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September 16, 2014

Volunteer Passion No. 4: A Tutor's Tale

Women’s Voices for Change / Posted September 2, 2014 / Deborah Harkins / Source

This is the fourth in Women’s Voices for Change’s series on compelling volunteer work. This is the tale of a tutor who relishes the chance to help a child discover the transporting pleasure that reading can provide. —Ed.

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away . . .

– Emily Dickinson

“To see the glow in their faces each week, to see the difference you’ve made in their lives . . . it’s just tremendous,” Laura Ivan tells me earnestly in a telephone interview. She is speaking about her volunteer passion—tutoring children in a Title I elementary school (attended by low-income students) in New York City.

“So much is going on in these children’s lives outside of school,” Laura says. “Some students may be coming from supportive families, but they live in tough economic circumstances. And some students live without the support of a nuclear family, which leads to some instability in their young lives. But they know they can count on us. We are a constant presence in their lives each week.”

Laura is one of the 11,000-plus tutors who spend one or two hours a week coaching poor readers in low-income schools in nine states (several locations in California; Colorado; Dallas, Texas; Seattle, Washington; New York, New York; Baltimore, Maryland; Washington, D.C.; Charleston, South Carolina; and Tulsa, Oklahoma). They tutor one-on-one under the auspices of Reading Partners, a national education nonprofit that has partnered with under-served elementary schools since 1999. RP recruits the tutors, designs the tutors’ curriculum, works with the site coordinator in each school (who trains and supervises the tutors), and monitors the progress of the fledgling readers over the school year.

There definitely is progress. The organization recently released a large-scale, controlled study implemented by MDRC, a leading national evaluation firm. The study noted, “This policy brief summarizes the early results of [the] evaluation, which was conducted during the 2012–2013 school year in 19 schools in three states, and which involved 1,265 students. The evaluation finds positive impacts of the program on three different measures of reading proficiency [reading comprehension, reading fluency, and sight-sound reading]. These encouraging results demonstrate that Reading Partners, when delivered on a large scale and implemented with fidelity, can be an effective tool for improving reading proficiency.” (The Reading Partners site notes, “In 2012-13, nearly 9 in 10 Reading Partners students [88%] accelerated their rate of learning in reading.”)

RP tutoragirl

Laura Ivan is impressed with the curriculum’s clarity, the expertise of the “unbelievably talented” site coordinators (AmeriCorps members who work under the guidance of an experienced teacher), the collegiality of the volunteers, and the fact that each school sets aside a classroom for the tutors’ use. A former teacher herself, she knows how precious space in the building is to a school. “While I’m tutoring a student, there are up to four tutor/student pairs in room as well. That the schools give up a classroom speaks volumes for Reading Partners and the results it produces.”

What’s the process? “Each student is tested at the beginning of the year. To qualify to be tutored, students must be reading from six months to two and a half years below grade level. At whatever level the student needs to start at, the research-based curriculum [which is aligned with Common Core] provides specific books and specific materials that the tutor goes by each week. So each week you’re building on skills based on what the student’s needs are.”

According to the MDRC study, “The structured and scripted nature of the curriculum enabled volunteers—who had a variety of backgrounds—to easily understand their tutoring responsibilities and to deliver effective instruction, despite the fairly limited front-end training most had received.”


“The curriculum comes organized in a plastic bag according to reading/skills level,” Laura explains. “This includes concise directions to guide the tutor while covering a new skill with the student. Once that skill is achieved, you document your student’s progress. When the child hits a stumbling block during your session, you have the materials provided, so you and the student can work on it together. For example, if the child is struggling with how to sound out a word, you ‘chunk’ the word together, breaking words into meaningful chunks of sounds, rather than sounding each out individual letter. You’re teaching the students to make inferences; you’re teaching them punctuation, comprehension, fluency—anything they would learn in the classroom . . . the skills that they need to be successful readers and to bring them up to grade level. And not only that: each week the site coordinator puts literacy tips on the board, and as a volunteer, you can sign up for workshops specific to a literacy skill.”


Laura likes the idea that for every skill set she needs to work on, a child can choose from one of three books, “giving them a feeling of ownership in the program.

“As a tutor, you work with the same student each week. This forms a bond and gives the student the much-needed one-on-one time and commitment. The student comes to trust the tutor as a dependable adult. And so a child may eventually confide some detail about his home life that might need some sort of intervention. If so,” Laura says, “you’re not responsible for taking any action; you are asked simply to pass the information on to the site coordinator, who will take over.”

Reading Partners asks its volunteers to commit an hour (or more) a week, during the school day or after school, for the school year. “But they understand that their volunteers have lives. Reading partners volunteers are high school and college students, as well as working and retired adults, so the organization is accommodating when you are not able to attend a session. And you can use Fridays for make-up sessions,” Laura says.

The recent study reports, “By far the biggest challenge faced by the Reading Partners programs was a lack of consistent tutor attendance and retention. On average, students were formally assigned to between two and three different tutors over the course of the school year. However, due to tutor and student absences, students often saw more tutors than that.” Nevertheless, the students progressed.

“I have to tell you, Tutoring Day has become one of the highlights of my week, I enjoy it so much,” Laura says. “I’m a champion of this program. [She’s serves on the Reading Partners’ New York Advisory Council.] Soon I’ll begin my third year. I substitute teach, but they knew not to call me on a Tuesday, because that is my Reading Partners day.”

More information:

Deborah Harkins, who co-edits WVFC’s site, was an assigning editor at New York magazine for more than 20 years. She has also been the articles editor of The Modern Estate, a columnist for The New York Daily News, and associate editor at


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