First impressions in tutoring, Part 2

This is the second of a three-part series of posts to help tutors get tutoring off to a good start with new students (learners). In part one, we looked at creating a plan for the first session or two to help establish trust and set expectations for future tutoring sessions. In this post, we discuss assessing learners’ needs and using questions to engage students in vital conversations to create a more balanced and interactive experience.

As we discussed in the first post of this series, it’s important to make a good first impression when you begin the tutoring year. In fact, it’s better in many ways to focus less on tutoring and more on getting to know each other in the first meeting or two with your learner. This helps the tutor and learner begin to build a strong and positive relationship and establish important expectations for their time together. It’s also a good time for the tutor to begin to assess the learner’s needs and to foster dialogue by asking good questions.

Assessing initial needs

There are two broad categories of assessment–formal and informal. Formal assessments include state standardized tests and measures of IQ, for example. Formal assessments are usually administered to many students (thousands or millions) and provide information including statistics that educators use to make conclusions about students–that a student is reading above, at or below level for their age as compared to all those other students who have taken the test. Informal assessment focuses on content and performance–how a student is doing when reading a particular book. Both are useful but lead to different kinds of decisions. Teacher made tests, running records (an assessment of mistakes or miscues when reading  particular book or text), rubric scores, and the percent of words read correctly are all informal assessments.

Informal assessments are the bread and butter of tutoring. Yes, it can be useful to know that a learner is reading below grade level, as measured by a standardized test, but that does not tell us how to help a student during tutoring. Informal assessment like listening to a child read tells us what we need to teach a student when they are reading a specific text or book. For example, when a learner reads a book out loud and the tutor listens, the tutor can see what words he or she needs to teach, teach skills like rereading and varying reading rate or speed, or stopping and asking questions to check for understanding.

During the first meeting or two, tutors should take time for informal assessment. Bring a few books of varying levels and topics to the session. For example, if you are working with a second grade student, bring some books on different topics that you think span a difficulty range from Kindergarten to third grade. Introduce three or four and have the learner select one. Do a quick book walk/picture talk by reviewing the cover and title and turning the pages making guesses about what the story is about. Then have the learner go back to the beginning and read some of the book to aloud. Also, at logical stopping places like the end of a paragraph or page, ask the learner questions like, “What is going on in the story?” This kind of retelling helps tutors get a sense of comprehension. The tutor should pay attention and take some notes. What kind of words is the learner missing or struggling with? What about fluency and reading rate? Is there comprehension?

This is just an initial read aloud but gives tutors a sense of where the learner may need help–sight words, decoding, comprehension, fluency or more likely,  a mixture of several. This kind of informal assessment is powerful and is something effective tutors do constantly by listening to students as they work together over time to monitor progress and meet ongoing and new needs.

Asking questions

Too often tutoring looks or sounds like something we do to students rather than with students. Tutors tend to have authority and age on their side which can make tutoring one-sided with the tutor leading and the student/learner following. Tutoring is more effective when students are engaged as partners in the process. Tutors can foster more active engagement from learners by asking questions and waiting for answers–something that’s important to do in the first meeting or two.

Here are some good questions to ask the learner early on when the tutor and learner are getting to know each other:

  • How can I help you?
  • What would you like us to work on together? 
  • What should I know about you that will help us when we meet for tutoring? 
  • What are you good at? What do you need help on? 

When tutors ask these kinds of questions and listen intently to the answers, it communicates to students that they have a voice in the tutoring. It also gives tutors valuable insights into the leaner and where they want and need help. Tutors can make these exchanges more meaningful by asking follow up questions like, “Tell me more about that,” or “Can you share an example?”

Questions are not only useful during the “get to know each other” phase of tutoring but are something effective tutors use constantly while tutoring. For example, before or after reading or helping a student, tutors can ask, “What do you think we need to work on?” When a learner encounters a new or difficult word, it’s tempting to tell the learner what the word is; however, rather than fixing the problem by providing the word, the tutor can ask, “Well, what do you know about that word? Give it a try.” The learner may not be able to read the entire word but if they get the initial sounds, that’s a good start. It’s something to build on and teaches the learners that they have strategies when they encounter new words.

Questions are a way to balance tutor and learner talk and to prompt learners to see what they do know before giving up. Questions are also a great form of informal assessment…they give tutors important information about the learner and his or her reading. Moreover, questions create dialogue which helps build a more positive relationship and fosters greater trust.

If you are new to tutoring and wondered what to do in your first meeting or two, think about the ideas we’ve shared in these posts. In our third and final post of this series, we will put this together into a plan and provide tutors with a checklist of ideas for the first two meetings with students.


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 at home party with the cats.
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