Since 2011, the Levenger Foundation has sponsored the Innovations in Reading Prize at the National Book Foundation. This year, the major prize was awarded to an organization named Reach, which teaches students to become tutors to younger students. Our editor of Levenger Press, Mim Harrison, has a report:
This post is just one of many things you might read today. In the course of your reading, all kinds of thoughts might enter your head (including “Why am I reading this?”). But one thing you probably won’t think twice about is the fact that you’re able to read all of what you put in front of yourself with no difficulty.
Okay, if you’re reading Paradise Lost, maybe a little difficulty. Yet while you may struggle with some of the ideas in what you read, the words themselves present little problem.
But imagine if you’re a fifteen-year-old who can read only at the skill level of an eight-year-old. What kind of chasm does that open up, what sort of walls does that put up to stop you from doing all kinds of good things with your life?
In Washington, D.C., more than eight out of ten students attending public high schools read below their grade level. The statistic is sobering, and startling: in the city that boasts one of the world’s greatest public institutions of reading, the Library of Congress, far too many tenth- and eleventh-graders read at a fourth- to sixth-grade level.
Students as teachers
Washington is not alone, of course, in having students who read below their grade levels. Happily, though, the city is home to a nonprofit organization called Reach Incorporated that is challenging that statistic.
Adult teachers at Reach work with the high school students—but not in the way you might expect. They’re not teaching these teenagers how to read better. Instead, they’re training them in how to tutor elementary-school students in reading.
The students, in essence, become the teachers.
Then something magical happens. In the process of helping the little kids to read better, the big kids do, too. On average, the high school tutors advance two reading-grade levels. By the time they’ve finished their junior year, three-quarters of them are reading above their grade level.
“The reality is, the best way that I can teach a kid to read is to get them to feel that their reading matters to someone,” says Mark Hecker, the program’s executive director.
From reading to leading
And their reading does, indeed, matter to the little kids. If you’ve ever read to a young child and in turn helped that child to read, you know how most young children relish that one-on-one, intimate interaction. The ones in the Reach program show that through their own improved reading levels.
“What the younger kids see is that they’re not alone. The older kids tutoring them share the same struggle, but they’re overcoming it,” says Leslie Shipman. The National Book Foundation’s assistant director, Leslie is one of three staff members who conduct the first-pass review of all the applications for the Innovations in Reading prizes.
The older students become a kind of hero to their young charges. And what high school student doesn’t like being looked up to? With Reach, it’s an earned adulation: being a tutor to the younger children carries responsibilities.
“The older kids walk away with life lessons,” says Leslie. One of those is that being a strong reader can open a door they might have thought was closed to them. “Some of these students,” says Leslie, “are the first in their family to go to college.”
Author, (young) author!
In a brilliant stroke of bringing the process full circle, Reach’s high school readers (who are paid for their tutoring) have a chance to become writers—the authors of children’s books that Reach sells.
As Leslie observes, “For a young person to have a book that they’ve written be published is so special. It gives them such confidence.”
The authorships are just one of the ways that the high school students begin to appreciate the power, and not simply the pleasure, of reading. Reach believes that there is a direct link between being a good reader and becoming an effective leader.
As Mark points out, we communicate ideas through writing, but we formulate and understand them through reading. The two skills work and develop in tandem. “It is only once a young person becomes fluent in these skills that they might understand their world and the role that they can play in it,” he says. The students become aware of their communities and their world, and how they can fit in both.
“They have the talents,” says Mark. “We just provide the tools.”