Programs that Work
Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS)
Children Succeeding in School
Students performing at grade level or meeting state curriculum standards
Age of Child
Early Childhood (0-8)
Middle Childhood (9-12)
Type of Setting
Type of Service
Type of Outcome Addressed
Cognitive Development / School Performance
Evidence Level (What does this mean?)
Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS) is a 25-to-35-minute math or reading activity implemented two to four times per week. It is designed to complement, not replace, existing reading and math curricula. PALS supplements traditional peer tutoring with instructional principles and practices. Teachers identify and pair children who require help with specific skills ("players") with children who are the most appropriate to help other children learn those skills ("coaches"). The pairs of students are changed regularly, so, over a period of time, the students work on a variety of skills and all students have the opportunity to be "coaches" and "players." Approximately 13 to 15 pairs of students are created in the classroom, and each pair is geared to the individual student's needs (as opposed to a single, teacher-directed activity meant for all students, which may not address the specific problems that children face). The PALS peer-tutoring strategy enables teachers to circulate around the classroom and observe students, providing feedback and remedial lessons where necessary.
Note: This program is similar to the Class Wide Peer Tutoring program.
Originally, PALS was designed for use in 2nd- through 6th-grade classrooms. More recently, both upward and downward extensions of PALS have been developed, resulting in PALS Kindergarten Math and Reading, PALS First-Grade Math and Reading, and PALS High-School Reading.
Four studies were identified that met Promising Practices Network criteria for inclusion. The majority of the studies indicated that PALS students significantly outperformed control group students on tests of reading and mathematics skills.
The effects of a 15-week PALS program were assessed in a sample of 120 students from 40 classrooms in grades 2 through 6 in 12 schools in a southern state (Fuchs et al., 1997a). Twenty-two elementary and middle schools were first stratified into three groups (high, middle, and low) based on student achievement and family income (with a "high" level signifying populations with relatively high average reading scores and a comparatively low proportion of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch). Schools were then randomly assigned to PALS (20 classrooms) or No-PALS (20 classrooms) groups. The 12 schools were equally divided between PALS and No-PALS assignments and were equally divided across high-, mid-, and low-level socioeconomic designations. To determine the sample of students, each of the 40 participating teachers identified the following three students in his or her reading class: (1) a learning-disabled student, (2) a non-learning-disabled but low-performing student (in the lowest quartile in reading in the class), and (3) a student estimated to be an average-achieving reader. Pre-test analyses revealed no significant demographic differences among the groups, no significant differences in Comprehensive Reading Assessment Battery (CRAB) scores among the groups, and no significant interaction effects between treatment group and student type. The CRAB was used to assess student outcomes.
Fuchs et al. (1997b) studied an 18-week PALS program that included 120 students from 40 classrooms in grades 2 through 4. Teachers were randomly assigned to one of three groups: (1) Peer-Mediated Instruction (PMI) with training in how to offer and receive elaborated help (helpful, conceptual explanations) (ten classrooms); (2) PMI with training in both elaborated help and methods for providing conceptual mathematical explanations (ten classrooms); or (3) a control group (ten classrooms). Each teacher identified the following four students: (1) a student who was chronically low-achieving and had been classified as learning disabled, (2) a student who was chronically low-performing but had never been identified as disabled, (3) a student with average math performance, and (4) a student whose math performance was near the top of the class. Analysis of group comparability found no significant differences among the three groups and no significant interactions between treatment and type of student. Student outcomes were assessed on the Operations and Concepts/Applications subscales of the Comprehensive Math Test.
The effects of PALS were assessed by Fuchs et al. (1999) in a sample of 72 students from 24 classrooms in grades 2 through 4. While stratifying by grade level, classrooms were randomly assigned to PALS (16 teachers) or a control group (eight teachers). Half of the PALS teachers were then randomly assigned to one of two treatment groups: PALS plus collaborative reading activities or PALS only. Three students from each classóincluding one at-risk student, one average-achieving student, and one high-achieving studentówere selected by their teachers to form the analysis sample. No significant differences were found among the control and two treatment groups on demographic variables or on the pre-test for the Stanford Diagnostic Reading Test (SDRT). After completion of the 21-week program, student outcomes were assessed with the Comprehension subtest of the SDRT.
