Do secondary students need one-to-one tuition to catch up, or can they be taught in groups?

The answer is, both – depending on how far behind they are.

Groups can be an effective format for teaching if four conditions are met:

  1. The students are all working at much the same level;
  2. The students are not a long way behind;
  3. The content to be taught is limited and clearly defined;
  4. The programme of teaching has been carefully designed to ensure efficient coverage and long-term retention.

Groups are NOT appropriate where:

  1. Students are a long way behind expectations;
  2. The students’ needs are disparate;
  3. Students need to work on a number of different strands of reading skills at the same time;
  4. Motivation is a serious issue.

In other words, the question is not either/or. It is: which format is most appropriate for which students? This is why we advocate for a detailed screening programme in schools, so that students can be matched to interventions with a high degree of confidence. It is all too common to see students in a group focused on decoding, for example, when their primary need is to improve their comprehension; or for a student in a paired reading intervention to be asked endless comprehension questions while decoding errors are not given sufficient attention.

It is essential to know how far behind the students are: not because this tells us how they should be grouped (it doesn’t), but because if students are reading significantly behind – i.e. three years or more – then they are likely to have their own individual patterns of knowledge gaps. This diversity creates too much variation in the class for the teacher to target all needs systematically. As one team of researchers put it:

“This difficulty, to find robust responses to intervention, may not be surprising in view of the atypical educational histories of older learners and the heterogeneity of their backgrounds and skill deficits.” (Calhoun, Scarborough and Miller, 2013, cited in Hempenstall, 2017.)

Diverse needs

What happens when we allocate students to group interventions when they have very different gaps in their reading knowledge? For example, Student A has difficulties with following analogies, tracking the development of the main idea, and making inferences that require thinking outside of the text. She has a small number of sound-spelling gaps and she can decode text at a level only slightly below that of her same-age peers.

Student B, on the other hand, can follow arguments, picks up analogies and inferences quickly, and has quite strong general knowledge to support his comprehension. However, ‘getting words off the page’ is difficult for him, and he can only decode text at a level about five years behind his peers – despite being quite as capable of contributing constructively to class discussions.

Clearly, these students need to be in entirely different lessons.

Let’s take another example. Student C is decoding well behind, and needs teaching and repeated practice with a large number of different sound-spelling combinations to be able to accurately read new text in his curriculum lessons. Student D, also decoding well behind, needs to learn a similar number of combinations – but 75% of these are different from Student C’s. Whose gaps should the teacher focus on teaching? If he tries to teach all the gaps for both students, he will have to teach many different sound-spelling combinations – and each student will have to sit through lessons where they are already secure with much of the content.

It is very common for students with reading difficulties to have their own unique patterns of gaps in sound-spelling knowledge. It is therefore more efficient for these students to cover the material required in one-to-one lessons than in groups – and it is only with this efficiency that students will be able to catch up completely.

Rate of catch-up

This brings us to the issue of the rate of catch-up. The average effect size for group interventions in reading is about 0.25, which is considered educationally significant. Careful assessment prior to placement, and strong attention to fidelity of delivery, can improve this, but it is too low to bring about complete catch-up for most struggling readers. Even with a well-designed group programme, for example Engelmann’s Corrective Reading Decoding, the effect size in the research comes out at around 0.5 – 0.6, which is regarded (depending on who you talk to) as substantial – equivalent to up to a year’s progress. (See, for example, Stockard et al 2018.) That is very good – but it is still not enough.

The rate described above would mean that a student who is two years behind is likely, on average, to take two years to catch up completely. That is a long time to be in intervention. But what if the student is three years behind? They will need to be in intervention for three years – assuming that the materials and lessons are available. They will either need to miss out on a large chunk of curriculum, or they will never catch up. And for students who are further behind, the gap is even harder to bridge.

So, students who are well behind (three or more years) need individualised programmes that are efficient in coverage, teaching only what the student doesn’t know, ensuring that they remember what they covered, and which catch them up at a much faster rate. Camilli, Vargas and Yurecko (2003) calculated that phonics, combined with word study and effective one-to-one tuition, was three times more powerful than phonics alone. That is why, for students who are three or more years behind, they will need one-to-one teaching.

For senior leaders deciding on how to invest resources in literacy interventions, the implications are clear:

  1. Have a screening system that enables you to match students to the most appropriate interventions;
  2. Make sure that only students who really need intervention are targeted;
  3. Offer group intervention for those who will benefit from it;
  4. Provide well-designed, high-impact one-to-one intervention for those who need it.


Calhoon, M.B., Scarborough, H.S., & Miller, B. (2013). Interventions for struggling adolescent and adult readers: instructional, learner, and situational differences. Reading and Writing, 26, 489–494. Cited in Hempenstall, K. (2017) Older Students’ Literacy Problems. Retrieved from

Camilli, G., Vargas, S., & Yurecko, M. (May 8, 2003). Teaching Children to Read: The fragile link between science and federal education policy. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 11(15).

Stockard, J., Wood, T., Coughlan, C., & Khoury, C. R. (2018) The Effectiveness of Direct Instruction Curricula: A Meta-Analysis of a Half Century of Research. Review of Educational Research Month 201X, Vol. XX, No. X, pp. 1–29.

You may also be interested in:

How to save time and money through screening

Building on the Evidence

How to find out what works in ‘What Works?’

You have to make faces at it!