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Focus On Basics

Volume 7, Issue C ::: March 2005

The Home-Tutoring Model

by Marianne Buswell
Until recently, Vermont Adult Learning Pro gram (VAL) used a mode of delivery that involved sending professional (paid) tutors to students’ homes. Marianne Buswell was a VAL traveling tutor for seven years before becoming a center-based classroom teacher. Focus on Basics talked with her about her experiences as a tutor.

FOB: How did you get started as a tutor?

Marianne: I saw an ad [for the job] in the paper and applied. I hadn’t taught. I had just completed an undergraduate degree in psychology and had taken some education courses. When I started, I primarily taught students one-on-one in their homes. I was considered a traveling teacher because I covered seven rural towns. Traveling teachers teach to all learning levels and subjects. Being able to teach reading, writing, math, science, social studies, literature, and life skills to all different types and levels of learners was an overwhelming task, but one that was a pleasant challenge.

FOB: Why did tutors travel to learners?

Marianne: We are very rural here. Many students couldn’t get in to the central location. At least that’s what we thought at the time, although even when we were doing one-on one in the homes, we were trying to persuade students to come in. I started out with 30 students. I tried to see them each for an hour a week, but it was hard to get to all of them. We slowly started increasing the time requirements because we realized we weren’t seeing improve ment in our students’ skills.

FOB: What training did you receive to prepare you to tutor students in their homes?

Marianne: The program really didn’t prepare me. I shadowed the teacher who I replaced for a week or two. He brought me around to the different families’ homes, to introduce me and so I could see what they were working on. I was encouraged to connect with the other teachers and observe them, and was left to figure it out on my own. Vermont Learning is improving the orientation for new teachers now.

I did observe other teachers and skimmed many different educational materials. Since I was learning, too, I often sat beside each student and did the work with him or her. I noticed that the students didn’t have strategies to be success ful learners, so I taught them the ways in which I had learned. I later found out that this technique is called a “think aloud.” I “thought aloud” to the student any questions, comments, or notes that silently went through my head while I was reading. Seven years later, I still use this technique.

FOB: What about teaching reading? That requires very specific skills on the part of the teacher.

Marianne: I ended up trying different things, different materials. I was naive, thinking “they can’t read, no problem, but if we read together enough, they’ll get it.” At the time, I d idn’t know about learning disabilities.

Vermont Adult Learning lets teachers choose the workshops they want to attend for professional development, so I decided to find a reading workshop. I went to a two-day overview of the Wilson Reading System. The Wilson Reading System involves 12 books. The first package goes to book six and provides the instructions and the students’ work books. The package also tells you which sounds to start with and what level of mastery the students need to achieve before they can progress to the next level.

FOB: Do you like the Wilson system?

Marianne: The Wilson system works really well; it provided me with a curriculum to teach different sounds and syllables. My students were able to start grasping sounds rather than trying to memorize words. Instead of feeling frustrated and as if they were failures, the students and I started to feel that we were accomplishing something.

The problem was, because the system is structured a certain way, with only closed syllables through the end of book three, learners at this level still find it hard to read in the real world for quite a while. It leaves them somewhat stuck. It took a year to get through book one, which consists only of three-letter words, with those students. They had other interests, and we — the students and I — got bored doing only the Wilson. So I mixed some other things in. One of the learners, a man in his 70s, wanted to learn to read and write. His background is Native American, and he wanted to retell his grand mothers’ tales, so we ended up making a book. He dictated the stories and I wrote them.

This student had a brother who handled his bills. I taught my student how to use a check book so he didn’t need to rely on his brother. We came up with a system: I wrote all the numbers on a sheet of paper. Using that sheet, he copied what he needed in order to write out a check.

FOB: Did you structure your tutoring sessions in any particular way?

Marianne: I came up with a model for each learner and checked in with them occasion ally to make sure I was still meeting their needs. For example, with the man I was just t alking about, our meetings took place once a week for an hour and a half. We spent an hour on the Wilson, and then moved on to either the check book or the story for half an hour.

