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The IERI Research Community :: Projects

Scaling Up Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies to Strengthen Reading Achievement

Doug Fuchs

Kristen McMaster, Laura Saenz, Mark Berends, Loulee Yen


Background: Because federal legislation like No Child Left Behind has increased accountability in the public schools, many educators are interested as never before in identifying research-based practices and determining how to effectively take those practices to scale. This requires finding effective ways to nurture appropriate use and sustainability across classrooms, schools, and even districts.

Purpose: The purpose of this project is to examine issues surrounding the scaling-up of a research-validated reading practice, Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS), by investigating the following: (1) with what levels of teacher support PALS can be implemented and sustained, and what types of support lead to improved reading outcomes; (2) how implementation fidelity mediates achievement; and (3) how teacher and school characteristics mediate PALS implementation and sustainability. We supplement experimental field trials with case studies and cost-benefit analyses associated with successful scaling. The overarching goal is to understand how to scale-up PALS to help general educators promote stronger reading outcomes.

Intervention: This project was designed to evaluate, in part, various levels of support provided to teachers to foster their successful use of an evidence-based reading program, PALS. PALS is a classwide peer-tutoring program in which higher performing readers are paired with lower-performing readers to conduct structured reading activities for about 30 minutes, 3 to 4 times per week. Thus far, we have compared 4 levels of teacher support: Level 1 (no PALS), Level 2 (one-day PALS workshop), Level 3 (one-day workshop plus boosters), and Level 4 (one-day workshop plus boosters plus helper ).

Setting: This project is conducted in public schools in the following areas: urban and suburban districts in Metropolitan Nashville, TN; urban and suburban districts in the Twin Cities, MN; and rural districts in South Texas. Studies are conducted during the 2004-05 through 2008-09 school years.

Research Design: Note: Our Year 1 sample is described. A similar sample is used in Year 2, and Years 3-5 will also include 4th grade teachers and students. The large-scale field trial conducted in Year 1 included approximately 1800 kindergartners attending 46 public elementary schools in Tennessee, Minnesota, and Texas. Within each state, researchers contacted area public school districts, and interested schools and teachers volunteered to participate. Participating teachers had to be general classroom, kindergarten teachers, and had to agree to be assigned randomly to study group one of four study groups: Level 1 (No PALS, n = 34) or to one of three K-PALS groups with varying levels of technical support: Level 2 (one-day workshop, n = 36); Level 3 (one-day workshop plus two booster sessions, n = 38); and Level 4 (one-day workshop plus two booster sessions plus weekly mentor visit, n = 37).

In Years 1 and 2, we collected pre- and posttreatment data on measures of phonemic awareness, letter and sound recognition, word reading skills, spelling, and oral reading. We applied 3-level HLM (student nested within class; classes nested within schools) to posttreatment phonological awareness and reading scores, corrected for pretreatment scores, to explore the importance of the respective levels of teacher assistance (1 = controls; 2, 3, 4 = increasingly intensive support). Data have been presented to participating schools districts, and will be presented at educational conferences and in manuscripts to be submitted to educational journals.

Findings: Thus far, findings have indicated scaling-up effects (2, 3, 4> 1 across the three sites) for phonological awareness skills. For word reading measures, there were teacher assistance level x site interactions, whereby 2, 3, 4> 1 for Nashville. This pattern was less consistent in Minnesota and Texas. For reading in connected text: 3, 4> 1, but 2 = 1 in Nashville. Thus, in Nashville, more intensive levels of teacher support promoted stronger reading in connected text. Implications for our Year 2 study will be discussed as will tentative conclusions for bringing evidence-based instruction to scale.

Fuchs, D., McMaster, K. L., & S enz, L. (June, 2005). Scaling Up Peer Assisted Learning Strategies to Strengthen Reading Achievement. Reading Comprehension Third Annual Principal Investigators Meeting, Institute of Educational Sciences, Washington, DC.

Kung, L., Han, I., Cao, M., & McMaster, K. (April, 2006). Effects of Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies in Reading for Kindergarten English Learners. Presentation accepted for the CEC Annual Convention and Expo, Salt Lake City, UT.

McMaster, K. L. (2005). Scaling up Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies to Strengthen Reading Achievement: Report on 2004-2005 Study Activities and Findings for Collaborating School Districts in Minnesota. Annual report submitted to Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Bloomington Public Schools.

McMaster, K. L., Han, I., Kung, L., & Cao, M. (in preparation). Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies: A Tier 1 Approach to Promoting Responsiveness to Beginning Reading Instruction for English Learners

McMaster, K. L., S enz, L., Fuchs, D., Fuchs, L. S., & Yen, L. (July, 2005). Improving student reading achievement with Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies. Office of Special Education Programs Project Directors Meeting, Washington, DC.

McMaster, K.N., Saenz, L.M, Fuchs, D., & Yen, L. (2005). A Randomized Controlled Study of Teacher Supports to Scale Up and Sustain an Evidence-Based Reading Program, Office of Special Education Programs Project Director's Conference, Washington, DC.

Saenz, L.M. (2006). Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies for Hispanic Children in Kindergarten and Upper Elementary. National Association of Hispanic and Latino Studies, Baton Rouge, LA.

Stein, M.L. (May, 2006). Investigation of Mediating Factors on the Effects of an Early Reading Intervention. Unpublished paper.

You can learn more about this project by visiting the PALS website at and the UTPA College of Education newsletter at