Tutoring Tips

Tutoring is not just about altruism, but taking small steps to see real results

11 September 2020

Madina has been a volunteer with Action Tutoring making a difference to pupils in Birmingham since November 2019. Madina has shared her story for you to learn more about her experience as a tutor. We hope you enjoy reading about her Action Tutoring journey.

Madina, tell us a bit about what you do alongside volunteering.

I’ve just finished my first year studying for a degree in English, soon to start my second. I’m also currently working in retail part-time alongside my studies, which is definitely handy experience! Aside from that, I’m an avid reader and also enjoy making art. 


What first led you to Action Tutoring?

I first came across Action Tutoring at a careers fair at my university during welcome week. The volunteers’ passion was really evident as they explained what the role entailed and the enjoyment they gained from it. I was drawn in by the purpose behind the charity, in aiming to close the gap in educational attainment throughout the country. I was previously unaware of how the education of many can suffer due to not being able to afford private tutoring; providing an available voluntary service struck me as a hugely effective course of action. 


Why is volunteering important to you?

For a few years, I volunteered at Childline (NSPCC). I replied to emails and calls from a variety of young people, all with differing backgrounds, upbringings and experiences. The aim of the work was the safeguarding of children and young people, giving them a secure place to air their feelings, to express themselves and make themselves heard. It proved a very rewarding experience, which I feel is a crucial aspect in any voluntary work. Giving a portion of one’s time to help others or a wider community isn’t just about being altruistic. It’s about recognising where support is needed and taking action to contribute towards any improvements that can be made. For me, the knowledge that even a small step taken can lead to brilliant results is really what makes the volunteering experience so rewarding.


Describe a successful tutoring session.

In the week beforehand, we’re encouraged to plan whatever key skill we choose to cover – usually, this is up to the pupils and what they feel needs working on. A typical session goes along the lines of a warm-up, the main activity and then a plenary, where we summarise on the skill covered. Many sessions can go completely smoothly and according to plan, but I feel what makes it successful is the pupils’ engagement. It’s very normal for some pupils to be rather shy or nervous at the beginning. However, seeing them come out of their shell and being comfortable to voice any difficulties they may be having is what makes the sessions work so effectively. It really does feel successful when you realise the pupils are as motivated as you are. 


Describe a memorable moment from one of your sessions.One of my pupils, who had been struggling in grasping a key skillset, told me that she’d received praise in an English lesson after being able to finally demonstrate the skill. From that point forward, there was an evident improvement in her confidence; not only did she express herself better, but her work improved too. I’ll never forget her enthusiasm when she shared her achievement with me. It felt like I’d really made a difference, driving me to work further towards building the confidence of the pupils I work with. 


Tell us something that surprised you about volunteering with Action Tutoring.

I initially had the idea that tutoring was going to be one to one, so I was slightly surprised to find out that the sessions tend to be in groups. The challenge was trying to accommodate each of their needs in the weekly activities, attending to all of them without leaving anyone out. I found that the solution was to find a skillset that everyone could agree to work on, as well as keeping an extra eye on the pupils who needed more support. I also didn’t expect how fun it would be to work in a group dynamic, especially when it came to warm-up activities. Seeing how competitive they could be only five minutes into the session really set the bar for energy levels throughout the rest of the hour. 


What’s the hardest thing and the best thing about tutoring?

It’s often difficult to get the pupils to focus, especially if they’re easily distracted. However, it only means that I have to find more creative ways of maintaining their attention – this involves small breaks in between activities, or a break at the end if they just wanted a general chat to unwind. The best thing by far is seeing them enjoy the session. Nothing beats finishing on a positive note, with a solid plan on what they want to cover next week, and knowing that some progress had been achieved. It makes the struggles along the way worth it, seeing that they’ve been given the support they need and most importantly, that they get something valuable out of it. 


How has volunteering as a tutor contributed to other areas of your life?

It’s definitely helped me in gaining skills I wouldn’t otherwise have gained, such as improvements in my own style of communication. I’ve also discovered more efficient ways to be organised, which came from planning tutoring sessions. As they only last one hour, I’ve had to learn to adapt to tighter time requirements, which has subsequently led to getting more things done – especially when it comes to studying. It’s also made me realise how much I enjoy working with young people and being able to support them in their education. To anyone who is thinking of volunteering, I feel this is an amazing opportunity to help pupils reach a level of success, as well as tackling a prominent issue of inequality. 


