My year of reading A to Z

Not long after I moved back to my hometown, my grandmother invited me to observe a Zoom call. She was tutoring elementary students for a program called Reading Pals. After the first few minutes watching her interact with the kids, I knew I wanted to be a volunteer like her.

Reading Pals is designed to help students build confidence in their reading abilities. Typically volunteers read in-person in the classroom, but last year everything was done remotely.

The library of Reading Pals books goes from A to Z. Level A is aimed at kindergarten, and each level gets progressively more advanced through the alphabet until level Z, which is intended for high school. 

I loved reading with my students and I wanted to share some cherished memories from our Zoom calls last year. (I changed names and details to protect their privacy.)

Scotty was placed at level H. One day, he was feeling bored and ambitious. 

“Can I please try level Z?” he asked. When I told him it was the hardest level, it only sparked his interest more. Finally I pulled up a level Z chapter book. Whew. The font was tiny and the words were long.

Scotty was intimidated, but he tenaciously sounded out each word. When he got to the end, he said, “I’ll only read the next page if it has a picture.”

I clicked to the next page. It was a solid wall of text. 

“Nooooo!” Scotty shouted. “One day you will get there,” I told him. He chuckled in relief as we returned to level H. His usual books did not seem so boring anymore.

Another student, Yana, preferred to trade reading every other page with me. She liked fairy tale books but often got distracted and wanted to talk about Minecraft instead. I tried to leave a few minutes at the end of each session for show and tell. 

One day Yana showed me a Google Doc she was working on. It was a story about mermaids which she was writing in the style of the Reading Pals books. Each week, her story grew another page. How cool is that? Reading aloud on Zoom wasn’t Yana’s favorite activity, but she used our sessions to inspire her creativity. 

My third student, Karen, loved to read aloud. In fact, she read every word on every page. She usually chose science books, and would thoroughly read each chart, glossary, and parenthetical metric unit.

Unlike Scotty and Yana, Karen wasn’t as interested in discussing the books with me. Sometimes I wondered if she would be happier reading without a tutor. 

After several months of Zoom calls, Karen selected a book about China. On that day I saw a different side of her. She was fascinated by the book’s description of the Chinese zodiac. We paused reading because she wanted my help to figure out the sign for each member of her family. A few pages later we paused again because she wanted to copy Chinese characters in her notebook. 

For the rest of the school year Karen mentioned something from that book during every session. It was great to see how once something captured her interest, she could find a way to connect it with whatever else she was reading.

I’m proud of the students for adapting to online tutoring. According to their literacy testing scores they gained an average of 2.7 months of reading skills for every 1 month in the program.

The truth is, last year I learned as much from my reading pals as they learned from me. At first I felt so shy on the Zoom calls, now after some practice I feel confident that I can teach. I’m grateful to my grandmother for inspiring me to give back to our community.

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