Improving Academic Performance

Customizing the Tutoring Experience: An Example Approach

Posted by Lisa Alvarado on Thu, Dec 22, 2016 @ 10:41 AM

Guiding students to a deeper mastery of mathematics, science, or language arts skills is a daunting challenge, since no two students are completely alike and instruction must, therefore, be individualized. However, “the wheel need not be entirely reinvented” for each student: after a diagnostic assessment has been administered, it is possible to view the individual student as aligning with one or another of several basic groups (or demonstrating a need for targeted instruction in multiple areas at once)

I work primarily with language arts students, so this article is geared towards that subject. But a similar approach can likely be applied to most other subjects.

Different tutors may think of these groups in different terms, depending on the weight they assign to such factors as standardized test scores, grade point averages, the perceived difficulty levels of the schools attended, and so forth. Since I tend to work with high-capacity students accustomed to challenging courses in excellent schools – supported by parents for whom college expectations are a driving factor – I tend to focus on these clusters:

  • Students whose reading comprehension is impaired. Vocabulary is a root cause, as with a student immersed in a different “first language” before English or someone who has difficulty hearing the “tone” of a reading passage. I have encountered the former most often with teens who, although brought to the U.S. very young or even born here, were basically raised by extended family members (until Kindergarten) as their white-collar parents established professional careers. Such a student may have received limited exposure before age five to English words, especially to the proliferation of prefixes, suffixes, and roots with which we construct words in English.
  • Those whose use of grammar is inconsistent. Since English is a very inconsistent language, this is understandable though regrettable. One has only to look at “families of verbs” to see the problem: irregular verbs (ranging from is and are to catch and caught), for example, or the dizzying variety of phrasal verbs which each demand a specific preposition and no other (you can gaze at something but you cannot gaze to it). Again, the second language learner may well be especially encumbered, but plenty of “cradle English speakers” have similar difficulties.
  • Those who cannot write well. This is an “equal opportunity” deficit which cuts across all strata of students, since it becomes an exercise in logic (thesis, proofs, conclusion), the ability to sequence sentences into paragraphs, and a knack for turning paragraphs into a coherent document (all while keeping the reader engaged). For such students, the college admissions process can be a nightmare: the schools to which bright students want to go demand proof of refined writing abilities via the essay-writing sections of the SAT and ACT (whether technically “optional” or not) and admissions application essays (whether mandated on the Common App or a school’s proprietary application).

For better or worse, standardized testing shapes our collective view of Language Arts proficiency. For example, public speaking – since not tested on such exams – is not something in which I am asked to tutor students except at the graduate school level. Generally speaking, the three “deficit area groups” defined above create a hierarchy: trouble with vocabulary is a bedrock problem, while grammar issues range from the fundamental to the exotic (“Can you end a sentence with a preposition?”) and writing problems anchor the high end of the cognitive scale.

Tutoring can make a huge difference, no matter with what group (or with which groups simultaneously) the student can be associated. For example, it is possible to zero in on the exactly vocabulary into which the individual needs to immersed: you can tell a lot by his/her relative performance when presented with passages ranging from fiction (full of nuances and inferences) to physical science (more heavily loaded with “high concept” words and cause-and-effect relationships). Likewise, it is possible to zero in on the level of grammar which needs urgent attention, whether it is using commas or using semicolons, becoming well-grounded in verb tenses or introducing dependent clauses, or getting the knack of using pronouns or parallel sentence structure correctly.

Solid vocabulary and grammar skills converge in good writing, where sentence variety, smooth transitions, interesting contrasts and comparisons, and “building a case” for a particular point of view all meld. Here, too, a baseline assessment allows us to tap accumulated wisdom about “where to begin” – usually with the need for the writer to make his/her thesis completely clear before layering on facts, figures, and quotes.

The job of the Language Arts tutor, then, is to have enough accumulated experience to see students in the broad context of written communications – without losing sight of them as individuals. Every student is “going somewhere,” and our job is to help them get there with as much confidence as they can muster. For the individual student, that means knowing the right word, knowing the correct grammar, and being able to write without dreading it. All of these are achievable with practice and patience.  

 Paul Foxworth, Blogger at