Early Literacy Tutor Professional Learning Framework

Feedback and Individualized Coaching

We strongly recommend using coaches to observe tutoring sessions, offer feedback, and provide coaching specific to individual tutors’ needs. All early literacy tutoring providers that we interviewed employed coaches to support their tutors’ ongoing development. Coaching is a powerful tool for improvement because it is personalized and focused on bite-sized bits of learning aligned to tutors’ goals and to their demonstrated strengths and needs. It is also powerful because it builds a long-term relationship and can uncover the underlying beliefs and mindsets that may help or inhibit a tutor from supporting all students equitably.

A meta-analysis of teacher professional learning found that coaching produces large positive effects on teachers’ instructional practice and smaller positive effects on student achievement (Kraft, Blazer, and Hogan, 2017). This meta-analysis found that pairing coaching with group training produces larger effects on both instructional practice and student achievement, suggesting that building baseline knowledge prior to engaging with a coach is beneficial. This finding supports recommendations within this framework.

The tutoring providers we interviewed varied in how they structured the coaching role and model and in the frequency of observation and follow-on coaching.

Role of the Coach

All tutoring providers we interviewed use coaches to support tutors’ ongoing professional learning. However, intended outcomes of the coaching vary based on key differences in how the tutoring programs are structured. Providers that have significant or complete control over what happens within tutoring sessions use their coaches primarily to improve the fidelity of their tutors’ implementation of those sessions and their skillfulness in responding to students. 

An example provider that uses its coaches this way is Reading Corps. Their coaches support tutors to implement reading interventions with fidelity, to deepen tutor understanding of why they are using particular interventions with particular students, given data, and to problem-solve student engagement issues. As Reading Corps provides these interventions to partnering sites and only partners with districts that agree to use them, it is sensible for their coaches to maximize tutors’ capacity to implement them well.

Contrast this with the coaches at North Carolina Education Corps. Their tutors are placed in over 20 districts across the state, and each of those districts determines the specific instructional materials tutors use with students. As a result, NC Education Corps coaches primarily support tutors’ self-reflection on matters of equity and on the quality of the relationships they are building with students and other stakeholders. These coaches do have a background in literacy and look for all the basic tutoring techniques during observations. But NC Education Corps coaches loop in local district coaches and support staff if they observe early literacy-specific concerns, as local districts support tutors on implementation of local tutoring materials. While this is a strikingly different choice from Reading Corps, it is equally sensible given the design of NC Education Corps tutoring model.

To view or download coach role descriptions from each of these partner organization, see:

The Coach-Tutor Relationship

A coach and tutor are more likely to achieve goals together if they have formed a trusting relationship. Tutors have to make themselves vulnerable in order to open up their tutorials to observers and welcome their feedback on how it has gone. Tutors are more likely to do this if their coach knows them as a whole person, is committed to their growth, and is operating “from the same side of the table,” so to speak.

When coaching relationships are substantial enough, coaches can adjust how they offer affirmative and corrective feedback because they have an accurate understanding of who the tutor is and how that person receives feedback best. These authentic relationships take time to build, but are worth the investment. This is true in all cases and especially if coaches are striving to create a culturally responsive and sustaining education for their tutors and see all expressions of diversity as assets for teaching and learning.

How is such a trusting relationship built? We recommend coaches ground their relationship building in particular undergirding mindsets. These include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Holding the tutors you coach with unconditional positive regard, meaning you value and accept them, just as they are, regardless of how they perform or achieve. This doesn’t mean that you don’t support them to improve their tutoring. That is your job! It does mean that your value of them as a person is not dependent on the quality of last week’s tutorial.
  • Operating with genuine care for your tutors as people, meaning you make yourself approachable, you proactively demonstrate care, and you ask questions that show your desire to know them as whole people.
  • Building empathic understanding for how tutors are doing, meaning you work to understand the thoughts, feelings, and perspective of your tutors, from their own frame of reference.
  • Making yourself open and vulnerable by sharing (appropriately) about yourself, meaning you reveal what brought you to the work with students, the setbacks you have experienced and how you have managed them, and what brings you joy and energy. Relationships are a two-way street, and tutors will feel trust in someone who trusts them enough to share.
  • Being aware of and curious and vocal about your multiple identities and how they influence your work and your worldview, meaning you are introspective about how your identities influence the relationships you build with tutors and the ways you perceive their efficacy, just as you encourage them to engage in similar introspection in their relationships with students; you openly name how you see your identities influencing your perspective on a situation; and you invite the tutors you coach to offer you input on the same.

For guidance and resources on how to build trusting relationships, all from the school/classroom context, consider:

For guidance and resources on how to build trusting relationships from other contexts, consider:

  • Social scientist Brene Brown provides a range of resources that are relevant to relationship building on her webpage, including an animated short defining Empathy, her popular Ted Talk on The Power of Vulnerability, and her SuperSoul Session that defines The Anatomy of Trust. Her Dare to Lead Hub goes even deeper, based on her book of the same name, to help leaders build four skill-sets that are teachable, observable, and measurable, including rumbling with vulnerability, living into our values, braving trust, and learning to rise. There are many tools here, and you could spend lots of time reading and listening, or you could look for ones that could stand alone in their usefulness to coaches, like “The Engaged Feedback Checklist” and “The Braving Inventory.”

