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Female tutor working on-on-one with an elementary student on reading

Tutoring and Volunteering

Developing a Tutoring Program

A tutoring program that will best serve children’s needs should be carefully developed with those needs in mind. Here are eight steps to developing a tutoring program, from setting goals to developing a curriculum.

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The following is an eight step process for starting a successful new tutoring program.

Step 1. Assess the need

The first task of a planning group is to assess the need for a tutoring program. The community may already have assessment information such as test scores, retention rates, and anecdotal reports from families and teachers.

The community assessment should include an inventory of current reading initiatives, with an indication of their nature and scope, in order to measure existing services against need, and to pinpoint the gaps to be filled by the new program. This will minimize duplication, build on experience, mobilize resources, and avoid the tensions that can arise when groups who may see themselves as the “real” pioneers are left out of new program initiatives.

This information will help the planners focus on the children who are most in need of tutoring. Research indicates that four out of ten children, on average, are at risk in terms of their literacy development.

The needs assessment should identify target groups of children and areas of the community at greatest risk. Special attention should be given to Title I public schools and to neighborhoods served by Head Start and Even Start. Planners can use the assessment results to design a program that builds on children’s skills and interests and provides activities of direct benefit to children.

Step 2. Define the mission

The next step is to define the tutoring program’s overall mission. In developing the mission statement, planners should consider the important contributions to supporting children’s literacy development made by families and community institutions such as Head Start, child care, and other preschool programs; the public schools; and libraries, museums, and out-of-school time community programs.

This brief statement should describe what the program intends to do to address the identified needs. The mission statement guides planners as they design, implement, and evaluate the program. For example:

The mission of the Kaleidoscope Tutoring Program is to motivate children to want to read for pleasure and to learn, to help children become engaged readers and writers, and to make sure children have access to high quality books and reading and writing materials.

With a mission statement such as this, planners can proceed with setting goals and objectives that the program expects to achieve.

Step 3. Set goals and objectives

The goals for the program will be written in general terms. The America Reads Challenge – all children will read well and independently by the end of third grade – is an example of a goal.

Objectives are clear and measurable descriptions of specific outcomes related to the reading and literacy achievements of children. They might address the ages or grade levels to be served, how reading specialists will be involved, how many children will be enrolled, how many volunteer tutors will be recruited, how schools and community groups will be involved, where tutoring will take place, and how success will be measured. For example:

The Kaleidoscope Tutoring program will enroll and offer tutoring services to 25 children in grades 1 through 3 at each of five sites.

All of the program’s services, polices, and practices will be based on the mission statement and the proposed goals and objectives.

Step 4. Create tutoring program partnerships

The tutoring program partnerships should include two or more organizations with extensive experience in encouraging children’s literacy. One partner should be a school or school district. Other partners might include:

  • A Head Start agency or child care center
  • An Even Start program
  • An AmeriCorps project
  • An after-school program
  • A Senior Corps project (e.g., a Foster Grandparents Program or a Retired and Senior Volunteer Program)
  • Parents’ associations
  • The local library
  • A museum
  • A community college, college, or university (through academic departments and the work study office)
  • A business
  • A literacy group
  • A youth-serving agency
  • A Tribal Government

An existing program could add tutoring to the array of services they already provide to children and families. Tutoring activities could operate at the same site or at satellite sites such as a housing complex, library, or religious organization.

Step 5. Design the program

The program design describes how the tutoring program will carry out its mission and achieve its goals and objectives.

In designing the program, planners will need to discuss and answer questions such as the following:

  • How will children in need of tutoring be identified? Teachers will refer children to the program whose reading skills are below those of their peers (the lowest 50 percent or the lowest 25 percent).
  • How and when will the program conduct pre- and post-testing? The program will use the _________ reading skills assessment to measure children’s skills at entry and at one-month intervals.
  • How will the program ensure that children who need special education or other services, in addition to or in place of tutoring, will receive such help? Children suspected of having special needs will be referred (with written parental permission) for screening and/or evaluation through the local education agency. The tutoring program will participate in planning and implementing follow-up strategies and services.
  • Where and when will tutoring take place? Tutoring will take place at school, two afternoons per week.
  • How will the program ensure that tutoring services delivered to school-age children during the regular school day are beneficial and outweigh missing regular classroom activities? Tutors will communicate regularly with families and teachers to track children’s reading progress and net educational gains. In general, tutoring sessions will not be scheduled at times when the child would otherwise be participating in reading activities in the regular classroom.
  • How will the program track children’s progress? Tutors, families, and children will work together to create and maintain portfolios that document children’s progress.
  • How will the program recruit and screen volunteer tutors? The program will work with __________ University to recruit work-study students who are majoring in education or a related field. The school system will handle screening through its existing agreement with state authorities.
  • How will the program support the tutors? All tutors will take part in a three-day initial orientation and attend biweekly workshops conducted by the program’s reading specialist. Tutors will participate in a minimum of 36 hours of training on reading and literacy development. The reading specialist will observe tutoring sessions at least monthly and provide feedback and technical assistance.

