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Reading tutors are helping in Ypsilanti, if only there were more of them

screenshot of computer screen of a tutoring session
LaMya, a 9-year-old student, practices her reading skills with her tutor, Eileen Parker, in March. LaMya is part of a program that pairs trained, volunteer tutors with young students to improve their literacy skills. (Screenshot by Isabel Lohman)
  • A nonprofit in Washtenaw County provides tailored, one-on-one literacy tutoring to elementary school students 
  • The program includes tutor training, student data assessment, customized lesson plans and parent surveys 
  • The program could expand if more people volunteer to be tutors

YPSILANTI—On a Zoom call from home, 9-year-old Delvogier works to put together the different sounds that make up the word “shake.” 

On this Thursday afternoon, the third-grader is practicing his “magic e” — a teaching term for the silent “e” found at the end of words. 

On the other end of the Zoom is tutor Kathe McPhail, a retired business manager and bookkeeper in nearby Ann Arbor. The two have forged a comfortable, even playful relationship through two school years. McPhail has attended one of his school performances. And in one lesson, Delvogier asked her to add an “i” before the word “hop” to spell out IHop, the pancake restaurant chain.


Delvogier’s kindergarten year was disrupted by the pandemic and he spent first grade online. Now, McPhail and his mom, say they feel a sense of urgency to ensure Delvogier makes progress in his reading. 

“I can’t make him advance any faster than he is able to,” McPhail said. “What I’m trying to do every time is give him strategies to attack new words. Because he knows a lot of words, he has a lot of sight words. In some respects, that is wonderful. In some respects, that makes it more difficult when he doesn't know it immediately.”

Delvogier is one of about 50 Ypsilanti Community Schools students who receive free tutoring sessions from the Family Learning Institute (FLI), a nonprofit that focuses on literacy in Washtenaw County. The one-on-one help — in-person or through Zoom — is for students in grades 2-5 who have tested a grade level or more behind in reading skills. 

screenshot of a zoom meeting
The Family Learning Institute pairs trained volunteer tutors with young students who need extra reading support. From left to right, top to bottom, Program Director Caroline Nathans, Tutor Penny Tropman, Tutor Kathe McPhail, Tutor Eileen Parker, Tutor Ronnie Simon, Tutor Terri Ginsburg, Assistant Director Peggy Kahn, Tutor Bob Werner (Screenshot)

The early grades are a critical time for struggling readers. Research shows that students who don’t read at grade level by the end of third grade are far more likely to struggle academically. They are, for instance, four times more likely to not graduate high school on time than other students

The pandemic hasn’t helped. As Bridge Michigan reported last fall, fourth-grade students in Michigan recorded their lowest reading scores in 30 years on national standardized tests. Michigan now ranks 43rd in overall fourth-grade reading.  

Democratic and Republican lawmakers largely agree on the value of intensive, individual or small group tutoring for struggling early readers (even if they differ on how the programs should be funded). But many local school districts have difficulty recruiting people to be tutors

Sharine Buddin, executive director at FLI, the tutoring nonprofit, said her program could expand if only it could find more volunteers. McPhail and other tutors are volunteers. They are trained volunteers, but volunteers nonetheless. And there aren’t nearly enough of them across Michigan. 

Michigan's budget this year provides $72.4 million for early literacy efforts including funds for literacy coaches, additional instruction time and teacher training. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a statewide tutoring plan last May, but the program didn’t receive funding. Though the state does have $25 million for before- and after-school grants and $52 million for learning loss grants. 

screenshot of a tutoring session
Camilla, 9, works with tutor Ronnie Simon to improve her literacy skills. The Family Learning Institute provides free tutoring to elementary school students in Washtenaw County. (Screenshot by Isabel Lohman)

The FLI program is funded by a $185,000 grant from the county using American Rescue Plan funds.

In Ypsilanti, FLI points to some success. They note that many of the students (though less than half) they tutored last school year made up to two years’ progress in the six months the tutoring volunteers worked with them.   

Parents also seem to notice a difference in their children’s reading skills. 

Survey results shared by FLI showed about 65 percent of respondents said they observed “substantial improvement” in their student’s reading over the course of the program during the 2020-2021 school year. Another 30 percent noticed “moderate improvement.”

Many noted their children’s confidence and interest in reading also improved. Delvogier’s mom, Deijah Moore-Jimerson, said he now reads to his five younger siblings and plans to attend summer tutoring. 

