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TNLI: Action Research: Professional Development: Cross-age Peer Tutoring & Service Learning

Forming a Connection Within the Traditional Elementary School

by Joseph Gottschalk and Joseph Rafter
November 1999

Research Questions

  • Which cross-age peer tutoring strategies for reading and other literacy skills might be the most effective for fifth graders to use with a third grade ESL class?
  • Would we, as team teachers be able to find time to collaborate and plan joint lessons?
  • How might the administrators of our school assist or impede our plans?
  • How might our study influence other teachers in the school?

Over a period of six months, Joe Rafter's fifth grade students' used various cross-age peer tutoring strategies for teaching reading to Joe Gottschalk's third grade English language learners at an elementary school in one of the outer boroughs of New York City. Besides building intrinsic motivation, we believed that increased social competence established through social and working relationships among students could be beneficial for the younger English language learners (the tutees) as well as for their older tutors. We examined the theories and guiding principles of multiage education, service learning, and the projects approach of utilizing thematic cooperative groups in our investigation of cross-age peer tutoring.


  • Field logs
  • Analytic notes
  • Grade 5 response journals,
  • Taped audio interviews with the third graders

Data and Analysis
Data we collected consisted of student work, standardized tests, and a literacy assessment. Our analysis concerned itself with student achievement, affective change and learning, and the effects on teachers teaching. Spring '99 Language Assessment Battery (LAB) scores for the third graders showed increases over last year's scores. Nine students out of the 28 had scores exceeding the 41st percentile, and will be attending general education fourth grade classes next year. Spring '99 Early Childhood Literacy Assessment System (ECLAS) testing showed 2-3 mastery level increases in each of the four essential literacy strands. Another area of increased second language acquisition for the third graders was the enhancement of their speaking and listening skills in English. For all of our students, feeling like a successful teacher or learner seemed in itself to be a positive outcome. The individualized nature of instruction may have also been the cause of these feelings. As the school year progressed, we eventually turned more learning responsibility over to the children and allowed them to make decisions affecting what they and their tutees would learn. In addition, there were many models of learning available in the classroom for the students to see and imitate.

Policy Implications
Teachers cannot act on their own to institute programs such as the one we have attempted with our students. Enlightened administrators, both superintendents and principals, are desperately needed to assist teachers interested in establishing multiage programs in their schools. School management issues include those of time, organization, and facilities. Leadership issues involve the principal's role, reorganizing the staff, and professional development concerns such as how to deal with new ideas presented by staff and site-specific training. The public relations aspect of instituting a new program means that information needs to be provided and access allowed and the principal, along with the teachers must explain, answer questions, and defend the new program to parents and the community.

On the district and state levels, funds need to be made available for the type of collegial work we envision teachers doing in the future. Funding would also make it more possible for teachers to have time to plan activities during the school day as well as to find teacher specialists and artists-in-residence to enrich a project-based, interdisciplinary program design.

We never managed to integrate the administrators of our school into our project this year, so we can't say whether or not they assisted or impeded what we did. Schedule changes or substitute teacher coverages from our supervisor was never requested. Classroom space requirements were improvised on the spot. Any additional materials needed, such as stationery items or arts and crafts supplies were either supplied by us or the students. After the fact, in June, we conferenced with our principal, described what we had accomplished this year, and requested common preparation periods for next year so that we could continue our work. (Our presentation was received warmly.)

It might have been nice to involve parents more as well. The fifth graders' parents baked cookies and provided drinks for our holiday party, but were never asked to join us during the tutoring sessions, as either guest speakers, readers, or teachers. A mistake we made was in not asking their permission to use their children's work until the project was nearly over. What would have happened if we had requested consent slips before starting? Would some parents have denied us the rich resource of their children's work? Would some of the fifth grade parents have thought we were wasting their children's instructional time by having them work with third graders?

As far as influencing other teachers at our school, we think a few of the younger teachers who came by to watch us were impressed by what we were doing, especially when we began the mini-courses, but there is no evidence that anyone on the staff has instituted a similar multiage or service education program. However, we have recruited a first grade teacher to join us next year in order to build upon what we have accomplished so far.

The strategies we introduced to our students evolved over time. Throughout the school year, we read research on multiage peer tutoring and discovered more varied approaches to teaching and learning than the ones with which we began. Our initial plan of one-on-one tutorials evolved into a project-based, cooperative group model of teaching and learning. We started by simply having the grade 3 ESL students create key vocabulary word banks on neon-colored index cards. By the end of our six months together, we had progressed to the point of having the older students create 3 week "mini-courses" on various topics for the younger students.

A Brief Vignette

Inspired by the teaching method described in Sylvia Ashton-Warner's 1963 book, Teacher, we decided to have the grade 3 ESL students create key vocabulary word banks on neon-colored index cards. Each third grader started by simply writing 3 words on 3 cards. The hope was that each child would build their reading and writing vocabulary in English week by week with their own collections of words. Ashton-Warner called the organic words of her Maori students in New Zealand "captions" to the inner pictures in the child's mind. The fifth graders' charge as tutors was to make sure that their younger peers could read and spell the words, and then create sentences by combining the words with other parts of speech. Our hope was that the word banks of the third graders would rapidly grow and at the same time generate greater enthusiasm for learning because of the self-selected, personal meaning of the new vocabulary words. The word cards were kept in a manila folder along with the subsequently written pages of sentences.

Karen, a fifth grader, wrote in her journal:

I'm teaching an 8 year old how to read. It's fun but not too easy. Emanuel picked easy words but there was something bothering me. Was he going to learn how to trust me and Alma? I hope so because he doesn't have to be afraid. Just because we're older doesn't mean we didn't go through the same thing they're going through. I mean some fifth graders went through the same thing (11/6/98).


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