Majoring in the Majors: the Big Five in Literacy Tutoring

You’re all set to begin tutoring–you’ve lined up a child with whom to work and you’ve got a place to tutor–but where to begin? Well, it depends. Ideally, literacy tutoring should focus on the area or areas that a child (a learner) most needs help. That is, we want to meet a child at his or her point of need. This is why the ReadWriteServe programs use a structured but flexible approach to tutoring rather than a one-size-fits-all scripted approach. Not all learners have the same needs, so tutoring won’t be the same for all kids.

While there are several things we can focus on in literacy tutoring, most of them fall into one of these five topics: comprehension, fluency, word study, decoding and writing. Below is a brief description of each and what it looks like when you encounter a learner who struggles in one or more of these areas.

  • Comprehension is the understanding of what is read. The big question for comprehension that successful readers can answer is: “what is going on in this text?” Comprehension–understanding–is the primary goal of reading. Readers do not have to read quickly or perfectly in order to understand or comprehend a text. In fact, many readers who struggle with the words (decoding) and lack fluency understand much of what they read. So, what do you look for as a tutor in a learner who does not comprehend? If a learner cannot provide a reasonable retelling or summary of what he or she has read or “just doesn’t get it” then comprehension is most likely the problem.
  • Fluency is the ability to read text accurately and quickly. Fluent reading sounds good, is at a nice pace, and has few errors. But we just said that there are many readers who struggle with fluency but comprehend what they read pretty well, so what’s the big deal? When reading breaks down and becomes disfluent (not fluent, or not accurate and fairly quick), then comprehension tends to fall. Think of it this way: if a learner is struggling to sound out many of the words and reads very slowly as a result, they are less likely to “get it” or comprehend. Caution: no one reads without errors all the time. The thing to look for is the learner whose reading has lots of errors, is slow and halting, and as a result lacks understanding.
  • Word Study deals with making sense of the words in our language, but for the purposes of literacy instruction and tutoring, we tend to divide words into two categories: vocabulary and sight words. Sight words are common high-frequency words that make up a big part of our spoken and written language (for example,some, many, the, and, mother, and dog are sight words). By some estimates 50 to 75% of the words we use are sight words. These are words we want kids to know because knowing them helps us become more fluent readers which helps with comprehension. Vocabulary words can be thought of as those words that we expect students to need to learn. We have to teach learners new vocabulary words they encounter in texts and in units of study in school. Learners encounter these in science, social studies and math lessons but also in books they read. Tutors need to distinguish between learners who don’t know common sight words and those who need help learning new vocabulary terms. The approach to teaching and learning sight words differs from teaching and learning vocabulary (the topic of another post).
  • Decoding is the ability to translate words and sentences into something that makes sense. More specifically decoding is the ability of a reader to apply their knowledge of letter-sound relationships to correctly pronounce written words. Like sight word reading, we hope that students do this automatically, but some readers need help learning letter-sound relationships and common letter patterns (word families like -ight words such as right, light, night, and fight).
  • Writing is, well, writing. There’s probably no need in stating that it has to do with encoding information into a visual form (how academic that sounds!). Many students need help learning to write clearly and coherently. Others need help with spelling–a visible feature of writing. However, writing is also a tool that helps readers make sense of text. Reading journals, graphic organizers, and ways of annotating a text are powerful reading-writing connections that can improve comprehension.

So, when trying to plan for tutoring, we need to assess a learner to find out what his or her area of need is. Whatever the need, it will probably fall into one of the five areas above. We’ll consider each one of these areas in upcoming posts. Stay tuned!!!

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About bluegrassjb

I am an academic with a love for language, literacy and learning. The focus of my work is on student success at the K-12 and college levels. Outside of my professional interests I enjoy travel, photography and antiquing with my partner and wife. We like to hit the road in our travel trailer with the dogs and when they can join us, our kids.
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