Family involvement is another key area to be addressed in the program design. Planners can build in strategies for involving families, establishing partnerships with families, and encouraging family literacy. Other parts of the program design include:

  • A communication system for reading specialists, teachers, tutors, families, and program staff
  • Initial and ongoing training and supervision for tutors (see Step 7 below)
  • Policies and procedures
  • Record keeping requirements
  • A plan for ongoing monitoring and evaluation of the program’s effectiveness in meeting specified goals and objectives

Useful resources for program developers are Help America Read: A Handbook for Volunteers and the companion Coordinators Guide by Gay Su Pinnell and Irene C. Fountas. The authors are experts in reading development and knowledgeable about how national service programs can partner with community-based literacy programs.

Having designed an overall framework for the program, planners can review the appropriateness of different reading models.

A few questions to ask during an interview with volunteer tutors

  • What is there about this position that appeals to you the most?
  • What is there about working with children that makes you enjoy it?
  • How do you imagine your relationship with your students?
  • Tell me about your understanding of the challenges these children face?
  • Are there any types of children you feel you may have a hard time working with?
  • Can you tell me about any experiences you may have had working with members of ethnic groups?

Chattanooga Family Service Corps in Chattanooga, Tennessee, shared the above interview questions through the America Reads listserv, July 23, 1997.

Step 6. Select or adapt a reading curriculum

Planners might develop their own curriculum or, more feasibly, select a specific research-based reading curriculum that has been proven successful with children whose reading skills and needs are similar to those of the children to be targeted through the tutoring program.

A research-based curriculum is one that is consistent with existing knowledge about how children learn to read. Reading One-One, Reading Recovery, and Success for All are widely-used curricula.

Tutoring programs can involve their reading specialists in adapting the chosen reading curriculum to address local needs and circumstances. In the adaptation, it will be essential to ensure that the curriculum is suitable for use by tutors with the level of skills and amount of training that are likely to be characteristic of those participating in the program.

The most effective reading curricula have built-in opportunities for children to:

  • Experience incremental successes (e.g., reread a familiar passage independently)
  • Reinforce a few skills and concepts (e.g., review sight words)
  • Move to the next step (e.g., master new sight words or read a more complex passage)

Since school administrators and reading specialists are among the key stake-holders to be included in the planning team, they can ensure that the reading curriculum supports the school’s reading approach and the program design.

Regardless of the specific model the program will use, it should include a structured, yet flexible, format for tutoring sessions.

A consistent structure helps both children and tutors to stay organized and focused on meeting individual goals. Children feel a sense of competence from being able to predict what comes next in each tutoring session.

A flexible format allows tutors to use strategies that are tailored to address each child’s learning style, skills, interests, and needs. The flexibility ensures that each child will receive individualized and developmentally appropriate support.

The length of each tutoring session should be appropriate for the ages of the children involved and reflect a variety of planned activities. Evaluations of tutoring programs have shown positive results from sessions lasting up to 60 minutes. Longer sessions do not necessarily increase a child’s literacy and reading development.

The READ*WRITE*NOW Reading Partners Tutoring Program suggests 35-minute tutoring sessions that follow this agenda:

  • Quick review of last session (3 minutes)
  • Rereading of a story (5 minutes)
  • Paired Reading of a new story (10 minutes)
  • Vocabulary and comprehension exercises (5 minutes)
  • Writing activity plus feedback (12 minutes)

A 40-minute tutoring session might include these segments:

  • Opening activity and review (7 minutes>
  • Instructional Goal 1 (10 minutes)
  • Instructional Goal 2 (10 minutes)
  • Reading activity (5 minutes)
  • Closing activity (5 minutes)
  • Follow-up assignment (3 minutes)

The opening activity and review gets the lesson started. It is an opportunity to reinforce the tutoring relationship, help the child focus attention and get ready for the session, review what took place during the previous session, and discuss the follow-up activity.

Instructional goals focus on the child’s needs. Usually one is related to reading and one to writing. Goals might come from the child’s teacher. Completing several short activities helps a child feel a sense of accomplishment and success, which increases the child’s motivation for learning.

A reading activity allows the child to practice reading something of his or her own choice or something the tutor selected. The reading material should be at an appropriate level so the child can read it with ease. Tutors might select a book on a topic of interest to the child or introduce a new book they think the child will enjoy. Many children like to read the same book or passage again and again because it helps them feel a sense of mastery. Tutors can read aloud to non-readers. During the reading activity a child might read alone, take turns reading with the tutor, or engage in paired reading.