Sum up your experience of volunteering with Action Tutoring in one sentence.

It’s been unforgettably rewarding and an experience that I would highly recommend to others! 


Start your journey towards an unforgettably rewarding experience as a volunteer tutor and apply now! https://actiontutoring.org.uk/get-involved/volunteer-as-a-tutor/

Fear and Limiting Beliefs: How Your Pupils Might Have Stopped Before They Even Started

13 December 2019

A good friend of mine recently bought me a fantastic book called ‘The Student Mindset’ by Steve Oakes and Martin Griffin, a “30-item toolkit for anyone wanting to learn anything.” The book does exactly that – provides creative techniques and activities, combined with thought-provoking questions, all underpinned by the psychology and academia surrounding successful mindsets and behaviours. Plus, it discusses fear and anxiety – a topic that’s been playing on my mind over recent weeks (ironic, I know).

Fear, motivation and confidence usually come into focus closer to exams, but fear needs to be acknowledged, addressed and neutralised ASAP; then you can start making meaningful progress. I’ve been noticing fear since the start of term; pupils’ nervous faces, pale complexions and aggressive head-shakes at my “how were your mocks?” questions; tutors quietly quaking in the reception area ahead of meeting their pupils for the first time. Most fears are small and unnecessary, but they can have huge consequences on our mind, motivation and action.

‘The A B C of fear’

Drawing from the work of psychologist, Albert Ellis’, work (1957), the book highlights three barriers people face when attempting to learn something new, all underpinned by fear.

  1. Activating Event” – an event that triggers fear, e.g. Year 11 pupils are told at the start of the year that this is going to be their hardest year of school so far and thus a lot rests on their grades, such as college and university.
  2. “Belief” – a limiting belief is created that reduces or obliterates motivation, e.g. over their school years, pupils have acquired the belief that they’re not intelligent and will never achieve the right grades.
  3. “Consequence” – g. pupils immediately feel GCSEs are too hard for them and they’ll never achieve. They switch off and stop trying, working far less hard than in previous years.

So how could we address these embedded beliefs and barriers and turn them into something positive? Ellis suggests “disputing” one’s limiting beliefs by asking questions, such as “what event or conversation has caused me to have this belief?.” Personally, I draw three rings on a piece of paper (diagram below): the inner ring with the question “when did I decide I wasn’t good at X?”, the middle “what have been the consequences of this?” and the outer ring “what 3 pieces of evidence tell me the belief is not true?” (Ellis calls these “energising alternatives.”) The purpose is not to dive deep inside the pupils’ psyches, but for them to realise that, at some conscious or unconscious level, there was a pin-point when they formed a belief about themselves and their ability, triggered by fear, and stopped taking positive action as a consequence. Most importantly – that limiting beliefs just aren’t true and can be changed! You don’t have to like a subject to work hard, but fear puts us off. We are only human, as they say!


So what’s my gift to you?

  1. Observe your pupils: is there a continual pattern of fear or lack of confidence that is preventing you from making meaningful progress? What activity can you do, or question can you ask, which will help acknowledge and address this fear?
  2. Observe yourself: how can you draw on times you’ve experienced fear (algebraic fractions still haunt my dreams…) and use this to support your group?
  3. And finally: have a look at ‘The Student Mindset’ by Oakes and Griffin. Buy it, borrow it, research it. I’ve got a plethora of mindset books, and this one is up there with the best.



Why volunteer?

8 November 2019

In the fast-paced world we live in, we are constantly moving from one thing to the next.  It can be hard to find a minute to ourselves, let alone a minute to give to someone else. So why would you give up some of your precious time to volunteer?  What are the benefits?

At Action Tutoring we have over 1,100 incredible volunteers who give their time for us every year.  Their support directly impacts the lives of around 2,500 pupils a year, to ensure they can progress in life.  We simply could not function without them. To us the benefits are clear – our volunteers give our young people a future.

