Update: Webinar for Reading Tutors

Update: Webinar for Reading Tutors

Slowly but surely, I am making progress on my webinar for tutors working with struggling older readers.

After a crash course in using Zoom to record PowerPoints, numerous attempts, and much time spent finagling computer-camera angles in my office, I’ve actually managed to produce what I hope is a serviceable recording. (I was having a bad hair day in pt. 2, but I’m hoping that everyone can deal;)

There are two parts: a shorter (approx. 40 mins.) introduction part, in which I summarize some of the key issues and background information (the Simple View; the Matthew effect; the three-cueing system); and a longer recording (1:45), in which I present and demonstrate a series of short exercises based on the sequence developed by my colleague Richard McManus at the Fluency Factory in Cohasset, Mass.

Although I spend a lot of time going over the exercises, they can actually be done in about 30 mins. and can thus be split with regular test prep. I’ve also tried to actually integrate SAT/ACT-based materials into the exercises as much as possible.

I’m currently working on the materials packet (probably in the range of 70-75 pages) and will hopefully have the whole thing ready by the week of November 7th. I haven’t yet determined the overall price, but the packet will be included along with the webinar because it would be pretty ridiculous to explain all of the exercises without, you know, actually providing them. Initially, I was going to focus on the ACT since that’s the test where speed and processing issues tend to become most apparent, but because the SAT is the more popular test, I’ve integrated some material from that exam as well.

A few points:

First, the webinar focuses on decoding issues rather than “reading” in the traditional test-prep sense. I want to be super clear about this so that people aren’t surprised.

Now, I understand that when reading issues are discussed in the context of older students, the assumption is that the conversation needs to focus on comprehension rather than letter-sound correspondences, but often that’s a false dichotomy. If a student is having difficulty reading the literal words on the page, and doing so fast enough to connect them to actual language, their comprehension is going to suffer.

But here’s the thing: it doesn’t work the other way around. There is absolutely no way to address a decoding issue via discussion of a text. Strong readers are not able to decode words because they have a personal connection to them; they are able to decode because their brains have “mapped” numerous letter-sound patterns and stored them for automatic retrieval so that they can process text at the speed of sight.

If a student is chronically guessing, skipping, and misreading words, particularly if they’re also reading slowly, something in that process got interrupted or was never developed properly, and their overall reading will not improve significantly until it’s addressed. And if you’re working with a student who reads very slowly and has comprehension problems, it’s entirely possible they have a decoding problem that no one’s ever picked up on. This happens far more often than you might imagine. (On the other hand, if a student can decode quickly and with 100% accuracy but can’t understand what they read, the material in the webinar probably* doesn’t apply to them.)

Obviously, you need to continue to discuss vocabulary, meaning, summarizing, etc. But if you’re a tutor, you probably already know how to do that just fine and don’t need any help from me; it’s the other piece that people generally don’t know about. I certainly didn’t, and it would have made my life a heck of lot easier when I was tutoring. At the very least, it would have given me a framework for understanding a lot of the difficulties I was seeing and saved me from 10 years of trying to figure out what to do about them.

Next: Even if you’ve read my blog posts on these issues, I’m still going to recommend that you watch Part 1 because I think I’ve managed to really crystallize the issues and bring them into focus in a test-prep context. I spent many, many hours (weeks, actually) organizing and rewriting slides to make things as clear as possible, and the exercises I cover in Part 2 will really only make sense in that context.

Finally, I have received some requests for one-on-one consulting, but I’m going to ask that even if you’re interested in working with me privately, you view the full webinar first. If what you see piques your interest and you want to learn more, then feel free to get in touch.



*Richard McManus has a famous story about a student who appeared to be reading aloud perfectly but understood virtually nothing that she read. He was baffled until a colleague recognized that the girl couldn’t hear vowel sounds properly. They worked on the vowels, and her comprehension improved markedly. Sometimes decoding problems aren’t obvious.

Coming soon: webinar for tutors working with struggling readers

Coming soon: webinar for tutors working with struggling readers

At the beginning of the summer, after I did my series of posts for tutors who have unexpectedly found themselves working with struggling high-school readers trying to prepare for college admissions tests, I started putting together a presentation for a webinar to address the major issues at play and demonstrate some of the exercises that can be used to help remediate such students.

