Tutoring Tips

How a former pupil and teacher reunited through volunteer tutoring

13 December 2023

An unexpected reunion between a former pupil and a revered teacher made possible by a shared passion for education.

In the vibrant city of Bristol, Gemma Ray, a finance compliance officer and volunteer with Action Tutoring, arrived at the bar to join other volunteers for a socials quiz. After a busy academic term of supporting young people in local schools to improve their knowledge and confidence, our volunteers converged at the riverside hangout, in high spirits to connect, share experiences, and face off in teams for the games.

Just before the line-up of activities began, Gemma was greeted by a familiar yet unexpected face, jogging her memory from about 12 years ago. It was Andrew Fagan, her further mathematics teacher from North Bristol Post 16 centre, Cotham and Redland.

“I didn’t recognise him at first when he said hello, as it had been a very long time, but he still looked just as he did back then. I was surprised he recognised me after all this time and with so many students.”

Crossing paths with Andrew at the socials stirred sentiments of nostalgia and appreciation. Gemma recalled a crucial algorithmic error in grading that was rectified through Andrew’s guidance, which ensured her rightful admission to Bristol University.

“It was actually between Mr. Fagan and another teacher, Mr Williams, that I learned about the algorithm which calculated the A level grades for maths and further maths when you did both of these together at the time. It is only because of this knowledge that I was able to set the record straight and secure my place at the university in 2011.”

Gemma reunites with former teacher
When Gemma reunited with Andrew at the Bristol tutor social

A deep love for maths

For Gemma, mathematics has always been more than calculations; it has been a lifelong passion – one she pursued ardently despite societal perceptions.

“I always loved maths from a young age, choosing to do it in my free time at home and in my ‘golden time’ at primary school. This was not seen as ‘cool’ so I have some experience of bullying and can relate to that. I did my maths GCSE one year early as recommended by my secondary school and I always wanted to do maths at university as there was no other logical option for me at the time. I graduated with first-class honours in 2014.”

However, Gemma admitted some level of struggle in maths during her sixth-form year, empathising with how underperforming pupils feel about mathematical concepts they find difficult to grasp.

“In my second year of 6th form, there were only two of us left doing further maths with the others having dropped out after or during the first year. The other student who carried on did not always attend the lessons so it was a bit like having a personal tutor for further maths, which was very beneficial as it was quite a bit more difficult than the ordinary maths A level, and I admit that I found it quite hard at times.”

Like many of the pupils that Action Tutoring supports who are identified by their schools as being at risk of not meeting expected standards in their finals, Gemma had a fleeting experience of that moment in maths.

“One time, I had 2 mock exams on the same day so I chose to revise for one and not the other. If it had been the real test, I would have failed the further maths that day. I remember Andrew being shocked and maybe a little bit worried for me, but all was well in the real exam at the end.”

Volunteer tutor, Gemma
Volunteer tutor, Gemma Ray

The journey of volunteering

As the world grappled with pandemic lockdowns, Gemma’s employer, DAC Beachcroft, embraced flexibility and encouraged staff to engage in community projects including volunteering as tutors with Action Tutoring. Fuelled by her passion for mathematics and a desire to support young people struggling with the subject, Gemma signed up to volunteer with Action Tutoring in November 2022 to support young people struggling with maths in Bristol schools.

“I have enjoyed the programme so far. It is nice to know that you are making a difference to individuals who may need extra support. They are so engaged and ready to learn. You find that your mindset changes, you become more patient and you start to see the problems from their point of view.”

Conquering fears

Gemma said one of her fears before starting tutoring was the phobia of making mistakes in a session with pupils. However, tutoring has since helped her to confront that anxiety and not worry about making mistakes and correcting them.

“You also learn not to worry about making any mistakes because if you do make any silly mistakes, it will only cement in their minds that mistakes are okay and that they are only a normal part of life – and that adults make mistakes too.”

The power of volunteer tutoring

Through this volunteer initiative, Gemma discovered the transformative power of tutoring and mentoring young people and the need for additional education support, especially for disadvantaged students.

“Many disadvantaged students would benefit from more one-on-one tutoring, and as we all know this is not always possible with the teacher in the classroom themselves, because they are only one person and the workforce is stretched thin with very large class sizes in some schools now.”

Gemma also emphasised the accessibility of tutoring, urging others to contribute, and highlighting the impact even minimal commitments can have on a child’s educational journey. Inspiring others to embrace tutoring, Gemma reflected on the gratification derived from witnessing pupils eagerly engaging with content in the session templates and interactive learning methods.

