Research School Network: How we designed a peer tutoring programme It’s all about the quality of the interaction


How we designed a peer tutoring programme

It’s all about the quality of the interaction

by Shotton Hall Research School
on the

What’s the issue?

Many pupils come to secondary school unable to read well enough to access the curriculum, which hampers their transition from learning to read to reading to learn.

Last term, I described how we used detailed one-to-one diagnostic assessments with Y7 pupils in our trust schools. Through this process, we found that pupils had various difficulties, but fluency was the most significant barrier for around 80% of struggling readers.

Fluent readers swiftly and effortlessly say the words on the page with appropriate expression; they read in a similar way to how people speak. Fluency acts as a bridge between word recognition and comprehension. Until pupils are fluent, most of their mental effort is directed at lifting the words of the page rather than making meaning.

What are we doing about it?

Having closely studied the evidence on peer tutoring and reading fluency, we have worked with our seven secondary schools to develop a peer reading programme where older pupils read with struggling readers.

Part of our decision to implement a peer tutoring model is the existing evidence in its favour. On a much more pragmatic level, our Trust legion of Reading Ambassadors’ will allow school leaders to divert their most precious resource – their staff – to more specialist interventions.

Investing in quality

Many secondary schools have some form of reading scheme where older pupils support younger ones, but getting the most from peer tutoring is far more complex than pairing an older student with a younger student and asking them to read.

There are many dimensions of quality, but the overarching one is simple: we need to maximise the quality of the interaction between the tutor and tutee.

The right pupils

Peer tutoring comes in many different forms. We had three main considerations in selecting pupils.

  1. We want our tutees to be pupils struggling with their reading – especially reading fluency and without difficulties. These pupils mainly need some focused practice to develop their reading, which is ideal for peer tutoring.
  2. We want our tutors to be elite; we thought carefully about how we selected and trained them. Tutors need to be good enough at reading, but we think it is probably more important to bring the right attitude to the approach. Jeff Li’s reflections on peer tutoring to support maths are that the best tutors were empathetic, kind, patient and took the time to truly understand the other student’s misunderstanding’.
  3. Lots of research has analysed the optimal dynamics for tutors. Ultimately, we think the knowledge of the teachers who know the year group well is invaluable. Still, we also plan to actively build a strong relationship between the tutor and tutee.


The tutor is the intervention, so we must ensure they are well prepared for their role. We have done this through some upfront training with follow-up training to troubleshoot issues and deepen understanding.

Before focusing on the more technical aspects of reading, we began by thinking about how to build a strong relationship. We drew on Anthony Bryk’s work on relational trust and Ryan and Deci’s self-determination theory. Still, the guiding rule was we wanted our tutors to empathise with their tutees, show compassion and commit to a shared goal of improvement.

Of course, being nice is necessary but not sufficient for great peer tutoring. Our next focus was how to maximise the quality of the interaction. We helped our tutors to understand more about how reading develops and to recognise the different challenges pupils may face, including issues with accuracy, tracking across the page and reading speed.

We have also trained tutors to understand how they can give more support and challenge through questioning, modelling, chunking, repeating, encouraging and correcting.

We continue refining the most helpful ways to think about these quality interactions.

Text quality

So far, we have got the right people doing the right things, but a missing ingredient is the quality of the texts. As Tom has described, it is surprising how often this is left to chance in previous evaluations of peer tutoring approaches.

As a rule of thumb, fiction texts lend themselves well to the performative aspects of fluency. Still, non-fiction texts are perfect for developing the background knowledge required for effective comprehension. We wanted mainly non-fiction texts written in a style that lends to narrative or includes structures, such as repetition and rhyming, to aid fluency.

Our experience tells us that such texts are, quite frankly, like hens’ teeth. We have taken the plunge and created our own so that we can be confident the texts have a suitable level of challenge and cover engaging topics while also developing a wider knowledge of the world.

More reading

A fundamental insight about our programme is that it is additional learning time. We think that struggling readers need to simply spend more time reading. Even though it’s designed to support the broader curriculum, no pupils are taken from lessons.

We have opted to run the programme during registration time and ideally twice a week; as with all aspects of the programme, we are keeping this under review as there is no perfect option.


Finally, the intervention needs great leadership. Like the tutors, the teachers need an iterative, evidence-informed programme of professional development. Critically, teachers need to understand the programme’s key features so they can implement it effectively and tailor it to their local context. This ranges from the fundamentals of having the right environment and routines to granular ways that leaders can maximise the quality of interactions.

We are now finalising tools and processes to support effective self-evaluation and quality assurance. Our overarching goal is to ensure that leaders get timely and actionable insights to make the most of the programme for their pupils. Leaders will have a range of indicators of quality.

Get in touch if you want to know more about our work – especially if you have suggestions to improve it.

More from the Shotton Hall Research School

Show all news

This website collects a number of cookies from its users for improving your overall experience of the site.Read more