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'Reading Buddies' help first-graders learn to read

Ten-year-old Kendall Taylor sits on the floor next to her younger brother Isaac, who’s lying on his stomach and reading a colorfully illustrated book about animals. She sounds out words with him and helps him understand parts of the story.

Kendall, Isaac and another brother, Rivers, are constantly reading together – at their Charlotte home, even in the car. Because they’re in different grades at Nathaniel Alexander Elementary, one of the few places they hadn’t read together was at school.

Not anymore.

In late September, Kendall approached her fifth-grade teacher about wanting to be a part of her two brothers’ reading and learning during class time. The result was a weekly “Reading Buddies” program, in which she gets to help Isaac with his reading, while other fifth-graders and first-graders pair up in Tamara Lutz’s classroom for 40 minutes each Friday.

“My favorite part about it is teaching Isaac,” Kendall says. “Sometimes I’ll read the same book with him more than once.”

She sought out the at-school partnership because she loves reading, even though it doesn’t come naturally to her.

“I have trouble reading, but I know my brother has trouble reading, too,” Kendall says. “I just wanted to help him get to know how this really works. I wanted to help him so that when he goes to college he won’t need help with reading.”

How the program works

Kendall’s idea was well received by her teacher and Tessah Grube, Isaac’s teacher. The two teachers are roommates, so they were able to talk about the concept and plan it outside of school time.

They decided that the program, featuring both fiction and nonfiction books, would need some structure to work best. “We really wanted this to be meaningful and not just be, ‘Hey, let’s read,’ ” Grube says. “We still wanted it to be instructional. It had to be where the students were contributing in some way.

“We read books aloud all the time where we’ll stop and ask questions to get students thinking. Students are familiar with that throughout the whole school. We decided we would take that and apply that to this situation, where we would have fifth-graders teaching their reading buddies a strategy or skill, whatever they’re learning that week.”

Kendall says that early each week, “Ms. Lutz tells us what they (the first-graders) are working on, and then we take a book that’s on their level. Then we write questions for them” to help them think about what they’re reading so they can better understand it.

Matching up reading buddies is strategic as well: “They pair up students based on a strength that a fifth-grader has and a skills deficit that a first-grader has,” says Principal Lauren Bell.

“They also try to pair them up personality-wise. If we know that two boys are crazy about football, we pair them up. If two girls both like cheerleading, we pair them up. So it has an academic basis but also a social basis, for creating a true partnership that helps build reading skills and comprehension skills.”

Six-year-old Isaac barely moves as he fixates on the words and pictures in front of him. “My favorite thing about reading is learning new things,” he says. “I love reading about big cats and bugs and snakes.”

Building self-esteem

There’s pride in his voice, one of the intangibles from the program that has also helped Kendall.

“She doesn’t verbalize it well, but she knows how much she has helped Isaac with this,” says her mother, Krista Taylor.

Adds the principal: “Kendall is the brains behind the program.”

“A big problem we do have at our school is that the struggling readers don’t have that confidence; they don’t get to feel successful as much as the other readers,” Grube says. “This is a great way for them to feel successful around their peers.”

“The self-esteem and social aspect is what they’re mostly improving through this,” says Lutz. “Those are invaluable skills they can use throughout their lives.”

She says the fifth-graders learn as much as the first-graders: By preparing questions for the first-graders each week, they’re actively involved in helping plan lessons while learning about reading. Kendall says that when she’s preparing, “Isaac’s teacher helps me with the words sometimes.”

A reading family

The Taylors have always helped each other with the words at home. The second-oldest child, 8-year-old Rivers, complements Kendall’s teaching efforts by helping Isaac.

“I help him by sounding out words,” says the second-grader at Nathaniel Alexander. “I tell him to sound out the first part of the word and then the second part and put it together.”

Isaac says he’s passing this forward by helping his younger sister – 4-year-old Drew.

“It’s not something that’s easy for most kids,” their mother says, “but they realize how important it is.”

Adds their father, Richard Taylor: “We try to teach them that you can do anything you want to – but you have to put in the effort.”

Kendall says she’ll miss the program next year when she goes to James Martin Middle for sixth grade. “But I hope they keep doing it,” she says. “It’s been a good thing.”

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