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Investigating the comparative effectiveness of fluency building techniques during peer tutoring.


When Helena first attempted to read a particular grade-level text about archeologists, she struggled tremendously. She was unable to read about one-fourth of the words and took more than two minutes to read this short passage. But less than twenty minutes later, she was teaching one of her classmates how to read this informational text. She told her peer, "First I [will] read it. Then after I finish reading it, you read it." She proceeded to read a few words, then she paused and her partner repeated what Helena had read. The pair continued this routine until they had finished the entire passage. Not only had Helena successfully assisted her peer, but the experience helped her to improve her own reading of the text. By the end of the peer tutoring session, Helena was reading the passage with near perfect accuracy and could finish the passage in less than half the time that it had taken her previously.

Over the past few decades, peer tutoring has received much attention from researchers and educators. Researchers have found that tutors, in addition to their tutees, improve their mastery and understanding of the skills and concepts in which they are teaching (Fuchs, Fuchs, & Burish, 2000; Juel, 1996; Shanahan, 1998; Taylor, Hanson, Justice-Swanson, & Watts, 1997). Researchers have surmised that tutors maintain an increased level of motivation when they are asked to assist peers, and that this increased motivation leads to their strong academic improvement (Bargh & Schul, 1980; Benware & Deci, 1984). Some researchers have investigated certain behaviors that lead to strong academic gains for the tutors, such as giving explanations to one's tutee (Webb & Farivar, 1994) and asking questions of their tutees (King, 1991; King, Staffieri, & Adelgais, 1998).

Fluency building strategies

According to the National Reading Panel (2000), "Fluency is one of several critical factors necessary for reading comprehension" (p. 6). Other researchers have identified fluency as a "prerequisite" for successfully comprehending text (Kuhn & Stahl, 2003, p. 3), and as the "missing ingredient" in literacy programs (Rasinski, 2010, p. 31). As children become more fluent, they progress from reading in a halting, word-by-word manner to reading words automatically and in several-word phrases (Kuhn & Stahl). Empirical studies have shown a significant and positive correlation between oral reading fluency and comprehension (Pikulski & Chard, 2005). Fluent readers are able to focus their mental attention on understanding the meaning of the text, while less fluent readers spend much of their mental attention on word recognition (Kuhn & Stahl; Rasinski).

Research studies have investigated the use of fluency oriented reading strategies during peer tutoring and regular classroom instruction. Techniques such as echo reading and partner reading have been used in many successful fluency building programs (Fuchs, Mathes, & Fuchs, 2002; Mathes, Torgesen, & Allor, 2001; Morrow, Kuhn & Schwanenflugel, 2006). Echo reading is a fluency oriented instructional method in which a teacher reads aloud a portion of text, and then one or more students repeat aloud the same portion of text (Paquette & Rieg, 2008). The students are encouraged to look at the text while they are repeating so that they can connect what they are saying with the printed text (Olson, 2011; Rasinski, 2010). Echo reading can be used during peer tutoring sessions when one student takes the lead role and another student takes the echoing role (Mathes et al.).

Two other types of fluency building techniques are partner reading and systematic error correction (Alber-Morgan, Ramp, Anderson, & Martin, 2007; Barbetta, 1993, 1994; Nelson, Alber, & Gordy, 2004). These two methods are quite similar, and both techniques employ what the author of this paper will refer to as the "error correction" method. During the error correction method, a student reads a passage while a teacher or tutor monitors. Each time the student makes a reading error, the teacher or tutor states the correct word. Then, the student repeats the correct word and continues reading the passage. Both partner reading and systematic error correction use this method of monitoring and correcting. However, systematic error correction was researched using teacher and student pairs, while partner reading is generally associated with two students working together. Furthermore, an essential element of partner reading appears to be the switching of roles between reader and monitor (Fuchs et al., 2002; Marr, Algozzine, Nicholson, & Dugan, 2011; McKenna & Stahl, 2009; Morrow et al., 2006).

Using the systematic error correction method, Barbetta (1994) investigated whether a teacher should immediately correct the student, or whether the teacher should record the student's missed words and then assist the student with those words at the end of the passage. Barbetta found that students who received assistance while reading the passage outperformed students who received assistance after finishing the passage. Other authors have added the recommendation that teachers wait a few seconds before giving assistance when students hesitate with a word (Fuchs et al., 2002). This allows the students time to figure out the words on their own.

