The year-old Reach Out and Read (ROAR) program has helped Alton School District second-graders improve their reading skills and confidence by setting up one-on-one reading between students and volunteers.
ROAR has seen drastic development and expansion in its short life. The program came to Alton grade schools in late 2014. In the beginning, there were 12 volunteers at East Elementary, and later in 2014 Lovejoy and West joined the program. At the end of the first school year, about 45 volunteers came to the three schools and had some 4,000 shared reading experiences, when students sit and read with volunteers. In the 2015-2016 school year, the program expanded to Gilson Brown, North, Eunice, and Lewis & Clark Community College with 13,669 shared reading experiences and an average of 191 volunteers per week coming to these schools.
This expansion of resources and time spent with the children has made a difference in children’s lives, as volunteers at the Wrap Up ROAR Meeting on May 27 spoke of their accomplishments and the moving experiences they had with students. The program has drastically improved children’s reading capabilities: at the end of first grade, an average 59 percent of students read at or above grade level; at the end of second grade, 74 percent were reading at grade level and 62 percent were reading above grade level.
ROAR members never claim to be the reason behind the 15 percent increase in reading levels, but Elaine Kane, a literacy coach with the program, said “they get better at reading by doing just that — reading.”
Each day, starting at 7:30 a.m., children choose a book and read with a volunteer. The volunteer records the reading to play back to students after they are done reading, and also corrects errors and helps students out with words they don’t understand. After reading, students are encouraged to retell and discuss the story to ensure they actually understood what they read.
The program is a “great developmental shift to close the gap. Not only are we closing the gap, we’re actually accelerating these children with this program,” Kane said.
Reading at a benchmark reading level is important, as Steven Lipstein mentioned in a 2014 awards ceremony: only 20 percent of students who aren’t able to read at or above their grade level in third grade go on to higher education after high school. Steve Thompson attended the awards ceremony and used the information as a foundation of the reading program. Thompson assembled a team that has experience in education, a passion for helping children and the determination to reach out to schools and students.
Teachers, retired teachers, school staff, spouses and high school students have made up the volunteers so far, but you don’t have to be any of these things to volunteer with ROAR. All the credentials a volunteer needs to have is a passion for helping children learn and a love for reading.
At the meeting, volunteers shared stories of their experiences with students. One retired teacher spoke of a child who wouldn’t go to anyone but her, and a principal spoke of a child who loved to read with her mother, and even wanted to get word to her mother that he had been staying out of trouble. In just two months, a student who was stuck at a certain reading level climbed up two reading increments by reading every day with a volunteer.
Maybe most impressive of all, ROAR has worked with and seen great improvement in a hearing-impaired student whose only form of communication is sign language. One day, he and Kane were observing the program at East Elementary and he picked out a book and went up to a table. After getting his interpreter, he signed through two books, something he hadn’t been able to do before. This experience helped Kane and other helpers see they were making a difference in children’s lives.
Many children were reported to be more excited to come to school after reading at the before-school program; they didn’t feel embarrassed about reading any more. When asked why they thought they had improved at reading, many responded that reading at home with their grandparents or parents helped, that the teachers assisted and that reading at “that one tiger program,” as one student answered, helped them learn.
Not only has the program expanded within the Alton area, but Granite City and Highland Primary have reached out to ROAR. An even bigger reach has been made to Mobile, Ala., where a cousin of Steve Thompson’s shared the idea with a volunteer from Big Brothers Big Sisters, and he ultimately took the plan to a local elementary school and started a program. ROAR also plans on adding first-graders to the mix next year.
The community also has reached out a helping hand by donating books and money to the program. Volunteer Carol Fletcher, who worked at Macy’s, spoke of the donations collected around Christmas that allowed ROAR to buy a book for every student in second grade at East Elementary in 2014, and all seven schools in 2015. Fletcher talked about the children’s excitement.
“In this age where so many are so into their electronic devices, it was so special watching the children open their books and asking, ‘Is this mine?’ ‘Can I keep it?’” Fletcher said.
The BJC Summer Book Brigade also donated a book for each child going into the third grade to ensure the students can read over the summer.
For information about volunteering, donating or developing a similar program, contact Elaine Kane at firstname.lastname@example.org or (618) 433-7825.