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Focus On Basics

Volume 7, Issue C ::: March 2005

One-on-One Tutoring

by Mary Dunn Siedow
One-on-one tutoring is a major means of delivering instruction in adult basic education (ABE) and English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) programs in the United States, often as the primary means and sometimes as a supplement to class-based instruction. Although sometimes provided by a professional teacher, tutoring is most often done by a volunteer: indeed, adult literacy-related volunteerism and tutoring are often thought of as synonymous. By 2000, volunteers made up approximately 43 percent of all adult education personnel reported by state-administered adult education programs (US Department of Education, 2000).

The Learners

From a learner’s perspective, being tutored provides a level of anonymity: only the program administrator and tutor need know the learner’s literacy level. After spending years hiding literacy problems, merely taking the steps needed to request a tutor can be a major accomplishment for some learners. Many learners believe that having the full attention of a tutor will result in a positive learning experience. They are willing to trust a tutor, while the thought of participating in a class and revealing literacy needs to a room of other learners creates anxiety. For other learners, the choice of a program that uses one-on-one tutoring is pragmatic. It offers logistical flexibility: the tutor and learner can jointly determine appropriate meeting times.

Adults who had no opportunity to attend school, or who left school early, often succeed in one-on-one instruction. These adults are likely to be beginning-level learners who primarily need access to education and do not present excep tional difficulties with learning. If, on the other hand, learning difficulties, personality, or health issues played even some part in a learner’s decision to leave school, one-on-one tutoring may pose some special c hallenges to tutors. Sandlin and St. Clair (2005) suggest that volunteer programs are least likely to have tutors trained in the skills and approaches needed to serve students with learning difficulties successfully. In these cases, an experienced teacher or tutor is needed.

For ESOL learners, one-on-one tutoring presents a different picture: it provides learners with opportunities for personal assistance and plenty of conversation time with their tutors. However, it also reduces their expo sure to the multiple voices found in groups and may deprive them of the kinds of language interaction that are better addressed in group-based problem solving activities (see the cover article for more on this).

The Tutors

Individuals who are willing to become tutors, especially volunteer tutors, come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some are people who are driven by a desire to share their love of reading with others. Some are teachers, or former teachers, who are interested in using their skills in a new arena. They may have had experience as paraprofessionals, or may want exposure to the field of adult literacy. Whoever the tutors may be, they will likely play major roles in the education of their students.

The Program

Tutoring as a mode of instruction is appealing to different programs for different reasons. Some group-instruction-based programs assign teachers who are well-trained reading teachers to tutor low-level learners who have learning challenges. Some volunteer-based literacy programs find it easier to entice volunteers to work as one-on-one tutors than as classroom teachers. Working with just one learner seems less intimidating for a minimally trained volunteer than running a class, according to Paula Greschler, director of a volunteer-based tutoring program in Massachusetts.

The logistics of one-on-one tutoring can make it an appealing mode of instruction to programs. Tutors and learners usually schedule their own sessions, thus accommodating changing work schedules, transportation, and child care. The often public venues for tutoring sessions — libraries, adult learning centers, community centers — reduce the program’s need to maintain classrooms while offering learners a place to meet that feels more “adult” than a school.

Training and Support

Before matching tutors with adult students, most programs require that tutors participate in some kind of training. The length and content of this preservice training vary considerably from one organization to the next. Most preservice training includes information and activities designed to provide a sense of how adults learn; suggestions for creating a curriculum and designing instruction; ways to determine student goals and to assess accomplishments; and information about the organization’s expectations from tutors.

Preservice training is necessary but, by itself, is not sufficient. New tutors cannot learn all they need to know in a few hours, nor can they be expected to implement everything they learn without support. Most organizations that rely on tutors offer inservice training opportunities and many use paid staff to provide con tinuing support to tutors. Dominique Davis, program coordinator for a community-based organization in North Carolina, provides an initial 12 hour training, consisting of discus sions of methodology, demonstration lessons, and opportunities to practice lesson planning with coaching from “support” tutors. During their first month of work, Dominique meets individually with new tutors to help them organize their first lessons. She and the support tutors observe lessons and make suggestions. A month after the initial training, Dominique meets with new tutors and provides support by encouraging them to share, answer questions, and make suggestions.

