Robert Lomax has been a tutor for many years, working in London, Italy and Hong Kong. His award-winning English and maths materials are available from RSL Educational.
I doubt you’re here because you’re wondering how to teach.
You’re already a tutor with a fair bit of experience. What’s more, you’re getting plenty of work…
If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be reading this: you’d have given up already – which is what happens to most people.
You must be doing something right!
So my aim in this article isn’t to tell you how to do your job:
I’m just going to share the method which has been most effective for me over the years.
If it’s obvious to you, I can only say that it wasn’t to me: as you’ll see, it took me a long time to work these things out.
I spent years telling children how to write things – how to structure a comprehension answer, how to make a start with a maths question; how to write a good story – and sometimes they got the idea straight away.
But, very often, they didn’t.
And however many times I went back and told them again, and again … and again … some children just didn’t get it, at all. Ever.
It seemed that even my clearest, most patient explanations just didn’t make sense, however hard I worked to make them better.
Then, in frustration, I started doing the work for them. “Look, give me the pen and watch me: THIS is how you do it!”
And, like magic, almost everybody got it.
So I began carrying model answers around with me: “Here’s one I made earlier!”
I’d ask the student to compare their answer with the example, and explain the differences: How theirs could be better … How mine could be better!
For a while, this was great. My students were doing better in school. More importantly, they were starting to think about their work more critically – more objectively.
But over time, I realised that this wasn’t working quite as well as I’d first hoped. An example I’d photocopied last week didn’t quite cut it:
It wasn’t real.
I kept trying. Maybe I just had to focus on comparing our answers more effectively?
Perhaps I could make games out of it, find ways to create a sense of competition?
But it wasn’t enough. Each student lost interest in the model answers, because they weren’t fresh enough. They weren’t for them.
So I put my pre-written answers away.
I wrote my answers alongside the student, while they worked – even if this meant I wrote an answer to the same question, for three different people, on the same day, and went home feeling I never wanted to look at it again in my life.
And it worked, just like the first time! This was what I’d been missing!
If my answer was elegant and well-written, straight away the child had something to imitate.
If I was tired and a bit bored and I’d let a mistake or two slip through – I hadn’t explained a quote clearly, or (horror!) I’d forgotten the units at the end of a maths question – they pounced on it triumphantly:
If I could get it wrong, they realised, then obviously I didn’t have superhuman skills after all. If there was no magic involved, then surely they could produce brilliant work for themselves!
And so, the curse was broken.
You can carry this technique into virtually any area of teaching. Yes, it leaves you less time to read the newspaper online – but in return, you get motivated students and delighted parents.
Here are some of the ways I adapt the approach for different tasks:
This is perhaps the most straightforward way to use the method. In particular, you can show students how to support their points with short (one to five word) quotes within sentences and reach simple analytical conclusions.
For example, many children simply have no idea how to write something like this:
The author describes the rays of light as ‘fingers’. This metaphor makes me imagine the early dawn as dots of light peeping over the rim of the hills (‘fell sides’). When they ‘creep over’, the rest of the hand seems to come into view, as the points of light join together and make the sky bright. The one-word sentence, ‘Sunrise’, is surprising. It suggests that the shepherd is amazed by the new day, or at least very happy to see it.
- taken from RSL 11+ Comprehension, Volume 2.
It’s very difficult to explain all the elements of this answer to an 11 Plus student, if you try to do it theoretically.
It’s only when they see how it’s done and try to copy it, that the idea of developing an idea around small units of meaning begins to make sense.
Above all else, working in parallel to the student can demonstrate how to move from a confusing word question into the beginning of an answer: how to get past the ‘staring gormlessly at the page’ stage.
As maths tutors we’ve all been there!
For example, here’s a fairly simple GCSE question (taken from GCSE Maths by RSL) which nevertheless confuses some people:
What does ‘in terms of x’ actually mean, in practice?
More importantly: How do I start?
So I would say:
Just have a go – start anywhere – while I do it at the same time. When you finish or get stuck, let’s compare our work.
And I’d do something like this:
The very fact that I have done the work there, alongside the student, makes it real and encourages them to pay attention.
Would they have thought of beginning with a sketch (or drawing on the diagram in the question)?
If not, there’s no better way to make it sink in than to show them!
Then we’d talk though our answers together, discovering what worked and what didn’t.
In case it’s of interest, here’s how I break the explanation down in the book:
This is the area where I’ve found this method most useful. I don’t think it needs an example here, because there are so many different approaches, and the point (when you think about it) is quite obvious:
The majority of children don’t have a clear idea what descriptive writing means – and particularly, what an examiner is looking for.
Instead, they have stale checklists: a simile; a metaphor; two personifications – and so on – as though beautiful writing could be done just as well by a computer program.
But if they can see something coming to life in their presence, and discuss how it was created, they have a chance of working it out for themselves.
In fact, the majority manage to!
You don’t need to do whole stories like this. In fact, it works best for five or ten minute, single-paragraph writing tasks: for example, ‘Describe the moment when you discover you are lost in a strange place’.
One thing I should add: you don’t need to be a world-famous novelist for this to work. The point is that the student can share your thought process. If they can point out room for improvement in your piece, that’s all the better.
I did warn you it might be obvious! But it’s taken me years to get the hang of this stuff, so I hope there’s the odd new idea you can try out with your students. And (as if that wasn’t quite enough) there are many more teaching tips on my blog.
You might also like to try some of the free sample papers for 11 Plus and GCSE maths and English on the RSL Educational website.