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Intergenerational Tutoring: Supporting Children’s Academic Needs During COVID-19 and Beyond

Jessica Hoffman and Robert Volpe

Left: Jessica Hoffman, Associate Professor, Department of Applied Psychology Right: Robert Volpe, Professor and Chair, Department of Applied Psychology

The COVID-19 pandemic left the education system with no choice but to adjust to new teaching and learning methodologies. A remote format became the standard, but it came with challenges. While some schools adopted a hybrid format, others remained fully remote based on COVID-19 infection data in their community. The primary factor remote and hybrid models rely on is independent learning, both difficult to plan and monitor during a pandemic. Faculty in the Department of Applied Psychology in Northeastern University’s Bouvé College of Health Sciences knew this educational disruption would have lasting implications, especially for young learners. So, they saw an opportunity for a solution by leveraging another population deeply impacted by social isolation: older adults. Many have had to shelter at home alone because they are at increased risk for morbidities and mortality associated with the disease. Some aren’t able to visit in person with their friends and families, care for their grandchildren, or be active outside their homes. With their social networks cut off, Northeastern faculty saw this group as a resource for children in need of 1-on-1 instruction.

Jessica Hoffman, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Applied Psychology, added, “Teachers are doing everything they can to support children’s needs, but in this context, it’s not sufficient especially for the youngest learners, in terms of academic progression.” Parents are under incredible stress working to maintain or look for a job while schooling their children at home. Beyond teachers and parents, senior volunteers can give students what they’re missing from in-person learning with individual educational instruction.

Through research and acknowledgment of this harsh reality, Northeastern University’s Department of Applied Psychology conceived the COVID-19 Intergenerational Academic Intervention Project, launching this spring 2021. The program connects older adults with kindergarten students struggling with foundational early literacy skills to implement evidence-based interventions remotely via Zoom. The program is targeted to help the most vulnerable and at-risk children for an educational decline: children at risk for reading disabilities, English-language learners, Black and Latinx communities that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. The intervention package consists of two early literacy interventions. They are:

  1. Tutoring Buddy: targets letter-sound correspondence fluency using incremental rehearsal
  2. Dialogic reading: an approach to shared book reading that has been shown to increase children’s vocabulary development

More than a decade ago, Robert Volpe, a Professor, and Chair of the Department of Applied Psychology at Northeastern University, designed Tutoring Buddy, an evidence-based computer-based intervention to improve early literacy skills. Tutoring buddy and dialogic reading both have multiple research studies supporting their efficacy. Indeed, Tutoring Buddy appears on the National Center for Intensive Intervention’s tools chart of evidence-based interventions. Jessica added, “These are interventions that our team has been using for over a decade, but this is the first time we’re packaging them via Zoom, and the interventionists will be older adults. The innovation here is that we’re increasing the capacity of the community by leveraging the talents of older adults who are at home because of COVID.”

tutoring robert volpe

Pictured: Robert Volpe early work with the Tutoring Buddy (working on a training video)

The COVID-19 Intergenerational Academic Intervention Project is a partnership between faculty members in the Department of Applied Psychology at Northeastern University (Jessica Hoffman, Ph.D., Robert Volpe, Ph.D., Amy Briesch, Ph.D., and Robin Codding, Ph.D.) with expertise in school-based academic and social and emotional interventions, faculty members at the University of Massachusetts-Boston in the Department of Gerontology (Jeff Burr, Ph.D., Jan Mutchler, Ph.D., and Edward Miller, Ph.D.) with expertise in the impact of volunteering on the well-being of older adults, the University of Massachusetts-Boston Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI, James Hermelbracht, Director), and a school district situated in a community that COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted.

Volunteers from the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute were trained by faculty and graduate students at Northeastern University to implement both interventions. They will be paired with kindergarten students referred to the program by their teachers and tutored online four days per week for six weeks.

The initial goal is to develop and implement the program with a pilot group of volunteers and children this spring to measure its impacts on:

  • children’s letter sound fluency
  • the well-being of older adults
  • program acceptability from the perspectives of children, tutors, and parents.

The long-term goal is to scale the model and disseminate it locally in the Boston-area and then nationally. Jessica spoke with a colleague from UMass Boston who is helping them with the pilot program, a doctoral student in Gerontology living in Mexico City, who agrees this program also has the potential to be implemented internationally.

Even though Massachusetts plans to have students return to their classrooms in the spring, this program still provides value after COVID. Jessica explained, “We see this as a program that will be relevant well-beyond COVID. It certainly is relevant now during the crisis that we’re experiencing, but children will continue to have literacy needs.”

Robert expanded further, “The challenge we’re trying to address is that there’s a service delivery gap. There are a lot more kids that need intervention than we have the people to provide the interventions. So, this project approaches that from a couple of different angles. One is that traditionally the people in the schools doing these interventions for these kids who are at risk for reading failure, which could lead to them being diagnosed with either a learning disability or dropping out of school. There just aren’t enough people trained to deliver evidence-based interventions.”

Jessica clarified, “These interventions are evidence-based, and they’re interventions that we know are effective. But they also don’t require professional degrees in education to implement them. So we can train people without expertise, prior background in teaching to use these interventions.”

A lot of what a teacher would do in terms of how to sequence material, when to introduce a new fact, collecting data on kids’ progress and response to the intervention, and charting it to see how a kid is improving over time, is all done by the software. Because they can train anyone, this brings down the training demands, which opens the intervention up to a broader group of people that can do it. Plus, it takes very little time to train tutors.

Robert added, “COVID has exacerbated the problem with all these kids; there’s going to be a big mess to clean up when COVID is over; it’s already starting. The number of kids that need these supports is growing exponentially. This program is one way to address that by leveraging technology to minimize the training demands. As school psychologists, we’re always working to solve these problems, so we’re developing interventions. But the problem isn’t that we don’t know what to do; it’s that we don’t know how to get people to do it. It’s analogous to what is happening with COVID vaccines right now; it’s not enough to have the supply of vaccines, you need the syringes and people trained to use them ”

This program is a way to access potential interventionists and connect them through the internet and to help close the service delivery gap.

For more information, please contact:

Jessica Hoffman, Ph.D., Associate Professor
Department of Applied Psychology
Northeastern University
[email protected]

To learn more about Tutoring Buddy and to see if this intervention would be a good fit for your classroom, visit