Cook et al. (1994) conducted focus groups with 34 tutors who had less than a year to more than four years’ experience. These tutors said that their initial training was adequate for getting started, but stated that they needed continued support and access to a range of instructional resources. In Corle’s (1999) survey of 20 tutors in a community-based organization, respondents expressed positive opinions about the training they received and agreed that they needed support during the tutoring process.

Even with the most carefully planned training and support processes in place, organizations cannot ensure that tutors will always act in the way the organization hopes. Hambly (1998) documented that tutors do not always follow their training, and suggested that organizations should have in place means of following up with tutors to encourage good practice and reduce incidence of straying into inappropriate habits. Ideas on how to support tutors are included in the box below.

Supporting One-on-One Tutors

  • Provide tutor training (preservice and inservice) that mirrors the program’s goals and outlook. Include a variety of instructional approaches and assessment techniques. Provide continuing support to tutor-student teams.
  • Ensure that tutors understand the value of the training and support offered. Make them part of the decision-making about student goals and achievement.
  • Ensure that tutors believe that they are well prepared to work with students, and that they base this belief on the content and quality of training.
  • Make sufficient appropriate materials available to tutors. Assist tutors in securing materials that are appropriate for the kinds of learning activities they construct.
  • Assist tutors in creating flexible learning situations.
  • Ask tutors to report learner progress in ways that highlight real-life-related accomplishments.


Some literacy programs use a structured approach, in which instructional content and techniques are prescribed, with tutors following a guide or using a workbook series. In these programs, instruction is highly driven by the materials provided. Many tutors place trust in the materials and only occasionally depart from them. Other programs encourage tutors to formulate lessons based on information provided by program staff, who have conducted intake assessments and identified a set of skills a student should work on. In these programs, tutors have greater responsibility for determining or helping students determine their needs and designing and carrying out instruction. Program staff make suggestions, answer questions, and offer in-service training to tutors. Whether a program is highly structured or more open to tutor input, one-on-one instruction may sometimes be supplemented with student meetings or other activities that bring learners together.

In some programs one-on-one tutoring is not the primary means of instruction, but is used to supplement classroom-based group instruction. In these programs tutoring may be a scheduled part of classroom instruction during which learners meet regularly with tutors as part of the total instructional design. As an alternative, tutoring may be conducted on short-term bases, to address a need, and then discontinued as students return to full class participation. Some programs may use one-on-one tutoring in addition to classroom instruction, with pairs of tutors and students meeting at times other than class times. Hunter-Grundin and Karagiorges (1983), for example, describe an ESOL program in which one-on-one tutoring in students’ homes supplemented class instruction. The teacher–learner one-on-one instruction that occurs in adult literacy programs that rely on an individualized approach is not considered one-on-one tutoring. In that context, teachers are providing assistance to students who work at their own pace to complete assigned tasks.


The success of one-on-one tutoring is largely dependent on the relationships that occur between tutor and learner. Sessions typically begin with conversations about everyday occurrences, family events, and other commonplace topics. As instruction begins, some tutors interweave information gleaned from these chats into lessons or create specific lessons a round them. For example, some tutors structure lessons around manuals or forms from learners’ workplaces. Because they know their learners well, tutors can take advantage of these teachable moments and weave into instruction lessons of a more personal nature that are concentrated on longer-term goals.

Empirical Studies

Despite its wide use, little e mpir ical research has been conducted into the effectiveness of one-on-one tutoring in adult literacy. The few studies that do examine this topic meet the criteria neither for sample size and selection nor design necessary for their findings to be considered generalizable. Nonetheless, it is instructive to review what has been learned about one-on-one tutoring.