“You can simply tutor online from the comfort of your own home with no travel time. You spend as little as 70 minutes out of your working day. You do not need to commit very long term. Know that every session you do will count and will make a small difference in a child’s educational journey. You do not need a lot of experience to be a tutor.”

Gemma’s story is a testament to the enduring bond between teachers and students, the transformative power of education, and the rewarding spirit of giving back. As she continues her tutoring journey, she stands as a beacon, inspiring others to bridge the academic attainment gap and shape brighter futures for disadvantaged young people, one session at a time.

Nervous about your first tutoring session? These tips will help!

28 March 2022

Volunteers are the engine of everything we do. In 2020–21, 2,749 volunteers provided nearly 32,000 hours of tutoring to pupils across England. Without you, our mission of tackling educational inequality would not be achievable!

tutoring tips volunteer as a tutor

That’s why we want to make sure all our volunteers feel supported and receive the information and guidance they need in order to deliver high-quality tuition to children who need it. 

We understand that not everyone has the experience or the confidence to interact effectively with young people, but we are here to make the tutor journey as smooth as possible for our volunteers. It is important for us to ensure that our tutors have a clear idea of their volunteer role, responsibilities and commitment.

Read more: Curious about the tutor journey? Here are the steps to becoming a tutor.

Lack of tutoring experience should not hold you back from volunteering. The qualities tutors need are empathy, patience and being understanding. In case you are feeling nervous about your first tutoring experience, the tips below will help better prepare you for your first interaction with your pupils.

The first tutoring session is an opportunity for volunteers to create a safe learning environment for our pupils and make them feel heard and understood.  This way, pupils will feel more comfortable and confident, and will engage more during the sessions. 

As a volunteer tutor, you can have a significant impact on a child’s attitude towards the subject you’re tutoring and their learning outcomes.

Introduce yourself

It’s essential to begin the session by greeting and welcoming pupils with a smile. Introduce yourself, then kindly ask your pupils to do the same. It’ll help make everyone feel more comfortable, and set the tone for the rest of the session.

At this stage, you can also take some time to get to know them better, so why not include some warm up activities to find out more about them and their interests?

Familiarise yourself with the content before the session

Our volunteers don’t need to prepare their own activities and resources for learning. Our team has ensured that our tutors are provided with all the training materials and workbooks they need in order to provide personalised and targeted tuition to our pupils.

If you want to increase your own confidence around the  curriculum, we advise you to familiarise yourself with the content before the first lesson. This way, you’re better prepared to answer questions and structure the session.

Ask open-ended questions

Open-ended questions have the power to challenge pupils and motivate them to think critically. This way, they are not passively obtaining new knowledge, but process it in an effective way and provide a range of responses.

Remember to be attentive, show an authentic interest in what they say and reply with kindness.

Pay attention to non-verbal communication

Keep in mind that body language, posture, gestures and the general attitude play an important role in establishing a good relationship with pupils. This can make you appear more approachable and help you connect with your pupils more.

End on a positive note

At the end, make sure you summarise the session and praise them for their attendance, participation and engagement. Remember that praise is an important part of tutoring and can motivate pupils to do better.

Remind them that they are one step closer to their learning goals, and this will leave pupils feeling inspired and excited for the next session.

Lastly, have patience with yourself and your pupils too,  so everyone can take their time to feel comfortable and build a stronger relationship.

Online tutoring  – how does it work? 

The same tips apply for virtual learning. Online  tutors need to pay slightly more attention to reading body language or facial expressions, as they’re not physically in the classroom.

tutoring tips

Online learning can be engaging, interactive and fun. We use the Vedamo virtual classroom, which is a safe digital platform,  to deliver online tuition. It gives us the possibility to host live tutoring sessions, regardless of the location, create captivating learning experiences and easily manage the tutoring sessions and content. 

Once our volunteer tutors have completed their initial tutor training, they will be given access to Looop, which is our online tutor resources library. Here you can access the compulsory training for online tutors, our tutoring resources and optional training courses designed to develop or sharpen your skills as a tutor.

If you are tutoring online, it’s important to ensure that you are in a suitable working environment with limited or no distractions. It would be best to run a browser test before your first session begins, so you can check that your network connection, webcam and microphone are working.

We are always here to support you 

Most importantly, our volunteer tutors will have an assigned Programme Coordinator for each volunteering programme they are a part of. When you become a tutor with us, our amazing Programme Coordinators will always be on hand to make sure everything runs smoothly in our online and in-person programmes, and give you the support you need.  

