMRT, students who tutored outperformed a group of comparison students in both the vocabulary subsection (t.= 7.21, p<.01) and the comprehension subsection (t = 6.04, p<.01). On the statewide achievement test, the SAT-9, students who tutored also outperformed students who did not (t=5.91).

The question remains, then, why did the students who tutored outperform those who did not? The classroom observations point to a number of quality instructional innovations that may have resulted in the increases in achievement. The three areas in which seventh grade struggling readers seemed to develop most were: 1) fluency: 2) rhythm, rhyme, and intonation; and 3) writing skills.

In terms of reading fluency, tutors were observed reading increasingly difficult texts with increasing speed. For example, during a small group read aloud in October, Marty read Shoes, Shoes, Shoes (Morris, 1995). The observational data suggest that Marty “stops on almost every page to look at the pictures as if to check and see if he is right about the words. Then he reads the words to the students in his group and goes on to the next page. The first graders seem very interested in the book, but Marty is slow to read it to them. He struggled with the word `straw.'” In April, Marty was observed reading with first graders again. The observational notes from his reading of Don’t Need Friends (Crimi, 1999) suggest that his fluency has increased. “Many read the text all the way through with very few stops. He kept the pace such that the first graders in his group remained interested. At the end of the reading, Marty even asked his tutees several questions, including `what would happen if your best friend moved away?’ and `would you have done the same thing if you were the rat?'”

Changes in reading fluency were also noted during observations of Anita. When she read Miss Spider’s Tea Party (Kirk, 1994) to a group of second graders “Anita stumbled with many of the words, even though she had practiced on Monday and read the book to other students on Tuesday. She still slowed her reading when she came to an unfamiliar word and did not seem to have the skills to work through the word. She skipped `silken’ and `timid,’ she pronounced `alight’ as two words, and she mispronounced several others words including peeking, platoon, bouquet, and fragile.” Anita was observed again in April and June. On both of these occasions she selected her own text to read to the second graders. During the observation in April she read The Sound That Jazz Makes (Weatherford, 2000) and in June she read The Jazz of Our Street (Shaik, 1998). Both of these books were purchased by the middle school teacher because she knew that Anita especially liked Jazz music. During the first observation, the data indicated that Anita “makes very few mistakes — it’s as if she has really practiced this book so that it would be perfect for the second graders.” During her reading of The Jazz of Our Street, Anita rarely slowed down but when she did “she has developed some skills for use with unfamiliar words. When she uses these skills, her fluency remains fairly consistent and she can maintain the interest of the second graders.” Like Marry, Anita talked more about the books she read later in the year. After her reading of The Sound That Jazz Makes she talked with the second graders in her group about her older brother and his jazz band. She also asked them, “Are you interested in music? What kind of music would you like to play?”

In addition to fluency changes, I noticed that the tutors increasingly demonstrated their understanding of rhythm, rhyme, stress and intonation as they modeled the skills for their tutees. During an early observation of Shallen tutoring, the observation notes indicate that she “makes many mistakes during her read aloud of Where the Wild Things Are (Sendak, 1963), including mispronunciations of the words blinking, frightened, terrible, and gnashed. She also has several mis-starts and speaks in a monotone voice as she reads to her tutees.” Four months later, observation notes of Shallen indicated that she read the book Madeline (Bemelmans, 1939) with “great expression and intonation. She seems excited to share the book with her tutees and uses her voice to pause and create little tensions while reading.” The notes further indicate that Shallan only mispronounced one word — disaster.

Approximately four weeks into class, the middle school teacher created a lesson on the book There’s an Ant in Anthony (Most, 1980) for second graders. The tutors were to read the book and then talk with their tutees about all the places that they could find the word “ant” in other words. Justin had a very difficult time reading this book. “Justin seems to word call every word on the page. He doesn’t seem to know what he is reading and seems surprised each time that he comes to a word with `ant’ in it. He is fairly boring to listen to but the students in his group continue to pay attention looking for new instances of the word `ant.’ No word in the book gets more stress than any other word in the book.” In May, Justin was observed reading The Day of Ahmed’s Secret (Lewin, 1990). Justin read the book with “great intonation and feeling. He has gained his groups’ interest in this book and is playing it for all it is worth. He pauses regularly during his reading, but he clearly knows the words. It seems that he is using his voice and pauses to generate intrigue with the story.”

