A new test-prep tutor’s guide to lesson planning

You’ve got a new tutoring gig helping some eager student improve their score on a standardized test. You did well on the test yourself and know the material you’re teaching.

But you’ve never tutored anyone in how to take this test before. Your student isn’t going to learn how to take this test by simply soaking in your test-taking genius aura. What should you actually do in your class?

This guide is a plan to help get you started.

Note: I have tutored many different standardized tests – TOEFL, ACT, SAT, SSAT…but only the English sections of those tests (reading, grammar, writing, vocabulary, and so on). If you’re tutoring for math and science tests, you might be able to use some parts of this plan, but you’ll also have to heavily modify it.

The first class

After the first class, you can follow the same lesson template with a student ad infinitum (and maybe ad nauseam). But the first class is different.

Introductions

First, if you don’t know the student yet, you’ll be introducing yourselves. You’ll want to know what grade they’re in (if they’re younger), what their job or major is (if they’re older), what their interests are, etc.

During that introduction, you’ll also talk about goals. This is very important – it’s the reason they’ve hired you as a tutor.

If you’re tutoring a kid whose mom hired you to improve their ACT scores, you’ll know their goal already. But ask your student anyway: Why do you need that score? Which school are you trying to go to? Which parts of the test give you difficulty? Having the student talk about these questions will also give you a sense of their feelings about the test and the process of studying for it. You’ll also have a sense of their confidence level and what things might motivate them.

If the student is older, they might be taking a test like the GRE or the TOEFL. If so, you’ll also want to ask which school they’re applying to. If they’re applying for a mathematics program, they might need different scores than if they were applying to an English literature program. Learning about what they think their strengths and weaknesses are is also important.

Diagnostics

You’ll want to see how the student has performed in the past. If the student has never taken that test before, you might want to give them a diagnostic version of that test on the first day. It doesn’t have to be the whole test since standardized tests usually take a long time, but a selection of questions from that test would help give you a good idea of where they’re at.

If the student has already taken the test before, ask to see their results and go over them with them. Or, if the student has writing samples, those would be helpful diagnostics as well.

In general, you want to hear about the students strengths and weaknesses from their perspective, and then see their actual results on the test.

Materials

I highly recommend getting a textbook/study guide for your tutoring classes. There are a lot of good ones (and a lot of bad ones). None of them will be perfect and you’ll need to supplement them, but they’re great for giving you structure and tons of examples and problems/questions.

One thing to be careful of – make sure that the book you use is current. Tests change over time, and you’ll want a book that is as accurate to the test your student is taking.

Homework

If you select a good textbook, it will have a list of commonly-seen vocabulary words for that test. Give your student a page or two (as much as they can handle) and have them study those words for the next class.

Basic class plan

This is the plan that I follow with nearly every one of my students. I often make some major adjustments depending on the needs of my students, but this basic plan usually serves every student well. If you’re a completely new tutor, you won’t go wrong following it.

Part 1: Vocabulary Quiz

No matter what standardized test your student is taking, studying vocabulary will help them. The last standardized test I took was the GRE, and I studied plenty of vocabulary for that. You can discuss with your student some different strategies for studying words, but the key thing is that they’re quizzed on it so that you know they’re absorbing the vocab.

The quiz you give them doesn’t need to be long, but it should cover all of the vocabulary that they studied as homework. Some textbooks have quizzes in them, but I usually make them myself. It’s good to have a variety of questions, but also try to make and include questions that look like the ones they’ll see on the test. For example, if your student is taking the SSAT, there will be multiple choice synonym questions and multiple choice analogy questions. You will want to include both of these types of questions on your quiz.

Here is an example vocabulary quiz that I’ve used.

Bonus: Greek and Latin roots – this website has some great ideas for teaching common Greek and Latin roots that are found in a lot of “long” and “difficult” words. Having your student learn just a few of these will help them make educated guesses on a lot of questions.

Part 2: Reading or Writing

So after your student finishes their vocabulary quiz, you’ll need to grade it. While you’re doing that, have your student work on another skill. Depending on their needs and the contents of the test, you can have them write an essay or do questions for a reading passage.

This is a good time to let the student read and/or write because they don’t need you over their shoulder during either of those activities.

While they’re working, just mark the vocabulary that they got wrong and don’t circle the correct answer for them. You’ll want to walk them through why they got those questions wrong and think about it; you don’t want to just give them the answers.

Part 3: Reviewing work

So parts 1 and 2 are done in almost complete silence. That’s fine. As a new tutor, I used to worry about silence: “If I’m not talking, I’m not doing my job! I’m a bad tutor!”

No, you’re fine. You’re letting your student think and do some work.

By this point, you should be about 20-30 minutes into the class. If the class is an hour, you will spend most of the remaining time reviewing the work that your student has done.

This is where you earn your money as a tutor.

First go over the vocabulary quiz: If the student got all of the questions right, great! Give them more words, or harder words next time.

If the student missed a few questions, go over them together. Give them hints about how to rule out obviously incorrect answers or have them look at the Greek or Latin roots (if there are any) to make a better guess next time.

Then go over their reading and/or writing.

For reading, focus on the questions they missed and help them understand why they missed them. But also ask your student how they got their correct answers too so that you’re sure they’re finding answers the correct way and not just guessing.

For writing, give them your feedback. My post on rubrics is a good place to get some ideas about how to evaluate writing if you’ve never done it before. It’s also helpful to find examples of good essays for that particular test and compare your student to those.

If you know the content of this test, you should be able to explain what students got wrong and why. That’s what you’re doing in part 3.

Part 4: Extra activities (if time permits)

Parts 1-3 will probably take up the whole time of your session if it’s an hour long.

But if they don’t, or if you have a longer session, no problem. You can have your student do more reading passages, analogies, work with roots, etc. This is why having a textbook/study guide is so important – there are tons of examples for you to practice.

You might also want to supplement your classes to help your student’s specific weaknesses. If they have difficulty organizing their writing, look at some example essays together and have them work with graphic organizers. If you see that they have difficulty finding the main idea of a passage, bring in more reading material and focus on that. Targeting and improving aspects of the test that the student has trouble with is job number one for you as a tutor.

Conclusion

Good tutoring takes a lot of practice. I’ve skimmed over a ton of things here. As a tutor, you’ll need to worry about many other things. But if you’re a new tutor and stressing out about how to teach a good lesson, following this guide is a good start.

If you have another type of lesson plan that you rely on for tutoring your test prep classes, please let me know!

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