They do so by keeping in touch with you while you’re tutoring to resolve any issues, provide updates and thank you for your support. 

Are you curious to see who they are? Here’s our incredible Programme team! 

At Action Tutoring we believe that the right tools and a supportive environment have the potential to not only help pupils progress academically, but serve as a learning experience for tutors as well. 

This is an opportunity to challenge yourself and get out of your comfort zone. Being nervous before your first tutoring experience is completely normal; don’t let it hold you back from experiencing the joy of giving back to your community and expanding your skills!

If you have the qualifications and want to tutor in English or maths, we would love to hear from you! We welcome all individuals from different backgrounds to join our volunteer team and make a difference.

Five things I’ve learnt while on placement with Action tutoring

7 February 2022

Student Volunteering Week is an annual event that celebrates the impact of student volunteers. This year the week will be taking place from 7th – 13th February 2022. This is a brilliant opportunity to demonstrate how social action creates positive change.

Our student volunteers inspire us, and so we wanted to share some of their stories this week. Elsie volunteered with Action Tutoring for one term as part of a university placement module.

university placement

I am a third year English Language student studying at the University of Liverpool. Whilst on placement with Action Tutoring this year, I have had the privilege of tutoring a handful of pupils aged 9-12 in English, at three schools across the country, both online and face-to-face.

My university placement with Action Tutoring has been highly rewarding, and I would love to encourage more students to be part of this experience. In case you are unsure, here are five of the most invaluable lessons I’ve learned from my time tutoring.

The importance of communication, and how you communicate with the pupils

Using an online platform can sometimes bring technical hurdles, meaning that clear, loud, and upbeat speech is more important than ever ensuring a successful and well-understood lesson. One of my Programme Coordinators explained to me the importance of pitch when speaking to the pupils.

Different pitches can indicate whether they are receiving praise for their hard work, or whether they are being reminded to maintain concentration. Name use is another important communication technique, particularly during online sessions. Using the pupil’s name shows that you are taking an interest in what they have to say, indicating that you value them as an individual.

Time management and planning is essential

I knew that becoming a tutor would mean improving my time management skills to fit around university lectures. Action Tutoring provides great templates for each week, which have everything you need to lead the session. I would advise reading through these templates thoroughly in advance, especially the texts.

It is important to remember time management within the sessions, too. They can progress a lot faster or slower than expected, depending on how well the pupils are understanding the content, so it is important to know when to adapt a lesson to suit this. Always have additional activities prepared for the end of the session in case you finish with spare time!

Brain breaks are your best friend!

A great session should always involve a brain break. That’s what my Programme Coordinator taught us; to combat attention levels dipping half way through the session. A brain break is a short activity which moves the focus away from the lesson content, to a more fun and often fast-paced game or challenge.

My pupils really enjoyed hang-man or memory games, but other ideas could include word-bingo or scrabble. I learnt that using trickier words from the text within the games was a great way to solidify a new word into the pupils’ vocabulary.

The importance of non-verbal communicators

During my placement with Action Tutoring, I learnt how important other factors; such as enthusiasm, body-language and confidence; are to engaging and building rapport with children.

Eye-contact is a really great way to show a pupil you are giving them your full attention, valuing what they have to say, and checking their understanding.

A pupil is more likely to lose attention if you are not giving them regular eye-contact, and this works well alongside using their name too. Pupils may also give off non-verbal cues which indicate if they are understanding the session, so be sure to look out for your pupil’s body language and enthusiasm levels.

The importance of tutoring and the impact it has on the pupils

All of the pupils I tutored improved their English skills as we progressed through the weeks. It was amazing to watch their confidence levels grow as they became more comfortable in challenging themselves and building upon skills gained from previous sessions.

They enjoyed themselves as well. One pupil told his teacher after a session that he thought tutoring was ‘going to be boring…but it was actually really fun!’ This kind of feedback is what makes tutoring so worthwhile.

Blog by Elsie Holmes

We offer in-person tutoring programmes and for those with busy schedules, our online programmes are available so you can still get involved and be a part of our mission. Join our inspiring volunteering community today!

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!

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 and Policy Manager for Action Tutoring, 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.

pupil premium

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.

Join our mission and help us provide the academic support disadvantaged young people need.

The value of open-ended questions

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.

Some questions you may have as a tutor:

  • 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.

Why are open-ended questions important?

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.


What 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?

If you would like to gain tutoring experience, enhance your skills and help disadvantaged pupils receive the academic support they need, get involved with Action Tutoring. The experience of volunteering can be extremely beneficial and rewarding for tutors.

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.



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