As a new tutor with special training in helping young students read, Graduate School of Education student Gabrielle Consing was surprised at how well grouping students by skill level, then reading stories between short lessons helped everyone feel excited to learn.
“The more time you spend with a child, the more they open up,” says Consing, who is enrolled in GSE’s Masters in Mental Health Counseling program. “I think the more I was able to connect with them, the more they looked forward to it. They were just more into what the material was.
Consing was one of 11 graduate students hired to work as tutors for a new GSE program piloted in summer 2021. Students trained for one week and then joined the four-week summer program, with approximately 180 kindergarten through fifth grade students. at the Charter School for Applied Technologies in the city of Tonawanda. Designed around a “differentiation” approach, the program adapts teaching to the learning needs of young readers during the school disruptions of the pandemic.
“It allows us to push students who are above level and help get students who are below level back to level… It’s about meeting students where they are,” says Madeleine Fierstein , deputy principal of the school.
John Strong and Blythe Anderson, assistant professors in the Department of Learning and Teaching, ran the summer tutoring program. They used an approach Strong learned from Sharon Walpole, his doctoral advisor and professor at the University of Delaware School of Education. While traditional instruction often focuses on matching children with books that match their reading level, the differentiation approach, as adapted by Strong and Anderson, involves two steps:
- First, young readers are assessed to see which area needs to be addressed – knowledge of the alphabet, word decoding ability, overall reading fluency, or comprehension. Based on the assessment, children are placed into one of 10 groups.
- When groups come together, students focus on the skills they need to improve, such as understanding letter names and sounds. In the summer program they also read or listen to children’s books with the tutors.
The pilot program was a resounding success. Graduate students taught daily reading lessons so effectively that most young learners passed their reading assessments. The students improved so much in such a short time that at the request of the school, GSE teachers trained teachers at the charter school in the use of the method and its focused lessons throughout of the year.
“The school was very happy with our tutors, who showed up every day and got the job done,” Strong said. “We would like to continue with this model, with other schools and districts, while continuing to build new partnerships.”
When Consing used this approach last summer, her students seemed particularly interested in practicing their reading skills. The students loved reading Christopher Paul Curtis’ book, “The Watsons go to Birmingham,” which tells the story of a fictional road trip by a black family to Alabama during the civil rights movement.
It was especially gratifying for Consing after a child visited the library and proudly declared, “Miss Gabbie, I actually borrowed this book.”
While Consing worked with about 20 third- and fifth-grade students, some told her they hoped she would return to teach them this school year. When she explained that she was studying to be a mental health counselor at a college or university, they then told her that they wanted to come to UB to work with her.
She knew they didn’t fully understand her career goals, but their interest confirmed how much they enjoyed reading and learning together. “When you’re supported through your primary years, it encourages you to want to have a good future,” Consing says.