I am lucky indeed. I get to know children almost as well as a good friend because I work them personally,one-on-one.
I am a volunteer reading tutor in an inner-city school, always searching for ways to learn what matters most in children’s lives. They tell me about their families, their friends, their hobbles, and using that knowledge, I help them learn to read. If I write down exactly what they say, we succeed. Why? Because their words and feelings, which I put on paper, give them a solid base of recognizable vocabulary.
How is this accomplished? Through a build-up of trust in an informal, private atmosphere where a child knows I will not be grading him or revealing to others what he says. It helps if I smile and nod my head in agreement when they read the words correctly. If they hesitate over difficult words, I give them a hint, and I never frown at failure. This is usually different from their classroom experiences where children are often exposed to other students’ disapproval and even laughter.
Phonics and primary readers enter the picture, but are more effective later when they build on children’s own written words. I came upon this approach during my 25 years as a First Grade teacher and seven as a tutor. But other volunteers without a teaching background can use similar methods.
Annie R. was a little waif of a child, dressed in hand-me-downs, who really didn’t want to work with me at all. "You’re in for quite a challenge," the school social worker warned me "She’s missed too many days of First Grade because her family moves from apartment to apartment, dodging the landlords’ bills. Simply getting to school in the morning is a major effort, let alone learning anything."
It took a few sessions before I could remove the thicket that kept Annie away from me. She would look at me with unseeing eyes, scarcely answering my questions. Sometimes she would shift her stare, looking across the room and then say, "I want to go back to class." Of course I took her, even after a very short session. I knew there was no point in forcing things if I wanted her to treasure our times together.
Then one day we began to talk about her four year old brother who I realized was the light of her life. "Let’s put his name in this little blue journal," I said. "It’s yours…" And I wrote "Annie " on the cover. "Tell me how you spell your brother’s name." She suddenly grabbed my pen and printed the letters R I C and 0. "Rico," she said. "Rico. I love Rico." And she drew a heart on top. From then on when we met, she told me more about Rico, and I carefully wrote it all down in printed letters. As it happens with so many children, she could read back most of her own words.
"Sometimes we play in the park," continued Annie.’ I throw him a ball and he tries to catch it." Another time she was almost poetic. "Oh Rico, I love you more than anybody in the whole wide world." It meant so much to her that she read it perfectly. Then she kissed the page.
By the time Annie’s journal was bulging with tales of Rico, I decided to introduce little stories for her to read. Goodnight Moon, she found captivating. But the book that won her over completely was The Carrot Seed. I brought in a shabby old copy that I had read to my own children years ago. It has only a few words to a page and is full of repetitions. Annie was truly intrigued and, with my help, mastered it.
That gave me an inspiration. I made copies of all the pages of The Carrot Seed and took them into class. The Annie and I borrowed the teacher’s scissors and scotch tape to make our own book. What a mess it was! While I cut the sheets to size, Annie industriously tore off the tape. But it had a way of twisting and turning with a will of its own. Later she looked on wide-eyed as we put our book together. Lacking the colors of the original and with tape reaching out in all directions, our creation was something of a hodgepodge. But not for Annie. She was so thrilled., she kept reading it over and over.
"It’s yours, Annie," I said handing it to her, "yours to keep."
"Mine?" she asked, as if she’d received the Holy Grail. Never having owned any book before, she was truly incredulous. "And you know what?" she said to me. "I didn’t even have to pay for it!"
That same month Annie came to me wearing a badge with the word "Reader," given to her by her classroom teacher who, of course, had a great deal to do with Annie’s progress. But how much really personal time can be spared from a busy schedule to work with any individual child? That is where volunteer tutors play a vital role.
Annie’s little journal, which she is taking home to read to her mother, ends with these words for Rico: "I will always love you and I will care for you and keep you in my life. And I’ll respect you and make you be smart, and I will never let you get out of my dreams come true, and I will love you for ever and ever and ever!"
Jean Katzenberg has written a book describing her work with children like Annie. Prospective publishers are encouraged to write Mrs. Katzenberg through LiteracyConnections.