The techniques of echo reading and those that employ the error correction method have been advocated in educational texts as effective strategies for increasing students' oral reading fluency (McKenna & Stahl, 2009; Rasinski, 2010). However, in these texts, the relative effectiveness of these methods rarely appears to be compared, as if both strategies are equally effective in every situation. Are there specific situations--such as during peer tutoring--when a particular fluency building strategy shows very strong results compared to other strategies? The purpose of this study is to investigate which kinds of fluency building techniques showed the most promising gains for helping tutors increase and maintain their own fluency.



Forty second-grade students from two urban, public schools from the Western United States were chosen to participate as the participants for this study. Thirty-four of the participants (85%) were Latino/a and six (15%) were African American. These students were chosen from a larger pool of students who had received parental permission to participate in the study. The 40 participants were selected because they were struggling readers, as determined by their most recent fluency assessment from the schools' literacy curriculum: Open Court Reading (McGraw-Hill, 2002). These lower performing students were from eight different second-grade classrooms.


The 40 participants were randomly partnered with other second-grade students at their schools. Each pair of students participated in the study's intervention once. The interventions were performed separately in a location on campus away from the students' classrooms, so that other students in the study would not hear the reading of the intervention text prior to their sessions.

Because the tutors in this study were struggling readers, the intervention was specifically designed in two phases: an instruction phase and a peer tutoring phase. During the instruction phase, the author of this study--who is a former second-grade teacher--helped each tutor learn how to read a passage from a second-grade level text that had not yet been introduced to any of the students that year (Archaeologists Dig for Clues: Duke, 1997). After the tutor could read the passage much more proficiently, the tutor assisted his or her partner in reading the passage. During the instruction phase, the tutor's partner was seated on the other side of the room listing to music so as to not hear the reading of the intervention text.

Instruction phase. The instruction phase consisted of activities designed to aid fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. To help with fluency, two techniques were used: echo reading and error correction. The researcher used echo reading in a way that employs a scaffolding approach. On the first attempt with a student, he modeled short phrases of text, with the student echoing after each phrase. This process continued for one paragraph. Then, he and the student re-read the same paragraph, but this time with the researcher modeling longer segments--usually entire sentences. This process of graduated echo reading uses scaffolding because the immediacy of the teacher's support is lessened as the segments become longer. This way of performing echo reading has been supported by Rasinski (2010).

The other fluency technique used during the instruction sessions was error correction. The researcher asked the student to read the passage as best he or she could, and the researcher assisted with any words that the student did not know. As recommended by Barbetta (1994), the researcher provided word reading assistance while the student read the passage. This process was repeated once or twice as the student became more proficient with the reading of the passage. For some students, the researcher began the instruction phase with echo reading, and for other students he began with the error correction method.

In addition to using these two fluency methods during the instruction phase, the researcher also reviewed the meanings of several higher-level words within the passage and spent some time discussing the overall meaning of the passage with the students. Because the ultimate goal of reading is comprehension, it is important to discuss word meaning and overall comprehension with students during fluency practice (Kuhn & Stahl, 2003). With this in mind, the researcher created index cards with six words from the passage and their definitions. He used these cards with the tutors during the instruction phase and allowed the tutors to use the cards during their peer tutoring sessions.

Tutors were told that they were practicing the text so that they would be able to teach it to their peer. The researcher set a goal of 90% fluency accuracy as a benchmark for each student to reach. He continued to work with them until the future tutors had reached this benchmark. However, if a student was not able to reach the benchmark within 15 minutes of instruction, the author ended the instruction phase and the student still proceeded to the peer tutoring phase. At the end of the instruction phase, each tutor's fluency rate for the passage was assessed.

Peer tutoring phase. After each would-be tutor received instruction, the researcher retrieved the tutor's partner and sat the tutee next to the tutor. Each pair of students was videotaped, so that fluency performance and tutoring methods could be analyzed later. Both students were explicitly told which student would be acting as the tutor and which student would be acting as the tutee. Tutors were also given tutoring supplies, such as an extra copy of the passage, a clipboard, a highlighter, and vocabulary word cards.

The researcher asked each tutee to read the same passage that the tutors had just learned. After the tutees read the passage once, the researcher asked the tutors to help their partners improve their reading of the passage. The tutors were reminded that they could utilize the echo reading and error correction techniques, as well as use the vocabulary word cards. At this point, the tutors were free to partake in whatever and in however many activities that they felt were necessary to help their tutees become proficient in reading and understanding the passage. Tutoring sessions continued until the tutors stated that they were finished assisting their tutees. Each tutor was asked to read the passage one more time to determine his or her fluency rate after the peer tutoring phase.

