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The Truth About Toddler Tutoring

Learning centers are offering their academic services to their youngest clientele ever—preschoolers. But critics say this is unnecessary; the tutoring only bolsters basic skills.

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Guntmar Fritz/Masterfile

On a typical Thursday afternoon at a Kumon Learning Center in Medford, N.J., pencil-clutching preschoolers, aged 4 to 6, occupy every pint-size seat in the Jr. Kumon room. These tots are too young to ever have taken a school exam, yet they gather to receive academic tutoring, which includes sounding out sentences, adding and subtracting numbers, and writing letters and numbers in their little work packets.

Medford mother Cindy Purr came to Kumon for kindergarten preparation she found lacking in her daughter Lindsay’s preschool. Purr, who heard about Kumon from other neighborhood parents, was particularly concerned about 4-year-old Lindsay’s habit of writing the s in her name backward, which went uncorrected in the preschool.

“I felt the preschool had more of a play atmosphere,” says Purr, a lawyer. “I didn’t see a lot of structure. I know schools are more competitive today, and I just want her to be ready for kindergarten.” So, she enrolled Lindsay with Kumon, where Lindsay spends around an hour a week at a cost of $100 per month. Parents are required to commit to a minimum of 6 months of sessions.

Tutoring services, including four large players—Kaplan, KnowledgePoints, Kumon and Sylvan—have sprung up offering this type of help. A growing number of young students nationwide are involved in programs run by test-prep and learning centers, which previously focused on elementary, high-school and college students.

Although teaching methods vary from service to service, all claim that their foremost mission is to instill a love of learning in their young clients—not necessarily to turn them into academic overachievers. But, make no mistake, this mission is profitable.

With test-prep coursework counted in the mix, tutoring is a $2.3 billion enterprise that’s growing by 9 percent annually, says Laurence Bloom of Outsell, a market-research company. Services for the youngest students comprise only 2 percent of the total tutoring marketplace, but Bloom expects that to increase. Parents who are anxious about their child’s future will pay anywhere from $100 to $800 a month for tutoring. For example, Sylvan averages $50 per hour for tutoring, but it varies from center to center. At KnowledgePoints, costs range from $25 to $55 per hour.

These costs are typically on top of expenses paid for preschool, which can range from less than $1,000 per year to more than $10,000 annually depending on your area.

Unfortunately, no proof exists that tutoring will make these precocious readers and aspiring mathematicians any more likely to succeed later in life. Kerry Underwood, who trains Kumon instructors, believes younger students with little academic experience benefit tremendously. “When we get them younger, we’re getting them at a point when they haven’t yet developed any struggles,” she says. “It’s a great opportunity to establish a great foundation.” But Kumon does not offer any statistical evidence backing the success of its methods.

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Meanwhile, Kaplan promises that by the end of its pre-K program, children will be reading—but it does not offer a money-back guarantee. Most early-childhood experts hold fast to the traditional learning-through-play philosophy, but eager parents still put their faith—and dollars—into lessons they are told will give their youngsters an edge. Parents whose children experienced learning delays due to illness, such as chronic earaches, say the programs helped their children catch up to peers. But in many cases, we found that these learning companies are playing on parents’ fears, rather than offering a vital service.

PREPARATION OVER PLAY. What goes on during these toddler tutoring sessions? It depends on the service. Jr. Kumon, KnowlegePoints and Sylvan have students sit for typically 1-hour-long lessons once or twice weekly.

At Jr. Kumon, students work independently on reading and math drills for roughly 20 minutes per subject. For example, a child will practice connecting words, such as fish and mouse, to familiar objects, Underwood says. An assistant will answer questions, check work, read aloud to children or listen as more-advanced learners sound out passages. Their sessions end with a one-on-one flashcard session with an instructor.

Sylvan tutors work one-on-one with each child for most of the session. Tutors read to the child and then use word games and puzzles, worksheets and flashcards to reinforce lessons. The children spend the last 10 minutes using different techniques, such as rhyming and games, to practice their reading skills on a computer.

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