A third area in which the seventh grade struggling readers made progress was in writing. Early journal entries confirm the fact that this group of students performs in the lowest quartile. For example, Marty’s first journal entry reads (with corrections for spelling) “I read to the kids yesterday.” Approximately two months later, one of Marty’s entries read, “When I read Vowels and Consonants [The War Between the Vowels and the Consonants, Turner, 1996], I asked the kids to name all the vowels. They got them all right. I also asked them to tell me words that started with vowels, they know a lot of them. I think they are learning to listen better now.” Approximately three weeks before the end of the school year, Marry wrote, “We read How the Second Grade got $8,205.50 to Visit the Statue of Liberty [Zimelman, 1992] and talked about expenses and profit. They really got the point about sales having to make money. It’s like our school fundraiser. I was at the meeting and asked if we were sure we were going to make any money. We can’t go on the summer tour if we don’t make the money. The second graders got it, maybe I should read the book to the kids at my school.”

In addition to the evidence found in writing journals, tutors were often provided an opportunity to create words for wordless books. For the book Time Flies (Rohmann, 1994), Shallen created words for each page. She used large Post-It[R] notes to write her words and stick them to the appropriate page. Shallen re-drafted her writing several times to get it just the way she wanted for her sharing with the second graders. For example, on one of the pages, she wrote, “The beautiful little bird is eaten by the big mean dinosaur.” On the following page, Shallen wrote, “Our bird friend is not dead. She is flying inside the dinosaur. What’s that? Watch out for those teeth! Our beautiful bird friend thinks that she will go explore the dinosaur’s throat.” Other students created words for Why (Popov, 1996), Moonlight (Ormerod, 1982), Window (Baker, 1991), and The Snowman (Briggs, 1978).

Implications for Middle School Reading Classes

Several factors are most likely related to the successes experienced by these struggling middle school readers. While the structure of the Strategic Reading class was likely key to students’ successes and tutoring was the foundation of the class, causal relationships are difficult to establish. Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to suggest that cross age tutoring can benefit struggling middle school students for at least three reasons, including an authentic reason for literacy, regular feedback and modeling, and the integration of writing into the reading curriculum.

First, the students in the strategic reading class were provided with authentic reasons for engaging in class activities. They wanted to understand the words of the books that they would have to read to younger students. They also wanted to write words for the wordless books that would capture their listener’s interest. This essentially made the use of picture books “okay” for middle school readers. The models of text provided in these picture books probably provided a scaffold for students as they became less fluent. The fact that they were going to read these books to first and second graders reduced the stigma and social pressures that many adolescents associate with “baby” books. Other teachers and researchers have found the use of picture books and wordless books useful with adolescent readers, including Mundy and Hadaway (1999), Robb (1998), Cassady (1998), and Mitchell and Pullum (1998).

Second, the students in the strategic reading class received regular feedback about their reading and writing, mostly from younger readers and writers who they tutored. These middle school students knew what it was like to be bored in school and certainly did not want to create this situation for the students they tutored. In effect, this feedback loop reinforced their desire to become increasingly literate. Further, the students in the strategic reading class regularly heard books read to them by their teacher and by their peers. This is consistent with previously published research, including the work of Ouellette, Dagostino, and Carifio (1999) which indicated that read alouds were an effective strategy for improving the comprehension of less fluent readers. Thus the feedback, modeling, and accountability created within the strategic reading class seemed to increase both motivation and skill while previous student-level accountability systems (e.g, failing grades, retention) did not.

