Reading in the Brain

If you are curious about what happens in the brain when humans read, this is the book for you! I am not qualified to write a true book review (nor am I attempting to), but I hope to summarize some of the main topics in the book. What happens in the brain when we are reading is no longer a mystery. We all have precious extra time outside of work and family, so I hope this can be the first of many book “glimpses” to help you prioritize your next nightstand book of choice.

From Letters to Language

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a self-proclaimed word nerd. So, it should be no surprise that I enjoyed every inch of this book. Stanislas Dehaene explains in detail how visual information comes in through the eyes, gets sorted into different parts of the brain and affects how we learn to read. He also explains how we have adapted our reading and writing to pre-existing brain parts.  While we are wired for language, we are not wired for reading.  However, parts of brain and neurons have also adapted to the letters and languages we have created. This is true across all languages even ones with pictorial aspects like Chinese.

All visual information comes in through the eyes, but our brain processes specifically just letters and words through an area in the brain he refers to as the letterbox area. This part of the brain activates in brain scans for written words and not for spoken words.  This complex brain processing bounds sequences of letters together so that it can easily decode and access meaning. All of this happens in less than 1/5th of a second. Dehaene proposes that during our schooling, the brain rewires itself. Our brain’s neurons go through neuronal recycling when adapting to cultural changes like letters. So, word recognition occurs in the brain area where the neurons are most efficient for reading. Pretty fascinating, right?

Stages of Reading

When learning to read, children go through three stages of reading: the pictorial stage, the phonological stage, and the orthographic stage. Dehaene goes into great detail explaining the stages and how they can inform our instruction. In order to read well, children must be explicitly and systematically taught grapheme-phoneme instruction.  The automaticity of reading leads to the best performance in sentence and text comprehension.

The Dyslexic Brain

In dyslexic students, the anatomy of the brain is disorganized (specifically in the temporal lobe).  Using brain scans, Dehaene explains exactly what happens in the brains of those with dyslexia. Would you like to know why so many dyslexic students mix up b and d? Read this book to find out how our innate symmetry in relation to the world around us affects how we view letters.  Are you curious what Dehaene says about multisensory instruction like Orton Gillingham for students with dyslexia? Does it really help?

This book is not intended to be a teaching tool per se. But understanding reading in the brain will absolutely help shape and direct your instruction. Don’t be afraid to put on your science hat and learn the research behind how our brain works. Dehaene presents the information in a way that all of us can comprehend. Enjoy!

I Love Being Wrong

For some people, saying the words, “I am wrong,” might be incredibly difficult. But for me, saying or thinking the words excite me. I am energized by learning something that contradicts what I previously thought.  Is that odd to admit?

As organizational psychologist, Adam Grant said in his podcast and in his new book, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What you Don’t Know,

“In a changing world, you have to be willing and able to change your mind. Otherwise, your expertise can fail, your opinions get out of date, and your ideas fall flat.”

Adam Grant

In a recent meta-analysis of 81 studies, past experience rarely affects future performance. What matters is past performance and current motivation and ability. I have found that some people do not admit they are wrong because they think it is a sign of failure.  I feel like a failure if I rest on my laurels and refuse to seek out new information.  Instead, I prefer to go out of my way to read research and listen to podcasts that do not necessarily support my thinking. It can be uncomfortable.  But how am I to learn if I only surround myself with information that already supports my thinking?

No matter how new information informs my current thinking, those ideas are not my identity.  My identity is one of constant learning and rethinking and not one of already knowing.  I value curiosity and humility over conviction.

We are in a time of stark polarization in politics, education, climate…you name it and there are two opposing sides.  But what if we focused our energy on being open to learning instead of proving our points?  What if we all delighted in being wrong?  If nothing else, wouldn’t that make us all slightly less wrong than we were before? 😊

Orton Gillingham Lesson-Part 2

In the first part of an Orton Gillingham lesson we practice phonemic awareness, blending, and letter-sound correspondence. After that, it is crucial that students review and reinforce previously learned skills.  The student must also learn new information and practice this new skill in their reading and writing. Concepts taught and reviewed cover ALL strands of reading and language to foster skilled reading.

Review and Reinforcement (R&R):

This section of an Orton Gillingham lesson involves the student reading and spelling words and sentences. The skills reviewed in this section come straight from the student’s card pack (discussed in my earlier blog post here).  These usually include ten of the previously taught skills that need to be reviewed to reinforce the concepts.  They are also based on the tutor’s diagnostic notes from previous lessons about student errors. Students in the Orton Gillingham approach require many more repetitions of reading/spelling a skill than traditional learners.  Fluent readers may only need to read a word 1-4 times to be able to read it with automaticity.  An Orton student may take 30 or more times to secure a new skill. 

