March 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Peer, Pair, Perfection!

School librarian Pam Harland (right) runs a robust peer-tutoring program at the Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH. Photo by Mark Giuliucci

School librarian Pam Harland (right) runs a robust peer-tutoring program at
the Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH.
Photo by Mark Giuliucci

Whether listening to others sound out words, explaining how to code in Python, or practicing math facts and Latin declensions, kids teaching other kids is usually a recipe for success. Peer tutoring—the pairing of students to work together academically—gives individualized attention and instruction to kids who are challenged in a particular subject, often in a friendlier, less pressured manner than can be found in the classroom.

The practice is on the rise in school and public libraries, particularly as it can be both cost effective and a tremendous time saver for teachers and librarians. “We’ve found our peer tutoring definitely saves money because teens don’t always need to be paid. In fact, many schools currently want their kids to obtain community service hours to graduate, and formal programs like these can fulfill that requirement,” says Sarah Hill, an information services librarian at Lake Land College in Mattoon, IL, and a former high school librarian at both Fairfield (IL) Community High School and Paris (IL) High School.

While individual kids who need support are the main beneficiaries, peer tutoring can also have benefits on a much larger scale. One example comes from Camelback High School in Phoenix, AZ, an institution that was on the brink of failure, facing instability, high dropout rates, and gang activity. A new principal named Chad Gestson was able to repair Camelback, in part because of an ambitious, library-based peer-tutoring program he put in place in 2009.

Gestson adapted his solution from a program at the Peer Power Foundation ( in Memphis, TN, which included on-the-job training and close supervision from teachers and paid lead tutors. The peer tutors worked one-on-one with their fellow students in the library before and after school, during lunchtime, and on Saturday mornings, while the nonprofit organization Social Venture Partners of Arizona (SVPZ) lent financial support.

The result was nothing short of transformative. Camelback students revived their school’s culture and improved its academic record. This peer tutoring has since been developed into a case study called Success Is Mandatory; SVPZ is in the process of determining how to continue Camelback’s progress as well as replicate the program at other high schools. Meanwhile, Gestson has been named director of school leadership for the Phoenix Union High School District, where he’ll continue his work overseeing 16 schools, principals, and leadership training.

Broadly, peer-tutoring sessions may focus on teaching new concepts, reviewing old ones, leading a project, or discussing a troublesome problem set. Every academic subject is open to peer tutoring, as well as ELL/ESL and tech training. Here’s what librarians have to say about the benefits of peer tutoring, the nuts and bolts of their programs, why training is so important, and how to steer the process.

The benefits

Peer tutoring not only gets kids the help they need, but it also ups their self-confidence, says Pam Harland, a librarian at Sanborn Regional High School (SRHS) in Kingston, NH, and other librarians. Those students doing the teaching reinforce their own knowledge as they instruct. Having students tutor their peers on the finer points of a particular subject also frees up librarians to focus on information literacy skills across the disciplines, says Harland, whose library-based program has been in place for three years. Some students run a technology help desk, and others assist groups of students with video production and 3-D printing. All of that means “offering better tech services for the whole school,” she says.

At SRHS, it takes about 20 hours of training to get students up and running and able to tutor others, says Harland, who had five teen tutors last year. “The only costs are the time it takes for me to train our students on these new skills and to work with them on presentation skills,” she adds. “The benefits of being able to offer additional services and to empower these student peers are exponential.”

Peer tutoring also appeals to library staff and the wider community because of the connected or informal learning that often takes place, Hill says. Plus, there are certain scenarios where only a kid can make something clear to another kid. “A peer may be able to explain an algebra problem better or in a different way than a teacher—and by changing the way something is laid out, a lightbulb just might pop on in the student’s brain and the struggle to understand the problem is over,” says Terri Grief, a librarian at McCracken County High School (MCHS) in Paducah, KY, and former American Association of School Librarians president.


Success stories

For Robbie Nickel, a librarian at Sage Elementary School (SES) in Spring Creek, NV, a major reward is that kids come away confident in their abilities.

Her school has a tutoring program focused on reading that matches kindergartners with fourth graders, as well as a reading buddies initiative, encompassing students up to age 12, that meets once a month. “The older students help the younger students with reading, writing, and projects in the computer lab,” she says. “Kids in the reading buddy program visit the library more than ever, and their teachers say they really feel empowered because they participate,” says Nickel. (Also see: “The Buddy System: Everyone Gains When Kids Read Together.”

Training sessions for the SES fourth and fifth grade tutors take about an hour, Nickel says, and then those students train others. “With ongoing supervision, the program basically runs itself,” she adds. The supervising teacher and librarian keep in touch if adjustments are needed.

Hill has seen relationships between her high school tutors and tutees last long-term. “In one case, a pair was together for two years—effectively improving the understanding of math for both of them,” she says. At a high school where she worked, a National Honor Society sponsor trained the tutors and paired them with students, she explained; the school librarian supervised the tutoring and helped when needed.

