Reading mastery key to scholastic success
A volunteer revels in the transformation of an at-risk student through tutoring partnership
By Brett M. Young
One could easily dismiss volunteer service as a personal quest to fulfill an altruistic need, fodder for a resume, or a checkmark on some charity bucket list. For me, when I volunteered to become a reading tutor, it was simply a desire to share a love of reading with a child who, at the very outset, needed some instructive help but, more importantly, needed inspiration, confidence and valuable one-on-one time.
The first time I met Luciano, he was a quiet, shy and elusive in attention. Physically, he was smaller than most of his classmates. He walked with shoulders slumped, dragged his feet and had a perpetual frown on his face. When we cracked open our first book together, The Five Chinese Brothers, the words intimidated him. He only made it through the first two pages, stumbling over two and three syllable words, stammering on various consonants and getting altogether tongue-tied with rather routine vocabulary words before quickly losing interest. A favorite story of mine as a child, I read the rest of the book to him with delight, careful to enunciate impact words, pausing for dramatic effect and reading in a colorful, vibrant tone. Luciano gave me a look of defeat and my dalliance with childhood was erased in a flash. Our first tutoring session had ended rather uncomfortably for both of us and, walking out to my car that night, I felt uneasy about my decision to become a tutor. I had no formal teaching experience and I had doubts if I could make any measurable progress with this child. I thought about the commitment I was making to Luciano, and for myself, as well as the time I would be spending away from my family. After our first Thursday night together, it was a sacrifice that I wasn’t sure I was prepared to make.
I first learned about All-Star Kids Tutoring through a search of local volunteer opportunities. All-Star is a one-on-one volunteer tutoring program that helps elementary school-aged children master basic reading skills. The program is designed for children in Title I schools, which are schools with a high percentage of students from low-income families. The schools are granted funds which help pay for lunches, books and instructional services. I volunteered at Hartford-Sylvia Encinas Elementary, a K-6 school located near downtown Chandler. Each of the children I came in contact with at Hartford had their own special challenge, their own story. Some of these kids came from single-parent families or broken homes, usually at, or near, poverty level. However, I didn’t consider them disadvantaged or underprivileged; I just thought of them as kids who might need a stable presence in their lives, someone they could count on each week to show up and read to them. Luciano was no different. A child of divorce, he lived a somewhat nomadic life, often staying with a different family member more than once a week. With no access to a computer at night and with guardians who often worked odd hours, his resources were limited and I understood his need for attention and guidance, especially with his reading and other schoolwork.
Despite the setbacks I encountered in our first week together, I wouldn’t allow myself to quit, nor would I want to give up on Luciano, a boy who desperately needed some guidance. Too often in today’s society, we toss around the expression, “role model.” It has become a habit to attach it to anyone of suitable character, athletic talent or repute (so often undeserved) so that, in common parlance, it loses all luster. To Luciano, I was not reaching for this idiom, but rather, I was just trying to be someone he could count on and who was going to provide some stability in his life, at least every Thursday night.
Luciano’s principle challenge was reading with fluidity. He would race through a sentence, skipping the small building-block words like “if,” “then,” “when,” “that” and “what.” He would ignore punctuation and slur through readable three and four-syllable words in a lethargic manner, not bothering to try to sound out the word. Picking up on this word butchering, my first lesson to him was to “chop up” the word into smaller words and sounds, illustrating my point by using a karate-chop type of motion with my hand. “Gymnasium” became “gym-nas-i-um” and “triceratops” became “tri-cera-tops.” This trick seemed to resonate with him and he began to use it as the weeks progressed. To keep him from skipping sentences and missing punctuation marks, I gave him a ruler. I told him to use the ruler for balance and to hide succeeding sentences on the page so that he could focus on the one that he was currently reading. Luciano loved to draw, so, to get him to use the ruler every time, I told him to fold a piece of paper into a rectangle and encouraged him to draw pictures of his favorite cartoon characters on the ruler. Sometimes we would use a bookmark. This trick worked like a charm. Every week we would design a new ruler or find a new bookmark to insert in our latest tome.
By the time the second semester rolled around, Luciano’s mother had found a job preparing taxes. Although the job was seasonal, it provided an emotional lift for her and it was evident that Luciano was more relaxed. He was living with her full-time now and I got a sense that some of the pressures I noticed when I first met him were easing a little. He seemed more eager to read now. I told him he should be reading a new book each week and I would ask him to give me a synopsis of it. I shared with him the fact that I was building a home library and that, one day, my sons would get all of my books. He chuckled and asked me why they would want them. By the end of the school year, he told me he had two shelves filled with books in his room.
Luciano improved academically and, with his confidence emboldened, his grades improved, too. We agreed that I would continue to tutor him the following year and, when we met again in the fall, he told me he had received the school’s “Most Improved Reader” award. I was truly proud of him and what he had accomplished. He had matured physically over the past year, as well. He was taller and his shoulders a little broader. His pallid complexion had become a healthy tan. He spoke to me more confidently, with a child-like cockiness. I set lofty reading goals for him for the year and he achieved every one of them. By the spring, Luciano had received his first “A.R.” (accelerated reader) tag. He wore it proudly to school every day. He was awarded his second A.R. tag with just two weeks left of school. We read The Five Chinese Brothers again, only this time, he read it to me. He made no mistakes.
On the evening of our final tutoring session, the school organized a “Family Literacy Night” in which parents and family members could share in the celebration of the end of the tutoring program. Luciano was asked to read a book aloud to the audience as part of a program showcasing the progress the children had made. A natural “ham,” he had no problem reading in front of everyone. He stood tall, almost beaming, and the words spilled from his mouth with ease. At the end of the children’s presentation, we enjoyed a potluck of desserts and assorted snacks. My wife and I chatted with Luciano’s mother, recounting stories about the past year and sharing in the pride we all felt for Luciano and how far he had come in not only his reading, but his maturity. My four-year-old son had accompanied us to the program that night and I watched him interacting with Luciano. The two seemed to be getting along famously, despite their five-year age difference. Shortly before we readied to leave, I saw him follow the older boy, puppy-like, to the back of the library where the two found seats on a reading couch. Luciano selected a book from a nearby shelf and sat down next to him. As my son listened with rapt attention, Luciano read the book to my son.
Editor’s note: “Luciano” is a pseudonym used to protect the real child’s privacy.
Brett M. Young is a health care administrator and freelance writer from Gilbert, Arizona. He was a reading tutor at Hartford Sylvia-Encinas Elementary School in Chandler for two years and his experience is documented in this story. He can be reached at email@example.com