In the R&R portion of my Orton lessons, I ask the student to read aloud a list of words and at least two sentences. I provide immediate error correction as he reads. I then dictate words aloud for him to spell.  The student can spell on paper, a white board, note cards, etc. I do recommend having the surface be one that is semi-permanent.  That way the student can read back all of the words he spelled before moving on.  You can also check for errors more easily if he does not have to erase it before writing the next word. You can also use these spelled words to layer in other skills such as syllable division, syllable type sorting, grammar, fluency, etc. 

Example of an Orton Gillingham Lesson by Orton Gillingham Mama

New Information in an Orton Gillingham Lesson:

I follow a scope and sequence of skills that moves from simple to complex.  Many people ask me about different Orton Gillingham sequences.  A Fellow in the Orton Gillingham Academy and mentor of mine once told me, “Don’t be so bound by a sequence that you lose sight of what each student needs.”  An Orton Gillingham tutor should be skilled enough to follow a general sequence, but flexible enough to individualize what skill is taught next. So, based on student errors, areas of mastery (determined by initial and ongoing assessments), and my sequence, I decide what skill I will introduce next.

In this section I explicitly teach a phonics skill, syllable type, spelling rule, syllable division rule, morpheme, or a grammar topic.  This includes a visual for the student to add to his binder (see picture below), examples, words to read and spell, and sentences to read and spell.  There are multisensory techniques and/or games to support this learning as well.  I also intentionally weave in skills that need further review from previous student errors.

Oral Reading and More:

The last part of my Orton Gillingham lessons includes some combination of oral reading, comprehension, grammar, written expression, vocabulary, and a new information recap.  With my younger students, I try to incorporate a decodable text that focuses on the new information skill.  For example, if I taught the -ck rule, I could read with him Mack and Betts.  With my older students, I might pick a book that focuses on a morpheme such as sub-.  For that we might read a non-fiction story about submarines that submerge.  Within the text we work on building vocabulary knowledge, comprehension, and highlighting grammar topics.  When possible, I also ask the student to practice written expression organization, sentence building, grammar, and/or punctuation.  And finally, we have a short recap of the new information from our lesson.

-ck Decodable text by Orton Gillingham Mama

There is SO much to include in each Orton Gillingham lesson.  Each one is individualized to the specific needs of the student.  Quality Orton Gillingham lessons are also layered to provide extra review and space to cover all strands of literacy. And while balancing all of the key Orton principles and layered necessities, we also try to:

“Go as fast as you can, but as slowly as you must.”

-Anna Gillingham

Orton Gillingham Lesson

This is Part 1 of a series of posts about what is included in an Orton Gillingham lesson plan. Many assume an Orton Gillingham lesson only includes phonics. While explicit instruction of many phonics skills is a large part of an OG lesson, a quality lesson covers SO many more aspects of our language. This post will dive deeper into the first part of an Orton lesson including the visual drill, the auditory drill, and a blending drill/phonological awareness activity.

A Little Foundation First:

The English language is an alphabetic one.  Specifically, it is made up of 26 letters and 44 phonemes.  Although decoding depends on letter-sound correspondence, it is also important to ensure that students know the letter names

-Firstly, knowing the letter names provides a common language for discussing letters, sounds, syllables, and words. 

-Secondly, many letters or letter combinations have more than one sound.  For example, the letter <c> can say /k/ or /s/.  It will be crucial for the student to know the letter names before learning the different sounds they may represent.

-Thirdly, many letter names provide a hint to the letter sound.  For example, the name of the letter <p> starts with the sound that it represents (/p/).  So, learning the letter names will help the student master many letter-sound correspondences.

-Students need to solidify their letter-names so that they can fully engage in discussions about these letters and how the sounds in our language are mapped to them.

The Visual and Auditory Drill of an Orton Gillingham Lesson:

A quality Orton Gillingham lesson is completely individualized and based on the needs of the student.  Using initial and/or ongoing assessments and error tracking, the teacher includes 10 phonogram cards in the drill pack.  The teacher will review these skills in the visual/auditory drill and as part of the student’s word and sentence reading/spelling EACH lesson.  As the student masters a skill, the teacher then removes that card from the pack.  After the teacher introduces a new skill, she adds that card to the drill pack for review.

Video an example of the Visual and Auditory Drill of an Orton Gillingham Lesson

VISUAL DRILL

After a warm-up drill to prime the student’s brain for learning, the teacher will initiate the VISUAL DRILL.  In this drill, the teacher shows the student the front of the card with the grapheme on the front. The student says the sound that the grapheme represents and simultaneously traces the letter(s) shape on a textured surface.  If the student knows more than one sound for the grapheme, he says both sounds and traces for each sound. This continues for all cards in the deck.

