Tutoring Tips for Reading Instruction

Helping Students with Attention or Hyperactivity Challenges or Difficulties

Acquire Reading Skills and Achieve Success

The following are tips and suggestions that may be helpful in reading instruction when teaching or tutoring students with attention or hyperactivity challenges or difficulties. These tips are targeted for direct systematic phonics reading instruction.  This article is organized into the following two related sections listing:

All students are unique. These general tips and suggestions may not be appropriate or may need to be adapted or altered to meet the needs of the individual. Although most these suggestions are targeted for individual instruction, some are appropriate or may be adapted for classroom application. I have used these tips listed below in successfully teaching students with attention challenges to read in individual tutoring situations using Right Track Reading Lessons and Back on the Right Track Reading Lessons.

13 Tips for Helping Students with Attention Difficulties & Challenges Acquire Reading Skills

# 1 - Individual instruction is ideal.  Individual instruction has advantages over classroom or group instruction in helping insure those with attention challenges acquire reading skills.  One-on-one instruction maximizes individual focus, allows the ability to implement necessary modifications to keep the student on track, and permits careful monitoring to insure the student acquires necessary skills. Individual instruction is especially beneficial when remediating older students.

# 2 - Teach in a systematic and complete manner. Present information in deliberate, pre-planned and carefully controlled manner. Step-by-step instruction allows the student time to practice and master individual skills before additional information and complexities are taught. Start simple. Introduce new skills and knowledge a bit at a time, adding complexity as the student learns.  Reading is a complex learned skill requiring the mastery and integration of many different subskills. Systematic presentation helps students manage and master the complexities.  A carefully designed program that directly teaches the complete code and progressively builds skills and knowledge in a direct systematic manner helps the student make sense of our complex written language. Systematic and complete presentation is especially important for students with attention challenges as it helps insure they learn all necessary skills. For detailed information on the skills needed for proficient reading see the articles Overview and Visual Representation of the Process of Proficient Reading and Skills Necessary for Proficient Reading.

# 3 -  Direct instruction techniques are absolutely essential for students with attention challenges. Explicitly teach the child the necessary skills.  While some students are able to learn with indirect and embedded instructional approaches, students with attention difficulties frequently will get distracted and fail to extract necessary skills from indirect/embedded instructional methods. Direct instruction also allows the teacher to explicitly build necessary skills. Don’t leave it to chance for the student to discover essential elements on his own. It is particularly important to directly teach skills to the students whose attention is most apt to wander. For additional information see the article More About Direct Instruction Methods in Teaching Reading and Why children Often Fail to Learn with Indirect Instruction.

For example use direct instruction print=sound when teaching the phonemic code. Direct instruction has the child point to the printed letter ‘t’ and say/repeat the  /t/  sound. In contrast, indirect instruction may show the child a picture of a train to teach the ‘t’=/t/. In this indirect approach the child must have the phonemic awareness to segment /t/ from the word ‘train’ and then associate the /t/ with the printed ‘t’.  A child who is busy thinking of a real train, does not have the phonemic awareness to extract the /t/ sound, or fails to associate the abstract ‘t’ squiggle to the /t/ sound on their own will fail to learn the necessary relationship between the printed ‘t’ and /t/ sound. For additional activities that directly teach the phonemic code see the articles. Help Your Child Learn the Phonemic Code: Free, Fun and Highly Effective Games You Can Play to Teach Direct Automatic Knowledge of the Phonemic Code and the informative article Effective Multisensory Activities for Teaching the Complete Phonemic Code.

# 4 - Use a strong direct systematic phonics program. To read proficiently, the student must develop phonologic neural processing pathways. If students fail to convert print to sound and develop phonologic processing pathways they face difficulty learning to read.  See the article How Reading Works.  Effective complete direct systematic phonics reading programs intentionally help children acquire specific necessary skills and develop these proficient reader neural pathways.  We have proof, both validated results based evidence and findings from the neural imaging studies, direct systematic phonics programs are effective in both helping young children learn to read proficiently and in helping struggling students overcome reading difficulty. For additional details on the effectiveness of direct systematic phonics and links to research see the article Direct Systematic Phonics Instruction is Proven Effective.  It is particularly important to use the most effective tools with students who struggle with attention difficulties. Additional information on the specific elements of effective reading programs can be found in the articles  Elements of an Effective Beginning Reading Program: How to Help Children Establish a Strong Foundation of Correct Phonologic Processing  and   Elements of an Effective Reading Remediation Program to Improve Reading Skills in Struggling Readers. The effective reading programs Right Track Reading Lessons and Back on the Right Track Reading Lessons are strong direct systematic phonics programs. Both these programs are guaranteed effective.

