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

Tutoring and Volunteering

Tutoring Strategies for the Primary Grades

Whether reading to a child, sharing reading, or listening to a child read aloud, there are many strategies a tutor can use to improve the skills of a young reader. Learn about the strategies — from modeling to K-W-L — that are useful for tutoring children in grades one through three.

In grades one through three — the primary grades — children learn about language and literacy through exploration.

Within this age group, children’s reading and writing skills vary greatly. A few children will enter first grade able to read with considerable fluency. Some children will learn to read and write with ease. Others need the one-on-one attention of a tutor to develop an understanding of basic concepts, build specific skills, gain confidence, and become motivated to read and write.

Below are tutoring strategies for working with children in the primary grades.

Reading together

Many tutoring programs use a scaffolding strategy that calls for tutors and children to read together. This does not replace reading aloud and independent reading, instead it is an additional strategy for promoting reading skills. The following are strategies tutors can use when reading with a child.

Explicit modeling

This type of modeling helps children learn to think about what they already know while they are reading. Talk about your thinking process – what you do to get meaning from the words and understand the text. For example: “That’s a new word. It begins with cl. I don’t know how to pronounce the next part – ue. Harriet is a spy. It must be clue because spies look for clues.”

Implicit modeling

This type of modeling also helps children think while they read. When a child is stuck on a word you can suggest strategies he or she can use to figure it out. The child can use these strategies immediately and when reading in the future. You might say, “Try reading the sentence again.” “Try reading the next sentence.” “Where did the boy go at the beginning of the story?” “Where do you think he might be going now?”

Choral reading

This strategy helps children become more fluent and confident readers. Hold the book together and ask the child to read along with you. Begin reading in a voice that is slightly louder and faster than the child’s. As the child becomes more comfortable with reading the text, lower your voice and slow down your reading speed. If the child slows down, increase your volume and speed again.

Echo reading

This is another way to help a child develop confidence and fluency. Read aloud a line of text. Ask the child to read the same line. Continue taking turns reading and rereading the same lines. When the child begins to read with more expression and fluency, suggest that he read aloud on his own.

Paired Reading

Paired reading is a technique that allows tutors to vary the amount of support they provide to a child while reading aloud together. Explain to the child that sometimes you will read aloud together — duet reading — and sometimes he or she will read alone —solo reading. Agree on two signals the child can use to switch back and forth from solo to duet reading. When the child gives you the duet signal, you will begin reading together. When the child feels ready for solo reading, she will give the solo signal and you will stop reading.

Helping children develop decoding strategies

Engaged readers automatically use decoding, or cueing, strategies to figure out new words in text. Marie Clay, developer of the Reading Recovery program, encourages teachers and tutors to help children learn at least four approaches to decoding. These approaches include:

  • focusing on the meaning — semantics
  • relating sounds to letters — phonics
  • looking at how words and phrases are formed — syntax
  • recognizing sight words — visual

Some children develop decoding strategies over time with little direct instruction. Other children need one-on-one instruction to help them learn decoding strategies. Here are some tutoring strategies for decoding.

Focus on the meaning

Young readers often figure out a new word by thinking about what would make sense in a sentence or story. You can help by suggesting that the child look at the pictures, then read a sentence again. If a child’s guess at a word is incorrect, ask questions such as, “Does that make sense? What did the girl do at the last house she visited?”

Relate sounds to letters

Children apply what they already know about the relationships between letters and sounds to read a new word. For example, a child can read the word train, because she knows the tr in this word makes the same sound as the tr at the beginning of truck, a word she already knows. You can help by reminding a child what she already knows about letter-sound relationships and helping her use this knowledge to attack new words.

Look at how words and phrases are formed

Compound words are formed by combining two words (e.g., playground). You can help a child read an unfamiliar compound word by demonstrating how to break it down into its parts. “That was a good guess – raincoat. You recognized the first part of the word, rain. But look at the second part of the word again. I’ll cover the first part. Now, what does the second part say? That’s right, it’s bow. So what is the word? Yay! You got it, it’s rainbow. Now the story makes more sense. After the rain, she saw a rainbow, not a raincoat.”

