Math Peer Tutoring for Students with Specific Learning Disabilities
April D. Miller
The University of Southern Mississippi
Patricia M. Barbetta
Florida International University
Gregg E. Drevno
Talbot County Public Schools
Stacy A. Martz and Timothy E. Heron
The Ohio State University
Students with specific learning disabilities (LD) often have problems with mathematics
that begin in elementary school and continue throughout their secondary years. For these
students, growth in mathematics knowledge is estimated to be approximately one year for
every two years of schooling (Cawley & Miller, 1989). Although hard data on the
percentage of students with mathematics LD are unavailable (Bender, 1992), several
researchers have reported that these students often lack even basic skill proficiency
(Fleischner, Garnett, & Shepherd, 1982; Garnett & Fleischner, 1983; Thornton &
Toohey, 1985). Specifically, McLeod and Armstrong (1982) suggested that high-school
level students with LD perform mathematics operations at only the third- or fourth-grade
level. Even after graduation from high school, challenges related to math continue to
surface in the work place for these individuals (Scheid, 1990).
While some educators have suggested that an overhaul of the entire mathematics
curriculum might be needed to improve skills (Smith, 1989), peer tutoring offers a less
intrusive solution. A well-designed peer tutoring program provides directed repetition,
regular review, and functional practice to overlearn skills, operations, and concepts
(Lerner, 1993). Each of these areas is important to the development of fluent math skills.
Using Students as Math Tutors
Tutoring has been demonstrated to be effective with students of varying skill levels
(Heron, Heward, Cooke, & Hill, 1983) and, of interest in this context, to produce specific
improvement in mathematics (Barbetta & Heron, 1991; Franca, Kerr, Reitz, & Lambert,
1990; Greenfield & McNeil, 1987; Maher, 1984; Pigott, Fantuzzo, & Clement, 1986;
Thurston & Dasta, 1990; Vacc & Cannon, 1991). Table 1 shows other reasons for using
students as peer tutors.
Formats for Tutoring
Commonly used tutoring formats include peer (classwide), cross-age, 1:1, small group,
and home-based tutoring (Miller, Barbetta, & Heron, 1994). Each of these formats is
discussed briefly below.
Classwide peer tutoring. Classwide peer tutoring systems (CWPT) involve all
students working in tutor-tutee pairs simultaneously (Carta, Greenwood, Dinwiddie,
Kohler, & Delquadri, cited in Greenwood, 1991). As such, CWPT has been used to
improve basic skill performance of low-achieving minority, disadvantaged, or students
with LD within the general education classroom setting (Delquadri, Greenwood,
Whorton, Carta, & Hall, 1986), and to increase the number of opportunities each student
has to respond actively to academic materials (Greenwood, 1991).
Cross-aged tutoring. Cross-age tutoring is an effective method to provide
individualized instruction (Schradj & Valus, 1990). In cross-age tutoring arrangements,
the tutor is approximately two or more years older than the tutee and usually from the
same school. In some cases, however, junior-high or high-school students from nearby
campuses have served as tutors of elementary students (Barbetta, Miller, Peters, Heron, &
One-to-one tutoring. Only select student dyads participate in this format. Usually
students with LD needing remedial assistance work with just one other student, who
serves as the tutor.
Small group instruction. Two procedural variations are possible within a small-
group configuration. First, small-group tutoring may be used for students with LD who
need additional (or remedial) practice with skills. Thus, part of their independent seat
work time might be devoted to tutoring. In the second variation, the whole class
participates, but on a rotating basis. While the teacher works with one instructional group,
a second group is engaged in peer tutoring, while the rest of the class participates in
independent seat work or other cooperative groups. Groups rotate daily (or weekly) to
allow each group to engage in all activities.
Home-based tutoring. In home-based formats, parents (or siblings) serve as
tutors. Although home-based tutoring programs have not been widely studied,
preliminary data show that parents can serve as effective tutors for their children
(Barbetta & Heron, 1991; Elksnin & Elksnin, 1991).
General Training Procedures
Tutors who have received specific tutor training have been found to emit more
appropriate tutoring behaviors than untrained tutors (Greenwood, Carta, & Hall, 1988;
Heward, Heron, Ellis, & Cooke, 1986). However, the procedures used to train tutors vary
(Barbetta et al., 1991; Folio & Norman, 1981; Krouse, Gerber, & Kauffman, 1981).
