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Older Volunteers Help Children Learn to Read

  • Deborah Block

Illiteracy is a problem in many of the world’s poorest countries. Even in wealthier nations like the United States, many children struggle with reading and writing. But in 19 cities across the country, the volunteers of Experience Corps are helping youngsters learn to read. The volunteers, all over 50, work with students in low-income areas.

Eight-year-old Kenasia Howard is reading about native Americans. She enjoys the story but says some words are difficult for her.

“Big words, and sometimes small words, I forget," she said.

She's reading with Sandy Morgan, who joined Experience Corps three years ago, after she retired. Morgan has been meeting Kenasia at Miner Elementary School twice a week for six months.

“We built a rapport and trust and we just made reading fun," said Morgan.

She says youngsters feel comfortable with the older volunteers, who have much to offer.

“Most of us are parents and grandparents," she said. "We get through to them. We just talk to them calmly, but we definitely have to have the patience. But we have learned that over the years through experience.”

When they are reading, the children may have trouble focusing, get their letters mixed up or add words that aren't there.

Dajah Staton faces all those problems. Linda Nelson is working with the 9-year-old, who only reads at a beginner's level. Nelson says she encourages Dajah when the girl feels like giving up.

“You keep on, you keep trying, you keep doing, and it will open up a whole other world for you if you read a story and understand it," said Nelson.

Dajah’s mother, Florita Staton, is grateful for the help from Experience Corps.

“Without them, I don’t know where she would be. Maybe she’d still be behind from where she is," said Staton.

The adult literacy rate in the United States is more than 97 percent, but a national reading test indicates that almost 40 percent of 7 and 8-year-olds do not have basic reading skills. Studies have shown that those children are more likely to drop out of school eventually. And children from low-income families are even more likely to leave.

Sydney Gibson doesn’t want that to happen to the students he tutors, including 8-year-old Damoni Rodgers.

“I’m going to try to make sure that they leave by the end of the day knowing a little more than they came in with," said Gibson.

Damoni, who has trouble concentrating, says her reading has improved since she started working with Gibson.

“And if I don’t get it right, he just says, ‘Next time... You tried your best, though,'" said Damoni.

Sandy Morgan says most of the students who work with Experience Corps tutors improve their reading by 60 percent.

"I have seen my little girl’s reading improve tremendously," said Morgan. "Not only does she read accurately but now her speed has come up, so now she’s reading and moving along progressively.”

She says the volunteers' experience - and attention - is making the difference.
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