Fuchs et al. (2001) studied 168 kindergarten students in five schools in a metropolitan public school district in the Southeast. Twenty classrooms within the schools were randomly assigned to PALS (84 students) or control (84 students) groups. Treatment effects were estimated on a subset of students, who were identified by scores on a pre-test of mathematics achievement, and outcomes analysis was done separately for special education students and for non-disabled low-, middle-, and high-achieving students. No statistically significant differences among the groups were found for any demographic variables. Student outcomes were assessed using the mathematics portion of the Stanford Early School Achievement Test and the math portion of the Primary I level of the Stanford Achievement Test.
Key Evaluation Findings
Fuchs et al.'s (1997a) study of 120 students from 40 classrooms reported the following:
- Significant growth effects were found on all three CRAB scores (words read correctly, questions answered correctly, and number of items correctly replaced in a maze-based activity). For each CRAB, growth in test scores among students in PALS classrooms, averaged across student type, was greater than among students in No-PALS classes.
- No statistically significant effects were found for any combination of treatment group, student type, or school type, suggesting that the effectiveness of the PALS treatment was not affected by student type.
Fuchs et al.'s (1997b) study of 120 students from 40 classrooms reported the following:
- Growth in math scores for the Peer-Mediated Instruction plus Elaborated help plus Conceptual help (PMI+E+C) group significantly exceeded that of both the PMI+E group and the control group, while the growth in math scores of the PMI+E group significantly exceeded that of the control group.
- Analysis indicated that the PMI+E+C treatment was more effective than the no-treatment control for low-performing and high-achieving students but not for learning-disabled or average-achieving students.
- Similarly, the PMI+E+C treatment was more effective than the PMI+E treatment for low-achieving and high-achieving students but not for learning-disabled or average-achieving students.
In their study of 72 students in 24 classrooms in the PALS, PALS plus elaborated help giving (PALS+HG), and control groups, Fuchs et al. (1999) reported the following:
- Primary-level PALS students significantly outperformed PALS+HG and control students on the number of questions answered correctly on the CRAB, while PALS+HG and control students performed comparably. At the intermediate level, PALS+HG students outperformed PALS and control students, while PALS and control students performed comparably.
- No significant effects for treatment group were found on the number of words read correctly on the CRAB.
Fuchs et al.'s (2001) study of 168 kindergarten students found the following:
- No significant differences between treatment and control groups on Stanford Early School Achievement Test (SESAT) scores, and no significant interaction of treatment group by student type.
- The growth on SESAT scores of PALS students from pre-test to post-test significantly exceeded that of control students.
- No significant differences were found between treatment and control groups on any of the Stanford Achievement Test measures.
Public and private elementary, middle, and high schools
Many schools use Title I funds to cover PALS training and program materials. More recently, schools have begun using federal Reading First monies to cover the implementation costs of the program. Costs include an initial on-site workshop ($1,500 plus presenter travel expenses, in 2013 dollars) and teacher manuals and student material packets ($15-$40 per item, in 2013 dollars). Ordering information is available on the PALS website, under Ordering Materials: http://kc.vanderbilt.edu/pals/order.html.
Materials needed for PALS implementation are minimal and inexpensive. They include the PALS teacher's manual, a box of blank transparencies, an overhead projector, a transparency pen, pocket folders for each pair of students (to hold the PALS materials), and access to a photocopier to make copies of lessons for students. In addition, a kitchen timer is recommended to help teachers with appropriate pacing during the lesson.
The actual presentation of the lessons is left up to each teacher. The PALS teacher's manual includes both outlines of the material and detailed scripts. Teachers may use the scripts to present the material, or use only the outlines to guide the presentations in their own words.
The amount of class time required for program implementation varies with grade level:
- K-PALS: Three to four times per week for approximately 30 minutes per session.
- First-Grade PALS: Three to four times per week for approximately 35 minutes per session.
- Grades 2 through 6 PALS Reading: Three times per week for approximately 35 minutes per session.
- Grades 2 through 6 PALS Math: Two times per week for approximately 40 minutes per session.
- High-School PALS: Five times per week every two weeks for approximately 35 minutes per session.