Data Analysis

The videotapes were reviewed to determine which fluency method(s) each tutor used during the peer tutoring phase. For data analysis purposes, the participants were categorized into four groups based on the method that the tutors chose to use during the peer tutoring sessions. The categories were: Tutors who performed both echo reading and error correction with their tutees (group 1), tutors who only performed echo reading (group 2), tutors who only performed error correction (group 3), and tutors who did not use either technique (group 4). The fluency results for these four groups of tutors were then compared using a oneway analysis of variance (ANOVA) with post hoc pairwise comparisons.

A second round of analyses was performed by combining some of these groups and comparing the combined groups using ANOVA. First, groups 1 and 2 were combined to create a group that did perform echo reading (Combined group: Yes echo reading), and groups 3 and 4 were combined to create a group that did not perform echo reading (Combined group: No echo reading). Then, groups 1 and 3 were combined to create a group that did perform error correction (Combined group: Yes error correction), and groups 2 and 4 were combined to create a group that did not perform error correction (Combined group: No error correction).


During the peer tutoring phase, five tutors chose to perform both echo reading and error correction with their tutees (group 1). Nine tutors only performed echo reading (group 2). Fourteen tutors only performed error correction (group 3). Finally, 12 tutors did not perform either method with their tutees (group 4). At the beginning of the peer tutoring phase, tutors who performed both methods (group 1) were reading at 76.6 words per minute (wpm), and by the end of this phase these tutors had improved to 85.4 wpm (see Table 1). Group 2 participants, those who performed only echo reading, also showed improvement from 60.6 wpm to 67.8 wpm. However, the other two groups decreased in fluency during the peer tutoring phase. Group 3, those who only performed error correction, decreased from 74.9 wpm to 72 wpm. Group 4, those who did not perform either method, decreased from 63.3 wpm to 54.4 wpm. The change in fluency scores for these groups was as follows: Group 1 increased 8.6 wpm (standard deviation=4.2), Group 2 increased 7.2 wpm (sd=10.8), Group 3 decreased 2.9 wpm (sd=14.5), and Group 4 decreased 8.9 wpm (sd=14.5). It should be noted that the average fluency scores of all of the would-be tutors had increased from 30 wpm to an average of 68.4 wpm while the tutors worked one-on-one with the researcher during the instruction phase of the intervention. Therefore, the decrease in fluency scores that occurred for some of these groups can be viewed as a failure to maintain the gains that had been previously made during the instruction phase. Conversely, a positive change score can be viewed not only as an increase, but as a maintenance of the gains made during the instruction phase.

Comparing the change in scores for these four groups using ANOVA, a significant difference was found between only two groups: group 2 (only echo reading) and group 4 (neither method); (F=3.7; p< .05). It appears that tutors who used echo reading showed significantly greater improvement than tutors who did not use either method. There was not a significant difference between the improvement of group 3 (only error correction) and group 4 (neither method), which may imply that error correction was a less effective method for these tutors. In addition, there was not a statistically significant difference between the improvement of group 1 (both methods) and group 4 (neither method), however the reason for this was most likely because of the small number of participants in group 1 which will be discussed further in the study limitations section of this paper.

To further explore the differential benefits between echo reading and error correction, the results of the groups were combined based on whether the tutors performed one of these methods or not. There were 14 tutors overall who did perform echo reading (Combined group: Yes echo reading), and they improved an average of 7.7 wpm (sd=8.8). There were 26 tutors who did not perform echo reading (Combined group: No echo reading), and their fluency decreased by 5.7 wpm (sd=14.6). An analysis of variance was performed and a significant difference was found between these groups (F= 9.8; p< .01). Furthermore, there were 20 tutors who did perform error correction (Combined group: Yes error correction), and they improved an average of 0.6 wpm (sd=13.3). There were 20 tutors who did not perform error correction (Combined group: No error correction), and their fluency decreased by 2.5 wpm (sd=15.4). An analysis of variance was performed and no significant difference was found between these groups.


When reviewing these analyses, it can be seen that the one common thread linking the results of significance is the peer tutors' use of echo reading. In the first analysis, the only group that was significantly higher than another group was one of the groups that performed echo reading. In the subsequent two analyses, the only combined group that was significantly higher than another combined group was the one that performed echo reading. It appears that there may be some real benefits to students' fluency improvement from performing echo reading while tutoring peers.