But we know your time is precious and we know even with the wider benefits to society it can be hard to make time to give back.  Sometimes we have to be a bit selfish, and so I think it’s important to reflect on how volunteering benefits the giver…

It gives you the chance to meet people you wouldn’t have otherwise met

Any volunteering activity will take you outside of your normal social circles, offering you the chance to interact and learn from other people in your community.  At Action Tutoring we’re proud to have a diverse range of volunteers supporting us, from 18 to 80 years. One of those, Abigail, is a university student who was new to London when she joined us,

“I have met lots of different, interesting people (tutors and pupils) and been to lots of different places in London that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen.”

It helps you to use existing skills you might have or learn and develop new skills

Depending on the activity there may be new skills you can learn or for softer skills, such as confidence or teamworking, volunteering often helps you to develop and refine these.  As Chris, a HMRC Tax Specialist, comments,

“In my daily life Action Tutoring has helped me too. I am so much more confident walking into a room of people I don’t know and holding meetings at work, where I have to lead.”

The ‘feel good factor’

Through volunteering you’ll often get so see the impact of your efforts first hand, which can be incredibly rewarding.  Through our tutoring activities, our volunteers often see this in the progression of the pupils they are supporting. Patsy, a retired statistician, comments: 

“I get a great sense of satisfaction from seeing my pupils understand something that they didn’t understand before; and succeeding in their exams. Achieving these qualifications is so crucial for them and whatever else I do during the week, I know I’m helping to make a difference.”

Positive impact on your mental health

Volunteering has also been acknowledged as causing improved mental health.  Giving your time to others helps to reduce isolation, reduces stress and helps to keep things in perspective.  The Mental Health Foundation looks into this more deeply here.

In 2017-18, over 20.1 million people volunteered through a group, club or organisation – so there are plenty of opportunities to choose from.  Whatever activity you choose, you can be sure the benefits will be great for you and for others. 

For more information about volunteering with Action Tutoring, check out our impact page here and our volunteering page here.   


Jumping word hurdles with pupils

1 November 2019

As the Communications Coordinator for our team, I know how frustrating it can be when you can’t fix on the word or phrase that you need to get your job done.

When I first started volunteering as an English tutor, this was what I was so excited about: helping my pupils become more confident expressing themselves in writing. The more you can refine your own writing and apply the words you learn accurately, the more meaning you can unlock in complex texts and find greater satisfaction in expressing your ideas to others.

As a tutor I discovered pretty quickly that the first challenge in sessions was often ensuring that pupils understood the material, which involved slowing right down and dismantling words that had become barriers to accessing the meaning of the text. After that, you had to start the tricky business of generating ideas about what you’d read and picking choice quotations. The final hurdle was expressing these ideas clearly by finding the right words of your own.

It sometimes stopped me in my tracks when my pupils did not know a word that I was expecting them to know, making me wonder how many other words they had passed over without asking for an explanation. I realised how important it was to check their understanding of a passage and dwell on significant words, and I made it my mission to help them acquire some of these words for the future.

I studied medieval languages at university and whenever I was trying to commit a new word to memory during my studies, I would look for a path connecting it to another word, idea, or image. I thought of it like putting up pegs in my mind to hang the new words on. The Old Norse word hegri sounds a bit like ‘egg-grey’, which could help you picture grey bird that lays eggs and remember that hegri means heron. Some words happen to have memorable stories that help you store the meaning away. One of my favourite examples is the Old English word sōna, from which we get our adverb ‘soon’. But to Anglo-Saxons, sōna actually didn’t mean ‘soon’, but ‘immediately’: over time, our way of saying ‘right now’ ended up meaning ‘in a bit’ – a shift in meaning that we can all relate to!

I tried to put this method into practice with my pupils when I wanted them to retain more ambitious vocabulary. One pupil did not know the word ‘crimson’. I told him to think of a criminal with bright red blood on their hands, so that the sound of the word and the colour it represented would be connected by an image. Finding these pathways and pictures was a fun and rewarding way of dealing with obstacles in sessions, and I would try to revisit these words in future to ensure they were remembered.

Of course, as great as it is to teach our pupils new vocabulary and help them remember it, we also need to help them cope when they face a word that they don’t know in an exam, without getting hung up on it. Fortunately, it should always be possible to draw a valid interpretation without knowing even a lynchpin word, provided you can back it up with evidence from the surrounding text. A good example of this is in the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon, where a word with unclear meaning appears during a turning point in the narrative. The hero is said to act with ofermōd – which has been variously interpreted in this context as meaning ‘too much heart/courage’ or as ‘excess pride/arrogance’. The events that unfold, and the representation of the hero overall, can be interpreted entirely differently depending on that one word. Although the exact meaning intended by the author can’t be known, we can accept either interpretation because both can be convincingly justified using the rest of the poem.

