By Susan Wroble
Imagine a school where students love books… a school where every single student had a reading partner — a trusted, caring adult who showed up each week, often staying with that student year after year after year. And imagine a literacy program at that school where the students were able to select from books that were chosen specifically for them, books that matched their interests and their reading level. It seems impossible, but it is exactly what reading specialist Julie Neitz Wielga has created — a reading intervention program that works.
The Partners in Literacy Difference
The program began almost twenty years ago as a typical remedial literacy program. At Denver’s Odyssey School (a combined elementary and middle expeditionary learning school within the public school system), struggling second and third graders were assisted by a few adult volunteers. But then the teachers asked for volunteers for other students. Students asked if they could get a reading buddy. Parents asked if their child could be in the program. It grew to the point where it made more sense to include everyone than to just leave a few students out.
In 2011, the program incorporated as a non-profit named Partners in Literacy. Partners in Literacy works via a two-pronged approach. They assemble a large team of volunteers to provide each class with an adult for every student, either one-on-one or in small groups, and they create a library at the school of books that are curated to match those students’ interests.
The reading sessions are spread throughout the week. Kindergarteners and first graders, for example, might be on Mondays, while 2nd and 3rd graders might have reading on Tuesdays. All of the teachers, the principal and vice-principal are reading buddies. Others are parents and community members. Many of these volunteers come more than one day a week, working with multiple students.
The reading sessions are scheduled as the first activity of the school day, allowing volunteers to give 50 minutes of volunteering time and still get to work. Getting volunteers can be challenging, because, as Julie notes, “we need people who like kid’s books and kids.” To find new volunteers, Julie explained that Partners in Literacy places notices in the local papers and in nearby Little Free Libraries, but “word of mouth is the best way we recruit.”
Partners in Literacy differs from other literacy programs, like Mile High United Way’s Read with Me or the nationwide Reading Partners, in the development of a curated library. “We don’t look like these programs,” Julie explained. “We bring in our books. Having a library curated to the students’ interests makes such a difference.” In an era where many schools and school systems have eliminated their libraries, Partners in Literacy believes that children need to know that reading takes practice, focus, and time, but it is really worth it. Their goal is to steer each class, and each school, towards a strong reading culture.
The life-long implications of failing to read are staggering. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that 85% of juvenile offenders have reading problems, and more than 60% of prison inmates are functionally illiterate. In terms of brain development, the size of the Broca’s area of the brain, which is linked to literacy skills, correlates with socio-economic status — the lower this status, the smaller this area of the brain.
Neuroscientist Joanna Christodoulou of the MGH Institute of Health Professions studies reading and the brain, and whether early intervention programs can help. Her research showed working with a child who is struggling to read literally changes the size of the Broca’s area and its connections within the brain.
In the early grades, Partners in Literacy is exactly the type of program that makes a difference in brain development. Kids struggling to read learn best when they can be given a buffer against the effects of chronic stress. The Partners in Literacy model, where adults and students take turns reading the book aloud then discussing it together, provides this buffer in the form of a safe, caring adult. Best of all, the kids have not been singled out for a remedial program. Instead, this safety net is offered to every single student in the school.
Middle School Magic
As vital as early interventions in reading can be, for middle school students, Partners in Literacy can work magic. “It is important for these kids to see themselves as intellectually alive at an age when they are working out their identities,” Julie said. “At this age, kids begin to recognize and make their own choices about their educational lives.” During middle school, the reading partnerships often morph into book groups, where the students decide together what book to read, and the pace of reading. Often, they choose to read at home between the weekly sessions and discuss their responses when they are together.
Partners in Literacy is unique in that it combines the inclusion of every student and the development of a curated library. And in combining those two elements, they have shown that it is completely possible to create a school culture that makes every child a reader.