Generally, training is based on a task analysis of the tutoring role, with the steps trained
sequentially. The extent and type of training relates directly to the goals and complexity
of the tutoring task, and to the skill of the tutor.
In many tutoring programs, a model, lead, and test sequence is used (Barbetta &
Heron, 1991; Barbetta et al., 1991; Cooke, Heron, & Heward, 1983; Heron et al., 1983;
Maheady & Sainato, 1985; Polirstok & Greer, 1986). This sequence ensures that partners
practice all elements of the program, including the critical element of error correction
(Barbetta et al., 1991; Koury & Browder, 1986; Maheady & Harper, 1987). Further, it
provides the teacher with a method for evaluating tutoring. Scripted lessons have also
been used with this model to keep training consistent across groups and to cue trainer
behaviors (e.g., Barbetta et al., 1991; Heron et al., 1983).
Once a tutoring program is implemented, it is important to monitor and evaluate
the performance of both the tutor and tutee (Krouse et al., 1981). Daily and weekly
progress data can be incorporated for this purpose (Heron et al., 1983). Performance
probes can measure tutoring outcomes across time, while generalization measures assess
effects across settings or responses (Stokes & Baer, 1977). Charts and graphs are efficient
ways to gather and display data. In the following section, we take a closer look at
implementing a math peer tutoring program.
Procedures for Implementing Math Peer Tutoring
Successful implementation of a math peer tutoring program involves three major steps:
Getting ready, running the program, and enrichment and extension activities.
Step 1: Getting Ready
The first step, Getting Ready to Tutor, includes identifying the tutoring format to be used,
selecting the tutoring pairs, training the partners, and arranging the environment.
Tutoring format. In determining which tutoring format to implement, teachers
should take into account characteristics of students, resources available, and purpose(s) of
tutoring. For example, if teachers wish to increase the level of active student responding,
they may select classwide peer tutoring. Likewise, if they wish to increase opportunities
for students to interact with students in other classrooms, they may choose a cross-age
Selecting partners. Student dyads can be paired by the teacher, either on a
random basis (Kohler & Greenwood, 1990), by skill levels, or with special considerations
for students with behavior or achievement problems (Cooke et al., 1983). Within tutoring
pairs, students take turns administering instruction, each spending 5 to 10 minutes as the
Training tutors. In addition to the general training procedures described earlier,
within this tutoring model, students must also be trained to use the tutoring folder. Thus,
tutor-tutee pairs are taught to recognize the function of the “Go,” “Stop,” and “Star Card”
pockets on the right side of the folder, and the tracking chart on the left side (see Figure
1). Further, they are taught how to use the X and O elements on the reverse side of the
folder (see Figures 2 and 3). Folders are easily produced using a file folder, three library
pockets, graph paper, and markers.
Arranging the environment. Arranging the environment requires attending to
tutor scheduling, expectations, and the teacher’s role. Tutoring can be implemented as
little as once a week or as often as every day. However, a minimum of two to three days a
week is recommended so that tutors and tutees can use trained behaviors readily.
Tutoring typically lasts 30 minutes, with 20-minutes reserved for tutoring and 10 minutes
for tests, reviews, and transition.
With respect to expectations, the teacher should provide clear and concise
directions to students regarding their level of participation (“Do your best.” “Help your
partner.”). Similarly, if math peer tutoring occurs outside the classroom (e.g., in the
home), the teacher may wish to communicate these expectations to parents in writing.
The teacher’s role in tutoring is that of program developer, organizer, and monitor. In
each of these roles, the teacher develops the actual content to be learned, arranges content
sequentially as student performance dictates, and provides feedback and reinforcement to
students regarding implementation of tutoring procedures and actual achievement.
Step 2: Running the Program
The second step in effective implementation of tutoring programs contains a sequence
that can be used to implement, maintain, and evaluate peer tutoring across any of the
formats described earlier.
Pretest. First, present a list of math facts (or concepts) to students, and ask them
to solve them. Provide time for each response. The first 10 items that the student misses
are used to develop his or her first set of flashcards. Second, conduct the pretest with a
typical assessment protocol, that is, do not provide the student with any assistance in
forming the correct response. After tutoring has been implemented and the student has
mastered 10 flashcards, repeat the pretest procedure to obtain another list of 10 unknown
items (e.g., facts, concepts).