# 5 - Adjust the length of the tutoring session to meet the individual’s needs. The appropriate length of a tutoring session usually varies with age. In general k-1st can handle sessions 20-30 min long, 2nd-3rd grade 30-45 min and 4th grade and up 45-60 minutes. Attention difficulties may require shorter sessions. If necessary try a short break partway through the session before continuing or split longer lessons into several shorter sessions. Remember, it requires time to build necessary skills. While you may need to manage the length of tutoring sessions, don’t shorten total time to where the student does not receive adequate instruction and practice.    

# 6 - Break longer activities into manageable ‘hunks”. If the student has difficulty maintaining focus for longer lessons or activities, split the instruction into smaller tasks and intersperse variety to maintain interest/focus. Development of correct phonologic processing pathways takes time and practice.  The student must practice to develop proficiency. In general, don’t eliminate necessary tasks but rather split them up into ‘bite sized’ portions.

For example, when using Right Track Reading Lessons or Back on the Right Track Reading Lessons , I will break up long word lists into smaller sections and alternate the word reading with work making activities with the sound tiles. If a student struggles with completing a 300 word list, I have the student read 100 words, then switch to some word making activities with the tiles, then read another 100 words and then write some words. We take a 3 minute stretch break and then practice sounds for 2 minutes and make some more words with the tiles before completing the word list. Notice, the student still has to read all 300 words. Don’t shorten the necessary practice just break the activity into smaller parts. When you are reading with a student you can monitor their attention/focus and appropriately manage activities.

# 7 -  Control and manage the tutoring environment to enhance learning. The need for environmental control varies individually. Some students require quiet environments without noise or other disturbances in order to concentrate and learn. You can help the child concentrate and acquire reading skills by managing the environment. For example, one young girl I tutored was hypersensitive to noise and absolutely required a silent environment for reading success. Older students in remediation situations often prefer a physically isolated location for social concerns. For example, one older student was highly distracted in a quiet but open area of the library. He was too concerned one of his buddies would walk by to concentrate on reading. As soon as we moved to a side room he was able to concentrate on the lesson. This simple change in environment made a significant difference in his ability to concentrate. If the student is distracted by elements in the environment, try and pinpoint the cause and eliminate or manage the distraction.  (Note: In special cases environmental influences are particularly important. For example, there is evidence students with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome are hypersensitive to noise & environmental distractions and require controlled environments to aid learning.)

# 8 - Control the timing/scheduling of the reading sessions to maximize learning.  Some students have certain times that are less productive. If possible, schedule core reading sessions during productive time periods and avoid ‘poor times’. For example, right before lunch some students are hungry and unable to focus. Kindergarten and 1st grade children often have a late afternoon slump (Ask a 1st grade teacher about the heads on the desk in the afternoon.).  If you are teaching your child at home, you have the advantage of capturing ideal times. If you are in a school situation, sometimes you need to manage or mitigate the best you can (such as a granola bar or cracker for the hungry student). Once again try and determine why the child is distracted or having trouble concentrating. Some problems can be easily solved.  For example, I had one pullout student who just wouldn’t concentrate at all. After a week of accomplishing little, I discovered he was worried he was missing his regular work in the classroom and would have to stay in for recess to finish it. His fear of missing recess kept him from concentrating. All it took was his teacher telling him he wouldn’t miss recess because of his reading session and from that point forward he began to concentrate on the reading lessons. Also if you are doing pull out tutoring, avoid pulling children from recess, PE or other ‘fun’ or special activities. Not only is the student usually distracted by visions of the fun dodge ball game his buddies are playing but it places the reading session in a negative/punishment view.

# 9 - Repetition and practice is essential to gain mastery. Once may not be enough. Repetition is especially important to those students with attention issues.  Repeat a session when the student needs additional practice.  The more often a student practices a skill correctly the sooner they gain mastery. The foundational skills need to be practiced until they are automatic. Band students play better the more they practice. Athletes improve skills by repetition. In the same way repetition helps students acquire reading skills. Teach  - Practice - Reteach - Repeat - Practice Again!  

# 10 - Require physical tracking when reading. Have the student use their finger or other pointer to track along as they read. In addition to the benefits for reading development, this physical tracking is an effective attention management technique to help the student focus on the letters/words. Physical tracking literally keeps the student ‘pointed’ at what they need to focus on.  See the article Directional Tracking Explained.