Another woman, who had very low skills, had the adult diploma as her goal. We did an hour of Wilson, then half an hour of math. She was also in the Even Start [family literacy] program, so we worked using children’s books for 15 minutes or so, and spent 15 minutes on a writing activity.

FOB: Did any particular activities work best for you in the one-on-one situation?

Marianne: What works well for me? Reading books together with my students. I try to pick books that the student will enjoy, to give him or her a taste of reading for pleasure. For example, I’m using Because of Winn Dixie right now, with a student. He really enjoys it. There are a lot of neat characters in the book. I’ve used Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, and My Side of the Mountain. My student likes to talk about what’s going on with the c haracters and how they are changing. With him, I do an hour of Wilson and 45 minutes of reading. We take turns reading each chapter. I some times “think aloud” the notes I’m taking and explain why. When we’re done reading, we each write down a reflection. I check with him about whether he wants to do this as either a structured or free writing exercise.

I recommend starting out with short chapter books. We always start off our session by sharing our recall of what we read before. We then take turns reading and make comments or questions during that process. At the end of our reading session, we write down our thoughts about what we have read. Sometimes we focus our writing about one situation or character, or we choose to keep it open to our own reflections. Then, we share what we wrote. We can also use those notes the following week to refresh our memory of what we have read so far. Sometimes we like to challenge each other by coming up with a question to ask when we are done reading. At first, they are one-answer questions, or based on memory. As we get better at it, the questions turn into open-ended or inference-type questions.

With one student I just used children’s books, since she wanted to read to her children. So we did Wilson for an hour and then spent time reading children’s books. I talk to her about how to “read” books by having her girls interact with th e pictures or by having the girls tell the story by interpreting the pictures.

Reading books with students is one of my favorite activities as a teacher. Books allow students to go all over the world to experience different li fe styles. Sometimes I use maps to show a student where our adventure is going to be that day. While I’m at it, I might have the student calculate the miles from where we are to the setting in the book. I also like to try to make connections with the characters in the book to our own lives.

FOB: What were some of the pluses and minuses of traveling to students’ homes?

Marianne: Home tutoring was always unpredictable. I’d put a lot of miles on my car for a student who might not have been home for their appointment. You never knew what the crisis of the week would be: will they have heat, electricity, phone, food, clothing, and shelter? Often, the families needed to talk about these crises before I could even think about doing reading, writing, or arithmetic. Once we got started on our lessons, interruptions might occur because of the TV, phone, or visitors.

The high points were the relation ships that you build with the students. You build friendships. You get really excited when they’ve made some gains. You get involved with what’s going on in their life, because they end up sharing with you. You get to see them blossom.

FOB: What were some of the pluses and minuses of the home tutoring model?

Marianne: Vermont Adult Learning realized that it wasn’t cost-effective to send teachers to the home for one-on-one instruction, and slowly got away from the one-on-one model to center-based, group instruction. We started to have our classes in the local libraries, schools, and any other community center that would have us. Along with that change, VAL required students to participate at least four hours per week. Students needed to decide if they were ready to commit and make the effort towards attaining their educational goals. Those who made the commitment were often rewarded with educational gains.

Since I have changed from a one-on-one teacher to a center-based teacher, I am less frustrated. My students don’t share their personal problems as much in a class setting. I no longer feel the need to have a second degree in social work. Classes allow students the opportunities to nurture friendships, so some of their personal issues are shared with their classmates instead of with me. Less time spent on personal issues amounts to more time spent on education. And even if one student cancels or doesn’t show up, others do. The other benefit to center-based instruction is that I don’t need to teach all subjects. I can send students to other teachers who are teaching specific curricula. This gives me a chance to explore and create specialized classes. Center-based instruction has taken some of the unpredictability out of my job description. Now when a situation arises and I need help to address it, a co-worker is only a room away, not miles away.

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