Our English workbooks for primary school pupils have a ‘Word Journal’ in the back pages which tutors will be familiar with: pupils are encouraged to write a new word and draw pictures around it, to help them remember it better. Although our GCSE pupils might not appreciate being asked to illustrate new words they’re learning, it is certainly worth taking time to discuss new words, write them down, and revisit them in future sessions. Words are not only fascinating but empowering, helping you to access meaning and express yourself, and I think that is a worthy goal to have for our pupils beyond their exams: to better understand and interpret what they see, and to make their feelings and ideas more clearly understood.


The value of open- ended questioning

13 September 2019

September has rolled around again and it’s the start of another academic year. If you’re completely new to volunteering with Action Tutoring, you’ve probably started wondering how you’ll connect with your pupils during sessions.

How will I help my pupils reflect on their learning?

How will I extend their thinking?

How will I encourage them to share their thoughts?

How will I support my pupils to draw connections?

I know that I spent a great deal of time turning over questions such as these while I was completing my teacher training course. The answer?

Open-ended questioning.

Effective questioning can challenge pupils and provide the adult with an insight into how they think and process information.  An open-ended question offers a range of responses, rather than having a prescriptive set of answers.

An example of an open-ended question versus a closed question:

What did this character say?

Why do you think this character said that?

At first, asking open-ended questions might seem a little contrived and awkward. For many of us, our default is to ask closed questions, which seem to occur to us more naturally. Closed questions also seem to provide an easy shortcut to assessing pupil learning. The pupil’s answer is either right or wrong, which can indicate whether the pupil has understood the content.

However, this is not the whole story. Closed questions do not require the same level of cognitive challenge as open-ended questions, which provide scope for personal interpretation and shades of opinion. Open-ended questions also provide an opportunity for pupils to engage in higher order-thinking, by giving them the chance to reason, reflect and analyse.

Here are some ideas for some effective open-ended question sentence starters:

What do you think…?

How might you decide…?

Why do you think…?

How do you feel about…?

Why might someone disagree…?

How did you come to this conclusion…?


With a bit of practice, you’ll quickly learn how to master open-ended questioning.

How does that prospect make you feel?

In praise of podcasts: five things I learnt about education from podcasts

9 August 2019

Rewind to the late 2000s. I’d received a really cool mp3 player for Christmas, shaped like a jelly bean but made out of glimmering pearl-like plastic. It provided perfect entertainment for commuting. Until one day it squirmed its way out of my hand, executing a perfect somersault, and plummeted directly through the gap between the train and the platform edge. Panicked, I listened to it clunk against the rails, followed swiftly by warning tones that the doors were about to close and so jumped off the train impulsively, a little lost without the entertainment I’d been relying upon!

Thankfully I’ve not repeated this escapade with my current entertainment device – old habits die hard though, and I’ve still picked a similar glimmering white colour scheme from the many options available. Anyway, what was the reason for me sharing this whistle-stop tour of recent audio technology? For many of us, all sorts of tasks (commuting included), are now accompanied by our own choice of entertainment, plugged straight into our ears. Instead of noughties pop my companion is often a podcast and there are plenty on education that are both interesting and informative. Here are five things I learnt about education from podcasts:

  • Homework and class sizes appear to influence pupils’ outcomes less than we think.

from BBC The Educators – John Hattie

This podcast interviews a number of big thinkers in education, and is well worth a listen. This particular episode with John Hattie includes some information about his meta-analysis of education research and how it can help us understand what might, and might not, make a difference to pupil outcomes. As I learnt at a recent event, there is a tension in meta-analytical work between the quantity and quality of studies to include – although more studies might initially seem better, this isn’t necessarily the case if they are not equally high-quality and ‘translatable’ to new and differing contexts. All the same, the work of the Education Endowment Foundation also shows that homework and class sizes might not be as significant as we might think.

  • It usually takes examiners 18 months to craft an exam paper! 

