For many of us, the mechanics of reading aren’t something we think about often. Absorbing and understanding printed words is a skill we may have mastered years ago, along with tying our own shoes and being able to put on our own clothes.
But doing what you’re doing right now – reading – is very much on Hannah Tyne’s mind. As the External Relations Manager for the national nonprofit organization Reading Partners, she helps bring one-on-one tutors into five Seattle schools to help children master this essential skill. Many of those volunteer tutors come to Reading Partners through Solid Ground’s Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), a part of AmeriCorps Seniors.
“As adult learners, it is easy to forget how hard the process of learning to read actually is,” Hannah says. “Probably only 6% of students will learn to read without any intervention or any explicit instruction. For so many of our kids, they just need individualized instruction.”
The fact that only 22% of Washington state’s low-income students read at grade level brought Reading Partners to Seattle seven years ago. It now provides five area schools with volunteer tutors, who operate within the day-to-day schoolroom schedule and meet students for two 45-minute tutoring sessions a week.
‘A pivotal time in the life of a reader’
Many students work with only one tutor. “They’re seeing the same person every week, socially and emotionally bonding with them, which becomes so integral to learning,” Hannah says. “Really, it’s the foundation of trust.” Because some volunteers can only commit to once a week, some students might have different Monday and Wednesday tutors, for example.
Reading Partners works with kindergartners through fourth graders who read between two months to two-and-a-half years behind their grade level, because as Hannah says, “Fourth grade is such a pivotal time in the life of a reader. They’re shifting in the classroom from learning how to read to reading to learn.”
In other words, now the teacher is no longer teaching how to read: The child is reading in order to understand their science homework and math problems, and if they can’t read at grade level, they’ll be shut out of all the content learning.
To address this essential learning period, a school invites Reading Partners into a classroom, which the organization transforms into a learning center. “It is a beautiful, well-lit, clean space for learning. We bring in all of our own library and curriculum – all of our own resources – and we have a full-time program coordinator, who is an AmeriCorps member.”
The power of volunteers
However, the work of making a difference in these young readers’ lives is done by what Hannah calls “our amazing community volunteers,” whose initial commitment is to tutor a student once a week for six months. The goal is to ensure that the tutor-student bond continues and grows and leads to an ability to follow the school’s curriculum.
While many of the program’s current 133 volunteers are retired teachers, Hannah insists that “you don’t have to have a master’s in literacy instruction to make a difference!” Other volunteers are new to tutoring and come from various backgrounds.
“What I hear from people is that it’s a really intuitive system; it’s really structured. But there’s room as a tutor, as you get to know your students, to really make adjustments and then really make the lesson your own.” The result is what Hannah calls “a beautiful mentoring relationship.”
She says that what Reading Partners asks of their volunteers, more than anything, is empathy and open mindedness to working with and learning from students. “I say all the time, ‘I often learn more from students than I teach them.’ It’s also important to be open to feedback and coaching.”
Reading Partners hopes to eventually have 300 volunteers, “but,” Hannah says, “as long as the students are being served, that’s the bottom line.” Meanwhile, the organization is “always looking for more volunteers across all five of our reading centers.”
Through an online program called Reading Partners Connects, volunteer tutors instruct students online for 100% of one of the program’s five participating schools, and 60% of the other four. The online curriculum replicates the structured lesson plan: “I do, we do, you do.” That is, the tutor demonstrates a skill, then the pair do it together, and then the student does it independently.
“This is whether you’re a kindergartner or you’re a fourth grader, that’s what it looks like sitting side by side at desks and what it looks like on our online curriculum.”
Regardless of the teaching format, the program continues to improve its students’ reading skills: Based on last year’s figures, 80% of students double their rate of learning while enrolled with Reading Partners.
‘A supplemental grandparent’
An ebullient, outgoing woman, Hannah joined Reading Partners in Seattle not long after a stint teaching English in Spain for a couple of years and “fell in love” with the program. As one of four full-time staff and five AmeriCorps members, she gets to wear all of the hats. “I get to be in centers, and I get to work with students, and I also write grants.”
As for volunteering to tutor young readers, she suggests RSVP volunteers look upon it as “an opportunity to be like a supplemental grandparent. It’s a really mentoring role. It’s what keeps our volunteers coming back to Reading Partners.
It’s not about the staff, it’s not about the classroom, it’s about the students. It’s about being able to see growth in the students.
“We have tutors who have been volunteering with us since our nascence, seven years ago. It’s not about the staff, it’s not about the classroom, it’s about the students. It’s about being able to see growth in the students.
“You have tutors telling stories about students who would put their head down, and they couldn’t sound out the word cat. And by the end of the year, their reading and fluency would have confidence, and that was tangible to see.”
For more information about Reading Partners, please contact RSVP Coordinator Megan Wildhood at email@example.com or 206.694.6786.
About RSVP (Retired and Senior Volunteer Program)
- RSVP is an AmeriCorps Seniors program that engages people age 55 and older in a diverse range of volunteer activities. Sponsored locally by Solid Ground, we match RSVP volunteers with opportunities to meet community needs at approximately 40 partner organizations. To get involved, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org today!
- EIA (Experience in Action) is RSVP’s member newsletter, printed three times a year.
- This piece by EIA contributor David Thornbrugh appears in WINTER/SPRING 2022: Staying warm and cozy.
- Above images courtesy of Reading Partners.