AUDITORY DRILL

In the AUDITORY DRILL, the teacher faces the card deck towards herself. She says the sound of the first grapheme. The student then repeats the sound.  Next, he writes all the spellings in order of frequency that he has learned so far that represent that grapheme. This continues until the teachers dictates all the sounds and the student writes the corresponding spellings for each sound.

Traditionally this has been done in person with the teacher sitting across from the student. Recently there has been more need for virtual sessions. So you may want to consider using FREE online card decks like these for virtual tutoring sessions. If you want written instructions for the visual and auditory drills, check out this FREE resource.

Back of a set of cards for the Visual and Auditory Drill

Blending Drill and/or Phonemic Awareness:

As part of any good Orton Gillingham lesson, the teacher creates the lesson based on the individual needs of the student.  For this part of the lesson, some students may require a phonemic awareness drill, some a blending drill, and others may need both. 

Phonemic Awareness drill:

There is a continuum of phonemic awareness skills.  The teacher should first assess these skills and explicitly teach them to the student as needed in a systematic manner.  These drills include only letter SOUNDS.  You can read more about those skills in another of my blog posts here. Below is one example of a phonemic awareness drill.  This requires the student to isolate a sound and then delete the sound.  Higher-level PA drills like this lead to orthographic mapping of sounds for efficient, long term memory and retrieval of words.

Phonemic Awareness Activity Deleting a Phoneme

Blending Drill:

While phonemic awareness deals with only sounds, a traditional blending drill requires the student to blend together sounds represented by letters.  When first starting out, work with only two sounds/graphemes at a time.  Work up to the student blending CVC syllables and then words with consonant blends.  These can be real or nonsense words. The student’s ability to blend more letter sounds will often depend greatly on their phonemic awareness skills.  Below is an example of a simple blending drill of CVC syllables. 

Blending drill with CVC

These are the first parts of a basic Orton Gillingham lesson.  In this other blog post, I will dive into the review and reinforcement parts of a lesson, new information, grammar, oral reading, comprehension, vocabulary, written expression, and more!

After comprehensive training, teachers learn how to provide immediate and specific error correction.  They also learn how to offer non-verbal cues, handwriting instruction, and multisensory techniques to support the student’s learning. Most importantly, they learn the “why” behind the parts of each lesson and how the skills weave together to support overall skilled reading. All of these components can be done in person or virtually. I encourage you to read the blog post of one of my colleagues, Carolina Orton-Gillingham, here on how to set up an Orton lesson for a virtual tutoring lesson. All parts of an Orton Gillingham lesson can be done virtually and with multisensory strategies. Carolina Orton-Gillingham explains all the components you will need to make your virtual lesson complete!

Would you like to learn more about becoming an Orton Gillingham tutor? Check out quality trainings here. I hope that you will follow my blog and read my next post about other important parts of an Orton Gillingham lesson.

Orton Gillingham Principles

Orton Gillingham is an approach and not a program.  It is a systematic approach to teaching literacy to individuals for whom reading, writing, and spelling do not come easily. Many of these individuals have dyslexia, but many others can benefit from the structured literacy approach as well.  In the hands of a well-trained Orton tutor, the approach is comprehensive, flexible, and individualized. And while each student’s lesson will be unique to her needs, every good lesson shares the same Orton Gillingham principles.

Principles of the Orton Gillingham Approach:

  • Individualized– Based on comprehensive literacy assessments, Orton Gillingham teachers plan individualized lessons based on the student’s needs.  While there is a general scope and sequence, there is no set order of skills.  Each child’s path will differ slightly depending on what skills he masters and how long it takes him to master other skills. 
  • Diagnostic and Prescriptive– The teacher plans each lesson for the student based on errors from previous lessons. The teacher takes notes as the student progresses through a lesson noting and immediately addressing any errors.
Example of Prescriptive and Diagnostic notes on an Orton Gillingham Lesson plan
  • Systematic– Concepts move from simple to more complex.  For example, teachers directly teach the sound-symbol relationships, syllables, syllable division rules (for multi-syllabic words), spelling rules, morphemes, etc. 
Orton Gillingham Mama’s Sequence
  • Sequential and Cumulative– Orton teachers include skills from previously taught material in every lesson.  Students with dyslexia often need multiple repetitions of a skill before they master it.  A well-trained tutor tracks student errors and weaves in those skills as review as needed.  The information taught also builds upon previously taught material.  This ensures that almost every word or syllable type the student encounters is one that he is capable of decoding or spelling. 
  • Explicit Instruction– All skills are explicitly and directly taught to the student. A student should not be expected to know information that has not been explicitly taught to him.  After direct instruction of a skill, the teacher scaffolds the instruction so that the student eventually reads or spells the skills independently and with automaticity. 
  • Multisensory– The Orton Gillingham approach utilizes visual, auditory, and tactile/kinesthetic pathways simultaneously to learn content.  This supports retention and retrieval of information. Multisensory techniques are used throughout an Orton Gillingham lesson. These may include tracing letters while saying the sound, swopping syllables, coding vowels, charting, tracking while reading, highlighting spelling patterns, and more.
Multisensory technique of phoneme blending with a rope
  • Structured Literacy– The teacher presents information in an ordered manner that merges together previously taught material and new information.  This does not just consist of phonics, but rather the full breadth of our language.  This includes (but is not limited to):