From Inside exams – 1. Talking my language

It would be easy to ignore what routes test papers go through before they arrive on exam desks in the summer term. This podcast walks us through some of the processes involved in creating, reviewing and checking exam papers. A great way to learn more about exams, direct from the examinations boards themselves.

  1. How wide the gap is between pupils’ everyday talk and the academic vocabulary they need to succeed in school, as well as how to bridge this gap. From Mr Barton podcast – Alex Quigley: Closing the vocabulary gap

Everyone is a teacher of language and this is a really interesting topic for both maths and English tutors – as well as any prospective teachers of other subjects. Alex Quigley is a former English teacher and now works at the Education Endowment Foundation.

  • Why number lines make more sense vertically than horizontally, and how the language of ‘opposites’ can be useful in teaching negative numbers

From Mr Barton podcast – Bernie Westacott

Mr Barton is basically education podcast royalty. He’s interviewed many influential figures for the podcast, which is regularly listened to and discussed by the most maths-phobic teachers. You know when Mr Barton likes something because he says, “that’s flippin’ brilliant” and he says that a lot in this podcast, which is available to listen to as well as to watch. It gives some great context to what pupils will have experienced early on in primary school as well as great tips for teaching negative numbers. I’m a big fan of vertical number lines since watching this. Why? They link to real-life examples (think thermometers and lifts) and the higher up a number is, the bigger it is. With a horizontal line, you lose these clear links and in their place it all becomes more ambiguous for pupils.

  • Why it’s desirable that pupils find things difficult, and the importance of ‘wait time’ after we ask questions. 

From Evidence based education – Robert & Elizabeth Bjork 

The Bjorks are incredibly knowledgeable and influential researchers on learning and memory. This is the sort of podcast that really makes you think about how complex learning is, and helps question the assumptions we’ve picked up along the way. It’s worth a listen to understand that when pupils find tasks hard, it might not actually be having a negative impact on their learning. For a quick written summary, I’d recommend this article. ‘Wait time’ is all about how much silence we leave, after asking a pupil a question. Often, it’s tempting to break the silence and either answer the question ourselves or rephrase it. Both approaches might result in pupils not having the time they need to think deeply about the question and formulate a response. Plus, we are tacitly telling them they don’t always need to think about the questions we pose – as we might answer them ourselves! If you want to know more about their research you can also listen to their interview on Mr Barton’s podcast and their YouTube channel.

More education podcasts I’ve enjoyed:

BBC more or less – delves deep into statistics (often sent in by the audience) and provides great examples of mathematical ‘answers’ that aren’t always simple and can be controversial or used as a starting point for debate.

TES – the education podcast – TES news is great for what’s going on in schools, and TES ‘pod-agogy’ (yes, I love that pun!) for teaching tips.

The Dysadvantage podcast – experiences of people with dyslexia: exploring how they cope with the challenges it poses and the advantages they feel it brings.

TED Talks education – more global and wide-ranging in topics, great if you want a broader view of education beyond tutoring and the UK system.

The NCETM Maths podcast – aimed at maths teachers, but there are some great episodes on the maths mastery approach and interviews with maths teachers.

Trialled and tested – a collaboration between the Education Endowment Foundation and Evidence Based Education, discussing key pieces of education research.

What I’m listening to next: Researcher Daniel Willingham’s keynote at a recent ResearchED. Willingham’s book ‘Why don’t students like school’ has been a big influence on me. The quote ‘memory is the residue of thought’ is a really pertinent one for anyone in education, so I’m looking forward to hearing what Willingham has to say.

The Power of Yet: How discovering Growth Mindset had an impact not only on my teaching but on my path to self-care

2 August 2019

When I first started teacher training, Carol Dweck’s research on Growth Mindset formed a central part of the training I received. I was so inspired by everything she said, especially by this quote:

“Instead of luxuriating in the power of yet, they were gripped in the tyranny of now.” (Carol Dweck, 2014)

I realised I definitely had a growth mindset professionally. I knew I was on a learning curve to becoming a teacher and I wanted to embed Growth Mindset strategies into my teaching practice. I can confidently say that I was able to do that. There was nothing more rewarding than, after a few months, hearing my pupils use these phrases with each other:

“I’ve tried really hard today.”

“I can see you’ve put in a lot of effort.”