Grief’s school has two types of programs. “We have the paid, after-school type of tutor who offers homework help in the most requested subjects—math and chemistry—and the others are volunteers who help in the special education resource rooms,” she says. Pairings include football players who help kids with Down syndrome both academically and physically (they go out and toss a ball around after lessons).

Grief has six 11th and 12th grade tutors working mostly with ninth graders in math, science, social studies, and English. Money for those tutors who are paid comes from the school’s Extended School Services funds.

Learners can benefit from a variety of tutors, Grief adds. Offering a tutor with an alternate teaching style can help when students need to review material. “With a different tutor, they don’t feel embarrassed that they didn’t get it the first time.”

Four Peer
Tutoring Models

Schools use these four models the most, according to the Council for Learning Disabilities.

Class-wide | This strategy divides kids of varying abilities into small groups of two to five. Kids teach each other, following a set schedule of work, or collaborate as a team on a group project.

Cross-age | Older students are paired with younger ones, with the older child acting as the “expert” to teach her peer how to listen well in the classroom and develop good study habits.

Reciprocal | Alternating is the name of the game here, with kids switching back and forth between the roles of tutor and tutee. Students are given a format to follow or may develop the material themselves.

Same-age | Kids who are within a year or two of each other’s age are matched to review subjects together. Students may be of the same ability level or differing ones, and the roles may alternate, as with the reciprocal method.

Getting started

Helping kindergartners choose library books, stepping in to troubleshoot new technology, or fulfilling a request for extra help from a teacher are just some of the ways peer-tutoring programs can get off the ground. Grief says a plea from the AP chemistry instructor was her impetus. “He knew that some great students were struggling and could use extra help, so we incorporated it in our afterschool hours in the library.”

But an official request isn’t always necessary, as demonstrated at Harland’s high school. “Ours started off informally, but then developed into an actual class last year,” she notes. “We had students who were interested in our 3-D printer, and they were willing to check on the printer before and after school, as well as during lunch.” Students started off by unclogging extruders, fixing files that wouldn’t print accurately, and working with other students to create multidimensional files. After that first year, SRHS decided to offer credit to these eager students and ended up scheduling them to answer technology questions and serve as a first line of tech support for the entire school.

Getting students up to speed is important for a peer-tutoring program to work. Librarians recommend that the first subject students should be briefed on is confidentiality. Discussing another person’s academic progress outside the confines of a tutoring session isn’t appropriate. Next, suggest that tutors use a written script to facilitate their lessons. Librarians and subject teachers should also instruct tutors on how to provide feedback, both constructive criticism and praise.

When choosing prospective tutors, it’s not always enough for them to be fluent in a particular subject. Teachers and their partner librarians may want to look to kids who work hard and have a positive attitude, as well. Compatibility and social skills—which could include good listening abilities, along with being friendly, outgoing, polite, and empathetic—are also worth seeking out. Monitoring tutors and tracking their progress is also beneficial.

“Not every kid with good grades and high test scores ends up being an effective tutor,” Hill notes. At SRHS, “We opened up the program to anyone last year, and one of the student tutors turned out to be a poor communicator,” says Harland. “In the future, we’ll make interviewing a part the selection.” Grief echoes this sentiment. “Once in a while we’ll get a peer tutor who is so smart that he can’t explain the subject—it’s just too easy for him, and he’ll hurry through the details,” she says. In this case, a new pairing is in order.

Staying on track

Depending on the scope of tutoring and ages involved, it can take trial and error, plus time and effort on the part of teachers and administration to get a good program up and running. Sometimes procedures need modifying midstream, due to factors that might include a pair who don’t get along, scheduling issues, or a need to move more quickly, or slowly, with the material.

Nickel and Hill stress the importance of monitoring and training tutors for optimal success. Having tutors track progress and document the lessons is also useful for teachers and librarians. “We do training on how to keep accurate records since there’s a required report at the end of the school year,” says Grief. One of the best ways to train peer tutors is by partnering with an organization, recommends Hill. “A school library might bring in a Title I or Special Education teacher to provide the training, or a public or academic library could partner with the person in charge of the tutoring program at a local school,” as she did. Once teen leaders are trained and experienced, they become the experts who train new peer recruits.

Assessing the needs of the student population and determining the available resources—space, money, equipment—are among the important considerations. Financial considerations might involve payment for tutors (particularly at the high school age), and paying to open up the space when school isn’t normally in session. One long-term bonus: the experience can be especially appealing to those kids who think they may want to become teachers. While “the students who receive tutoring love seeing their test scores and grades go up,” Grief says, “working as a peer tutor gives students a little taste of what academic life is like.”

Geddes-Jennifer-Kelly_ContribEditor Jennifer Kelly Geddes is a New York City mom of two who writes regularly for and Highlights.

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