Word Smart

Turning pages at the Reading Room

A wisp of a girl lies on her stomach on a fake bear rug in Lafayette Academy Charter School’s Reading Room, ankle-strapped flats waving left to right, her eyes glued to a colorful book about two hamsters named Amanda and Scott. She is surrounded by intriguing titles such as Frog’s Lunch, Wet Pet and Today I Fly, but Ba’shey, a second grader, seems more interested in the pictures than the words, which are the Reading Room’s reason for existence.

Her tutor, Kimberly Siegel, a Tulane University volunteer, tries a new tactic.

“Let’s write a poem,” Siegel says. “What do you want to write a poem about?”

“An apple,” the girl replies.

“How does an apple taste?”

“Good,” says Ba’shey. She pauses and then adds, “Sweet,” bringing praise from Siegel, whose questions are aimed at eliciting specificity.

Ba’shey is just one of the 100 second grade students that the Reading Room will instruct this semester, all in an attempt to improve their reading levels and vocabulary. About 12 volunteer tutors, mostly from Tulane and Loyola universities, provide reading assistance in a room better stocked with books and board games than space and furniture.

Two sofas, a desk and two chairs accommodate the dozens of children who stream in during the day. Tutors and students often end up on the floor or spill out into the hallway, where they spend about an hour in focused dialog.

“They are stepping all over each other,” says Lynn Loewy, director of volunteers. “Most of these children get so little one-on-one attention, they cherish this time.”

The tutors sometimes read to the students, sometimes listen to them reading and assist them in writing book reports and the poems that they will eventually deliver to their classmates and relatives as a semester project. Loewy’s goal is to create a love of reading and fluency of language, and to expose students to a wider world.

All across the country, educators struggle every day with these all important tasks because national test scores show that two-thirds of the nation’s fourth graders are not reading at grade level. A report recently released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that among low-income families, 85 percent are not reading at grade level.

The situation is dire in New Orleans public schools, where a majority of students come from high-poverty to low-income neighborhoods, and whose parents are less likely to provide adequate language interaction in their children’s pre-school years.

A 1995 study entitled “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children” conducted by Betty Hart and Todd Risley found that children from professional families know about 600 more words by age 3 than children living in poverty. By age 4, children from families dependent on government assistance have heard about 32 million fewer words than those surrounded by well-educated people. Children from working-class families fared only slightly better than the poorest families in Hart and Risley’s research.

Improving language and reading skills is a high priority among educators, because researchers say that reading levels in the lower grades are the most effective predictors of students’ education attainment and economic success later in life. Over their school years, poor reading skills affect almost every subject they study. Even many contemporary math problems are set up in written paragraphs, an instructional shift that’s even more pronounced in the common core standards that Louisiana schools must meet in the coming years.

In many cases, the second graders that Reading Room tutors work with daily are barely able to sound out words on an individual basis, says Adam Kline, a Tulane student who has volunteered at the charter school for two years as part of a federal work study program. Kline says he works on fluency, pronunciation and contextual analysis, and has found over time that the students’ enthusiasm for learning often leads to marked improvements.

“Their home lives don’t encourage school at all,” Kline says, “I try to make it fun for them.”

Research shows that reading to children is the most important activity parents can do to help them acquire language skills. Language specialists say that parents should start reading to children soon after birth. They say children learn proper speech patterns from listening to words being formed and following along teaches them the basics of how books are read.

Children who don’t receive this kind of attention start school at a disadvantage and struggle to catch up with better-prepared classmates.

The idea to use college volunteers to boost reading skills at Lafayette first came from Kirsten Hill, a former Tulane student who is currently in a Ph.D. program at the University of Pennsylvania, Loewy says. Before the program became formalized, Loewy recruited her own friends to read to students. Hill helped Loewy connect with Tulane’s service learning program.

Some students now choose the Reading Room from a list of possibilities to fulfill volunteer requirements for graduation.

Some professors also require specific volunteer experience as part of course requirements, Loewy says. Tulane student Frannie Belau, for example, is taking a course called “Child and Adolescent Literature,” and Reading Room experience fulfills a course requirement.

Loewy, a former journalism and debate teacher, decorates the Reading Room with classic children’s fictional characters such as the lovable beasts from Where the Wild Things Are. But a print of Norman Rockwell’s famous illustration of six-year Ruby Bridge’s federal escort to racially integrate New Orleans schools is a reminder that much work still needs to be done to achieve educational equity in New Orleans and most of the country.

“Some kids start two and three reading levels behind,” says Monica Boudouin, Lafayette Academy’s head of school. However, Boudouin says that because of the Reading Room and many other instructional strategies “we are seeing great gains.”

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