The key to the success of the echo reading method for peer tutors may lie in the combination of modeling and monitoring which is an integral aspect of echo reading. When tutors engage in echo reading, they are performing two tasks. First, they must model the reading of a portion of text. Then, they must monitor their partner while their partner repeats that text. In contrast, the error correction method only requires the tutors to monitor their partners. The modeling of text during echo reading forces the tutors to read the entire passage. Whereas, when tutors use the error correction method, tutors only verbally assist their tutees with the words that their tutees do not know.

It could be that the benefits for the tutors of intense help-giving during echo reading is similar to the findings that Webb (1989) made regarding assist-giving by peer tutors in math. Webb found that tutors who gave detailed explanations to their peers about math problems showed much higher academic growth themselves than tutors who simply told their peers the answers to the problems. Webb and Palinscar (1996) explained these findings by saying that tutors who give explanations are not only clarifying the material to their peers, but they are also clarifying the material for themselves. The tutors are deepening their understanding of the material through the process of explanation giving. Applying this reasoning to the results of this current study, it could be said that the tutors who engaged in echo reading were clarifying the reading material not only for their peers, but also for themselves.

Study Limitations

It should be emphasized that this study only used struggling readers as its participants. The results of this study should not be generalized to non-struggling readers because they may have differing interactions with these methods. It is possible that above average readers may show better improvement using the error correction method than did the below average readers in this study. Future research could use above average as well as below average readers to determine whether echo reading is more beneficial than error correction for both achievement levels.

It should also be noted that this study measured students' fluency improvement on a particular text as opposed to a general improvement in fluency. Future research could use long-term interventions using echo reading during peer tutoring to investigate the potential of this method for the general fluency improvement for struggling readers. For these long term interventions, it would be additionally informative to determine whether these positive results could be replicated if a teacher taught several would-be tutors simultaneously during the instruction phase. This format could add to the practicality of this intervention, as some teachers may have time constraints in providing one-on-one instruction. Future research could also explore whether adult volunteers or older students are capable of effectively preparing the would-be tutors.

One final limitation of this study was the sample size, especially with regard to the few number of participants in one of the groups. By allowing the tutors to choose which method(s) they wished to use, this created the possibility that some groups would have very few participants. When groups have very small numbers of participants, the statistical method loses power. In this study, only five participants chose to use both the echo reading and error correction techniques. Considering that the tutors in this group had the highest fluency increase of all of the groups, it would seem likely that the small sample size was influential as to why this group was not statistically significantly higher than any other group. Future research could include more participants, and ensure that similar numbers of participants use each method.

Conclusion and Implications

Allowing struggling readers the opportunity to help others can be an incredibly effective way for these students to bolster their own reading achievement. This study has added to this knowledge by showing that leading peers in echo reading can be a highly effective way for below average readers to continue improving their reading fluency. Classroom teachers could model echo reading and show their students how to use this method during peer tutoring sessions. Research in the past few decades has shown the benefits of peer tutoring for the tutors themselves. Now this current research has shown that using echo reading may be the most effective method for peer tutors' fluency growth.

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Peter C. Olson, PhD

Bradley University


Peter Olson, PhD, Department of Teacher Education Bradley University, 1501 W. Bradley Ave., Peoria, IL 61625
Table 1 Fluency Rate (words read correctly per minute)

                                 Before         After
                             Peer tutoring   Peer tutoring

Tutoring method used (N)      mean    SD      mean    SD

Group 1 (5)                   76.6   15.6     85.4   12.5
  * Echo reading and error
Group 2(9)                    60.6   33.2     67.8   33.5
  * Echo reading only
Group 3 (14)                  74.9   27.2     72.0   24.2
  * Error correction only
Group 4(12)                   63.3   29.4     54.4   20.3
  * Neither method

Combined groups:
Echo reading yes (14)         66.3   28.6     74.1   28.6
Echo reading no (26)          69.5   28.3     63.8   23.8
Error correction yes (20)     72.7   26.5     73.3   23.9
Error correction no (20)      64.1   29.6     61.6   26.7


Tutoring method used (N)         mean        SD

Group 1 (5)                      8.6        4.2
  * Echo reading and error
Group 2(9)                      7.2 (a)    10.8
  * Echo reading only
Group 3 (14)                    2.9        14.5
  * Error correction only
Group 4(12)                     8.9 (a)    14.5
  * Neither method

Combined groups:
Echo reading yes (14)           7.7 (b)      8.8
Echo reading no (26)           -5.7 (b)     14.6
Error correction yes (20)       0.6         13.3
Error correction no (20)       -2.5         15.4

(a) Groups are significantly different at the p < .05 level

(b) Groups are significantly different at the p < .05 level
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Author:Olson, Peter C.
Publication:Perspectives in Peer Programs
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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