Teaching someone to read and write has to be one of the most satisfying and life-enhancing things a volunteer can do.

However, it's not enough to just know how to read and spell yourself, you also need to know how to teach it well, and have good teaching resources.

Insist on clear goals, and a well-organised curriculum based on proper assessment and research evidence

Years ago when I was an undergraduate, I volunteered as a literacy tutor, and it wasn't a very happy experience. I showed up every week and did what I'd been taught to do, and the learners also tried their best, but the curriculum we were given lacked clear goals, was a making-it-up-as-we-go mishmash of stuff focussing on words rather than sounds or letters, was not tailored to suit different learners and seemed to have very little  theoretical basis.

Frankly, we were all wasting our time, and volunteers' and learners' time is precious. So I got out of there, but if I knew then what I know now (and what I hope this website will help you know too), I would have persisted.

Literacy volunteer training courses

There are a few places that run training courses for literacy volunteers in Melbourne, where I live, and a similar situation seems to apply in other Australian states, but I can't work out from any of their websites what their course content is, or what assessments they teach you to use to work out where to start your teaching and measure progress.

Specifically, I would like to know whether they teach you how to work out whether phonemic awareness and spelling code knowledge are the skills a learner lacks (as many do), and how to break literacy right down into the tin tacks of sounds and spellings for them, and teach the skills and patterns in a fast, well-organised way that doesn't overload learners with too much complexity, or keep running them into tricky spellings and exceptions to every rule, and end up confusing you both.

I'm going to see if I can find out more about these courses, and will put any intel about good courses I locate on this page.

You can also use the free nonsense word spelling tests on this site to help you work out in general terms whether sounding out words and knowing which letter patterns represent them are key skills your learner lacks.

If you find your learner can't do one or more of the tests, you might like to try out the associated materials in this website's shop, or otherwise get your hands on some synthetic phonics resources that cover the patterns that they don't seem to know.

How our spelling system works

In the meantime, you might like to view the little video clip I have made about how our spelling system works – it's 15 minutes long, click here to see it. If you have a learner who is mystified by the complexity of English spelling, it's important to give them an overview like this, to prepare them conceptually for the lessons ahead. Also, it shows respect for older learners if you avoid over-simplifying the sound-spelling picture for them – just tell them how it is, as clearly and accurately as possible. It's complicated, but it's not random and it's definitely very learnable.

The letter set used in the video is available in this website's shop as a downloadable pdf, and I find it really helpful when working with learners who know the system is complex and suspect it's actually random and unlearnable, to give them a sense that each spelling really does only represent a few sounds at most, and that it's possible to systematically and sequentially work your way through them all, till they know and can use all the main patterns of  written English.

Helping a friend or neighbour with their literacy

You might know someone who's not doing too well on literacy, and want to put in some volunteer time helping them improve their skills. If they're interested, it's probably wise to first find out what assessments they've had, and why they think they didn't learn to read and spell well when they were at school. If they've had a professional literacy assessment, the report should say which relevant skills they have and which they lack, and provide recommendations for how to address their problem. So use this as your starting point.

If they haven't had an assessment, you can seek one through your local chapter of SPELD, or from a suitably qualified and experienced local Speech Pathologist or Psychologist. Educational assessments by Psychologists tend to cover more areas (memory, processing speed, perceptual reasoning etc) than Speech Pathology ones, which focus mainly on communication skills like listening, speaking, reading and writing. However your learner's problem might be a fairly straightforward sounds/language-based one, and not need all the extra assessment and expense.

Professional assessments and program assistance can be expensive, so if your learner can go to their GP and ask for a Medicare referral (the relevant program is called Chronic Disease Management, but many GPs still call it by its old, much nicer name of Enhanced Primary Care) then your learner should be able to claim $50 of the cost of each of up to 5 sessions back from Medicare. Which might help with the financial pain a bit.

You can find Psychologists on the Australian Psychological Society website, and Speech Pathologists on the Speech Pathology Australia website

Please email me if this page doesn't answer your main questions

Vounteers are like the most wonderful sort of gold, so I'd be very pleased to hear from any volunteer who has feedback about this site and how I can make it more helpful to volunteers. Please email me if that's the case: spelfabet@gmail.com.