A perfect storm precipitated a surge in need for tutoring in Delaware, particularly literacy-based, says Caroline O’Neal, chief executive officer of Reading Assist, an agency that partners with schools throughout the state to support students scoring in the lowest percentile for reading proficiency.
First, of course, there was the pandemic. “This set students back in terms of access to educational resources, particularly the students we work with: We prioritize low-income students, minorities and English-language learners,” O’Neal explains.
On almost the same timeline, there was new research surfacing about “high-dosage tutoring,” defined as one-on-one or small-group tutoring, multiple times a week.
“Many agencies throughout the country have been doing high-dosage tutoring, Reading Assist included, for quite some time—decades, even—but not on a national scale,” O’Neal says. “But this new literature was showing, ‘Hey, this is really effective, and we are at a time when we are hit by lots of learning loss.’”
Third was the amplified voice of education journalist Emily Hanford, whose podcast, Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong, premiered in 2022.
“Here’s a case where the conversation—the science of reading—had been happening, but not in this national way,” O’Neal says. “The central question was, ‘Why are so many American children struggling to read?” Statistics show 1 in 3 American fourth graders read below a basic level; O’Neal adds that children who are not reading on a grade-appropriate level by third grade are five times more likely to drop out of school.
Hanford’s work exposed that how U.S. children are taught to read—often with context clues rather than understanding letter sounds, how they blend to make a word and how that word connects to meaning—conflicts with cognitive science.
“We can see from the test scores that Delaware students are struggling, which isn’t unique,” O’Neal adds. “But I’m encouraged by what Delaware has done that is unique: ushered three education bills into law.”
House Bill 304 requires that students undergo three reading screenings per year; Senate Substitute 1 for Senate Bill 4 requires the state Department of Education (DOE) to maintain and publish a list of evidence-based, K through 3 reading instruction curricula; and Senate Bill 195 requires the state DOE to develop and maintain evidence-based media literacy standards, including healthy online behavior, for K through 12.
This approach ensures the science of reading guides literacy learning, starting in teacher prep programs.
But not all children learn the same. Chase Luoma was one of those kids. “He could say his ABCs,” says mom Sarah Luoma. “But it was clear Chase could not read.”
A first-grade assessment put Chase at a zero-grade reading level. “Nobody wants to hear that,” Luoma says. “But at least we knew where to start.”
Chase was matched with a Reading Assist fellow (aka tutor), who began working with him in first grade.
“What we loved so much about this tutoring was the one-on-one learning,” Luoma says. “Every child learns differently. Chase having this intentional time set apart for him a few times a week in his school day was critical not only to his learning but his confidence.”
So impressed with the progress and growth in her son, including non-page victories like excitement around reading, Luoma has hired Reading Assist tutors for holiday breaks and summers. “The constant updates, the reading recommendations, the learning model, which works with and not against what’s going on at our school…thanks to Reading Assist, we are tiptoeing near a place where we might not need them anymore.”
It’s not just the literacy side of learning that has parents looking for help. Lindsay Bouvy, a former teacher turned tutor based in Middletown, focuses on science and math. A tutor for more than 15 years in subjects ranging from college calculus to third-grade math, Bouvy says she’s never seen a greater need for her services than the last few years.
“It makes sense, as these children missed out on those foundational skills as they were in kindergarten and first grade when the pandemic hit,” she points out.
Now with two populations to serve—high school and elementary—Bouvy is having to turn students away for the first time.
She’s observed some trends in her younger students. “They are are struggling to close those pandemic deficits much more than my high-school students,” she says.
Bouvy is also getting more students as immersion programs in public schools grow more popular. “I don’t think it has anything to do with how the child is learning math,” she says. “But the students learn math in Spanish and take their MAP [Measure of Academic Progress] tests in English. Something is lost in translation.”
While a student like Chase might present obvious signs that extra help is needed, not all children present such an explicit case.
Is homework time in your household fraught? Does your child’s anxiety level kick up on test days? Do you see diminishing test scores? Is your child’s mood around a particular school subject foul? Is your student saying, ‘I can’t do this’? These could signal that a student needs extra help, Bouvy says.
Asking for that help isn’t always easy. Luoma offers simple advice: “Ask the questions. Loudly,” she says. “If you have a sense something isn’t clicking, ask. Ask the teacher, the principle, the guidance counselor, the secretary, the gym teacher—someone in your school that you trust—what they see, and be prepared to receive the information.”
O’Neal suggests parents advocate by asking for a data dump. “Every MAP test, ask to not only see the results, but truly have your educator explain the results to you, as well as the benchmarks,” she says. “Parents have a lot of power in the schools, and the schools, at least in the last few years, are more open to these conversations.”
She also asks parents listen to their gut. “If you’re told, ‘If he’s not where we need by third grade, we’ll talk about intervention,’ do not accept that,” she says. “Putting off intervention makes your child’s struggle even more difficult.”
At what point does a parent decide to end their child’s tutoring? Luoma isn’t quite there, but she says a recent moment brought home just how much progress Chase has made since he began his tutoring four years ago.
At a family dinner, Chase cracked open a fortune cookie.
“This wasn’t one of those easy ‘You will have a good day’ fortunes,” Luoma says. “This was one of those wild long ones. And he took it out, read it, looked at us and said, ‘I just read that,’ with such wonder. That was a moment.”