With a trusting relationship, coaches are more likely to be successful observing tutors in sessions with students and then offering them feedback. This function of the coach was used across all tutoring providers we interviewed. Over the years, research studies have shown that cycles of observation and feedback strengthen teacher instructional practice and increase student achievement (Allen et al., 2011; Elish-Piper and L’Allier, 2011; Kraft, Blazer, and Hogan, 2018).

In our conversations with tutoring providers, the frequency of these cycles varies from every session (only one organization), to every other week, to once a quarter. Coaches observe tutors in both face-to-face and virtual delivery models. Most interviewed programs adjust the frequency of the observation/feedback cycle based on tutor need (in both skill and will).

For some programs, the move to a virtual delivery model during the COVID-19 pandemic required a second adult monitor to be present online, for safety purposes, and this enabled more observations of tutors than had been typical in an in-person model. These programs view the increased observations afforded to tutors in the virtual model as an advantage. Kraft, Blazer, and Hogan (2018) found no statistically significant difference in effect size between the in-person and virtual coaching of teachers, suggesting that virtual coaching models can maintain quality while increasing scalability for providers.

Coaching Goals

After initial observations, most coaches work with the tutor to develop a goal or goals that will anchor their continuous learning and improvement efforts. The most helpful goals are S.M.A.R.T -- that is, they are:

  • Specific,
  • Measurable,
  • Attainable,
  • Relevant, and
  • Time-bound

Coaches can structure future observation-feedback cycles to look for evidence of progress toward the goal(s). In addition to evidence related to the agreed upon goal(s), coaches can observe for and offer feedback on fidelity of tutoring session implementation.

Tools for Feedback

What is feedback? According to Grant Wiggins (2012), feedback gives the learner specific information about how they are doing in their efforts to reach a goal. To facilitate this, some organizations use performance rubrics or observation checklists against which to offer feedback. For example:

  • Reading Corps’ Phoneme Blending Intervention Integrity Observation Checklist is a 10-item checklist that coaches use when observing tutors implementing one intervention. It includes a spot to summarize the tutor’s strengths and areas for improvement. It offers suggestions the coach could offer the tutor immediately during the intervention, if the coach does not see progress.
  • Reading Rescue’s Instructional Developmental Pathway is a seven page document that outlines the full pathway to developing to proficient tutoring. It includes an administrative and instructional dimension for each routine in their tutoring sequence, as well as one overall rapport and management of the lesson section. Reading Rescue makes differentiated decisions about when to share this pathway with tutors, based on their readiness. From the full pathway, they developed Reading Rescue’s Checklist for an Effective Reading Rescue Lesson, which outlines the first stage of proficiency in an accessible way and is shared with tutors at every formal observation so they are clear on what is expected and on how they are doing relative to expectations. Both documents apply to virtual and in-person tutoring settings. See the checklist below.


  • AARP Foundation’s Experience Corps’ Virtual Tutor Observation and Coaching Form developed this four-page tool as a component of their process for promoting rigorous and consistent implementation of their tutoring model. It allows coaches to track important tutor behaviors across segments of the lesson and to make notes on areas for reinforcement, redirection, and recommendation in follow-up coaching. This tool is the virtual observation adaptation of an in-person observation tool.

From the K-3 ELA classroom setting, these observation tools might be helpful to adapt for the tutoring context:

  • LIFT Education Network’s Instructional Practice Guide for K-5 Literacy is a one-page observational tool that helps observers look for evidence as to whether students are engaged in the work of the lesson, whether the lesson is centered on a high-quality text(s), whether instruction and materials explicitly and systematically provide all students with the opportunity to master foundational skills, whether questions and tasks build students’ comprehension of the text and its meaning, and whether students are responsible for doing the thinking.
  • Student Achievement Partners’ K-2 Foundational Skills Observational Tool is a five-page observational tool and discussion guide that offers a series of indicators coupled with concrete “look-fors” that signal effective foundational skills instruction. Though it includes a discussion guide to structure a follow-up conversation, the included questions are less relevant to tutoring providers, as they focus on putting the observed lesson in context of the broader unit and year.

From the broader K-12 educational context, several tutoring providers interviewed mentioned adapting feedback tools from the following organization:

For programs that operate virtually or that leverage video as part of practice-based formal learning, consider downloading the Best Foot Forward: Video Observation Toolkit. The toolkit includes four sections to help launch video observations in a school community, but is adaptable to tutoring contexts. Each section includes lessons from the Best Foot Forward project, a study of digital video in classroom observations, and adaptable tools for implementation.