The closing activity encourages the child to think about what he or she has learned in this session and previous ones. The activity could involve talking, writing in a journal, or making comments that the tutor writes down.

Follow-up activities are a way to reinforce and build on what took place in the tutoring session. Many tutoring programs ask children to do independent reading or read with their families every day.

Step 7. Provide support for tutors

Qualified tutors are a critical element in the success of any tutoring program. The stakeholders will need a plan that specifies how the program will ensure that tutors have the knowledge and skills needed to carry out their roles effectively.

Support begins with a comprehensive orientation prior to a tutor’s first meeting with a child. Continued support is provided by a reading specialist through ongoing training and supervision using methods such as workshops, group meetings, and on-site visits.

The orientation gives tutors background information and opportunities to practice using the reading curriculum. The agenda should include plenty of time for discussion and questions. Ideally, orientation takes place at the tutoring site. If this is not possible, tutors can visit the site before their first session with a child. The orientation can address topics such as these:

What children are like:

  • An overview of child development
  • How most children learn to read
  • Strategies for guiding children’s behavior
  • Building a trusting relationship with a child
  • Learning disabilities that may affect a child’s reading skills

Getting to know families:

  • Creating partnerships with families
  • Sharing information about children’s progress
  • Respecting diversity

The tutoring approach:

  • The reading curriculum used by the tutoring program
  • The reading approach used by the school system
  • Tailoring the curriculum to address individual needs, planning the first session
  • Assessing the child’s reading abilities and tracking the child’s progress

Support for tutors:

  • Ongoing training and supervision
  • Resources (materials, books, workshops, web sites, listservs), the role of the reading specialist
  • Strategies for handling problem situations

Working as a team:

  • Coordinating with tutoring program partners (e.g., the school; child care or Head Start program; Even Start, HIPPY or other family literacy program; library; community groups)
  • Following the tutoring program’s policies and procedures
  • Handling problem situations
  • Making referrals, as appropriate

Ongoing training and supervision for tutors should acknowledge and build on past experiences, provide information that can be used immediately, and allow for practice and skill development.

The training might address a range of topics; however, all will be tied to effective implementation of the reading curriculum. Training content should cover the reading or emerging literacy approach used by the school, Head Start, or child care program and how to ensure that the tutoring curriculum and format builds on what children are learning in these educational settings. Including the orientation and pre-service training, a minimum of 36 hours of training in literacy and reading development is recommended.

Tutors will need continuing support in addressing children’s unique needs. If the program serves children with severe reading difficulties, training should address the multiple factors that contribute to such reading difficulties and the tutoring strategies and other special services known to be effective in helping children gain the skills needed to learn to read.

With the reading specialist’s assistance, the tutoring program can establish a resource library of professional journals, books, videotapes, and other materials about the teaching of reading. Tutors should be invited to use the resource library to increase their understanding of literacy development.

One of the most effective ways to support tutors is through on-site observation and feedback focused on skill development. The reading specialist can schedule regular visits to the program to observe tutors interacting with children and to give feedback on what he or she saw and heard. As an alternative, tutors can support each other by conducting peer observations or by videotaping each other’s tutoring sessions then meeting to view and discuss the tapes.

Here is how one tutoring program plans to provide ongoing training and supervision for tutors.

Kaleidoscope Tutoring Program – Ongoing training and supervision


Tutor meetings

Every other Wednesday, 7 to 9 p.m., pizza provided.

  • Updates – from last meeting
  • Sharing – tutoring successes and challenges
  • Special topic – presented by guest speaker, a tutor, or the reading specialist
  • New resources – now available in the resource library
  • Skill building – e.g., motivating young readers

Reflection journals

  • Kept by each tutor
  • Discussed with reading specialist, at tutor’s request

Individual support

  • Biweekly observation and feedback by reading specialist
  • Biweekly observation and feedback with peer (tutor)
  • Monthly “catch up” meeting with program director
  • Individual meetings, at tutor’s request

In addition to orientation and ongoing training and supervision, programs should provide a handbook that can serve as a ready reference.

Step 8. Implement the plans

As the development process moves from planning to implementation, the key stakeholders can continue to play a role in operating and evaluating the program. They might become program staff or volunteers, serve as members of an advisory group, and continue to provide input related to their areas of expertise.


Excerpted from: Developing a Tutoring Program. (December, 1997). On the Road to Reading: A Guide for Community Partners. America Reads Challenge. A Joint Project of the Corporation for National Service, the U.S. Department of Education, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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