Phonemic awareness

Phonics

-Syllables

-Spelling patterns

-Morphology

-Written Expression

-Grammar

-Vocabulary

-Comprehension

If you are interested in learning how get trained as an Orton Gillingham tutor, I encourage you to read more here.

Phonemic Awareness or Phonological?

The terms “phonological awareness” and “phonemic awareness” are often confused with one another. Yes, they sound the same and they both involve the spoken parts of language. However, they are not only distinct, but you may be surprised to learn when and how you should teach each of them.

Important Terms to Understand:

Phonemes are the individual sounds in spoken words. When you see the symbol // with a letter in between the slashes, this represents the sound of the letter.

Phonological awareness is a more general term. It is having an awareness to larger parts of spoken words, such as syllables or word endings like -at in cat. Having the ability to recognize rhymes and count syllables are two examples of having phonological awareness. Phonological awareness does NOT INVOLVE PRINT! 

Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness. Specifically, it is understanding that words are made up of smaller parts. These parts can be broken down into individual sounds. I think of phonological awareness as the umbrella and phonemic awareness is underneath it.

Phonological Awareness Umbrella

Phonological Awareness or Phonemic Awareness?

There is a hierarchy of phonological awareness skills. Preschool students should practice skills such as rhyming, alliteration, and syllables. These build a strong foundation for learning.

But, once students reach Kindergarten and first grade, instruction should shift to phonemic awareness. Research tells us that while broader phonological awareness skills (such as syllables and rhyming) are important, a student does not have to master those to reach phonemic proficiency. Many programs spend too much time on the awareness/sensitivity to the larger speech segments and not enough time on the smaller speech sounds.

What Does This Mean For Your Instruction?

Growing research evidence tells us that kindergarten and first grade teachers should focus more on explicit, systematic instruction of PHONEMIC AWARENESS rather than PHONOLOGICAL AWARENESS. Phonemic awareness should be a goal for kindergarten students. It is the phoneme-level awareness that directly supports learning to read and spell.

Phonemic awareness sequence: These skills work on a continuum of simple to complex (with isolating being the simplest and manipulating being the most difficult).

  1. Isolate– The first step in phonemic awareness is recognizing that words can be broken down into their individual sounds (phonemes).  Students must be then be able to isolate sounds. You should directly teach them how to identify the first sound, then the last sound, and then the medial sounds.
  2. Blend– Next, students should blend sounds together. Start with fewer phonemes and work up to blending more phonemes. For example, it will be easier for a student to blend together /a/ /t/ than to blend together /s/ /t/ /o/ /m/ /p/.
  3. Segment– Students will then work on breaking apart sounds in a word. A simple example is segmenting the spoken word it into /i/ /t/. A more complex example would be segmenting a word with blends such as grand into /g/ /r/ /a/ /n/ /d/.
  4. Manipulate- The most difficult phonemic skill involves manipulating a phoneme in some way. An example would be, “Say hand. Now say it again, but instead of /h/ say /l/.” The student would respond with land.

Phonics:

As you explicitly teach these phonemic awareness skills, you should ALSO directly teach the letter-sound correspondences needed for word reading. Phonemic awareness is not a goal in an of itself. It is a crucial set of skills needed for reading fluency. Students must understand that printed letters represent the spoken sounds in words. Just as phonemic awareness skills grow in complexity, so should the phonics components associated with them.

Word reading and phonemic awareness skills should work in tandem. They will likely have a fluid relationship as students master one skill or another. For example, as students learn to isolate and blend sounds, then they should practice blending together letters to form words. Start with blending two sounds and then blend together two letters. Once that the skill of blending two phonemes or graphemes together is secure, move to blending three phonemes together.

David Kilpatrick’s Sequence of skills for Orthographic Mapping

How Do I Start Phonemic Awareness Instruction?

