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Volunteer Tutors

  • Volunteer Tutors

The following blog post was written by Margi Felix-Lund, an ESL literacy practitioner from Portland, Oregon. Margi recently conducted exploratory research with a volunteer literacy program in Portland, and she developed a handbook for ESL literacy tutors based on the implications of her research. 

In the United States, volunteer tutors provide a large portion of ESL literacy instruction; Portland, Oregon is no exception.  LIFE (learners with interrupted formal education) at Portland Community College attend ESL Literacy Tutoring groups as preparation for or supplement to mainstream ESL classes.  Volunteer literacy tutors come from a variety of backgrounds: some tutors are MA TESOL students, while others are retirees or community members.

What do ESL literacy programs need to do to support volunteer tutors?

I conducted exploratory research with a volunteer literacy program, interviewing program administrators and tutors and volunteering as a tutor.  I would like to briefly share the implications of my research findings:

Identify and communicate a clear program goal:  

  • Tutors need to know the intent of the literacy program in order to ensure that classroom content and instruction meet the program’s overarching goals

Train tutors to conduct a thorough needs analysis (initial & ongoing):

  • The largest challenge reported by tutors in my study was identifying what their students needed to do with literacy. An effective, ongoing needs analysis allows tutors to determine classroom content that is both authentic and relevant.

Describe how LIFE are unique and different from mainstream ESL students:

  • It is necessary for tutors to understand the unique strengths and challenges that LIFE bring to the classroom and then proceed to focus on learners’ strengths.

Train tutors in the principles of effective tutoring and how to plan lessons:

  • Current research has a lot to offer for tutor preparation, such as these principles of literacy instruction:


Communicate clear definitions of literacy levels and outcomes:

  • Tutors need to know when a student is ready to move on to the next level.

Provide access to additional resources such as sample lesson plans and materials:

  • Tutors need access to resources that are suitable for the adult ESL literacy context.

Explain literacy as cognitive skills and social practice:

  • Tutors must understand that they are not merely teaching a decontextualized skill to students, but rather a highly contextualized social practice.  Literacy is more than just reading and writing!


Please take a look at the research-based, context-specific handbook for tutors that I developed based on the implications of my study.

Have you worked with volunteer tutors or are you a volunteer tutor?

What additional information do you think tutors need to know in order to support LIFE?