New title for tutors emphasizes importance of relationships

For 19 years, ESLC has referred to those who provide direct service as “tutors.” This past year, the staff was discussing the role of the tutor, and all felt strongly that they are more than just tutors! Replicated research proves that a trusting relationship with any adult positively impacts social-emotional growth. A 2018 study demonstrated that literacy tutoring made a significant impact on social-emotional learning for Twin Cities students.

XPC Woodson 102Thus, ESLC decided to refer to these valued volunteers as “Literacy Mentors.” Executive Director Chris Flippo says, “We take a relationship-first approach, and the Literacy Mentor title conveys the importance of the tutor-child relationship.” Research also indicates that children are more likely to engage in learning and enjoy school if they know their teacher cares about them as individuals.

The need to build a trusting relationship has always informed how ESLC prepares volunteers to tutor. Past training included welcoming each child by name, pronouncing their name correctly, and asking the child about their life and day. ESLC is emphasizing this even more as it builds out the online tutoring model. Relationships are central to all that ESLC does, but the Literacy Mentor-child relationship is the most important.

The science of learning & relationships

For learning and growth to occur, the quality of the relationship matters. But why?

First, people are primarily engaged and motivated through oral communication as opposed to written, particularly when they are young. The human brain is prewired for social learning. An infant learns to smile while interacting with a parent and receiving a social reward after smiling back. A toddler learns to walk or talk in the same manner. People learn to talk before they learn to read. Learning occurs through social interactions with trusted adults, primarily their parents and close caregivers. ESLC’s goal is for each Literacy Mentor to create that same safe space for learning.

Second, people are more likely to listen to the advice of someone with whom we have a trusting relationship. Children will respond to the instructions of a tutor if they believe the person genuinely cares and if they trust that person.

Third, new learning occurs quicker when the brain can connect it with past experiences. If an unfamiliar word can be tied to something in a child’s life or culture, that child is more likely to remember its meaning.

In summary, when volunteers and employees engage with students, their primary goal is to see, know, and understand the child. By doing this first, we can support the child through critical breakthroughs in literacy, while helping the child learn to manage their own behavior and emotions. Learning to read is difficult and requires repetition, effort, and grit. Students who are struggling need emotional support to hang in there. They need someone to help them connect new concepts to previous experiences to get over the hump.

That is exactly the role of the Literacy Mentor.


Birch, S. H., & Ladd, G. W. The teacher-child relationship and children’s early school adjustment. Journal of School Psychology, 35, 61-79, 1997.

Immordino-Yang, Mary Helen, Emotions, Learning, and the Brain, W.W. Norton & Co. 2015
Kaufman, Trynia, MS. Building Positive Relationships with Students: What Brain Science Says, Understood.

Sparks, Sarah D. “Why Teacher-Student Relationships Matter -New findings shed light on best approaches,” Education Week, Vol. 38, Issue 25, Page 8, March 13, 2019.

Abt Associates, Experience Corps Social-Emotional Evaluation, Abt Associates, 2019.
Collaborative for Academic, and Social Emotional Learning website, 2020.