  • Pre-assessments are key to isolating deficits and for tracking a student’s progress. Choose an assessment like David Kilpatrick’s free PAST assessment that also includes progress monitoring tools.
  • For small group instruction, group students together by their level of mastery of phonemic awareness skills.
  • Follow a systematic sequence to help you plan your instruction.
  • Rethink some student reading errors and invented spellings. Do you have a student who struggles to blend together words with consonant blends (four sounds)? Then integrate PA activities of blending three sounds together. Do you have a student who writes a word and does not represent one of the speech sounds with a letter? Then work on PA skills of isolating and manipulating the sounds within words.
  • Use explicit phonemic awareness instruction and activities. Check out one of my other blog posts here for examples of many PA activities.
  • Pair your PA instruction with systematic phonics instruction.

Starting in Kindergarten, teachers should directly teach phoneme awareness and letter knowledge. Higher level PA skills should continue to be taught in 1st grade and beyond. These skills are most effective when part of a rich literacy environment that encourages students to read, write, and comprehend text.

Structured Literacy Instruction

Structured literacy is getting a lot of well-deserved attention. Researchers in the areas of reading, psychology, speech and language pathology, neuroscience, and education all agree. Although there may be more than one way to TEACH reading, there is only one way that the human brain LEARNS to read. The majority of students learn to read better with a structured literacy approach and the principles of structured literacy are critical for students with dyslexia and other reading disabilities.

What is Structured Literacy?

Structured literacy explicitly teaches letter-sound correspondences and decoding strategies. The systematic approach starts with simple skills (phonemes for example) and moves through increasingly complex skills (syllables, morphology, semantics, and syntax). The cumulative approach builds upon previously taught skills. Teachers use diagnostic and informal assessments to ensure individualized instruction.

To learn more about structured literacy, check out these infographics from the International Dyslexia Association. You can also watch webinars made by the North Carolina branch of the International Dyslexia Association to learn more about the principles of structured literacy.

What Does Structured Literacy Instruction LOOK like?

Although some assume structured literacy is all about phonics, it actually explicitly teaches word reading/decoding AND language comprehension. It integrates the phonological parts of our language, reading, writing, comprehension, and oral language. It does not assume that children learn to read in the same way that they learn to speak. Structured literacy is engaging, direct, systematic…and did I say explicit?

Scarborough’s Reading Rope

Phonological Awareness

Many reading difficulties start with deficits in the phonological arena of language. It is crucial, then, to build awareness of the individual speech sounds (phonemes) of spoken language. This starts with playing with language in preschool and kindergarten with phonological awareness activities like rhyming. Students learn to isolate and match parts of spoken words. When possible, practice these skills with your students before they encounter print.

A subset of phonological awareness is phonemic awareness. This is the awareness of the individual speech sounds in words. By late kindergarten/early first grade, students should be able to isolate individual speech sounds (for example, the /b/ sound in the spoken word bat.) Spelling and reading fluency require the reader to be able to map speech sounds to print. So fluent decoding and spelling depend on more advanced phonemic awareness skills. These phonemic awareness skills include segmenting the sounds in spoken words, blending the sounds, deleting a sound, or manipulating a sound. Until students are proficient/fluent readers, teachers should utilize explicit phonemic awareness instruction. For traditional readers, phonemic awareness instruction should be taught through second or third grade.

Phonics and Word Reading

The English language has an alphabetic code comprised of graphemes (letters) that represent phonemes (speech sounds). While some spellings and speech sounds can vary (the different pronunciations of /ou/ for example), educators should explicitly and systematically teach the sound-symbol relationships. This also includes morphology (breaking words into their smallest units of meaning with suffixes, roots, and prefixes), syllables, and “irregular” words. As teachers, we should teach these concepts in a simple to complex manner and one that follows a logical sequence.

Fluency

Reading fluency is the ability to read words quickly and accurately in order to comprehend the text. Since fluent readers do not efficiently store words in their visual memory, we should not teach them to memorize words by how they look or by guessing at the first letter. We must teach them to decode each sound to solidify the letter-sound relationship. This is done best when a strong foundation of phonemic awareness skills and decoding strategies have already been taught.

A structured literacy approach uses many decodable texts that focus on one phonics skill at a time. Students need to practice their phonics skills in connected text. These books build upon one another so that the text used includes only skills that have been previously taught. Instead of relying on prolonged independent reading time, students should read aloud to a teacher when possible. This way the teacher can offer immediate decoding feedback and error correction. This will help the student attend to all the sounds and learn to not guess at words.

Vocabulary & Reading Comprehension

Reading and language comprehension (the ultimate goal of reading!) rely heavily on vocabulary. Vocabulary instruction includes teaching morphology, continuing read alouds with whole group conversation, content-specific vocabulary, and vocabulary acquisition through independent reading. If we teach phonics/decoding in a vacuum without attention to word meaning and overall comprehension, students will not comprehend text. So, play with words, discuss their multiple meanings, and teach vocabulary.

Written Expression

As literate students and adults, we engage in both reading (input) and writing (output) to communicate ideas. We need to teach the mechanics of writing to include punctuation, semantics, syntax, composition, and editing. While reading a variety of texts will reinforce students’ written expression skills, we still must directly teach these components.

