Two metaphors for reading that can help us be better tutors

In this post, we look at literacy tutoring through the lens of two metaphors. The first metaphor suggests that reading is like a mathematical equation in which the whole of reading is the sum of its parts. The second uses a cooking metaphor to describe the relationship between the parts (the ingredients) to the whole in the reading process (the final dish) to make the point that while the ingredients matter, the final dish is more than the sum of its parts or ingredients. 

Reading is a process that is both parts and whole. The parts–fluency, decoding, vocabulary, comprehension, etc.–come together to create a larger whole in which readers make meaning and build a foundation for future success. Tutoring often focuses on the parts of reading, the skills, but the the ultimate goal of reading is success when those parts come together. Clearly, the parts and whole of reading matter, so let’s look at this through the lens of two metaphors to get a better sense of the relationship between parts and whole. The first metaphor is that of a mathematical equation that suggests that reading might be thought of as the sum of its parts. The second metaphor looks at reading as a kind of recipe in which the parts, ingredients to follow the metaphor, come together into something greater than the parts.

First, let’s do some math.

An Equation for Reading Success

(Phonemic Awareness + Alphabetic Principle)




+Good Books



The above equation suggests that reading can be thought of as a kind of mathematical formula in which readers who are successful at reading “add up” the subparts or components of reading in more or less equal measure. This metaphor describes a linear process for reading that begins by teaching the parts and once those are mastered, readers move on to using those parts in more holistic ways. We see this metaphor played out in tutoring sessions where tutors spend much of their time teaching the components of reading–explicit instruction on phonemic awareness, phonics and decoding, and sight words as well as practice with fluency, and introduction of vocabulary–before utilizing those skills by reading whole texts (books). Tutors who use the math model of reading often bring in books that are written to teach specific words (sight words and vocabulary) or word families, for example, and spend less time having students or learners use those skills reading books or texts until some level of mastery.

Let’s cook up a different metaphor for reading.

A Recipe for Reading Success

  • Phonemic Awareness, 3 Tablespoons
  • Alphabetic Principle, 1/4 Cup
  • Fluency with text, 1/2 Cup
  • Vocabulary, 1-1/4 Cups
  • Comprehension, 2-1/2 Cups
  • Good books and texts, 3 or more Cups
  • Reasons to read, add liberally

Directions: Blend phonemic awareness with the alphabetic principle, let stew. Introduce  1 cup of good books and slowly blend in fluency. While mixing, begin to add vocabulary and comprehension. Stir vigorously as you pour in reasons to read. Let the mixture come to a slow boil as you add more good books and texts. Turn down heat and let simmer over time until the flavors blend.

This metaphor suggests that reading is a bit like a recipe. We take the ingredients–the components of reading–and work with a child to bring those ingredients together to make something wonderful. Tutoring, in this metaphoric model, is the act of helping that child with the mixing and stirring of the ingredients so that they make that a single savory dish. Tutors who draw on this model are like cooks. They help the learner blend together the ingredients but along the way test out how the whole, emerging mixture tastes. They bring out the ingredients together but the focus is on the dish, the whole. We see this in tutoring sessions where the focus in on reading books and texts and then teaching learners the skills with which they struggle. It’s a movement from whole to parts and back to whole.

Not All Metaphors are Equal: Cooking vs. Addition

Clearly both skills and the more holistic process of reading matter to reading success, and both of these metaphors suggest that tutors pay attention to those parts so that students can be successful with the process. However, the cooking metaphor gets at an important truth about reading–that those parts are always in the service of the whole and that good tutors, like good cooks, work on the parts (the ingredients) but always bring reading back to the whole (the dish).

What do these metaphors suggest for tutors? First, that reading is a process with important components that we can teach. Second, that those components or ingredients are not separate or more important that the process. Third, that tutoring should give learners lots of practice “tasting” the whole by reading books and texts but also explicit support on the parts or ingredients where needed.

Here’s what a recipe for reading success might look like in a tutoring session. First, the tutor introduces the learner to a few books, three or four that fit with the learner’s interests. The books shouldn’t be too easy or too difficult but books the learner needs some help with. The learner picks one and then together the tutor and learner do a book walk/picture talk and review the book. Then the learner begins to read from the book with some support from the tutor. As the learner reads, the tutor takes note of things the learner struggles with–sight words, fluency, important vocabulary words, difficulty with words that follow patterns (word families). After the learner reads all or part of the book, depending on time and length of the book, the tutor provides explicit instruction to help the learner with some of the things he or she struggled with when reading the book. Then they go back to the book and keep reading or reread it. Over time, the tutor and learner move on to other books and other mini-lessons to teach needed skills.

This recipe for reading success doesn’t ask learners to wait until they have mastered certain skills before they put them into practice. It’s a process that moves from reading of good books (the whole), to teaching of the parts through mini-lessons, and back to the whole. It’s recursive and ongoing. To use a sports metaphor, it provides learners with practice on the skills but doesn’t make them wait long before putting those skills to use by playing scrimmages or games. Can you imagine the coach who does only drills but doesn’t allow his or her team to play the game until they have mastered all the skills?

In following posts we will look more deeply at the process of tutoring and the parts of tutoring so that tutors and learners can cook up a healthy dish of reading success!



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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