The Universe of Skype Tutoring

Laurie J. Cousseau, MA, F/AOGPE, CALT, Reading Specialist

I was first approached to provide Skype tutoring by a family in Istanbul, Turkey two years ago. Their son Can, aged ten and dyslexic, had attended Dunnabeck, a summer camp in Amenia, New York, and his family wanted services to be extended. Moderately technologically proficient, I finally agreed. And, who could resist this young man’s persevering spirit, brilliant smile, and vibrant sense of humor. Two years later, we meet two times a week, and a very special friendship has developed. Can often starts the lesson with a joke on a whiteboard— “What is the quietest digraph?” or a play on words “My ear hears here.” He will sometimes play his violin for me at the close of the lesson, and has even videotaped a Turkish lesson with a flip chart and pointer. Short vowels and vowel names were particularly difficult; he explained that in Turkish the “i” is pronounce with a long e sound.  He is a much better student than me. He often bemoans the fact that while the Turkish alphabet has a 1 to 1 correspondence, there are ALL those ways to spell the long vowel sounds! 

Deniz and Can greeting me on my birthday!

Deniz and Can greeting me on my birthday!

Can’s mother sits next to him and facilitates the lesson; occasionally translating. All materials are carefully designed, and provided in advance. Being very hands-on, I had to tweak and modify components of the lesson, but it works beautifully! The Visual Drill is easily handled with cards, and a document camera renders the written components of the lesson such as dictated spelling visually available. His daily work is maintained in a three ring binder, and new information kept in a Resource notebook. Initially, I had to be very cognizant of a limited expressive vocabulary and frequently provided images, and definitions. At this point, there are fewer images, and words are framed contextually within phrases. The Review and Reinforcement portion of the lesson allows for multiple exposures to vocabulary to help with retrieval and a deeper understanding. Can adores games like 6 x 6 bingo and path games where we each have dice. These are adapted to incorporate decoding, encoding extended with charades, singing (he has a lovely voice), drawing, and orally stated sentences. The lessons are interactive, and a complete delight. Presently, the daily oral passage is a serial story that describes the adventures of Safak, the cat, who went missing, travels to Paris in her dreams, journeys to the bazaar, disappears into the forest, and along the Bosporous Sea. This is based upon a true story of a cat, who is typically present, lounging on the bed behind Can, and went repeatedly missing, having crawled in the neighbor’s open window. Can will often write a prediction, share details orally, and this becomes the next installment. He has made tremendous gains, performing well on a recent English test. Our lively conversations are testament to his progress. 

This Skype initiative began gradually, serving underserved areas in the States such as the Adirondacks, Iowa, and has been extended to include Bangkok, Hong Kong, Nigeria, and Jamaica. These include students who have attended a summer camp, and privately who are seeking Orton-Gillingham instruction where tutors may not be readily available. There are a number of tutors who work regionally. All have stated that while they were initially hesitant based upon delivering multisensory instruction through a technological interface; the relationship that evolved was remarkably powerful and effective. Jonathan Bisson remarked that Skype allowed “both of us a closer look into one another’s worlds.” Sara Quinn, an OG Associate-in-training, who works with students in Jamaica and Iowa, initially balked at the prospect. She was concerned about phonemic awareness activities and point-of-contact error correction. Contrary to her worries, their weekly visits have become treasured times, and she discovered that the format lends itself to being highly structured and focused. The set-up is predetermined in advance, and the students have everything they need: textured mat for tracing, sound box and chips for phonemic awareness, highlighters, pencils, lined paper, and binders to organize the resources. The organization is inherent to the process and promotes study skills and efficiency. Sara meets with her other student in a quiet corner of a classroom during the child’s foreign language block, and the teacher ensures that the student is set up. 

A parent in Iowa reports that despite years of hard work, sacrifice and tutoring, her daughter Josie was still lagging far behind her peers. Josie made some solid ground at Camp Dunnabeck with an Orton-Gillingham tutor, providing a springboard for this work. This mom couldn’t imagine that her nine-year-old daughter would be able to engage and focus for an hour communicating through a computer; she was skeptical that the personal aspect of individualized remediation would be lost. She shared with me that her daughter “receives clear, personal instruction in her own home, feels wholly supported, and has made excellent progress in her reading.” They meet daily, and the routine is meshed with drawing, acting, and an orally delivered story that is subsequently framed as a controlled passage, incorporating the “New Information.” 

As I reflect upon this process, I can envision the pleasure on the faces of the students and mine when we connect. It is akin to meeting up with a dear friend. Luke and I meet late in the day, and always share a cup of tea. Luke lives hours away from me in New York City. He is always prepared with clipboard, whiteboard, and numbered resources at hand. During the oral reading portion, he likes to curl up in a comfy chair and I do the same; of course carefully monitoring. He enjoys current events, which I retype, ensuring that he can access the patterns. A favorite writing activity is responding to a National Geographic image of the day, and he recently designed a spacesuit for a mission to Mars. We end the session with a read aloud from The Lightning Thief.   Obi, in Nigeria, is ensconced in his Mum’s office. Her colleagues always pop in to wave, say hello, and to ensure that his feet are perhaps not hanging out on the desk or that popcorn is not flying. He always ends the lesson with “Thank you Miss Laurie for teaching me.” “Thank you Obi, for welcoming me into your world!”

The wall behind Can’s bed is papered with a map of the Universe, the planets, and solar system—a passion of his. This background has become a familiar sight to me as we enter our third year. Sometimes, I will share the New England weather outside my clinic. Recently, we had snow in October! He takes joy in everything and has an ebullient outlook. “I just love, love snowflakes!” I met up with his family this past summer in Boston on a visit to the states. His mother, Deniz, revealed a phonetic chart that she unfolded, and unfolded and unfolded, which revealed all the patterns he had worked on. It included drawings, and key words, all chosen by Can. I was overwhelmed and moved. This chart (now extending to include morphemes) hangs on the facing wall to his ‘Universe.’ That, I believe is the metaphor that bests describes the opportunity to share in the remarkable lives of these children via Skype tutoring. Language, after all, is global and vital. Words connect humanity and access to them, opens all our minds to possibility. 




Michael Junkins