Alas, my summer and the beginning of my fall got hijacked by my IELTS books, followed in rapid succession by necessary updates to my GMAT, ACT English, and ACT Reading books (followed by the IELTS again).

I’m happy to announce, however, that I finally seem to be back on track and am planning to record the webinar in the next week or so, and then people can access it at their convenience. I’m also doing my best to put together an accompanying materials pack that includes all the exercises covered. (more…)

How to identify and assess a reading problem: some strategies for tutors

How to identify and assess a reading problem: some strategies for tutors


In a recent post, I talked about the challenges that (ACT) tutors often face when working with struggling readers; I also discussed how different types of problems can signal difficulties in different component skills that combine to produce reading. In this post, I’m going to cover how to identify a reading problem and provide some strategies for determining whether it stems from decoding, aural comprehension, or both.

To quickly review, the Simple View (Gough and Tunmer, 1986) states that General Reading Ability = Decoding x Aural Comprehension, with the weaker factor limiting overall skill.

Proficient teenage-adult readers decode at approximately 200 words per minute, or the speed of speech; however, many struggling readers never learned sound-letter combinations well enough to “map” them orthographically—that is, to store them in their brains for automatic retrieval. As a result, they read slowly and dysfluently, and may guess at, skip, misread, reverse, add, or omit letters/words.

On the other side, weak vocabulary (particularly words denoting abstract concepts); difficulty making sense out of complex syntax; and poor general knowledge can cause students who are solid decoders to have trouble understanding what they read.

Problems can be restricted to either of these areas; however, they often involve both factors and together produce a general reading problem. (more…)

Working with struggling readers: what ACT tutors need to know

Working with struggling readers: what ACT tutors need to know

Image by GOLFX, Shutterstock


When Breaking the Code, the reading-instruction group I helped found last summer, held its most recent workshop last week, I stuck an announcement in my newsletter almost as an afterthought. A test-prep tutor had participated in our previous workshop and seemed to have gotten a lot of out of it, and it occurred to me that others might be interested. Nevertheless, I was a bit taken aback at the number of inquiries I received from ACT tutors—more emails, incidentally, than I got from elementary-school teachers.

In retrospect, this should not have been at all surprising, but I guess that given all the current backlash over standardized testing, I neglected to realize how many students are still getting tutored for college-admissions exams, and how many tutors are encountering the exact same kinds of reading problems I repeatedly saw. The issues I discuss here do also apply to the SAT (and any other standardized test), but I’m focusing on the ACT here because it brings a set of specific issues into particularly sharp focus.  (more…)

New Breaking the Code reading-instruction workshop scheduled for 5/15-16/21

New Breaking the Code reading-instruction workshop scheduled for 5/15-16/21

If you’re a tutor who regularly encounters students with reading problems and would like to have more tools to help them, Breaking the Code, the reading-instruction group I co-founded, will be holding a workshop on Saturday-Sunday 2-4:30pm, May 15-16, 2021 (via Zoom).

We’ll be covering a variety of exercises designed to strengthen letter-sound understanding and to improve speed, accuracy, and fluency. These are tools that can be used with students of any age, not just beginning readers, and that can go a long way toward remediating high-school aged students who habitually guess, switch, misread, insert, or omit words.

If you are interested in participating, please email us a brief description of your background and interest at breakingthecodeallways@gmail.com.


10 Tips for New Tutors

10 Tips for New Tutors


1) Teach real lessons; don’t just go over practice tests

Yes, the amount of time you can spend just teaching material is obviously subject to time constraints; and yes, there is a small subset of mostly high-achieving students who just need to take practice tests and go over what they missed. However, virtually all students in the low-middle score ranges are missing specific pieces of knowledge, and getting taught the material while working through actual questions that involve additional, potentially unfamiliar pieces of knowledge, is often overly taxing for their working memories—there are just too many pieces to juggle. Unless you are very pressed for time, use the student’s diagnostic to figure out what they actually need to learn, and spend some time just teaching it to them before gradually relating it to the test. Repeat for as many concepts as necessary, gradually moving to full-length sections and then tests as students become comfortably with the material.