OST Blog Series: Episode #8 | Reading Partners
Daniela Jungova, Development and Communications Manager, Reading Partners DC
No matter what we venture to learn or discover, reading is our starting point. But did you know that only 19% of Washington, DC’s fourth-graders from historically under-resourced communities can read at or above grade level? This puts a significant barrier between their dreams and the possibility to make them come true.
This is a systemic issue—but it’s one we know how to address. Reading Partners is a national children’s literacy organization that works to change the education landscape in our country and improve outcomes for young students through an evidence-based literacy tutoring program delivered by trained volunteers. Our program runs both in school and during out-of-school-time hours. This year, out-of-school-time hours have increased considerably, as much of virtual school learning takes place in the morning.
Since 2010, Reading Partners has advocated for educational equity in DC by addressing the need for effective early literacy interventions in under-resourced neighborhoods in the District. This is why 11 of our 19 partner schools are located in Wards 7 and 8. We recognize that ongoing systemic racism and inequalities in our city directly impact our students’ learning and that our organization has an important role to play in dismantling these barriers so that our students have access to the tools needed to succeed. We believe in educational equity for all.
During the 2020-21 school year, we launched Reading Partners Beyond, a suite of services that includes online literacy tutoring and family literacy resources for home and out-of-school learning. A key component of this is Reading Partners Connects, an online tutoring program that integrates our trusted curriculum skills and lessons into innovative presentations. Reading Partners Connects allows students and tutors to virtually work in pairs for 45 minutes twice per week, following an individualized reading plan tailored to each student’s particular needs and strengths. The program optimizes student engagement and incorporates social-emotional learning (SEL) opportunities through relationship-building with tutors.
The core of the Reading Partners philosophy is a positive, constructive student-tutor relationship. Our curriculum is designed to be delivered through relationship building. This year, we’ve dramatically increased our focus on social-emotional learning in response to the shift to remote learning. Recognizing that the pandemic has greatly reduced opportunities for students’ social-emotional growth, we created additional lessons that focus solely on the development of SEL skills, which became an integral part of our curriculum. All of our SEL lessons are tied to carefully selected texts that the tutor reads aloud to the student during the tutoring session and which further demonstrate and develop SEL skills discussed in the lesson.
For example, every student's first lesson at Reading Partners incorporates the book Marvelous Me. It is about a young boy named Alex, his personality, hobbies, likes and dislikes—everything that makes him marvelous. The book is a confidence booster and a conversation starter that helps put our students at ease with their new tutors.
Lavanya, who tutors students every day as a Reading Partners AmeriCorps Literacy Lead, said, “An interesting plot twist arrives near the end of the book, when we learn that Alex has an identical twin named Andy. They are the same size and share the same birthday, but they each have their own special smile that only their parents can tell apart.”
There have been numerous reactions to this story: one student expressed that the twins looked "weird," while another didn't seem to care. Some students were surprised. However, one of our students, Anyah* remarked loudly with great excitement that she has an identical twin too. Much like Andy and Alex, Anyah and Alani* are the same size and share the same birthday as identical twins do. However, Anyah's favorite color is pink, while Alani's is purple. Anyah's headphones, the beads in her hair, and her backpack are all pink, while Alani's are all purple.
“I felt genuinely excited to share the gift of reading Marvelous Me with Anyah,” Lavanya said. “It was immediately clear to me that she felt represented in the text. It is incredibly valuable for students to be able to see themselves in what they read.”
Now that the Reading Partners program has entered our students’ homes virtually, we’ve also recognized a need to deepen our family engagement efforts to effectively support students in ways that best meet their needs. We engage families by offering regular virtual home visits and check-ins, tech troubleshooting, facilitating educational workshops, providing resources in Spanish, and soliciting feedback to learn what supports work best.
Right now, we are also purchasing yearlong subscriptions for up to 400 students and their families to access ReadingIQ, a vast digital library of children’s books, some of which are already incorporated into our virtual tutoring program. While the pandemic has accelerated our family engagement efforts, we are working to make sure we continue to stay in touch with our students’ families even after we return to in-person programming.
At this point in the school year, we’ve engaged over 467 volunteers who worked with 301 students. Witnessing our students’ strides has been truly rewarding, and we strongly believe that continuing to center social-emotional skills in our curriculum is critical not just to help students deal with the effects of the pandemic, but also to pave the way for their future academic success. No matter what challenges the next year brings, we are determined to keep building these vital literacy and life skills together with our students and their families.
*Names have been changed.
Check out previous episodes of OST Voices: