” What are you reading right now?” and 10 other questions to ask a writing tutor

Once you’ve found a prospective writing tutor for your teen ( if you don’t know where to find one, see my previous post here), how do you know if the tutor you’re considering will be a good fit? Although there are no guarantees, there are some questions you can ask to see if they have the qualifications, experience, and approach to writing that might benefit your teen.

1. What type of formal teacher training do you have?

You’d be amazed at the number of tutors who hang out their shingle based on the philosophy “I see myself as a good writer, so I must be able to teach writing.” But there’s a big difference between someone who perceives themselves as a good writer ( maybe they are, and maybe they aren’t), and someone who is formally trained to teach writing to teens. Look for a person with a Bachelor of Education in English Language Arts at the minimum.

2. How much experience do you have teaching at my teen’s grade level?

The type of writing expected in high school classes is usually based on analyzing literature. If the tutor has only taught at the elementary, middle school or junior high level, they might not have a background in literary analysis writing. If their experience at the high school level is limited, they might not be familiar with the novels, plays, and films that are often taught at the high school level.

3. What teaching methods do you use?

I’m surprised by the number of tutoring services that still equate improving student writing with using worksheet drills. Filling in the blanks on worksheets has little carry-over to the actual writing students are asked to do in their classrooms. What does? Support on their actual assignments, as they do them; teaching skills as students need them, in the context of their assignments; and writing, writing, and writing some more. If students aren’t getting enough writing assignments from their teachers to improve their writing ( and as teachers get busier, many aren’t), ask the tutor how they will supplement the amount of practise your teen is getting.

4. How much individualization do you offer?

This is a particularly important question to ask if you’re considering sending your teen to a large tutoring service such as Sylvan, Kumon, or Oxford Learning. Some of these companies use “canned programs,” that offer little to no customization. Others teach in small groups. If you want a one on one experience for your teen, you’re likely better off looking for a private tutor.

5. What experience do you have with neurodivergence?

If your teen has been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, a learning disability, or is on the autism spectrum, they may need a tutor who is familiar with methods for teaching writing that are an appropriate match for their learning needs. Trying to use traditional teaching methods with students who learn in non- traditional ways can be frustrating for everyone involved.

6. What is your availability?

Teens often lead busy lives. Between school, part-time jobs, sports involvement and other activities, you’ll need a tutor who can be consistently available at the times your teen is.

6. Are you a writer yourself?

A tutor who is also a writer brings with them an understanding of how much time and effort writing takes, how individualized a writer’s process is, and all the other twists and turns involved in becoming a competent and self-confident writer. They will likely have quite a large toolbox of strategies they can share that go beyond the methods your teen is learning in school.

8. What are you reading right now?

This might seem like an odd question to ask a writing tutor. You’re hiring them to help your teen with writing, not reading, right? But reading and writing are linked processes. There’s a good chance your teen will need some reading help as well, particularly if their writing involves literary analysis. A tutor who is passionate about teaching writing will often love to read as well as write.

9. Can you provide references?

A tutor should be able to provide you with contact information from parents whose teens have worked with the tutor. If they can’t, move on.

10. How much do you charge?

Tutoring is not a regulated industry so costs can range from free to $15-$100 per hour or more. Free or very low cost tutors are attractive to parents with limited budgets, but may not offer the qualifications, teaching experience, or customization that will make a difference in your teen’s writing. Paying more does not guarantee that your teen will have a better experience, but like so many services, tutoring is often a ” you get what you pay for” service.

11. Will you meet with me and my teen before we get started?

All the qualifications, experience and customization in the world mean nothing if there’s no chemistry between your teen and the tutor. Ask for either a face to face or online meeting with the tutor so everyone has the chance to ” feel each other out” before the first paid session. Listen to your gut and to your teen’s responses. Does the tutor talk to your teen, and not just to you? Do they ask about your teen’s interests outside of school? Do they seem genuinely interested in your teen and in helping them out? If either of you sense a lack of fit for any reason, don’t be afraid to begin your search for a tutor again. The time you put in at the beginning of the tutor relationship will have important payoffs in the long run.

Six places to find a writing tutor (or coach) for your teen

So. You’ve decided that your teen has struggled long enough with their school writing, and you’ve decided to hire a tutor to help them. Now, where to find one?

A Google search can be overwhelming. When I searched “high school writing tutor” and the name of my city, I got millions of returns. Companies. Individuals. Individuals working for companies. Kijiji ads. Enough to make me put off the search for a day. And another day after that.

There are less time consuming ways to find a writing tutor. Here are a few that the parents of students I work with have suggested:

1) The student services office at their teen’s school

Many student services offices maintain a list of tutors. You may not get a recommendation from the student services office, because they may not know these tutors personally. Also, schools may not have vetted these tutors for their suitability or asked to see a security clearance. But it’s a place to start.

2. Recommendations from teachers

Ask one of your teen’s teachers if they can recommend a reliable tutor. They may have colleagues who are supply teaching, teaching part time, or are recently retired and want to work with students one to one.

3. Recommendations from other parents

Parents of your teen’s friends might be able to help you out. If you’re considering using the services of a tutoring company such as Kumon or Oxford, check out online comment boards to see what other parents are saying.

4. Preservice teaching programs at universities

Sometimes professors are willing to recommend promising student teachers. You could also place an ad in an online university notice board.

