Valuable Hints for Successful Tutoring

Once you agree to be a volunteer, here are some pointers to help make your experience successful*:

Flexibility, Patience, Humor, Caring, Friendliness, and Respect

These are invaluable traits of effective and satisfied volunteers. Remember that schools and volunteer literacy programs are complex organizations with many hardworking and talented professionals who are trying hard, usually with inadequate resources or support. Your help will be greatly appreciated, but try not to be hurt or surprised if you are not always acknowledged, or if there are mix ups and confusions from time to time.

Be On-time For Your Tutoring Sessions:

Maintain regular, prompt attendance: remember that the children and teachers or agency personnel are counting on you to be there when you said you would be. Consistent attendance is also instrumental in building your relationship with the learners, and will facilitate their progress and increase your satisfaction. If you must miss an appointment, be sure to let the child and agency know in advance! On the other hand, you may not be able to count on the same kind of consistency or punctuality in return. Children's and teacher's lives are often complicated, and not entirely in their control, and schedules do change. Try to develop a sense of humor about the confusions and missed appointments that will undoubtedly occur.

Establish Relationships Early On With All Involved:

It is important to try to establish friendly and respectful relationships with teachers, parents, supervisors, and of course, the children. When everybody works together in the interests of the child, real progress can occur. Remember that parents and teachers are the real experts about the children you see and can provide insights and support. Parents care deeply about their child's success, as do teachers who see the children daily and are responsible for their progress through the year. At the same time be sensitive to the fact that teachers are busy with many other children besides those with whom you work, and parents too may be struggling with complex obligations. It may not be easy to maintain contact, but this does not mean that they aren't interested in your work and the child's progress.

Your relationship with the student is, of course, most important. Here you have a fine line to tread. You will want to be friendly, warm, and supportive, setting a tone that encourages risk taking. But you also need to be clear about your role and goals. Have fun, but remember that you are there with a specific purpose - to help the child learn to read and write. You are not the teacher or a disciplinarian, so you can vary in certain kinds of activities, but you also need to set limits, and follow the school or agency rules. You want to show interest and caring to the child, but not become over involved in personal issues. Humor and flexibility are key.

Involve Students In Planning And Implementing Tutoring Sessions:

Whenever possible, use a collaborative approach so that students feel invested in the goals you set and the work you do together. In your encounters, be a good listener, elicit students' ideas and interests, and share or alternate responsibilities for reading, writing, setting up and putting away materials, etc. Offer some choices, but not too many: rather than the open-ended "What would you like to do/read?" ask "Which of these two books would you like to read first? quot; Avoid questions that can be answered with a negative: instead of "Do you want to write now?" you can say: "Now it's time for some writing; what would you like to write about today?"

Allow For "Wait Time"

When talking with your student keep in mind something called "wait time". This is the time you allow for your student to say something--either a response to a question you've asked, or a unique thought or question that he or she may have. It is important that you don't jump in too quickly when students are silent. Learners need time to problem solve, to try things out, to make discoveries. You want to be available to help and give support, but not too quickly. You also want to model that thinking is valued and takes time. On the other hand, if you've asked a question and the student has not responded, after a bit you might ask "do you need some more time to think about this?" Or, "Are you stuck?" Then be ready to help.

Provide Positive Feedback

When responding to a child's reading and writing efforts focus on the things they do right and give positive feedback rather than constantly correcting and pointing out errors. For instance, a young child reading a book with a picture of a bird in a tree may read the word "tree" when the print actually says "branch." Our instinct might be to say "no, that's not 'tree', it says 'branch'." Thus the child who actually tried a reasonable strategy of looking at the picture, would hear a negative response, and be reluctant to try again in the future. Instead, if we can respond with an encouraging, "That's a good try, that is a picture of a bird sitting in a tree. But what do you think the first letter of the word "tree" would be?" then the child is more apt to keep trying.

This kind of positive feedback provides the support a child needs as he or she learns more about the connections between pictures, story meaning and print. It will encourage him or her to use more reading strategies such as looking at the initial letters, and thinking about what would make sense to make more accurate predictions without the fear of making a reading error. Specific comments such as: "I see you worked hard to figure out that word. I saw you go back and reread that sentence. That was a good strategy. You were really using your brain to think about what word would make sense there and match the print." These kinds of comments reinforce good independent problem solving, and help children feel competent.

This will be true in other areas too. If the child is attempting to write something and we focus only on the misspellings, she or he will be less interested in continuing; or if we constantly correct children as they discuss events in a story, they will not be willing to give their opinions or interpretations.

Be Prepared and Keep Records

Allow adequate time before a tutoring session to prepare. Check on your supplies, on the books you will need and on any additional items you may want to bring. Also, be sure to allow time at the end of a session to record your tutoring activities so that you have a record of your work with your student, and so that you can plan your next lesson based on the work of previous sessions.

*These suggestions are adapted from: B. A. Herrmann, 1994; and F. Johnston, C. Juell, M. Invernizzi, 1995.