While feedback gives learners information about how they are doing in their efforts to reach a goal, coaching aims to support learners to close the distance from their current state to the goal. In interviews we conducted, providers mentioned using a mix of methods of coaching, including directive, transformative, and performance-based, and most noted a desire to clarify, codify, and/or unify their own organization around a coherent model of coaching. The table below outlines a spectrum of approaches to coaching to help inform how providers articulate their coaching models. Providers don't have to commit to just one approach. Coaches might use the approaches flexibly to meet different people’s needs or the same person’s needs at different points in the year.

For example, for a tutor learning a fluency routine for the very first time, a coach might model the routine and analyze video clips of the routine being implemented with students. The coach might pause to point out the quick pace at which the routine unfolds and the ways in which the responsibility for fluent reading is gradually released to the student. Later in the year, the coach and tutor might jointly analyze one student’s fluency data and trouble-shoot how to move that student off of a plateau in her reading fluency. The tutor brings unique insight into the student’s strengths and needs and the coach uses her background in jumpstarting students’ reading to ask targeted questions and make a few key suggestions. For more examples of the way a coach might interact differently with tutors in these three different approaches, see the table below.

A Spectrum of Approaches to Coaching

Adapted from A Close-Up Look at Three Approaches to Coaching, by Jim Knight and Six Moves for Coaching in the Classroom, by Diane Sweeney

  Directive Dialogical Facilitative
Goals To master a prescribed set of pedagogies or skills To accomplish a set of student-focused goals To become aware of the answers the tutor has within him/herself
Role of Coach< To leverage expertise in order to help the tutor learn the correct way to implement a practice To partner with tutors in inquiry and in pursuit of student-focused goals To serve as a sounding board, awareness-raiser, and facilitator, to support the tutor in unpacking what s/he already knows
Role of Tutor< To implement guidance and feedback offered by coach, in order to improve their practice< To partner with coach in inquiry and in pursuit of goals To unpack knowledge in partnership with a coach and to make all of the decisions about how to act on their greater awareness and understanding
Nature of Relationship< Similar to master-apprentice

Respectful but not equal

A meeting of two minds, thinking and strategizing together toward a goal Tutor is in the driver’s seat with coach positioned as a support whose own expertise is sidelined
Coach Moves
  • Explain the pedagogy or skill (outline steps; share rationale to build judgment)
  • Model (live with adults acting as students; with children, live or on video; small moments to full lesson presentations)
  • Analyze examples (video; role-play models; analyze examples from self and from others)
    • Notice & name evidence of skill in practice & impact on children
    • Pause to Think Aloud
  • Structure practice (role-play)
  • Offer affirming and corrective feedback (be specific; attach feedback to specific time-stamps on video; share rationale)
  • Co-planning, co-preparing, co-conferring with children, and/ co-teaching
  • In-the-moment coaching (whispered suggestions, tutor time-out for conferring, passed notes, etc.)
  • Ask questions and engage in dialogue to investigate distance between tutor’s hopes/goals and current reality for children
  • Identify goals and strategies to have positive impact on student achievement and well-being
  • Coach shares or obtains expertise and resources in the service of inquiry, goal-setting, and pursuit of goals
    • Some moves from directive coaching (at left) can be leveraged as part of a strategy toward  student-centered goals
  • Look at data & evidence of progress to goals
    • Analyze evidence of practice (video of tutoring & learning; artifacts of student work)
    • Focus on and gather evidence from children
  • Listen
  • Paraphrase
  • Ask powerful questions
  • Survey progress over time and unearth global lessons learned (e.g., what do I understand about myself, what insights have I gained, how might I apply what I learned in future situations)
For the coaching approach to be effective, what should both parties believe to be true? Tutors want to - but do not know how to - skillfully enact the practices they should be using, so directive coaching will help equip them with missing skills. Tutors and coaches both bring important knowledge to the relationship and leverage it in shared work toward a student-focused goal, which is what will drive tutor improvement. Tutors bring the knowledge they need and need support in unpacking it, identifying and overcoming hurdles in applying it, etc.

From the broader K-12 educational context, one tutoring provider interviewed mentioned adapting coaching tools from Bright Morning. Tutoring providers committed to culturally responsive and sustaining education will find resources from this organization particularly helpful:

  • The work of Elena Aguilar, expressed in her book The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation, which is an approach that explores an educator’s behaviors, beliefs, and ways of being, and that uses a systems thinking perspective to solve for common instructional challenges. For more context and open-source resources:

Organizational Tools

We recommend you find or build an organizational tool to keep track of the feedback and coaching tutors have received and the progress they make over time. There are many products on the market designed to organize feedback and coaching for K-12 teachers, including some that offer sophisticated features like time-stamped feedback on uploaded video clips, the ability to link feedback to customized performance rubrics or standards, and real-time virtual professional development within the platform. While the Accelerator does not make recommendations for specific products, we do encourage you to find a tool that meets your specific needs and, at a minimum, allows you to keep track of the goals tutors are working towards, the feedback and coaching they have received, and the progress they are making.