All parts of structured literacy instruction work together to reinforce one another. We cannot rely solely on one piece without the others. This approach does not happen overnight; it requires direct instruction and review. With teacher-led instruction, the activities can be engaging, supportive, and individualized.

How to Start a Tutoring Business

Are you an educator or parent interested in tutoring?  It can be overwhelming knowing where to start.  I asked my colleagues to share their insights and suggestions on how to start a tutoring business.  Between us, we have years of experience and we have tried it all.  I hope that our suggestions save you time and money so that you can focus on what is important…your students!

1. Find Your Niche in the Tutoring Business

There is a growing need for general academic support tutoring.  But there are also more specific tutoring niches that may be more suited for your background.  For example, ACT tutoring, SAT tutoring, a specific reading tutor like an Orton Gillingham tutor, math tutor, executive functioning, etc. Research to see if additional training would help you market yourself and improve the tutoring you are able to provide.  This will help define you professionally when in your quest of how to start a tutoring business.

For instance, I am an Orton Gillingham tutor. I took part in additional training and certification programs through The Academy of Orton Gillingham Practitioners and Educators, the International Dyslexia Association, and ALTA. As a result, I am now certified as an Orton Gillingham tutor and Structured Literacy Dyslexia Interventionist. Parents do their research, so I encourage you to apply to programs to certify you as a tutoring specialist.

#2 Focus on What is Important for Your Tutoring Business

When figuring out how to start a tutoring business, it is easy to be swayed by the “pretties.”  By this I mean fancy logos, impressive tutoring websites, or tutoring business plans that you must purchase.  All those cost money and do not add to your quality tutoring approach.  Instead, focus on your niche and how to add students to your caseload.

The logistics of your tutoring sessions is of the utmost importance.  So many times, tutors over-commit or they do not think about the specifics.  So before taking on any students, consider the following:

  • Location-
    • Will you tutor at the student’s home, a shared location like a library, or will you offer a home-based or office space for tutoring.  Or, ,will you offer virtual tutoring?
    • If you tutor at home, make sure you have a dedicated workspace.  You will have a lot of supplies and books.  Also, consider looking into tax breaks for a home office if you choose this option.
    • Are there any additional costs to you for these different locations/platforms?  Some tutors charge a premium to travel to the student’s house to help cover gas and lost tutoring time while traveling.
    • If you travel for tutoring, investigate how to streamline and organize your materials.  Consider a rolling cart like the picture below. You also may want to keep many materials and games on a laptop so that you do not have to cart additional supplies around to each location.
Rolling Teacher Cart
  • Hours- What hours each day/week are you able to work? 
    • Do you have another job that you are working around?  If so, make sure your additional tutoring services do not interfere with those duties.  The last thing you want to do is schedule a student and then have to cancel due to your other job’s responsibilities.
    • Will you work on weekends?  Nights?  Holidays? Mornings?  These are all prime times for working families, so be prepared with what you are willing to offer.
    • How long will each session be?  Will you offer shorter sessions for younger students?  Many tutoring approaches suggest at least twice a week.  Is that something you can offer on a consistent basis?
  • Cost-
    • How much will you charge per session? Talk with other specialists in your area to see what the going rate is.  Depending on your level of training, experience, and your location, charges can range anywhere from $30-$120 per hour. So, do your homework so that you are paid for what you deserve.
    • Build your own library of book resources and supplies.  But if there are specific classroom texts, consider asking the family to purchase these for you.

#3 How to Find Students

This is the #1 question people ask me when wondering how to start a tutoring business.  I have found the following the most beneficial and worth your time:

  • Join local educational and parent-directed social media groups.  Share your knowledge in your field of expertise. Then, post about your tutoring business availability when appropriate.
  • Meet with local principals, counselors, and reading specialists.  Parents may inquire with them about outside services.  If you have a detailed infographic to share about your tutoring services, share it with those you meet.
  • Word of mouth is often your best friend.  Ask all your friends and family members to help spread the word.  Furthermore, ask your current tutoring parents to share your name with others too.
  • Apply to national certification groups who list practitioners by location. For example, a structured literacy tutor might apply to the Orton Gillingham Academy through CERI, or ALTA  . Parents looking for a structured literacy tutor can find your name in one of these databases.  Additional training and certification may be required.  But these trainings are well worth your professional time!
  • If you have specialized training, contact local educational psychologists in your area.  Be prepared with a short resume with your educational background, experience, additional trainings, and references to share with them. Here is a free example template:
Tutor Infographic

