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Published January 18, 2022


A school learns from GSE summer project and adopts a reading program with a new approach

As a new tutor with special training to help young students with their reading, Graduate School of Education student Gabrielle Consing was surprised to see how grouping students according to their skill level and then reading stories between short lessons helped everyone feel excited about learning.

Image of Gabrielle Consing.

Gabrielle Consing, GSE mental health counseling master's student.

“The more that you spend time with a child, the more they open up,” said Consing, who is enrolled in GSE’s mental health counseling master’s program. “I think that the more I was able to connect with them, the more they looked forward to it. They were just more into what the material was.”

Consing was one of 11 graduate students hired to work as a tutor for a new GSE program piloted in the summer of 2021. She and the others trained for a week and then joined the four-week summer school program, with about 180 students in kindergarten through fifth grade at the Charter School for Applied Technologies in the Town of Tonawanda. Designed around a “differentiation” approach, the program tailors instruction to the needs of young readers learning during the pandemic’s school disruptions.

“It allows us to push the students who are above level, and help get the students who are below level on level again … It’s about meeting students where they are,” said Madeleine Fierstein, assistant principal at the school.

John Strong and Blythe Anderson, assistant professors in GSE’s Department of Learning and Instruction, led the summer tutoring program. They employed an approach Strong learned from his doctoral advisor at the University of Delaware, Sharon Walpole, professor in UD’s School of Education.

While traditional instruction often focuses on matching children with books that fit their reading level, the differentiation approach, as adapted by Strong and Anderson, has two stages:

  • First, young readers are assessed to see what area needs addressing—alphabet knowledge, word decoding ability, overall reading fluency or comprehension. Based on the assessment, children are placed in one of 10 groups.
  • When the groups meet, students focus on the mechanics they need to improve on, like understanding the names of the letters and sounds. In the summer program, they also read or listen to children’s books with the tutors.

The pilot program was a resounding success. Graduate students taught daily reading lessons so effectively that most of the young learners passed their reading assessments. Students improved so much in such a short period that, at the school’s request, GSE professors trained the charter school’s teachers to use the method and its targeted lessons year-round.

“The school was very pleased with our tutors who showed up every day and did the work,” said Strong. “We’d like to continue with this model, with other schools and districts, as we continue to build new partnerships.”

As Consing used this approach last summer, her students seemed especially interested in practicing their reading skills. Students loved reading Christopher Paul Curtis’ book, “The Watsons go to Birmingham,” which tells the story of a fictional Black family’s road trip to Alabama during the civil rights movement.

It was particularly gratifying to Consing after one child visited the library and proudly reported, “Miss Gabbie, I actually borrowed this book.”

As Consing worked with about 20 third and fifth grade students, some told her they hoped she would come to teach them again this school year. When she explained she was studying to become a mental health counselor at a college or university, they then told her they wanted to come to the University at Buffalo to work with her.

She knew they didn’t completely understand her career goals, but their interest confirmed how much they enjoyed reading and learning together. “When you’re supported through your primary years, it promotes you wanting to have a good future,” Consing said.

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