Practice. Direct the tutor to take the math flashcards from the “Go” pocket and
show them to his or her partner one at a time. Tutees should write (or say) the correct
response. If the tutee responds correctly, tutors say “Good” and present the next card
quickly. If the tutee makes an incorrect response or does not respond at all, tutors should
first say, “Try again.” If after this prompt the tutee is still unable to produce the correct
response, the tutor provides the correct answer. The tutee repeats the correct response.
(This 2-part prompting procedure (i.e., Try again/Write or Say response has been an
essential ingredient in previous tutoring programs). The tutor continues to present
practice cards, reshuffling them until the time expires. After 2 to 5 minutes of practice
and after testing, partners switch roles.
Test. Students turn their folders over to expose an O and an X (see Figure 2). The
tutor shows each card once, holding it up for 2 to 3 seconds. If the tutee writes (or says)
the response correctly, the card is placed on the O. If the tutee does not respond correctly,
or makes no response, the card is placed on the X. No corrective feedback is provided.
After all cards are presented, the back of each card is marked depending which pile the
card was placed. Any card with three consecutive O’s moves to the “Stop” pocket. Cards
without three consecutive O’s return to the “Go” pocket and they are practiced the next
session. Once all cards are in the “Stop” pocket, they are removed from the folder and a
new set of 10 cards is placed in the “Go” pocket. No new cards are added to the set until
the tutee has mastered 10 flashcards in a set (i.e., all cards in a set have been moved to the
Tracking Graph and Star Card. The tracking graph shows a record of the total
number of cards mastered, and provides visual feedback and reinforcement to students
(see Figure 1, left panel). Students mark the number of blocks corresponding to the
number of cards that moved to the “Stop” pocket that day. By alternating colors daily,
progress can be monitored. If no cards move on a given day, students draw a line between
the connected boxes.
Maintenance Probes. Each time a set of cards moves to the “Stop” pocket, they
are placed in an envelope and dated seven days ahead. On the date indicated, a review
test is administered in addition to the daily test. If a maintenance card is identified
correctly, it exits the system. If a maintenance card is identified incorrectly, however, it is
placed with the next set of flashcards to be inserted in the “Go” pocket (9 new cards plus
1 card from the failed maintenance probe). In short, a card exits the system only if it is
identified correctly three consecutive times during daily testing and once during
maintenance testing. Maintenance is essential to ensure retention of skills learned
Step 3: Enrichment and Extension.
Supplemental practice provides enrichment and extension activities related to tutoring
content. For example, if the students practiced math facts, they might use word or
application problems during generalization exercises. Formulae, time, money, fractions,
measurement, conversions, estimation, and many other skills can be included within an
extension program. Teachers are reminded to watch for opportunities where a fact,
application, or concept can be included or extended. This procedure serves as a good
review and facilitates generalization to new situations.
Program adaptations can enrich or extend skills by varying the type of cards
available in the “Go” pocket, or the type of responses expected from students. Figure 4
shows a sample of adaptations that may be used across math applications and grade
levels. Individualization can be further adapted by creating different card sets based on
student ability, adjusting the pace of tutoring, or varying the number of cards per set.
Teachers must recognize that peer tutoring is not an “add on” program. Instead, it is an
instructional methodology that is consistent with most teacher goals. It provides the
opportunity for students with LD to become active learners and offers a functional way
for students to learn mathematics skills. Teachers can manage a tutoring program in the
same way that they manage other small-group activities in their classrooms. In fact, given
the structured nature of tutoring programs, student management concerns are reduced.
Special materials preparation can be minimized by having students prepare
stimulus cards, or by enlisting the aid of parent volunteers. Students only need enough
materials to initiate the program. Replacements can be generated during implementation.
Some teachers might be opposed to tutoring on philosophical grounds, believing
that all instruction should be delivered directly by them. Although, teachers should be
skeptical, a healthy skepticism should not be confused with bias. Given the
overwhelming data demonstrating the effectiveness of tutoring programs for all students,
especially those with LD, even the most hesitant practitioner should concede its efficacy
and provide implementation opportunities consistent with student needs.
Anderson-Inman, L., Walker, H. M., & Purcell, J. (1984). Promoting the transfer
of skills across settings: Transenvironmental programming for handicapped students in
the mainstream. In W. L. Heward, T. E. Heron, D. S. Hill, & J. Trap-Porter (Eds.), Focus
on behavior analysis in education (pp. 17-37). Columbus, OH: Merrill.
