Nine-year-old Megan Nguyen wants to be a better reader.
She loves to read about animals. A favorite recently was “See Me Grow,” a book with a yellow tree frog on the cover, from which she learned that a baby rabbit is called a “kitten” and a bee larva is a legless, worm-like white grub.
But Megan’s mom works the evening shift at a manufacturing plant, and her father, a Vietnamese immigrant, struggles to learn English. Megan reads a little at home, but usually silently, on her own.
At the start of this school year, Megan’s score on reading screens were below what they should be for a third-grader. And because third grade is a crucial year for reading – when kids go from sounding out letters to reading for information – Megan’s teacher signed her up for Read to Succeed.
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The United Way initiative pairs volunteer coaches from the community with students who need help with reading. Once a week for 30 minutes, the students grab a book, sit down with their coaches and read aloud.
That’s it: The student reads. The adult listens. Thirty minutes. Once a week.
“It really is a simple thing, when you think about it,” said Courtney Maddux, a third-grade teacher at Harry Street Elementary in Wichita. “But it shows that the littlest things can go the furthest.”
Data shows improvement
Over the past two years, Read to Succeed’s initial goal has been fortified by hard data: Students in the program improve their reading at a faster rate than the average third-grader.
The program is in 15 Wichita elementary schools. United Way plans to expand it to 20 in coming months and needs more volunteers.
According to school district data, third-graders at high-poverty schools normally increase their per-minute reading average by about one word a week. Students in the Read to Succeed program averaged a gain of 1.5 words per minute each week.
At Harry Street, just south of downtown Wichita, where nearly 92 percent of children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, students like Megan upped their reading scores even faster – at a rate of 1.6 words per minute each week.
From fall to spring last school year, most students in the Harry Street program increased their reading fluency by about 40 words per minute – enough to get them reading at grade-level or beyond.
Some students elsewhere in the district made even greater strides, increasing at a rate of more than two words per minute each week.
“That’s huge,” said Maddux, the third-grade teacher. “It provides a lot of hope.”
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Catching errors early
One key, experts say, is the read-aloud aspect of the program. When young children read out loud, with an adult listening and following along, the experienced reader can quickly and easily spot mistakes and correct them.
Megan, for instance, during a recent reading session in the Harry Street library, was not voicing the “s” sound at the end of plural and possessive words.
“The baby kangaroo lives in its mother pouch,” Megan read.
Her reading coach, Bonny Schlomer, a credit analyst for Intrust Bank, noticed immediately.
“Mother’s pouch,” Schlomer said. “See that apostrophe-s?” She pointed to the end of the word on the page.
“Mother’s pouch,” Megan repeated, then continued with the story.
“When you’re with a child one on one and he makes an error, you can correct it immediately, and his chance of repeating that same type of error goes down dramatically,” said Jamie Junker, a curriculum specialist who supervises the Read to Succeed program at Harry Street.
“In the classroom, where you have one teacher with 20-something kids, the teacher may get to meet one on one with only five kids during reading time,” she said.
“So you may have 15 kids who go days before you notice the error,” Junker said. “And that can be too much time to easily unlearn it.”
Inspired to learn
Another strength of the program is harder to measure but similarly dramatic, said teachers and volunteers.
Students in the program get excited about reading. Regular one-on-one attention from an adult outside their normal sphere boosts their confidence, sparks their curiosity and expands their view of the world.
“They build a relationship … and that makes a difference because it’s done with a supportive adult,” said Junker, the curriculum coach.
“Even if they already have those great role models at home, having an additional one just can boost their achievement and their confidence. … They look forward to it.”
Lanh Tran, Megan’s mother, said her daughter’s reading has improved, and she seems more excited about school.
“She’s reading a lot at home. She has her sister helping her, too,” Tran said. “I see this year she learned a lot more than last year.”
For the reading coaches – most of them professionals who volunteer over their lunch hour – the program offers an inside look at Wichita schools and at some of the challenges students face.
“It opens their eyes,” said Patrick Hanrahan, president and chief executive officer of United Way of the Plains.
Schlomer, Megan’s reading coach, signed up as a volunteer along with a group of friends from work. A former middle school teacher, she said data showing Wichita students’ declining test scores inspired her to action.
“I was surprised. It was kind of scary,” she said. “They talked about how third grade is like a breaking-point year, and it just seemed like this was a good opportunity to help.”
This content was created with support from Impact Literacy, a strategic initiative of the Wichita Community Foundation.