Finally, the basis for the strategic reading class was the integration of the language arts. As articulated by Fearn and Farnan (2001), students learn to read, write, speak, and listen simultaneously. The middle school teacher understood this and required that her students write every day at the middle school. In addition to the interactive journals that she kept with her students, the creation of text by the students for wordless books was key to their success. When the students wrote, they had to be able to read their writing.

In essence, the strategic reading class with its emphasis on cross age tutoring required quality literacy instruction on the part of the classroom teacher, authentic literacy experiences for middle school students, and regular feedback for students regarding their development. These factors seem to be key in assisting struggling adolescent readers as they join the literate community.


Caserta-Henry, C. (1996). Reading buddies: A first-grade intervention program. The Reading Teacher, 49, 500-503.

Cassady, J. K. (1998). Wordless books: No-risk tools for inclusive middle-grade classrooms. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy., 41, 428-433.

Cohen, J. (1986). Theoretical considerations of peer tutoring. Psychology in the Schools, 23, 175-186.

Fearn, L., & Farnan, N. (2001). Interactions: Teaching writing and the language arts. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Giesecke, D. (1993). Low-achieving students as successful cross-age tutors. Preventing School Failure, 37, 34-43.

Haluska, R., & Gillen, D. (1995). Kids teaching kids. Pairing up with cross-grades pals. Learning, 24(3), 54-56.

Kennedy, C. H., & Fisher, D. (2001). Inclusive middle schools. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Klingner, J. K., & Vaughn, S. (1999). Students’ perceptions of instruction in inclusion classrooms: Implications for students with learning disabilities. Exceptional Children, 66, 23-37.

McLeskey, J., Henry, D., & Axelrod, M. I. (1999). Inclusion of students with learning disabilities: An examination of data from reports to congress. Exceptional Children, 66, 55-66.

Mitchell, D., & Pullum, T. (1998). Using children’s literature to spark learning. English Journal, 87, 94-97.

Mundy, J., & Hadaway, N. L. (1999). Children’s informational picture books visit a secondary ESL classroom. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 42, 464-475.

Newell, F. M. (1996). Effects of a cross-age tutoring program on computer literacy learning of second-grade students. Journal of Research on Computing in Education, 28, 346-358.

Ouellette, G., Dagostino, L., & Carifio, J. (1999). The effects of exposure to children’s literature through read aloud and an inferencing strategy on low reading ability fifth graders’ sense of story structure and reading comprehension. Reading Improvement, 36, 73-89.

Robb, L. (1998). Helping reluctant readers discover books. Book Links, 7(4), 51-53.

Thrope, L., & Wood, D. (2000). Cross-age tutoring for young adolescents. The Clearing House, 73, 239-242.

Vaughn, S., Moody, S. W., & Schumm, J. S. (1998). Broken promises: Reading instruction in the resource room. Exceptional Children, 64, 211-225.

Douglas Fisher, PhD, Associate Professor, Teacher Education, San Diego State University.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Douglas Fisher, Associate Professor, Teacher Education, San Diego State University, 4283 El Cajon Boulevard, Suite 100, San Diego, CA 92105 or email:

COPYRIGHT 2001 George Uhlig Publisher

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

You May Also Like

Beginning to Read and the Spin Doctors of Science: The Political Campaign to Change America’s Mind about How Children Learn to Read. – Review

Beginning to Read and the Spin Doctors of Science: The Political Campaign to Change America’s Mind about How Children Learn to Read. – Review – …

Content Validity of Preservice Teacher Portfolios in a Standards-Based Program

Content Validity of Preservice Teacher Portfolios in a Standards-Based Program Beverly M. Klecker The introduction of a standards-b…

Learning Disabled Students: Using Process Writing to Build Autonomy and Self Esteem

Learning Disabled Students: Using Process Writing to Build Autonomy and Self Esteem Suzanne J. Stringer This article examined the c…

Parental involvement in the classroom

Parental involvement in the classroom Sandra M. Machen Improving parental involvement with public schools can improve schools. Pare…