Barbetta, P. M., Miller, A. D., Peters, M. T., Heron, T. E., & Cochran, L. L.
(1991). Tugmate: A cross-age tutoring program to teach sight vocabulary. Education and
Treatment of Children, 14, 19-37.
Barbetta, P., & Heron, T. E. (1991). Project SHINE: Summer home instruction
and evaluation. Intervention in School and Clinic, 26, 276-281.
Bender, W. N. (1992). Learning disabilities: Characteristics, identification, and
teaching strategies. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Cawley, J. F., & Miller, J. H. (1989). Cross-sectional comparisons of the
mathematical performance of children with learning disabilities: Are we on the right track
toward comprehensive programming? Journal of Learning Disabilities, 23, 250-254, 259.
Cooke, N. L., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1983). Peer tutoring:
Implementing classwide programs in the primary grades. Columbus, OH: Special Press.
Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis.
Columbus, OH: Merrill.
Delquardi, J., Greenwood, C. R., Whorton, D., Carta, J. J., & Hall, R. V. (1986).
Classwide peer tutoring. Exceptional Children, 52, 535-542.
Elksnin, L. K., & Elksnin, N. (1991). Helping parents solve problems at home and
school through parent training. Intervention in School and Clinic, 26, 230-233.
Fleischner, J. E., Garnett, K., & Shepherd, J. (1982). Proficiency in arithmetic
basic facts computation of learning disabled and nondisabled children. Focus on
Learning Problems in Mathematics, 4(2), 47-56.
Folio, M. R., & Norman, A. (1981). Toward more success in mainstreaming: A
peer teacher approach to physical education. Teaching Exceptional Children, 13(3), 110-
Franca, V. M., Kerr, M. M., Reitz, A. L., & Lambert, D. (1990). Peer tutoring
among behaviorally disordered students: Academic and social benefits to tutor and tutee.
Education and Treatment of Children, 13, 109-128.
Garnett, K., & Fleischner, J. E. (1983). Automatization and basic fact
performance of normal and learning disabled children. Learning Disability Quarterly, 6,
Gerber, M., & Kauffman, J. M. (1981). Peer tutoring in academic settings. In P. S.
Strain (Ed.), The utilization of classroom peers as behavior change agents (pp. 155-187).
New York: Plenum Press.
Goldstein, H., & Wickstrom, S. (1986). Peer intervention effects on
communicative interaction among handicapped and nonhandicapped preschoolers.
Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 19, 209-214.
Greenfield, S. D., & McNeil, M. E. (1987). The effects of an intensive tutor
training component in a peer tutoring program. The Pointer, 31, 31-36.
Greenwood, C. R. (1981). Peer-oriented behavioral technology and ethical issues.
In P. S. Strain (Ed.), The utilization of classroom peers as behavior change agents (pp.
327-360). New York: Plenum Press.
Greenwood, C. R. (1991). Longitudinal analysis of time, engagement, and
achievement in at-risk versus non-risk students. Exceptional Children, 57, 521-535.
Greenwood, C. R., Carta, J. J., & Hall, R. V. (1988). The use of peer tutoring
strategies in classroom management and educational instruction. School Psychology
Review, 17(2), 258-275.
Heron, T. E., Heward, W. L., Cooke, N. L., & Hill, D. S. (1983). Evaluation of a
classwide tutoring system: First graders teach each other sight words. Education and
Treatment of Children, 6, 137-152.
Heward, W. L., Heron, T. E., Ellis, D. E., & Cooke, N. L. (1986). Teaching first
grade peer tutors to use praise on an intermittent schedule. Education and Treatment of
Children, 9, 5-15.
Kohler, F. W., & Greenwood, C. R. (1990). Effects of collateral peer supportive
behaviors within the classwide peer tutoring program. Journal of Applied Behavior
Analysis, 23, 307-322.
Koury, M., & Browder, D. M. (1986). The use of delay to teach sight words by
peer tutors classified as moderately mentally retarded. Education and Training of the
Mentally Retarded, 21, 252-258.
Krouse, J., Gerber, M. M., & Kauffman, J. M. (1981). Peer tutoring: Procedures,
promises, and unresolved issues. Exceptional Education Quarterly, 1(4), 107-115.
Lerner, J. W. (1993). Learning disabilities: Theories, diagnosis, and teaching
strategies. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Madden, N. A., & Slavin, R. E. (1983). Mainstreaming students with mild
academic handicaps: Academic and social outcomes. Review of Educational Research,
Maheady, L., & Harper, G. R. (1987). A class-wide peer tutoring program to
improve the spelling test performance of low-income, third- and fourth-grade students.