PALS Reading is a structured activity that can be implemented at any grade level, from preschool through high school. The program does not require special reading material, and teachers may use library books or short segments of text. In Kindergarten PALS, children concentrate on letter-sound correspondence, decoding (making sense of text), and phonological awareness, while students in First-Grade PALS practice decoding and reading fluently. The Grades 2 through 6 program makes use of three PALS activities that help promote reading fluency and comprehension: (1) reading with a partner, (2) paragraph "shrinking" (stopping at the end of each paragraph to identify the main idea), and (3) prediction relay (requires students to formulate and confirm or disconfirm hypotheses). There is a Preschool PALS in development, which will focus on letter names, letter sounds, first-sound identification (proper identification of the first sound when reading a word), and phonological awareness.
PALS Math uses two basic learning procedures: coaching and practice. During coaching, students complete a worksheet of problems in a specific skill area (e.g., adding, subtracting with regrouping, number concepts, charts and graphs). For 15 to 20 minutes, the "coach" uses a worksheet with a series of questions, which differ by type of problem, that are designed to guide the "player" toward skill comprehension. During the practice sessions, each student receives a worksheet listing the type of problem covered in the coaching session and less-challenging types of problems. Students work independently for five to ten minutes, then exchange their papers with a partner and score each other's practice sheets. Cooperative learning is encouraged because students earn points for forming good explanations during coaching and for answering problems correctly during practice.
Regular classroom teachers implement PALS in the classroom, without the need for teaching aides or administrative assistants.
Issues to Consider
This program received a "promising" rating. The evaluations of PALS are mostly randomized control trials, which used convincing comparison groups along with statistical analyses that attempted to account for any pre-existing differences between the experimental and control groups. The statistical analyses of student-level effects do not, however, account for clustering of students at the classroom or teacher levels. The evaluations demonstrate that treatment-group students, in various versions of PALS, scored significantly higher than control-group students on tests of reading and mathematics skills.
Several of the evaluations described above involved teachers selecting students (with differing performance levels) from their classes for inclusion in the research sample. Although the strength of the randomized control designs compensate for the student-selection strategy, the possibility of sample bias is introduced through having teachers select students for participation.
Another issue to note is that teachers who implemented PALS in their classrooms often volunteered to do so, and volunteered to participate in the study. This raises questions about how typical these teachers may be, and therefore how generalizable the study results may be to other teachers not as eager to participate in a new program or a research study.
Finally, at least one of the program developers is an author on all of the studies included in this program description.
Peabody Box 328
110 Magnolia Circle, Suite 418
Nashville, TN 32703-5701
Tel (615) 343-4782
Fax (615) 936-5803
The PALS website provides detailed information on the program and its implementation, training resources, and a summary of research: http://kc.vanderbilt.edu/pals/.
Training and implementation assistance for PALS reading and math programs are available to educators nationwide. PALS staff recommend a one-day training workshop for interested schools (see http://kc.vanderbilt.edu/pals/workshops.html). Depending on the particular workshop chosen, the presenter's fee in 2013 is about $1,500 plus travel expenses. All workshop participants require a PALS teacher's manual, which can be purchased through Vanderbilt University prior to the training workshop (see http://kc.vanderbilt.edu/pals/pdfs/PALS-Order-Form-NEW.pdf).
Fuchs, Douglas, Lynn S. Fuchs, Patricia G. Mathes, and Deborah C. Simmons, "Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies: Making Classrooms More Responsive to Diversity,"
American Educational Research Journal,
Vol. 34, No. 1, 1997a, pp. 174-206.
Fuchs, Lynn S., Douglas Fuchs, and Kathy Karns, "Enhancing Kindergarteners' Mathematical Development: Effects of Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies," Elementary School Journal, Vol. 101, No. 5, 2001, pp. 495-510.
Fuchs, Lynn S., Douglas Fuchs, Carol L. Hamlett, Norris B. Phillips, Kathy Karns, and Suzanne Dutka, "Enhancing Students' Helping Behavior During Peer-Mediated Instruction with Conceptual Mathematical Explanations," Elementary School Journal, Vol. 97, No. 3, 1997b, pp. 223-249.
Fuchs, Lynn S., Douglas Fuchs, Sarah Kazdan, and Shelley Allen, "Effects of Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies in Reading with and Without Training in Elaborated Help Giving," Elementary School Journal, Vol. 99, No. 3, 1999, pp. 201-220.