Reading Buddies give students lift they need to be better readers

New readers are born every day. When a caring adult shares those first words with a new reader, the experience can be magical.

Ask any volunteer for Reading Buddies, a successful reading initiative established five years ago in the Calhoun County School District by the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region. The program pairs volunteers with struggling readers who meet each week to read and bond. 

"When the kids start reading, they get so excited," says Israel Flores, in his second year as a Reading Buddies volunteer at Post-Franklin Elementary School in Battle Creek. "Sometimes they don’t realize they are doing it until you point it out, and then they say, 'Oh my gosh! I can read!'"

With a recent state-mandated regulation that students be proficient in reading before they are promoted from the third grade, the pressure is on for educators and administrators to muscle up their reading development programs. 

"Learning to read at the end of third grade is especially important," says Jennifer Nottingham, Associate Director of Community Impact at United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region, which funds and oversees the program. Funding is also provided in part by the Stryker-Johnston Foundation and Eaton Corporation. "Up until then, students are learning to read, but in third grade, they are reading to learn. So if they are not reading at this point, they are falling behind in all subjects."

In Calhoun County, the five-year-old Reading Buddies Program, under the umbrella of a comprehensive program called Early Grade Reading Achievement, currently has 92 volunteers serving 155 students. Last year, due to the program’s success, it branched out to Lakeview, Galesburg-Augusta and Comstock school districts.

At Green Meadow Elementary in Comstock, which has a 98 percent free and reduced lunch population, Principal Susan Caswell was eager to include Reading Buddies into their current reading development program when the option to add the program became available.

"As far as reading programs, Reading Buddies has had one of the biggest impacts on our student reading," Caswell says. "A lot of our kids don’t have strong relationships with adults. Any extra volunteers are right up our alley."

The Green Meadow program has 21 reading buddies currently serving 42 students. It is part of a larger UWBCKR reading program grant facilitated by the Kalamazoo Regional Education Association that includes professional development, individual and group coaching, extra books for the classroom, and summer initiatives to combat "Summer Slide," the loss of academic skills during the summer months. 

"Struggling readers in particular gain at the end of the year and often lose it over the summer, " says Nottingham. "Without practice of those skills, they slide significantly backward."

The idea for Reading Buddies arose out of community-wide discussions between United Way and Calhoun County residents about what was important when it came to their students’ education. What they heard from residents was that students age 9 and below who were still unable to read were struggling a lot in school. 

"In an extremely busy elementary school classroom, this opportunity for one-on-one reading experiences doesn’t always happen. When the child has a reading buddy, they know this person cares about them and about their learning to read," says Nottingham. "When you introduce a reading buddy to a student, a reluctant reader will often shift to an enthusiastic reader."

Flores, in his second year in the Reading Buddies program, usually works with bilingual students. He is able to come during the day thanks to a special volunteer partnership with his employer, the Calhoun County Intermediate School District, where he works with Early Childhood Reading.

"The books the school has are in English. I always bring a Spanish book. We will read half of the time in English and half of the time in Spanish," says Flores, who tutors two children together because they are such good friends. "They support each other. They give really simple examples that adults like me can’t even think of, and they learn super quick because of those things."

Reading Buddies are usually community members, as well as volunteers from specific companies, such as Eaton Corporation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Lakeview Ford and Denso. The program starts in kindergarten when children are paired with their buddy. Often buddies ask to follow the children into the next grade so that they can continue building the relationship. The program has continued into second grade in some schools.

Before volunteering, Reading Buddies undergo specific training, depending upon the school district. A typical orientation includes simple reading and basic mentoring strategies, and techniques for handling potentially challenging situations. Buddies spend 15 to 20 minutes per student, once a week, and usually work with two students.

Kelly McVerry, a first-grade teacher at Green Meadow, says she has witnessed tremendous improvement in reading and enthusiasm for that volunteer connection in her students. She says she appreciates the extra support from the program.

"We sometimes have a hard time with parental involvement. When we start kindergarteners, packets are sent home for parents to read with their children, but we weren’t always receiving feedback. So the extra time with the mentors is invaluable."

Within a typical elementary school, a web of relationships exists: classmates, teachers, principals, parents, volunteers, and paraprofessionals, among others. Programs like Reading Buddies work to enhance these relationships by expanding communication and support. The mentor communicates with both the teacher and the student, sometimes even the parent.

Flores finds the communication with teachers invaluable as it reinforces his connection with the students.  

"The students are waiting the whole week to see me and to read books. When I come, it also creates the opportunity to create relationships with teachers," he says. "I have two different teachers. It’s been fascinating to work with them. So we talk a little more. And they give me tips. I reinforce the same strategies they use with the kids. I think that’s really great." 
McVerry says the more one-on-one time her students experience with another adult, the more effective the learning is.

"Once the students have that bond with a Reading Buddy, they’re much more motivated," she says. "They have a desire to do more with their mentor, to please them and learn more. Between the mentors and the student, it is a win-win situation." 

Flores agrees. "This program is fantastic. I’ve been seeing, especially this year, how the kids are learning to read with the sounds. Watching those kids get into recognizing the letters and the sounds, symbols, and words, is so exciting."

Theresa Coty O'Neil is a Kalamazoo area freelance writer. Her articles have appeared in many local publications and her short stories have been published in Alaska Quarterly Review and West Branch, among others. 

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

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