#4 Steps Before Taking on a New Student

  • Conversations with parents: Your initial conversations with parents are as much an interview for them as it is for you.  Yes, share your credentials, explain your tutoring approach, and be firm with your availability.  But also explain that his might be a long-term relationship.  Verbally explain your business practices including payment, cancellation policy, consistency of sessions, and communication. 
  • Follow up the above conversation with your tutoring contract and cancellation policy.  Ask the parents to sign them both.  Keep a copy for yourself and give a copy to the parents.
  • Request and read any additional psychoeducational testing that the student has received. 
  • This is a hard one but be willing to admit when you will not be a good fit.  Perhaps the timing does not work with your schedules. After reading the student’s report you may realize that you do not have the qualifications required. Or after an initial phone call, you do not get a good feeling from the parents.  Make sure you are honest with yourself and with the families who contact you. 
  • Complete a New Student Information form.  This will help you gather and keep track of all pertinent educational, family, testing information.
  • Do your own initial assessments.  I ended up creating my own because I was pulling from so many different assessments. Figure out what information you need to start with a student. For example, do you need to isolate gaps in their spelling? Assess comprehension or decoding? Phonological awareness? The answer is you probably need to assess several areas of the student’s learning profile. When first starting out, don’t feel the need to invest in expensive, standardized assessments. Find some less expensive options that give you a road map to start with your student. Share the results of your assessments with parents/teachers in a professional write-up.  This will reinforce your goals and approach as you work with the student.

#5 Billing and Scheduling

Accepting payments and keeping up with scheduling can often be overwhelming for new tutors.  There are many free or relatively inexpensive online options to help you with both. 

  • Scheduling: Consider Acuity Scheduling and Calendy.  Depending on your needs, they can send parents reminders.  This will also help you keep track of number of sessions seen within a month.
  • Billing: When first starting, you may be able to keep up with sending invoices.  You can send a simple invoice via email to the parents at the end of each month.  As your tutoring business grows, you may want to consider an online accounting software like FreshBooks.  There are different levels depending on your needs. 

Phonemic Awareness Activities

Why Use Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness, the most advanced level of phonological awareness, is the ability to isolate and manipulate the spoken sounds in words. No letters and no print involved. Just the sounds. Phonemic awareness is the #1 predictor of reading success. Have you ever had a child who struggled with phonics? He most likely has not developed phonemic awareness. So, throw out the letters and focus on strengthening his ability to hear the individual sounds in words. Daily phonemic awareness activities will lay the foundation for your students’ reading success.

What is Involved in Phonemic Awareness?

There are different parts of phonemic awareness that grow in complexity. Instruction of these skills should be taught in a systematic manner…from simple to complex. Within phonemic awareness, the following skills are included (as seen as part of the phonological awareness continuum below):

  • Phonemic segmentation
  • Phonemic blending
  • Phonemic deletion
  • Phonemic manipulation

Phonemic Segmentation:

Segmenting phonemes involves breaking words/syllables into individual speech sounds. For example, in the word tap, the sounds are segmented into /t/ /a/ /p/. Or, in the word ship, the sounds are segmented into /sh/ /i/ /p/. Notice that even though there are four letters in the word ship, there are still only three sounds. Students practice this skill without seeing any letters. When practicing phonemic awareness activities, play with the sounds in pictures or words spoken to the students.

Phonemic Blending:

Blending phonemes requires the student to blend together the individual sounds in a word. For example, if a teacher dictates the sounds /m/ /u/ /d/, the student would blend the sounds together to say mud. When introducing phonemic blending, start by having your student blend two sounds together (as in the word at). Then, increase the number of sounds as the student progresses. For example, in the video below, the student has progressed to blending four sounds together.

Phonemic Blending video

Also, it is easier for the student to blend when the first sound is a continuous sound (one that doesn’t stop with air). Try to use words that start with those continuous sounds. Then weave in words that start with other sounds (stopped sounds such as /b/ or /t/) as the student progresses.

Phonemic Deletion:

Phoneme deletion requires the student to be able to segment, isolate, and then delete a sound. Since many PA skills are involved, this is considered a higher level phonemic skill. For example, if the teacher dictates the word cheat and asks the student to delete the first sound, the student would reply with “eat.”

It is easier to delete beginning sounds first, then final sounds, and then medial sounds. When introducing this skill, use manipulatives to help the student isolate the sounds. He deletes the sounds as he takes away the manipulative. But you will know the student has mastered the skill when he can perform the phonemic awareness activities with automaticity and without manipulatives.

Phonemic Manipulation:

This is the highest level skill of phonemic awareness. Phoneme manipulation requires the student to segment, isolate, and then manipulate a phoneme in some way. This could involve changing the phoneme to a different phoneme. For example, the teacher could ask the student, “Say hem. Now say it again, but instead of /e/ say /u/.” The student would reply with hum. As in phoneme deletion, it is usually easier for the student to manipulate the beginning sound first. Then progress to manipulating the final sound and then the medial sound.

