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Literacy Breakthrough

Unconventional Lessons are Sometimes the Best

Carrying two bags of books and resources, I slid into the seat at the food court in the local mall. It was early Saturday morning and the only people frequenting the food court, besides us, were seniors sipping coffee.

My literacy student’s face was beaming. He showed me the new reading material he could now master. Since I’d last seen him, he’d picked up a zippered binder where he’d alphabetized all of the words he was trying to learn. He even had a fancy black day timer where he was now scheduling all of his appointments. This was truly an emotional moment and it threw me off guard. My student had made his big breakthrough.

I should have seen it coming. I guess that as teachers and even literacy volunteers, we are so caught with the hurdles of everyday life, that we get disillusioned and can’t see progress in small increments.

In retrospect, here are a few of the things we did together which I believe led to this success.

  1. We communicated through text messaging, every day. Text messaging can be a very positive learning experience and is a non-threatening way for students to formulate a few words at a time. I encouraged him to send me messages of at least five words in length. At the end of the week I would tailor a lesson based on words he needed to practise. Text messaging can be extremely accessible and is usually inexpensive, maybe 10 or 15 cents per message, through most cell phone plans. The neat thing is that it was something my student was able to teach me how to do.

  2. We meet in cheerful surroundings. Our local mall was renovated recently and the food court with its big tables, padded benches and skylights is such a nice place to sit. It’s great to tutor in such an upbeat place.

  3. Learning relevant things – from reading menus, deciphering prescription bottles to reading a book about automobile repair, it’s important to choose reading material that is relevant and interesting. Soon I hope to teach my student how to type an invoice, how to write a business letter and how to balance his check book.

  4. I stress the need to learn to type, properly. Mavis Beacon has proven to be a great program. I bought a copy and had it installed on one of the computers in our local literacy center. Typing is a hands-on way of practising spelling over and over. It’s also a skill that all of us should have. My obsession with the need to acquire proper typing skills must have made a big impression on my student. He found and purchased a used computer which he keeps in his living room so that he can practise typing in his spare time.

  5. Homework that is easily manageable. The homework part was fairly easy for me. My company has specifically created many audio book titles to be used as literacy resources. On a regular basis I would choose one of our CD/book kits and then ask my student to listen carefully to three songs. At the end of the week I’d give him cloze exercises reviewing the three songs he’d been working on. I’m making these same cloze exercises to everyone for free.  so that other tutors and students can benefit as well. You’ll find links to our Phonics songs and Sight Words songs here:


    Links to the free cloze exercises and worksheets I’ve been creating for my own literacy student can be found here:


  6. Don’t try to ‘go it alone’.  I found a local Adult Education Center funded by the federal government for my student. I see this as an important stepping stone back into the rigors of conventional schooling which will be required as a part of any apprenticeship program on the horizon. Envision lofty goals, with achievable smaller benchmarks along the way. As your student’s tutor, you are really a cheerleader. You must first envision success and then share that vision with your student.

Tutoring my literacy student is one of the highlights of my week. The best part of all is when there is an “AHA” moment. Not just one light bulb lights up. The entire universe lights up for him. It lights up for me too…and stays that way for a long, long time.

Good luck and have fun!


Sara Jordan is a musician, composer and former Special Education teacher. When she is not tutoring her student she is the president of Sara Jordan Publishing and publishes award winning songs boosting literacy in English, Spanish and French. Please visit www.SongsThatTeach.com for more information.

Copyright © 1995-2012 Sara Jordan Publishing, a division of Jordan Music Productions Inc. All rights reserved.
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