Gold and Horn (1982) studied effects of one-on-one tutoring on youth and adults reading below fifth grade level. They compared pre- and posttest measures of reading for subjects who received one-on-one tutoring from trained volunteers. The subjects made significant gains in general reading and discrete reading subskills, leading the researchers to conclude that trained volunteers can be effective in increasing literacy skills of beginning level learners through one-on-one tutoring. The caveat here is to make sure that the tutors working with beginning level learners have sufficient training to meet the particular needs of this population.

Reynolds (2000) used a qualitative sociolinguistic approach to analyze expectations of students and tutors in an ESOL program. She identified a gap between tutor and student expectations for participation. Students preferred more teacher-directed conversation, while tutors encouraged greater student par ticipation. Reynolds determined that this gap influenced students’ acqui sition of English and shaped their participation in the program. This suggests that tutor and learner should openly discuss their expectations and c ome to an understanding about them.

Student retention is sometimes used as an indicator of effectiveness in adult literacy programs. Darkenwald and Silvestri (1992) studied 40 learners in a one-on-one program and determined that an open and caring atmosphere, tutor training and support, and opportunities for learners to apply their improved skills were the most important factors that appeared to contribute to longer student retention. Knibbe and Duscewicz (1990) looked for evidence of one-on-one tutoring’s effectiveness in student retention figures. They examined student records over a four-year period (from 1985 to 1989) in a community-based literacy program. They discovered several factors that can support student retention: focus on student goals and interests, staff support for students and tutors, use of small group instruction for topic-oriented lessons, increased flexibility for students with special needs, and opportunities for students to drop into learning centers. In Comings’ (2001) evaluation of five library literacy and ESOL programs, which use both one-on-one and small group tutoring, he notes that retention is related to learning. According to John Comings, co-author of the study and director of NCSALL, students learn in programs where they believe in themselves as learners, where they are involved in formulating their own goals and plans for meeting them, and where they understand what they are learning. Students demonstrate commitment to learning by remaining in the programs long enough to accomplish their goals.


That one-on-one tutoring is an effective means of instruction seems suggested more by its pervasiveness than by any empirical evidence. Is one-on-one tutoring as effective as other modes of instruction or even more so? Morrow et al. (1993) contrasted one-on-one tutoring with small group instruction for adults in a volunteer literacy program. Although they found no differences between one-on-one and small group instruction in reading achievement, they did note that students in one-on-one tutoring situations reported having achieved more of their personal goals than did students in small group situations. The results replicated findings of an earlier pilot study. Quigley and Uhland (2000), on the other hand, compared the effectiveness of small group instruction, one-on-one tutoring, and counselor-teacher team support for 20 adult learners, using retention as their measure. Although students in all three conditions remained in the program longer than control group students, the small group condition was most effective.

More research is needed to learn about the effectiveness of one-on-one tutoring compared to other modes of instruction. One-on-one tutoring may be most valuable as a means to reach and retain adult students who would not enroll in programs that use other methods of delivery. By furnishing programs with the ability to reach students who are in remote areas or incarcerated, or students who prefer anonymity, one-on-one tutoring meets a vital need, and remains a major mode of instruction in ABE and ESOL in general.

Organized Literacy Efforts Using One-to-One Tutoring

Two organizations, Laubach Literacy and Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA), have used one-to-one instructional approaches since the 1950s. Today, ProLiteracy America (a merger of Laubach and LVA) continues to employ trained volunteers in one-on-one literacy instruction in its more than 1,200 US affiliates. The organization also encourages small group and class instructional approaches in programs in which use of these models is appropriate.

What began as a strictly volunteer effort became more organized during the 1980s. Volunteer organizations began to hire paid staff to coordinate tutor–student matches, train volunteers, and manage organizational operations . A study commissioned by the US Department of Education and conducted by Tenenbaum and Strang (1992) documented the growth and evolution of volunteer organizations and made recommendations for research and program accountability. Following passage of the National Literacy Act in 1992, with its “equitable access” language, volunteer organizations began to receive federal adult literacy funds in a more systematic way than previously. In the process they took on increased responsibility for accountability. Today, volunteer literacy organizations play significant roles in the adult literacy and ESOL systems in many states.

