Classroom volunteers especially enjoy working with younger children in school and are often asked to help with struggling readers. As a teacher, I hold the belief that the most skilled professionals in a school need to work with the children with the greatest need, so I often have volunteers with average and above average readers to free me up to work with the struggling readers. That way I can be sure that the struggling readers are getting the kinds of support that they need rather than hearing the things volunteers often know to say and do from their experience as readers.
Volunteers often do one of three things when helping struggling readers:
- Say “sound it out.”
- Tell the word the child does not know and expect them to remember it.
- Tell the child to skip the word and keep on going.
None of these things are particularly helpful except, in particular situations, when the teacher knows about the child’s strengths and needs. This means that we either need to offer volunteers extensive training in what to say to children who struggle, have them work with the more successful readers in the class, or we come up with things they can do that are easy for non-skilled volunteers to do.
What Reading Volunteers Do
Reading volunteers work with elementary school-age children to promote reading. They may read books to struggling readers, listen to children read aloud, or help children select books to read. Reading volunteers promote the activity of reading, rather than focusing on teaching reading skills. Reading volunteers may read to a whole class of children, to a small group, or be assigned a child to read to one-on-one. With training, reading volunteers may work with programs offered by schools many of which have a parent / volunteer component.
The time reading volunteers spend with new readers provides encouragement while learning to read. Learning a new skill takes time and patience. Having support from someone else can help keep a child’s interest strong while learning to read. Several educational research studies support the idea that the children who participate in programs with adult reading volunteers improve with their school success. In 1998, researcher Sara Rimm-Kaufmann found that first graders involved in a program with an adult reading volunteer three times a week had better letter recognition and reading skills than similar first graders who had not been involved in such groups. Other studies since that time have also shown adult reading volunteer programs to support early readers. A 2006 study by Brian Volkmann showed that children who were read to by adult volunteers had improved school attendance, which is a major predictor of high school graduation rates.
The activity I encourage you to use your volunteers for is reading aloud to children. Reading aloud with a group or an individual child strengthens all kinds of literacy skills — introducing kids to rich, new vocabulary; modeling what fluent, expressive reading sounds like; and boosting comprehension through ongoing conversations between readers and listeners. Reading aloud also helps build a community of readers and explorers. And it is pure fun!
The following are easy-to-do tips for sharing books that were developed by members of the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association. As the teacher, you need to set up the read aloud experiences that occur for the children in your classroom by selecting the books for the read aloud and offering the volunteer guidance about how to read to children even having them watch you do a read aloud. Important things to share with a volunteer are:
☺ Find a comfortable place to sit (a rocking chair is wonderful)
☺ Hold the book so the child / children can see the pages clearly
☺ Involve the children by having them point out objects, talk about the pictures, or repeat frequently used words
☺ Read with expression
☺ Vary the pace of your reading — slow or fast
☺ Be enthusiastic about books
Listening to literature being read aloud is one of the most valuable and pleasurable experiences beginning readers and writers can have. Read alouds should be part of every child’s day.
Now for some specifics! The following are helpful hints that will allow you make the most of your volunteer read aloud time:
☺ Plan enough time for each read aloud (15-20 minutes) You will want to give the volunteer and the children enough time to read aloud, to enjoy, and to discuss the story, poem, or information text. You will need to know how long the volunteer is able to stay each time he/she comes so you can plan for the groups or individuals involved.
☺ Choose stories or texts that respond to children’s interests and experiences. For young children or emergent readers, choose books with vivid pictures, a strong story line, engaging characters, and evocative language. Humorous and predictable books are particularly successful. Initially you will need to select the books to be used but many volunteers will want to bring books from home or the library to share.
☺ Provide the volunteer with time to preview the book(s) you have selected for them to read with the groups or individuals so they can anticipate questions or reactions. Hopefully, the volunteer will have time to practice reading the book through so they can decide where to pause for emphasis and where to elicit questions, predictions, or reactions. Many of my volunteers have asked for books in advance so they could take them home and preview the text.
☺ Model how to introduce a book to a group. In your demonstration or training recommended earlier, be sure to point out the cover illustration, title, and author. Invite the children to predict what the book is about and talk about how the book might connect to their own experience or to other books they have heard or read. You can also give a brief explanation about why you chose to read the book. “This is the story of a boy who goes on an unusual trip. I chose it because you just came back from a trip.” Or “This is the story about a special friendship between a mouse and a whale. I have read this many times. I wonder what you will think about it.” All this modeling from you will help the volunteer know how to share books. At some schools there is a reading specialist who can do this modeling for your volunteers.
☺ Encourage the volunteer to read with expression. The volunteer’s voice needs to reflect the tone of the story or the personalities of the characters. This is a chance for a volunteer’s inner actor to come out! Not reading too fast and varying the pace allows them to pause for emphasis. Providing time for children to think about what is happening or what might come next.
☺ Build in time for listeners to respond along the way. Allow time for children to study the pictures during the reading, make comments, and ask questions about the story. Read alouds should be interactive not sit quietly and listen!
☺ Encourage predictions. Ask children what they think will happen next. Help them confirm or revise these
predictions as the story unfolds. Try to honor ideas and interpretations, not just the “correct” ones. Instead of accepting or rejecting comments or ideas as right or wrong, use comments such as “That’s one possibility, let’s see what the author has in mind.” Or “Well that’s an interesting idea. How did you think of that?”
☺ Watch your audience. Watch the children’s expressions and body language and be sensitive to signs of
enjoyment, boredom, or confusion. The volunteer may need to change the reading plan, change the book, or do more preparation next time.
☺ Save time at the end of the story to get reactions. Ask open-ended questions that do not have right or wrong answers and that cannot be answered with a yes or no reply. For instance, ask what the child liked (or disliked) about the book and why. The volunteer may ask what he or she thought about the characters or how the problem was solved. Find out if the book made listeners think of any firsthand experiences or other books they have heard or read. This should feel like a conversation not an interrogation!
☺ Point out parts of the story you noticed or especially liked. Show the children special language patterns or phrases or parts of the text that made you feel or visualize something. Ask children if there were other parts of the book they noticed.
☺ Remember that for some children, listening to stories is a new experience. Not all children are not used to being read to and will need to develop that interest and ability. Start with short, interesting stories with strong pictures. In some cases, allow active children to manipulate play dough or to draw while listening. Be responsive to facial expressions and body language.
☺ Encourage discussion about the story. Ask the children questions about what is going on and encourage them to predict what will come next. Be sure, though, not to turn the discussion into a quiz!
☺ Most importantly: Have a good time!