“Wow, you didn’t give up with this tricky sound, well done!”

In my classroom and in my teaching practice, I had embedded a culture of continuous learning, growth and positivity, and I could see this in the way my pupils were starting to use my growth mindset language in their everyday life. However, in my personal life, everything was spiralling out of control.

Whilst struggling with missing my family, having no work-life balance and challenges with my mental health, I realised I was gripped in the tyranny of now, barely coping with the anxiety that was swallowing me up. I could see no way out. It was around that time that I started watching the Netflix series, Queer Eye, and was really struck by what one of the main stars of the show, Jonathan Van Ness, said:

“To me, self-care isn’t really shallow. Showing up for yourself, putting on a little moisturizer, can inspire so many different parts of your life.” (Jonathan Van Ness)

I realised I was not showing up for myself. I was not eating well, not exercising, not sleeping well, not taking time to myself, not taking care of my skin…So, after watching the episode, I bought myself a face moisturiser and a face wash. I knew that my wellbeing was not going to improve magically, and I needed to put in the effort and I could take self-care one step at a time. It might seem silly to some that a little bit of moisturiser would have such an impact on my wellbeing, but it wasn’t the moisturiser itself, it was what it represented: my first step in buying something to take care of myself. As people say, the journey of a thousand miles starts with one step.

One year on, recent steps I’ve taken to improve my wellbeing are: I joined an exercise class, I included more vegetables in my diet, I socialised more with friends…

The road to loving and taking care of yourself is long and I am not there yet, but I am luxuriating in this ‘power of yet’ and am miles further than I was this time last year, and I feel great.

Now, as Programme Coordinator at Action Tutoring, I aim to always include Growth Mindset training within the first few weeks of my programmes, hopefully inspiring tutors to use Growth Mindset techniques in their tutoring, just as Carol Dweck inspired me. This will not only have a profound impact on the pupils, but perhaps on the tutors as well.



Olivia’s Top Tips for Tutoring!

21 June 2019

Lesson Ideas For Primary English Tutors

Based on my experience of volunteering with Action Tutoring in two Bristol-based primary schools, here are my top tips for making sessions as useful for the pupils as possible.

  • Rules: each week we establish a list of three rules for the pupils to stick by during the session. This acts as a great incentive to keep them focused and working hard. If a rule is broken, the pupil receives a strike next to the rule. If the pupils succeeded in not getting more than three strikes next to each rule, then they would be rewarded with a sticker at the end of the session. From my experience, incentives such as stickers worked extremely well for keeping the pupils on track and motivated, as they really enjoyed having a realistic and tangible goal to work towards.
  • The Lesson Plan: while it is widely recognised that the importance of planning ahead is paramount to the success of tutoring sessions, I find that openly discussing this plan with my pupils before beginning the session is just as important. So, although I was always sure to plan ahead, my pupils and I would always make a rough plan of the session all together at the start of the session, which would often just consist of four or five bullet points with a tick box next to each activity. Having the plan written down was key as it would allow pupils to stay on track, but more importantly, it allowed them to take turns ticking things off the list when an activity was completed, which motivated them to keep pushing on and achieve lots with each session.

For example:

  1. Play a warm-up game
  2. Read two paragraphs from the text
  3. Highlight words we don’t understanding as we go along
  4. Add 3 new words and synonyms/antonyms to our word journals
  5. Attempt five questions from the workbook
  • Games: Another important aspect of my sessions was word games. Starting each session with a game meant that the pupils looked forward to the sessions and, therefore, put them in a positive and eager mindset to learn. One that always went down well in my sessions the pupils liked to call “the category game”. This involves the tutor choosing one letter in the alphabet, writing a list of 10 different categories (e.g. four letter words, modes of transport, verbs), and setting a timer of three minutes in which the pupils try and come up with an answer for each category. For example, if the letter were ‘B’ and we used the former examples as the first four categories on the list, the first four answers could be: busy (four letter words), bus (modes of transport), and borrow (verbs).
  • Content: As the pupils would often get bored or easily distracted, I found the sessions to be most effective when we would stick to one section of the text rather than attempting to tackle the whole thing. This would often overwhelm pupils, further knocking their confidence and consequently their productivity. Sticking to smaller sections would help to keep the tasks manageable, increasing the chance that the pupils would remain engaged.