What remains crucial is the need for volunteer tutors to receive preservice training before being matched with students. Equally important is the need for tutor–student matches to receive support throughout their work together. LVA posited that equal time should be spent on tasks related to preparation for literacy (recruiting students and volunteers, training volunteers, matching) and on tasks that support and maintain literacy efforts, such as inservice training for tu tors, data collection and reporting, and organizational support (DuPrey, 1992).


Comings, J., Cuban, S., Bos, J., & Taylor, T. (2001). I Did It for Myself: Studying Adult Students’ Persistence in Library Literacy Programs. Boston, MA: National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy, and New York, NY: Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation.

Cook, K., Dooley, J., & Fuller, C. (1994). “Why tutors do what they do.” In, The Year in Review, Volume 3: 1993–1994. Reports of Research Conducted by Adult Education Practitioner-Researchers from Virginia (pp. 1–30).

Corle, D. (1999). Increased Participation: Action Research Monograph. McKeesport, PA: Pennsylvania Action Research Network, Pennsylvania State University.

Darkenwald, G.G., & Silvestri, K. (1992). Analysis and Assessment of the Newark Literacy Campaign’s Adult Tutorial Reading Program. Report to the Ford Foundation. Newark, NJ: Newark Literacy Campaign.

DuPrey, A. (1992). Maintaining the Balance: A Guide to 50/50 Management. Syracuse, NY: Literacy Volunteers of America.

Gold, R.C., & Horn, P.L. (1982). “Achievement in reading, verbal language, listening comprehension and locus of control of adult illiterates in a volunteer tutoring project.” Perceptual and Motor Skills, 54(3), 1243-1250.

Hambly, C. (1998). “Behavior and beliefs of volunteer literacy tutors.” Working Papers on Literacy, No 3. Montreal, Quebec, Canada: Centre for Literacy.

Hunter-Grudin, E., & Karagiorges, A. (1983). Case Study on Adult Education in the Inner London Education Authority. CDCC’s Project No 7.

Knibbe, M., & Dusewicz, R. (1990). A Research Study in Retention. Final report to Pennsylvania State Department of Education, Bureau of Adult Basic and Literacy Education. Philadelphia, PA: Center for Literacy, Inc. and Research for Better Schools, Inc.

Morrow, D. H., Block, D., Mundie, K. (1993). Effectiveness of Group Instruction in Adult Literacy Acquisition. Final report to Pennsylvania State Departme nt of Education, Bureau of Adult Basic and Literacy Education. Pittsburgh, PA: Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council.

Quigley, B., & Uhland, R. (2000). “ Retaining adult learners in the first three critical weeks: A quasi-experimental model for use in ABE programs.” Adult Basic Education, 10, 2, 55-68.

Reynolds, K.M. (2000). ESL Learners’ and Tutors’ Expectations of Conversational Participation, Roles, and Responsibility. Southern Connecticut State University.

Sandlin, J., & St. Claire, R. (2005). “Volunteers in adult literacy education.” In J. Comings, B. Garner, & C. Smith (eds.), Review of Adult Learning and Literacy Volume 5. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Tenenbaum, E., & Strang, W. (1992). The Major National Adult Literacy Volunteer Organizations: A Descriptive Review. Rockville, MD: Westat. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED359370)

US Department of Education. (2000). State Administered Adult Education Program 2000 Adult Education Personnel. Retrieved December 3, 2003, from http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/

About the Author
Mary Dunn Siedow works as an independent consultant conducting professional development activities with Equipped for the Future. She was the founding director of North Carolina Literacy Resource Center and executive director of a community-based literacy program. She holds a Master’s and doctoral degrees in reading education from Indiana University and has pub lished teacher/tutor manuals and student instructional materials.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL