It started on a Saturday morning 12 years and about 2,000 students ago, this idea of taking reading skills to the most disadvantaged of students, those for whom reading practice and overall student success are all but unobtainable without intervention.
We would launch our Reading Camps on Saturday mornings at community centers in Orlando’s poorest neighborhood, a historic area known as Parramore. For six weeks in the fall and in the spring, and then daily throughout June, UCF elementary education majors and graduate students provide 1 1/2 hours of level-appropriate, culturally responsive instruction in small-group settings using books donated by Scholastic Book Fairs.
The small-group approach – using a 2:1 or 3:1 student-teacher ratio – reaps benefits that can’t be replicated in a crowded classroom. According to my research, at least 33 percent of the regular Reading Camp attendees increase their reading skills by one Lexile level.
But the students aren’t the only ones being taught. While the students are learning, my assistants and I begin teaching the parents how they themselves can become reading teachers. I’ll tell the eager parents packing the room, “Believe it or not, at the end of six weeks, I’m going to teach every parent in this room how to be a reading teacher. You don’t need a college education to do this.”
In working with parents, we build upon the framework of the parent-child relationship, emphasizing communication strategies that pave the way for literacy. The one habit parents must foster is talking with their children. We teach parents to ask open-ended questions: “Tell me the most important thing that happened to you today.” “What was your favorite part of the day? Why?” “What story are you reading in school? Can you draw me a picture about your story? Can you write a sentence about it?” We also encourage supportiveness, reminding parents to let their children know how proud they are of their children.
Then we coach the parents in teaching strategies – for example, teaching sight words, phonograms and other word recognition pointers, and distinguishing between expository and narrative writing. Reading, I tell them, is a magical thing that only we humans can do. It involves sharing ideas using written symbols, identifying those written symbols, and understanding the ideas behind the written symbols. Once each of those steps has been accomplished, communication has taken place.
Communication stands in stark contrast to word calling. What we don’t want to foster, we tell parents, is a community of word callers. For instance, I’m a word caller when I’m reading Latin. I can say the words, but I don’t know what they mean. We don’t want our children to be word callers when reading English. Good readers, I teach them, use a combination of letters and sounds, combined with word structures.
Comprehension is critical to student success, as is practice. Think about your child dribbling a basketball, I tell them. Success comes only with repeated efforts. Our parents become like coaches who promote practice and correct technique.
About 112 UCF students volunteer their time each year to the estimated 220 kindergarten through fifth-grade children who participate annually. The camps become a win-win-win for all involved: a win for students, a win for parents, and a win for future teachers, many of whose students will be economically disadvantaged.
Children sometimes are hesitant, unsure of what to expect. But before long, a sense of community develops. Each week brings some extra incentive for parents and children to come – homemade baked goods, apples (because I used to like to eat apples while reading), and occasional UCF folders or backpacks.
As I address our group for the last time, I’ll tell them, in complete honesty, “I want to tell you a story about who my heroes are. My heroes are the parents sitting in this room today.” I look at the faces of the parents who have dedicated every Saturday morning to the success of their children, and I find myself wishing I could place each parent in a classroom. The six-week session ends with a pizza party, after which each family member – and future teacher – walks away with newfound confidence. Some families return.
Some children go on, sometimes to college scholarships. As for me, I’ll keep coming back here week after week because I’ve seen the difference we can make in the lives of students, families, and future teachers. I may be the biggest winner of them all.
Dr. Timothy R. Blair is founder of the UCF College of Education/City of Orlando Reading Camp Program. A professor of reading and literacy in UCF’s College of Education, he wrote this newsletter article for Scholastic, a supporter of the camps.