Education and Treatment of Children, 10, 120-133.
Maheady, L., & Sainato, D. M. (1985). The effects of peer tutoring upon the
social status and social interaction patterns of high and low status elementary school
students. Education and Treatment of Children, 8, 51-65.
Maher, C. A. (1984). Handicapped adolescents as cross-age tutors: Program
description and evaluation. Exceptional Children, 51, 51-63.
McLeod, T., & Armstrong, S. (1982). Learning disabilities in mathematics-skill
deficits and remedial approaches at the intermediate and secondary level. Learning
Disability Quarterly, 5, 4-17.
Miller, A. D., Barbetta, P. M., & Heron, T. E. (1994). START tutoring:
Designing, training, implementing, adapting, and evaluating tutoring programs for school
and home settings. In R. Gardner, III, D. M. Sainato, J. O. Cooper, T. E. Heron, W. L.
Heward, J. Eshleman, & T. A. Grossi (Eds.), Behavior analysis in education: Focus on
measurably superior instruction (pp. 265-282). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole
Pigott, H. E., Fantuzzo, J. W., & Clement, P. W. (1986). The effects of reciprocal
peer tutoring and group contingencies on the academic performance of elementary school
children. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 19, 93-98.
Polirstok, S. R., & Greer, R. D. (1986). A replication of collateral effects and a
component analysis of a successful tutoring package for inner-city adolescents.
Education and Treatment of Children, 9, 101-121.
Scheid, K. (1990). Cognitive-based methods for teaching mathematics to students
with learning problems. Columbus, OH: LINC Resources.
Schrader, B., & Valus, V. (1990). Disabled learners as able teachers: A cross-age
tutoring project. Academic Therapy, 25, 589-597.
Smith, D. D. (1989). Teaching students with learning and behavior problems.
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Stokes, T. F., & Baer, D. M. (1977). An implicit technology of generalization.
Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 10, 349-367.
Thornton, C. A., & Toohey, M. A. (1985). Basic math facts: Guidelines for
teaching and learning. Learning Disabilities Focus, 1, 44-57.
Thurston, L. P., & Dasta, K. (1990). An analysis of in-home parent tutoring
procedures: Effects on children’s academic behavior at home and in school and on
parents’ tutoring behaviors. Remedial and Special Education, 11(4), 41-52.
Vacc, N. N., & Cannon, S. J (1991). Cross-age tutoring in mathematics: Sixth
graders helping student who are moderately handicapped. Education and Training of the
Mentally Retarded, 26, 89-97.
Bentz, J. L., & Fuchs, L. S. (1996). Improving peers’ helping behavior to students
with learning disabilities during mathematics peer tutoring. Learning Disability
Quarterly, 19, 202-215.
Cardona, C., & Artiles, A. J. (1998). Adapting classwide instruction for student
diversity in math. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 421 839)
Fuchs, D., Fuchs, L. S., & Burish, P. (2000). Peer-assisted learning strategies: An
evidence-based practice to promote reading achievement. Learning Disabilities Research
& Practice, 15, 85-91.
Hughes, C., Guth, C., Presley, J., Scott, S., & Lorden, S. (1999). Peer buddy
manual: Metropolitan Nashville peer buddy program. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt
University, Department of Special Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service
No. ED 4332 109)
Topping, K. (2000). Tutoring. Educational Practices Series. (ERIC Document
Reproduction Service No. ED 447 111)
Table 1. Reasons to Use Students as Tutors
∑ Peers can “shape” the behaviors of others (students, teachers, and parents) (Gerber &
Kauffman, 1981; Greenwood, 1981).
∑ Peers have been shown to be effective teachers (Cooke, Heron, & Heward, 1983; Gerber &
∑ Peer interventions can increase the chances for success of students with LD in mainstream
activities (Heron, Heward, Cooke, & Hill, 1983; Madden & Slavin, 1983).
∑ Peer tutoring programs can avoid stimulus control problems that may arise when one or
only a few individuals administer contingencies (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 1987).
∑ When peers are used as behavior change agents, the desired student behavior may be
performed across a wider variety of settings and situations (Anderson-Inman, Walker, &
Purcell, 1984; Goldstein & Wickstrom, 1986).
Return to Article