Teacher Talk: Building Natural Peer Supports

Young students in computer class

This post was written by Nicole Gallagher, M.Ed., Conroe Independent School District

The song that comes to mind when I think of peer tutoring is “With a Little Help from my Friends” by the Beatles. We all need help from our friends from time to time. The use of peer support in my inclusive classroom is truly more beneficial than any other strategy.  Although, it is not a strategy I use as often as I should I must admit.  Sometimes I truly forget that I am not alone in my classroom. I have students that are ready and willing to help other people to understand the day’s tasks. Peer tutoring is not only beneficial to my struggling students, but also to my students that master concepts quickly.

“To teach is to learn twice.”

Joseph Joubert

When my students help someone else, they are able to grasp a deeper understanding of the concepts and begin to take their learning to new levels. They may be able to complete assignments at the upper levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy instead of only at the comprehension or application level.

When I am making the decision to use a strategy during my instruction, it is important to me that I clearly understand what it will look like in my classroom. In addition, I always plan ahead in order to have a smooth implementation. I am not sure how I originally came to use peer tutoring in my classroom, but in recent research I found that The Center for Collaboration and Practice describes peer tutoring as a way for all students to get one-on-one help and enough time to practice and learn. This is most effective when each student in the class is paired with another, not only the ones that struggle. I have found peer tutoring to be particularly successful in this way. I typically ask my students to use shoulder partners. I often make the seating chart so that students are strategically placed where they can have a peer tutor that adequately meets their needs.

What does the research say about peer tutoring? In reviews of peer tutoring programs, by the National Education Association, researchers found:

  • When students participated in the role of reading tutor, improvements in reading achievement occurred. (I have seen improvements in this area especially in regards to fluency. When a student hears fluent reading it can help him or her begin to read more fluently.)
  • When tutors were explicitly trained in the tutoring process, they were far more effective and the students they were tutoring experienced significant gains in achievement. (Peer tutoring is similar to other procedures. It needs to be practiced and the students need to know exactly what it will look like in the classroom.)
  • Most of the students benefited from peer tutoring in some way, but same-age tutors were as effective as cross-age tutors (Burnish, Fuchs & Fuchs, 2005; Topping, 2008). (My school only has two grade levels, so the availability of cross-age tutors is minimal. I witnessed the effectiveness of same-age tutoring in my classroom with a variety of reading levels.)

The general process of implementing a peer tutoring lesson is the following:

  1. The teacher trains students on the process of peer tutoring and strategies for fulfilling their role of tutor or tutee.
  2. The teacher assigns partners.
  3. Students retrieve their tutoring materials prepared by the teacher.
  4. Students follow a highly structured tutoring procedure, in which tutors present material previously covered by the teacher, and provide feedback to the tutee.
  5. Students switch roles after the teacher’s signal. The tutee becomes the tutor.
  6. The teacher circulates around the room, monitoring and providing feedback.

Mrs. Gallagher’s Process

  1. Train the students on the process of peer tutoring emphasizing the difference between the roles for tutor and tutee.
  2. Practice these roles for several class periods using material that both the tutor and tutee have previously mastered.
  3. Create materials and procedures for the current tutoring session.
  4. Assign partners based on the current material to best benefit both tutors and tutees.
  5. Circulate around the room, making adjustments as needed.
  6. Debrief after each session to make any changes for the future sessions.

By creating a process that I put into place I can ensure that peer tutoring is effective in my classroom.

The Inclusive Schools Network (ISN) is a web-based educational resource for families, schools and communities that promotes inclusive educational practices. The ISN Team works to encourage, embolden, and empower people to design and implement effective inclusive schools.

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