Tips for Volunteer Tutors

Helpful Suggestions to Get You Started
Tips for Volunteer Tutors

How can I get my students enthusiastic about reading?

This is a good question because students will naturally be more likely to succeed at something that they find exciting.

It’s also a good question because many tutors, in their zeal to improve reading skills, might forget the importance of promoting an interest in reading. I know that as a beginning tutor, I lost sight of this important goal and pushed students too hard and too fast–not a good way to build a love of reading!

Here’s what I recommend:

  • Remember that your primary goal should be to foster enthusiasm for reading. Once we set this goal, it will naturally influence our actions.
  • Remember that your student’s difficulties may have years of history, and that we can only do so much at a time. Your student is painfully aware that his or her reading ability is poor, and will not benefit from being pushed.
  • Find engaging reading material. You and I don’t want to read books that don’t interest us, and your students are no different. They should be allowed freedom to choose what they want to read whenever possible.

Remember that you have the power to set the tone for your encounters. Here’s the attitude that I silently try to convey:

  • “I’ve got some wonderful books that we can read together, and I can help you.” “You are in good hands here, and I will support you as you slowly stretch your reading abilities. It may take time, but as we work together you will improve.”
  • “This is a safe place where you can get the help you need. I will not push you– you will know when it’s time to move on to more demanding material.”
  • “I know that you want to learn (even if you pretend that you don’t) and we will work together so that you will achieve your goal.”

Stay in the “Instructional Level”. This is really important, so I will discuss it separately.

What is the “Instructional Level,” and why does Ruth keep harping on it?

I would say that the “instructional level” is the most important concept that I’ve learned. It transformed my tutoring sessions into fast-moving and effective learning collaborations.

Basically, it means that students learn best with material that’s not too hard, and not too easy, but just right.

It’s not just somebody’s theory. Studies indicate that the most efficient learning takes place when we stretch ourselves just a little bit. If our material is too hard, we may not even be capable of digesting it. If it’s too easy, then obviously little growth can take place.

Staying within your student’s instructional level allows you to accomplish two things:

  1. Your student will certainly have a more positive attitude toward working with you, and toward reading in general.
  2. Your student will actually learn more--not less!

So, remember that “harder” reading material will not necessarily speed up your student’s progress, and might actually slow it down.

How can I tell if a book is the right level of difficulty for my student?

Believe it or not, the best learning takes place when 95% the words in a text can be read without difficulty. If we have to struggle with more than 5% the words, then we cannot maintain fluency and comprehension.

The “three-finger” rule can help both you and your student select appropriate material. When starting a new book, students should raise one finger each time they encounter a word they cannot read. If they’ve raised three fingers while reading the first page or two (depending on how many words are on each page) then the book may be too difficult.

There are many other systems for rating a book’s difficulty, which we will discuss in future articles.

But my student keeps reading the same easy books over and over!

First of all, I’d like to reassure you that this rarely happens without a good reason. If your student feels safe with you, he/she will probably be willing to explore new material soon.

Remember that you’re probably working with someone who is accustomed to feelings of failure, and is afraid to fail again.

Second, let’s examine the possibility that learning might still be taking place with that same old book. Repeated readings can be very useful for building fluency, which is essential for reading comprehension.

Real reading is not a halting, sputtering recitation of words. Reading should flow as naturally as spoken language before we can truly enjoy and understand the material. It’s possible that your student intuitively knows that he/she hasn’t completely mastered the text.

But if this situation persists, I might start by selecting a book that I know the student will find readable and enjoyable. I’d then read the book to the student so he/she will find it less threatening. Later (probably at another session) I’d re-read the book, pausing at interesting, but readable, words for the student to fill in. Gradually the student assumes more responsibility for the reading and often finds that he/she can do it!

As your student’s confidence grows, you’ll probably see this situation less frequently.

By the way, it’s been my experience that most students try to work with material that is too difficult–not too easy. They really want to succeed at reading!


Get more advice in our other pages for tutors:

Advice for First-Time Tutors
Talking About Books With Your Students
In Their Own Words: An approach to reaching reluctant or struggling readers.
Annie, The Sleeping Beauty: How I Taught Her to Read
Telling Students to “Sound It Out”
Word Families
The Great Phonics Debate
Home Page for Reading Tutors
Working and Playing with Words

A letter that you may distribute to parents:

Literacy Begins at Home: Tips for Reading Aloud to Your Children