Remember, Phonemic Awareness:

-Is NOT phonics

-It only involves the individual SOUNDS in WORDS. It is all auditory.

-Is a foundational skill in learning to read. Without phonemic awareness, phonics makes little sense.

-It must be taught in an explicit, systematic manner. Assess your students’ phonemic awareness skills and provide ample practice with the skills throughout the school day.

“The most common source of reading difficulties is poor phonemic awareness.”

David Kilpatrick

-You and your students can have FUN with phonemic awareness! Engage with your students in multisensory PA games and activities. They will enjoy it and you will help set the stage for their reading success.

Phoneme Sorting Activity

Myths About Phonics Instruction

PHONICS INSTRUCTION

There are long-standing myths about phonics instruction. Keeping these myths alive (and thus keeping phonics instruction from our students!) undermines a student’s reading acquisition. As educators, we must constantly look to the current research and adjust our instruction accordingly. Remember, although there are many different ways to TEACH reading, science continually reminds us that there is only one way that students LEARN TO READ proficiently. And that includes phonics.

Myth #1: ‘Phonics is Boring for Children’

Some portray phonics as robotic and void of engagement. Although quality phonics instruction requires direct instruction and repetition of skills, teachers can employ many engaging techniques to keep the learner focused and energized. Try some of the following techniques:

  1. Make it multisensory! While the multisensory approach utilizes several modalities to optimize learning, it also makes the learning more engaging. Ask your students to trace with their finger as they read or tap out the individual sounds as they spell.
  • 2. Practice phonics skills with a game. My students love their beloved PIG card game, Go Fish, and Memory. They read the targeted phonics skill in the game, but don’t even realize they are learning!

3. Get up and MOVE! Go on a scavenger hunt for beginning sounds, lay out sight words and have your students jump from one to the next, toss bean bags to the correct vowel sound, or jump for each syllable in a word. They sky is the limit when you add movement into your phonics lessons.

As part of a structured literacy approach, phonics does need to be explicit and systematic. But weave in games, multisensory techniques, and overall movement to make the instruction engaging.

MYTH #2: ‘ Too Much Time Spent on Phonics Takes Away from Reading Comprehension’

Phonics instruction is an integral part of a structured literacy approach. It is one foundational piece that helps SUPPORT reading comprehension, instead of taking away from reading comprehension. Quality phonics instruction teaches the student to attend to all letters and their corresponding sounds. Building this connection between speech sounds and letters leads to orthographic mapping and fluent word reading. When a student reads fluently, he no longer has to use as much working memory to decode. Instead, he can use that space in his brain to comprehend the text. Studies show that direct phonics instruction leads to gains in word reading and reading comprehension scores.

“There is no comprehension strategy powerful enough to compensate for the fact that you can’t read the words.”

Anita Archer

MYTH #3: ‘English is too Irregular for Phonics’

87% of English words are either fully decodable or easily decodable. That leaves a lot of work for direct phonics instruction! This implies that only 13% of English words are non-phonetic (or not following the patterns or rules of the English language). Many of these types of words are adopted from other languages such as banquet from French, bagel from Yiddish and patio from Spanish. Explicitly explain the origin of these types of words.

Other non-phonetic words include our function words (to, do, of, a, the, ) as well as the many Old English words which changed pronunciation during the Great Vowel shift. While their spellings did not change, their pronunciations have. They include words such as great and could. Teach your students the etymology of these words. They will enjoy learning the “why” behind these irregular spelling patterns.

We should encourage students to attend to all of the regular letter-sound correspondences in a word first and then focus on the “irregular” part(s). In the picture example above, the word have has three sounds. All three sounds follow the regular letter-sound correspondence. Walk your student through those letters/sounds and then teach the student why there is a silent e on the end. The reason might surprise you.

MYTH #4: ‘Only a Small Percentage of Students Need Phonics”

Close to 60% of students require explicit, systematic phonics instruction to break the code of reading. The other 40% of students learn to read with a broad range of reading instruction. But to be able to decode novel, multi-syllabic words, ALL students benefit from phonics.

Insufficient phonics instruction in early grades can impede students’ reading ability in later grades. If we encourage students to rely too heavily on context clues and pictures, they will not build a strong sight word vocabulary (or words they can recognize instantly). This will affect their reading fluency, spelling, and comprehension.

By directly teaching phonics, we give students a solid foundation of decoding skills. This increases the likelihood that they will be able to read complex texts—containing unfamiliar words—independently.

So, I hope that you will consider these Myths about Phonics Instruction as you plan your lessons and choose your curriculum. I encourage you read more about structured literacy and the part that phonics plays in it.