Have a plan for making a good first impression, Part 1

This is the first 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 look at creating a plan for the first session or two to help establish trust and set expectations for future tutoring sessions. 

It’s Fall and the new school year is underway. Kids and teachers are hard at work in the classroom. Outside the classroom, it’s a time of year when many tutors are beginning to work with new students (learners). The first meeting or two between a tutor and learner are important–they set the tone and direction for the work they’ll do together throughout the year. Here are some suggestions that can help tutors get the tutoring year off to a good start.

Don’t wing it!

First impressions count, so tutors should come to these initial meetings with a plan. That plan should focus on:

  • Relationship Building: Come to the first session with some activities to get to know each other and that begin to help you build trust.
  • Establish Expectations: Tutors are there to tutor, to help with reading and academics. You can have some fun and make it engaging but it’s important to communicate that the focus of your work together will be on learning.
  • Assess Initial Needs: You can’t learn all you need to know about a student in the first two meetings but you can begin to identify key needs. Bring a few books to these sessions and listen to your student read. You’ll begin to get an idea of what you two need to work on during tutoring.
  • Ask Questions: Tutoring shouldn’t be something we do to kids but something we do with them. Ask your student what they want from the tutoring sessions and what areas they need help in. This sets the tone for future sessions that balance tutor and learner talk.

Let’s take a look at two of these issues: relationships and expectations.

Relationship building 

Good relationships take time but you can get off to a good start with a few ice breaker activities. These can be simple like playing the memory game: “You tell me 10 things about you and I’ll tell you 10 things about me and we’ll see who remember the most things about each other.” Truths and Lies is fun, too: “I’ll tell you three things about me and one of them is a lie. You have to guess which one is the lie. Then you can think up three things about yourself and I’ll guess which one is the lie.” Acrostic Name Poems are also a good way to get to know each other. The tutor and student each write their name vertically on a piece of paper and then think of words or phrases that begin with those letters that describe things about themselves. Here’s an example of an Acrostic Name Poem:


All of these activities allow the tutor and student (learner) to get to know each other but also give the tutor important information they can use in tutoring. For example, Tasha’s tutor knows she like soccer and probably likes animals–cats in any case. If the tutor has a chance to select books to use in tutoring these might be good topics. Singers and athletes have to practice in order to get better. The tutor can talk about how learning to read requires practice just like singing and sports take practice. A willingness to practice is an important expectation to discuss in the first tutoring session or two.

Establishing expectations

Tutoring is work focused on helping a student get better at something like reading or a subject like math, science or social studies. Early on in the work between a tutor and learner, the tutor needs to take time to talk with the student (learner) about what to expect during their tutoring sessions. Here are some goals to consider talking about:

  • Come to tutoring ready to get to work. This sounds simple but it’s important to set the expectation that the tutor and the learner will show up on time for each session ready to work. If attendance becomes an issue then this opens the door to a conversation about whether tutoring should continue. Also, a focus on academics helps when the tutor and learner get distracted or off track.
  • Come to tutoring prepared. For the tutor, this means planning for each session with books and activities that help address the student’s needs. For the learner, this means bringing their book or school work with them to each session and practicing or studying between sessions.
  • Communicate by talking and listening. Tutors need to tell learners that they’ll be good listeners–it’s something those of us who tutor need to remind ourselves of when tutoring. Learners also need to be good listeners and come to tutoring sessions willing to read and talk about the work and challenges they are facing.
  • Be respectful of each other. Many tutors and learners come from different backgrounds and have different experiences. Economics, race and ethnicity, age, gender and geography (rural, urban, suburban) all influence how we see the world. Many tutors were good students and may not have needed the kind of support they are trying to provide to their student. Bridging those differences requires respect from both the tutor and the learner. Be good listeners and hold back on making judgements. Tutors, who are usually in a position of authority, can open up dialogue with statements like, “Tell me more about that” when confronted with something they don’t understand and but encouraging their students to ask questions.

Tutors can engage learners in a conversation about these issues during the first or second meeting, or they can write these down. Check out the ReadWriteServe Handbook at RWS Tutoring website. There’s a Tutor/Learner Agreement in the back to the handbook tutors can use to guide the conversation or to share with their learner.

In the next post, we’ll look at how tutors can get important information to guide tutoring sessions. We’ll also talk about the importance of asking good questions to encourage learners to share important insights that can help in tutoring.

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Say Something: A great partner reading strategy for improving comprehension

Working with a student who just doesn’t get it when he or she reads? Many students struggle with comprehension–it’s a common challenge among struggling readers and something all developing readers are working on. One thing tutors can do is just SAY SOMETHING!

Say Something is a partner reading strategy that allows a tutor to model good reading and the learner to practice it!

Say Something is a partner reading strategy that allows a tutor to model good reading and the learner to practice it!

Say Something is a guided reading strategy that allows a tutor to model the comprehension process while giving learners (students) a chance to practice meaning making (comprehension) as they read. Say Something was developed by Short, Harste and Burke (1996) and is a simple but powerful tool for guiding reading. Here’s how it works:

  1. The tutor and learner take turns reading a text–a book, story, textbook, article, or webpage. This is usually done out loud but can be done silently.
  2. When each has a read a few lines or sentences, they turn to their partner and “say something” about what they’ve just read. This might involve summarizing the material, sharing a connection to the text, or simply commenting on it. For example, the tutor might start by reading a few lines from a book and then he or she says something about it. Then the learner takes a turn at reading the next few lines and says something.
  3. Emergent and struggling readers might ask the tutor, “what can I say”? Say Something offers the following suggestions:
    • Make a prediction
    • Ask a question
    • Clarify something you misunderstood
    • Make a comment
    • Make a connection

Say Something requires the reader to think about what they are reading. Say Something fosters a discussion between the tutor and learner (or among a group of learners if there is more than one) about how to make meaning from a text. As we suggested, it allows the tutor to model the process and the learner to practice.