Recognize sight words

High-frequency sight words make up about 50 percent of the words we read and often cause children problems. When a child masters high frequency sight words he experiences success which can boost his self-confidence and interest in reading. You can help children make flash cards for sight words to use with you during tutoring sessions and with his family at home. You and the child can celebrate and track progress in mastering sight words by recording them in a journal, making a paper chain, or adding “sight word leaves” to a tree. Here are 60 high-frequency sight words.

High-Frequency Sight Words

Use multiple cues

When reading with a child you can model how to use several decoding systems at one time as problem solving strategies for determining how to read an unfamiliar word. This process encourages a child to think about what might make sense in the sentence. “What would fit here? The sentence begins, I put cr, then I see the word soup. But what might she put in the soup that begins with cr. Oh, I know. It must be crackers. The girl put crackers in her soup.”

Helping children understand what they read

Reading involves making sense of the written word, or, in today’s popular phrase, making meaning. Some children pronounce words correctly and read with apparent ease, but don’t know the meaning of what they have read. As children increase their vocabularies, they begin to take more meaning from text.

You can help by encouraging a child to talk about what she has read, by pointing out new words and explaining their meaning, and by using strategies such as the K-W-L approach to help children understand what they read.

The K-W-L approach includes the following steps:

K – What I know.

Help the child list what he already knows about a topic that is discussed in a book he is going to read.

W – What I want to know.

Help the child think of some questions he has about this topic and add them to the chart.

L – What I learned or still need to learn.

Explain that while he reads the book – alone or with you – he can think about what he is learning. After the reading, discuss the book and add what was learned to the chart along with any information he still needs to learn.

Here is an example of a K-W-L chart.

Book: Everybody Eats RiceTopic: Rice
K – What I knowW – What I want to knowL – What I learned or still need to learn

Rice is white.

It puffs up when cooked.

It comes in a bag or a box.

Who eats rice?

Where does it come from?

Learned: People cook rice in lots of different ways.

Need to learn: Where does rice come from? How does it grow?

Helping children become engaged writers

Many reading and tutoring programs include writing as a part of each session because these two language skills are closely connected. As children become more skilled readers, they also improve their writing skills. The opposite is also true — writing contributes to growth in phonics, spelling, word recognition, memory, and reading comprehension. Keeping a reading journal together is one way to encourage writing.

Many children enjoy writing their own books. They might make up a completely new story or follow the same pattern as used in a favorite book. For example, a child might make up a story about going on a tiger hunt instead of a bear hunt or put herself in the story instead of the main character.

Tutors can adapt the writing workshop approach used by many teachers in the primary grades. This approach allows a child to experience writing as a process that evolves over time. You can serve as the audience for the child’s writing. The writing workshop includes the following steps:

Choosing a topic

The child decides what she wants to write about. You can help the child come up with a topic by thinking about his own experiences or books he has read.


The child is likely to write several drafts of the same piece. Writing evolves over time so first drafts differ greatly from final ones. During the drafting step, young children may talk and draw as much as they write. Many times their first drafts are quite short.

First drafts are likely to have grammatical, spelling, and punctuation mistakes. At this point in the writing process, you do not need to correct these mistakes. The child will correct these mistakes as she revises, rewrites, and edits subsequent drafts. You can support the child by responding to the content of her drafts and asking questions to help her focus on how to express her ideas clearly.


The child might decide she is no longer interested in the topic she chose or she might decide to expand it. Younger children are likely to make their stories longer. More experienced writers might add to descriptions, move sections, or rewrite sentences or paragraphs. You can continue to offer support by answering questions, making suggestions, and responding to the child’s ideas.


In classroom writing workshops, children discuss their drafts and get encouragement and feedback from teachers and peers. You can assume this role by listening, asking questions, and making comments that guide the child to improve writing drafts.


This helps children understand how their audience responds to their writing. They learn what the audience understood and what they did not. This helps children make their messages as clear as possible. You can serve as the audience for a child’s writing and encourage the child’s family to do the same.


Older children finalize their drafts by reviewing and correcting errors in punctuation, grammar, and spelling. Ask the child to circle the words she thinks are misspelled. Many children have a visual memory that lets them know that a word is not written conventionally, even if they don’t know how to spell it. Help the child use a dictionary to look up correct spellings.


This step lets the child make the writing available to others. A tutoring program could accomplish this through a newsletter or collection of children’s finished work. A child might bind her work with a cover and illustrations and share it with her family and teacher.


Adapted from: How Tutors Can Support Young Readers. (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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