“Getting to know them, them getting to know us, it’s almost like they are our little best friends,” she said, referring to McPhail and others at FLI.

But the hour-a-week sessions, while valuable, fall short of high dosage tutoring experts recommend, which typically involves three sessions a week of about 30-60 minutes per day. And while Zoom has its benefits, particularly for families with limited transportation, online sessions can be more challenging for early grade students.   

“I would love to see him do more, but I feel like even with that hour they have so much packed within that hour, that they are making up for not being able to meet more than once a week,” Moore-Jimerson said. 

Caroline Nathans, a reading specialist and director of the FLI-Ypsilanti Schools program, said students learn how the patterns of letters blend together to make different sounds, then use that knowledge to sound out words they haven’t read before. Strategies also involve helping students with content knowledge and small bites of learning tools like the “magic e.” 

This approach is gaining momentum nationally, part of a phonics-based set of practices known as the science of reading, which has been hailed for raising reading scores in traditionally poorly performing schools in places like Mississippi and Washington, D.C.    

Just last week, New York City’s school chancellor announced that local schools in the nation’s largest school system must select one of three evidence-based curriculums for teaching reading, telling The New York Times the city’s previous approach was “fundamentally flawed.”


‘An extra push’

With only an hour a week for students, Nathans said it’s important to be “intentional” and “intensive” in tutoring sessions. Nathans creates customized lesson plans for each student. 

Virtual tutors receive about five hours of training that includes instruction on how children learn to read, how to teach specific reading skills and ways to build student confidence, Nathans said. 

She said she works closely with the principals at Erickson Elementary School and Holmes Elementary in the Ypsilanti district. 

“That level and structure of organization is what makes the tutoring more effective,” Erickson Principal Kelly Mickel told Bridge. 

Mickel said the fact that tutors have an understanding of their students’ reading levels, use intentional lesson plans and work to get to know their students makes a difference. 

Holmes Principal Gregory Anglin said he appreciates that the FLI program is adaptable and “in lockstep with what we’re already doing” to support students’ reading. 

In both schools, students also have access to Reading Corps, a tutoring program staffed by AmeriCorps members, and small group instruction. At Erickson, most of the students enrolled at FLI also get support from one of the in-school programs.  

Anglin, the Holmes principal, said the Family Learning Institute helps students “get that extra push, get that extra one-on-one.”

They wish more students had access. Mickel estimates that an additional 25 to 35 second and third grade Erickson students would qualify if FLI had more volunteers. 

screenshot of tutoring session
Isabella, 9, works with tutor Terri Ginsburg to improve her literacy skills. The Family Learning Institute provides free tutoring to elementary school students in Washtenaw County. (Screenshot by Isabel Lohman)

Scaling up to reach more students 

Efforts to expand tutoring programs have taken on new urgency as educators across the country try to find ways to help students catch up from substantial learning loss during the pandemic.

Michigan schools used federal pandemic relief funds to provide more tutoring, but reporting by Bridge, Chalkbeat Detroit and the Detroit Free Press found that  schools often struggled to find enough staff willing to stay after school to tutor and the state lacked a statewide tutoring strategy to employ the federal funds, unlike several other states. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer first announced a state plan for tutoring a year ago, shortly after our reporting on the lack of statewide strategy. At the time, the program seemed to indicate there would be paid and volunteer tutoring positions. But the initiative didn’t receive funding.


Now, Whitmer is requesting $300 million for the Mi Kids Back on Track program which would provide per pupil funding for “tutoring and academic catch up services,” according to presentation materials from the executive budget proposal.

Mickel, the Erickson principal, said state stipend funds could incentivize school staff and others to tutor students multiple times a week. She said schools already have some funds available for staff but broadening the scope could attract others to the work.  

The Ypsilanti principals said transportation continues to be a barrier for some students, who wouldn’t have a way to get home when after-school tutoring programs wrap up. 

The virtual option helps, Mickel said, but she said online instruction isn’t the same as when it’s in-person. 

Schools could overcome some staffing challenges by building tutoring into the school day, training paraprofessionals to be tutors and using college students who want to become teachers as tutors.

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In this occasional series, we examine the scope of critical worker shortages in 2023, from doctors and police officers to math teachers and social workers. To view more stories in this series click here.

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