A Strategy to Support the Acquisition of Reading Skills in Adult and Child Learners

As recently as a generation ago, it was possible to leave school with little or no functional literacy and find some kind of work in the community. In the developed world, this kind of opportunity is now virtually non-existent. Western culture is so saturated with text that astonishing levels of resourcefulness are required to live in it without being able to read. Most of us would find the challenge insurmountable. Reading permeates the world at every stage of life, in every culture. There may be philosophical differences between cultures about what constitutes a good education, but being literate is high on every culture’s educational agenda.

If you are reading this, you are one of the fortunate ones who has mastered this essential 21st century skill. If you are reading this because you are thinking about becoming a reading support tutor, or are already working in that role, but are curious about how to become more effective, then you are already in a good position. The best reading support tutors are self-motivated, driven to do the best possible job they can, in sometimes challenging circumstances.

Other important qualities to bring to the role include strong inter-personal skills. Typically, the support tutor will work with individual students or with very small groups, and the relationships within these situations can be fairly intense. It is essential then that the tutor is able to strike up a good rapport with student readers quickly. A friendly, relaxed and confident manner will make the student feel as if they are in good hands and create an atmosphere in which the learning process can flourish.

An effective reading support tutor also needs to be a good communicator, able to articulate, clearly and simply, what is required from the student, in terms of completing the reading task in hand effectively. The tutor needs to be observant, noticing small improvements and quick to affirm these, by praising the student and consolidating a sense of progress. This progress may at times be painfully slow, and so a good reading support tutor will need stacks of patience, resilience, an optimistic personality and the kind of resourceful disposition that will adapt a variety of approaches to the reading task. This will help to ensure that the reading experience shared by the tutor and the student remains enjoyable and stimulating for both parties. Excellent organisational skills are clearly an advantage here, so that an individual’s progress can be recorded accurately, and a reading log kept to avoid accidental duplication, and to maintain consistency between colleagues who might be working with the same student on another occasion.

In the majority of cases, the reading support tutor will operate as part of a team so, in addition to being resourceful and working independently, there will be also be times when the tutor is supplied with a lesson plan, or alternative reading strategy, by a more experienced reading specialist, such as a tutor organiser in a community setting with adult learners, or a class teacher in a school. Good listening skills are required in these situations, and it is important that the support tutor seeks clarification if they are unsure about what they have been asked to do.

The gap between mastering the mechanics of reading and then going on to teach reading skills is often quite a lengthy one. Some of the most effective reading support tutors are relatively new readers, with an immediate empathy for just how tricky the process can be. A buddy system, in which students with more reading fluency partner other, less fluent, readers, if the inter-personal dynamics are right, can be mutually beneficial, fostering self-esteem and consolidating prior-learning in the novice tutor.

It is this sense of partnership and collaboration that seems to inspire the best teaching and learning around the acquisition of reading skills. With adult learners, the support tutor needs to find out from the student something of the back-story that led them to seek support and to value the courage that this took. The next task is to identify some goals and break these down into manageable steps. There is no point in spending hours learning the alphabet if what the student really needs is some social sight vocabulary that will help them find an emergency exit or the ladies bathroom.

All learning support tutors tend to be people with a passion for books and undoubtedly this love of the world of the story and the printed word should inform all of the above. This enthusiasm can sometimes be communicated to younger students by setting up a junior version of the kind of book group that many adults nowadays enjoy. Encourage children in the group to choose something that they have enjoyed either reading, or being read to, get the whole group to experience this choice and follow-up with some conversation amongst the group about why that book was successful or not so successful. Junior book critics start to feel a sense of ownership around particular book titles, and the seeds will then have been sown for a life-long passion for reading.