5. Post an inquiry on your neighborhood Facebook page or in an app like NextDoor.

I’ve seen occasional online ads from parents asking for the names of tutors. Often, they get several responses.

6. Broaden your search to include writing coaches

A writing coach often has a background as a professional writer, as well as teaching experience. They may bring “real world” writing knowledge and experience to the interaction with your teen, which could be a refreshing change.

Of course, once you have a few names of potential tutors, you’re going to need to vet them for their suitability to work with your teen. Watch for my next post on ten questions to ask a tutor before you hire them.

Time for a writing tutor?

In a perfect world, your teen’s English teacher would give them all the help they need to become a competent, self- confident writer.

Interesting assignments. Specific instruction on how to approach those assignments. Time to create multiple drafts. Supportive, encouraging feedback along the way.

Unfortunately, those components of effective writing instruction are disappearing rapidly from high school English classrooms.

Huge numbers of students, diverse student needs, teacher burnout, and lack of training and professional development in how to teach writing have all helped to lead to a crisis in writing instruction. Students flounder to understand and complete assignments, and get more and more discouraged.

As a person who hears and sees your teen’s frustration with writing, and wants to alleviate it, you may have tried to help, only to have them turn aside your best attempts. Maybe you’ve wondered if it’s time to bring in some outside professional assistance.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m a writing coach myself. The adults who’ve approached me to assist their teens improve their writing have identified five signs that it was time to hire a writing tutor or coach to give their teen a much-needed boost:

1. Their teen put off writing until the last minute – or didn’t do the assignment at all.

Procrastination is often a sign that your teen is fearful of the assignment- doesn’t know how to get started, doesn’t know how to address its requirements, is concerned about negative teacher feedback. They may decide to avoid handing anything in to escape potential feelings of failure.

2. Their teen wasn’t getting much practice with writing.

Several parents have noticed that teachers are expecting very few writing assignments to be completed. One grade 9 student I worked with only did three writing assignments between September and June. Without practice, student writing doesn’t get any better.

3. Their teen was getting very little helpful feedback from their teacher on their writing.

Perhaps in an effort to speed up their marking or possibly because they’re unsure how to give feedback that would progress a student’s writing, some teachers provide very few comments on a final assignment. Not many give help during the writing process. Worse still, some only comment on what a student does wrong, never offering praise for an insightful idea or well-written sentence. How discouraging.

4. Their teen was getting very little guidance on how to be successful with a writing assignment.

Some teachers are providing very little instruction on the basics of writing, much less helpful and specific how-tos. Recently, a grade 10 student I’m working with told me her teacher said her essay introduction wasn’t long enough. When the student asked what more she could say, the teacher said, ” Well, it just can’t be 2 sentences.” Another student noticed that she and her classmates are not being taught how to produce writing like the exemplary sample the teacher discussed in class. ” How are we supposed to write like that if we’re not being shown how?” she said. How indeed.

5. The writing required in high school has surpassed their ability to help their teen produce an effective written assignment.

Even if you write as a part of your job, you are unlikely unfamiliar with how to produce the writing expected in a high school English class. You might have the ability to correct your teen’s spelling and punctuation, but most teens need as much or more help with producing insightful ideas and organizing them into paragraphs. If you try to help, you may be headed for conflict with your teen.

Coming soon: How to find a writing coach or tutor for your teen

Art, activity, and literacy

In the 1990s, the definition of literacy began to shift and grow. Instead of simply referring to reading and writing with words, theorists realized that people make meaning of their experiences and communicate them to others in non-verbal ways as well. The term “multiple literacies” was coined, pointing out that the visual, performing, and digital arts could also be considered literate practices, together with words, or on their own.

The only problem with this theory was that, for many classroom teachers, it remained a theory. They had difficulty shifting their mindsets from the traditional literacy definition, saw few examples of how to implement a multiple literacies approach, and did not have enough opportunities to attend professional development sessions to give them ideas. As a result, except among the most innovative and energetic teachers, you won’t see too many examples of multiple literacies theory being enacted in classrooms.

So, I was delighted to find out that the museum educators at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City have begun to offer free, online courses that combine art, traditional literacy, and active learning. As massive, open, online courses (MOOCs), they’re available anytime you are, with no official start and end date.

There were several that called my name: Art and Ideas: Teaching with Themes ; Art and Inquiry: Museum Teaching Strategies for Your Classroom; and Art and Activity: Interactive Strategies for Engaging with Art . I registered for the last one because its summary intrigued me:

Art can be a powerful catalyst for building skills and understanding across a wide range of subjects….You will learn about the theory behind our museum teaching strategies and gain tools and techniques for integrating activity-based teaching and works of art into your classroom. You will develop activities based on drawing, sound, movement, writing, and games that help students build skills in creativity and reflection. The course also offers strategies for assessing student work and self-assessment for you as the educator.

If you’re a classroom or online teacher of any subject; a home schooling parent; or a learning pod educator, you might want to check out these courses. They’re not a big time commitment – about 10 hours each – and you’ll get some really great ideas for using art with your students, and working on their word-based literacy and thinking skills, no matter what your subject area.

If you don’t have time to take the courses yourself, you can stop by my site over the coming weeks. I’m going to blog about each one, summarizing what I learn, how I would implement what I’m learning, and giving you other insights that occur to me as I progress through the courses.