# 11 - Phonics phones can be a fantastic tool for improving focus and attention in various reading instruction activities.  Phonics phones are simple tube shaped ‘telephone’ receiver, often made from plastic PVC pipe.  Students use the ‘phonics phone’ to listen to their own voice as they practice reading. The phone improves the student’s focus and attention because they are intentionally listening to their own voice. Both the physicals presence of the phone and the sound funneling attributes help the student pay attention and listen carefully to what they are saying when they read. The phones improve the students focus on their own task and are less apt to be distracted by what their neighbor is saying/reading. See the article Phonics Phones Explained for information on how these simple devices can be a highly effective tool in reading instruction. This article also includes instructions for making phonics phones. Phonics phones are also effective tools for improving focus and managing distractions in a classroom setting.

# 12 -  A ‘tally counter’ can help focus a student on reading and keep them on task.  Some students prefer to waste significant amounts of time, are easily distracted or would rather tell a story between each word they read. Others tend to ‘poke along’ preferring not to work hard. I have found a small handheld ‘tally counter’ to be a particularly useful tool. These small hand held counters can be found for around $4-$15 at office supply and sporting good stores. See an example tally counter listed on Amazon.   Use the clicker/counter to tally the number of words read correctly. The tally counter provides a concrete way to measure reading accomplishment. I have used the tally counter to manage a variety of situations including:

One additional important comment on  ‘clicker’ management: The instructor is the one who uses the clicker, NOT the student. Giving a distracted child a ‘toy’ to play with is conterproductive and interferes with reading progress. The tally counter is a tool for the teacher, not a toy for the child. The only time I let the child have the clicker is at the very end of a tutoring session IF they have read their x number of words, stayed focused, and completed all tasks BEFORE the scheduled time was up. Then occasionally I will let them play with the clicker for a short period.  For example, “OK....since you worked so hard today and got finished early it is your turn to see how many clicks you can make in 1 minute”   This can be used as another motivator to stay focused since the kids tend to love the ‘clicker’ and it’s not often they earn the opportunity to play with it!

# 13 -  The word making activity is ideal for those with attention/hyperactivity issues as they focus on ‘making’ one word at a time. Physically manipulating the sound tiles as they build the words helps them see and understand the phonemic structure of language.  See the effective multisensory word making activities that are an essential component of the Right Track Reading programs.

4 Tips for Managing “Energetic” students with difficulty sitting still & maintaining physical control  

# 1 -  Run the energy off! Take an energetic child outside and literally let them run a few laps prior to sitting down for a reading/tutoring session.  This simple strategy of burning off excess energy helps. Some students must release physical energy before you can expect productive learning to occur.

# 2 - If a student struggles with sitting still during lessons, allow the student to stand up during the lesson. The student MUST stand next to me and pay attention to the lesson, however standing and even a bit of wiggling is acceptable as long as it does not interfere with the reading lesson. The standing seems to utilize some of the excess physical energy allowing the student to better focus on the reading tasks. While this may be challenging to implement in a classroom setting, I have successfully used this technique with individual tutoring.

# 3 - Incorporate physical movement when possible. While movement can not and should not be incorporated into all reading activities, some of the activities and drills can be practiced ‘in motion’. For example, the drill with direct print=sound does not have to be done sitting down. The requirements are for the student to directly look at the printed letter(s) and say the sound. Active options for drill and practice are ideal for younger and ‘energetic’ students. Have the child stand up when practicing sounds. Review the ‘sound cards’ while walking around.  Write the sounds with sidewalk chalk on the driveway and have the student dribble the basketball while looking at print/saying sound. Use games for younger children. See the article Fun Games to Help Your Child Learn the Phonemic Code.   Older students can simply walk around while practicing their sound cards.

# 4 - If you tutor immediately after school, allow the child to have a much needed ‘physical activity’ break before sitting down for instruction.  Often an energetic child has been cooped up in a classroom all day and needs to ‘run around’ for awhile before sitting down again. It is counterproductive to attempt any instruction until the child releases some energy. Once again, ‘running laps’ can be fabulously effective.

All students are unique. These tips and suggestions may not work for every student. If anyone would like to share any tips or suggestions they have used to successfully help students who struggle with attention issues and hyperactivity learn, please contact Miscese Gagen.   

Additional suggestions that can be applied to reading instruction to help students with attention challenges learn can be found in the helpful article “8 Keys for Developing Successful Interventions for Students with FAS”

Additional free information on teaching students to read is located at Reading Information and Information & Resources for Teaching Reading pages of the Right Track Reading website.  


This article was written by Miscese Gagen a mother with a passion for teaching children to read proficiently by using effective methods. She is also a successful reading tutor and author of the reading instructional programs Right Track Reading Lessons and Back on the Right Track Reading Lessons. The purpose of this article is to empower parents and teachers with information on teaching children how to read. We CAN improve reading proficiency, one student at a time!  More information is located at www.righttrackreading.com ~ Copyright 2008-2013 Miscese R. Gagen

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