Say Something is also a good way to structure the reading of text or book with the tutor or learner taking turns.

Want to know more about strategies to foster comprehension? Check out the ReadWriteServe Tutoring website.


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Taking Volunteer Literacy Tutor Training on the road!

Project 1000

The United Way and the Center for Adolescent Literacies are taking our Volunteer Literacy Tutor Training on the road!

We are excited to announce THREE upcoming volunteer tutor training sessions! Please use the following links to register:

Tuesday Sept. 22 in Mooresville (5:30 – 8pm)

Tuesday Sept. 29 in Concord (5:30 – 8pm)

Wednesday Oct. 21 in Charlotte – Comprehension (5:30 – 8pm)

*Volunteers at each training will receive six NEW books to share with their student!

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Helping struggling readers with word family instruction

Family matters! That’s no less true in learning to read than it is in life.

Many young and/or struggling readers need help learning words that share common patterns like -at words cat, hat, mat, and sat. These words are part of a word family that shares a common feature–they all end in -at.

Like many human families, word families share a common root. These groups of words have similar spellings and common sounds. They also follow predictable spelling rules that readers need to unlock many words in English.

Here are some examples of other common word families:

  • –ack (back, lack, pack, snack, etc.)
  • –ad (ad, bad, dad, glad, lad, mad, etc.)
  • –ate (ate, crate, date, gate, hate, etc.)
  • –eat (beat, eat, heat, meat, seat, etc.)
  • –ice (dice, ice, mice, nice, price, rice, etc.)
  • –ight (fight, light, might, night, sight, etc.)
  • –oat (boat, coat, float, oat, throat, etc.)
  • –oke (broke, choke, joke, poke, smoke, etc.)
  • –ow (bow, cow, chow, how, now, wow, etc.)
  • –uck (buck, chuck, duck, luck, stuck, truck, etc.)

You can download a list with 37 common word families.

For tutors and others working with young or struggling readers, word families can help students read and understand many new words that follow common spelling patterns. The key is to build fluency through practice with word families the learner (child) hasn’t mastered yet.

Tutors can take a dry-erase board or use magnetic letters stuck to a cookie sheet or other flat metal surface to spell out the root of a word family. Scrabble tiles also work! Then, taking letters from the alphabet, the tutor can have the learner place an initial consonant in front of the word family root and practice saying the word. For example, if a tutor is working with a learner who misreads or cannot read -ight words. The tutor can use Scrabble tiles or magnetic letters to spell out ight. Then, with the consonant letters handy, have the learner place the letter n in front of the root -ight. When the learner can read that as night then replace the n with other letters like f, m, r, and s. Give the learner time to read and learn each, and then go back and practice them again. Practice word families a few minutes each time you meet with the learner until they become easy for him or her to read.

Tutors can also create Word Family Sorts on paper or a dry-erase board by writing a common word from a word family (pat, for example, from the -at word family). Have the learner create other words in that word family (sat, bat, cat). You can also create Word Family Sorts by writing words from a small group of word families (for example: -at, -ell, -old) on small pieces of paper. Then, have the learner sort them into piles or into muffin tins. Here’s an example of some Word Family Sorts like this:

word sorts

Tutors can also make Sticky Note Word Family Booklets like those pictured here:

sticky note word family sorts

Sticky Note pads are great for creating Word Family booklets.

Ask the learner to flip through the booklet and practice reading the words. Learners can take these little booklets home to practice with family members, too.

Need other ideas for working with struggling or developing readers? Check out the ReadWriteServe Tutoring website for more information.

Posted in Phonics and Decoding, Tutoring | 2 Comments

Article promotes importance of letting kids choose their own books


In this piece published in the Washington Post (Sept. 8, 2014), Joanne Yatvin, a one-time Principal of the Year in Wisconsin and past president of the National Council of Teachers of English, makes a powerful case for letting kids pick their own books in and out of school.

We at ReadWriteServe agree! Choice is vital in motivating readers at any age to pick up books and other print and read on a regular basis. We encourage tutors and others who work with children to promote the power of choice. Check out Yatvin’s article.


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RWS Tutor Training scheduled for Sept. 13, 2014


United Way of Central Carolinas and the Center for Adolescent Literacies is co-hosting another ReadWriteServe tutor/mentor training. The training will be held on Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014 from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at St. Peter’s Catholic Church, Bliss Hall.

St. Peter’s is located at 507 S. Tryon Street, Charlotte, N.C. 28202.

The training, Tutoring 101, is an initial tutor and mentor training for adult tutors and mentors and those working with Project 1,000, a United Way program to recruit, train and support 1,000 tutors, mentors and readers in the community. Others are welcome but seating is limited. Contact Sarah Degnan of the United Way of Central Carolinas at sdegnan@uwcentralcarolinas.org for more information.

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Tutoring videos show and tell

A picture is worth a thousand words, or so they say. We haven’t checked the math but keeping that in mind ReadWriteServe has worked with our community and campus partners at UNC Charlotte to create videos to help tutors working with K-12 students.

The first of these is the overview or Tutoring 101 video, above. In it, we outline our approach to tutoring. We’ve also added videos about phonics and fluency and will soon have videos to support comprehension, planning tutoring sessions, and more.

The video series is available at our website, tutoring.uncc.edu, and was created with help from United Way of Central Carolinas and the Boys & Girls Club of Charlotte. Our colleagues in the Center for Teaching & Learning edited and produced the videos.

Posted in Literacy, Tutor Training, Tutoring | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment