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Powerful Motivation

This long-time tutor is motivated by helping learners

by Will Summers
In rural Illinois, literacy programs use volunteer tutors to provide services. Tutor/learner pairs meet in public buildings such as schools and libraries. Biologist Will Summers began tutoring with the Reading Link Program of Kaskaskia College, Centralia, IL, nine years ago. He works primarily, but not exclusively, with young men who are institutionalized by the courts. He talked with Focus on Basics about his experiences as a tutor.

FOB: Tell me about yourself as a tutor.

Will: I tutor for the Reading Link program, which is part of Kaskaskia College. I tutor everyone they send me. I’ve been doing this for nine years. I keep it [the tutoring] pretty informal, but coming as I do from the Department of Defense, I’m pretty regimented, although I’m not unfriendly. I call myself a “tutor,” not a teacher, and the people I tutor are “learners,” not students. That’s more positive. That’s something Kaskaskia College taught me.

FOB: What training did you receive from Reading Link to prepare you to tutor?

Will: The training consisted of eight hours of classroom work, spread over two Saturdays; quarterly or semiannual refreshers; and what we call “tutor talks,” which are monthly or bimonthly meetings of the tutors in each county. I try to attend at least two formal refresher training classes each year. They help me stay fresh and learn some new ideas. They also keep me interested in the program, and I get to know the other tutors involved. We’re a bit of a team. Teamwork and community support are important. The local library provides me with a conference room, a lot of material, and duplicating ser vices. I received my training nine years ago. They’re more stringent now, and beginning tutors observe more experienced tutors.

FOB: How many people do you tutor, and how often?

Will: I try to keep two learners going at the same time. In the last four years I’ve been going into a Youth and Family Services-sponsored children’s home, tutoring young men aged 18 or 19 who are under court supervision for involvement with illegal drugs. They’re street smart, they can survive, they’re “with it” characters, and they often have two or three children. Some have served jail time, either before or after I began tutoring them.

Not everyone is under court supervision. Betty, who I’m working with right now, is 36 [years old], has a certificate of attendance from high school, and works in a factory. I tested her and I know she can’t read above the sixth level according to the test the college provides: Slosson Oral Reading Test (SORT).

I set aside two hours a week per learner. Tim on Tuesday, Betty on Thursday. Betty and I meet at a local high school library from 5:30 to 7:30 every Thursday night.

I would like to meet with my learners every day but time doesn’t allow it. I encourage them to get assistance between the times we meet. I don’t overload them with a heavy workload of assignments or homework.

FOB: How do you structure your tutoring sessions?

Will: I’ve found a method that has been effective for me. For each lesson, I use segments that take not more than 30 minutes to complete. I prepare six or seven different lesson segments in my lesson plan every night, so if the one I choose doesn’t grab the learner, I turn to another. I work on keeping a high level of interest. Sometimes we work more than two hours, in 20- to 30-minute segments, if they are willing.

In our first meeting, I have to win them over. I’m not a laugh-a-minute kind of guy. But everyone likes to talk about themselves, so I ask them their age, their birthday, even their [astrological] sign; I want to be able to remember and send them a card. I look for the individual in them and gain their trust. I’d ask about their favorite donut, soda, chips: corn or potato? I bring them a soda and their favorite chips when I tutor them, and we read the ingredients and try to understand the nutrition. I ask about their interests in sports and music. I work to get into their heads: favorite movie, singer, actor? I refer back to that interview page more than anything in the coming months or years. I take their picture and put that into things to read, too. With current word processing technology and digital cameras you can do that. I also get their goals. I ask: “What do you want to do when they grow up?” If they don’t have a clue, that’s cool.

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

Will: I like to use newspapers. When I hear “I don’t like to read the newspaper,” I give the learner a felt-tipped marker, have him read an article that catches his fancy, and have him highlight every word he understands. Seeing all the words he knows highlighted builds his confidence.

We also read “Dear Abby” and “Ann Landers.” I read the part of the reader, the person who writes in, and I make my voice sound like a forlorn per son. He reads the columnist’s answer. The answer is usually much briefer and more to the point and full of reason. He’s the voice of reason and maturity. Learners respond very positively.

We also read menus. This helps them survive in day-to-day life. We st udy particularly menus from Chinese, Italian, and Thai restaurants that t hey’re not familiar with. These menus help build their use of phonetics.

I make my own flashcards by cutting words from magazines, words that start with the same letter, or compound words. We play a game — we did this last night — where I lay out the flash cards. The learner turns them over, picking them up one at a time and reading the compound word. If he gets it right, he gets the card. If he doesn’t, we work on it till he knows it, but we turn all the cards over and start again.

Poetry is very important because it teaches rhyming and anticipating what word is coming next. I spend a lot of time, whether it’s using Dr. Seuss; Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” or “Lenore;” Maya Angelou, Shel Silverstein, Longfellow, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee?” It’s a little schmaltzy, but these guys even cry sometimes.

I have them dictate their life’s story to me. I type it up. I give them a disposable camera to have them go through their day and take pictures. I have a double set of prints made and give them one set and use the other in a book that they write. I create a three-ring binder with photos and a story of their life they get to keep.

FOB: How do you know your l earners are making progress? With Betty, for example, and with Tim?

Will: I test my learners every other month using the SORT pro vided by Reading Link. We keep track o f the learner’s successes. I also submit a monthly report stating the reading materials used, goals achieved, and other notes on my learner’s progress.1

FOB: What are some of the drawbacks to tutoring?

Will: It is sometimes hard to work with this particular population. One guy got violent with me one night. If you say the wrong word to some of these kids they’ll be on you or in tears. That’s one drawback. Not being able to do enough is another. Seeing your star student hauled off to jail by the police can break your heart.

Not having enough time with each learner each week is another drawback. I try to pack as much as I can into one week’s session, but you’re limited by what you can expect your learners to absorb.

FOB: It’s obvious from your enthusiasm and longevity as a tutor that you find this rewarding. Can you tell us what keeps you motivated to devote eight hours a week — four of prep time, four of tutoring time — plus travel time, to tutoring?

Will: I keep motivated by the accomplishments of my learners, no matter how slowly they sometimes reach them. I am also encouraged by the support I get from Kaskaskia College Reading Link program. Lastly, I see this is a team effort by all the other reading tutors like me. I am always encouraged by, and try to encourage, my fellow tutors.

The motivational force that keeps me going — especially with the kids — is that it matters: helping them improve their reading ability may make a significant difference in their lives and in the lives of the people they encounter.

1 In general practice, such a short interval between pre and post-testing is not considered good practice. However, additional circumstances in this case led this tutor to test monthly. Focus on Basics is not recommending frequent testing.