Reading Without Limits

Maddie Witter

How to Leverage Volunteers to Have the Highest Impact For Struggling Readers

reading without limits maddie witterDo you have volunteers who help at your school? Maybe parents who want to lend a hand? Or community members dedicated to closing the opportunity gap?  You might even have student teachers.

The one-on-one time that a volunteer or tutor can provide for a young person is reason enough to bring in as many volunteers as you can for your students.

But sometimes, do you ever feel like you aren’t leveraging that one-on-one time to make the most impact? I know I certainly feel that way.  At Parkville Youth Detention Centre, our young people are so lucky to have 35 Teach for Australia volunteers who come in three days a week to tutor.  That means our young people are in school until 7pm.  Isn’t that incredible? 35 tutors can make a huge difference in the academics and well being of the kids; but sometimes I wonder… could we use them better?

Here’s something you can share with your volunteers or tutors that will have HUGE IMPACT on the academic success for your readers, especially readers who are struggling.

It’s actually an early literacy strategy called dialogic reading.  It’s often recommended for even the littlest of littles.  I do it each time I read a book with Gigi, and she’s just seven months.

In dialogic reading, the adult listens, questions and ‘becomes the audience’ for the child.  The adult prompts the child by questioning, helping them recall, and pushing for predictions.  I highly recommend it as a great way to infuse more nonfiction.

Here are the steps:

1)   Ask “what questions”.  Point to items in the book and ask “What’s this?” “What’s that?” If the student is an emergent English speaker or reader, after they answer, repeat what they say, adding on to make it a complete sentence. “Yes, that is a snake.”

2)   Expand on what the young person says.  “Yes, that is a snake and it’s slithering through the grass.”

3)   Ask open-ended questions.  Open-ended questions require more than one answer.  “Why do you think…?” “How…?”  “Why…?”

Often used with early childhood education, dialogic reading is so relevant and awesome for adolescent struggling readers.  Here’s a transcript of a tutor doing it with Ahmed*, a sixteen-year-old.  Together, they were looking at Encyclopedia Horrifica.

*Name changed

eyelash mite

Tutor: What do you think that is? (Points to enlarged mite)

Ahmed: Ugh. That’s disgusting.  I don’t know, a bug?

Tutor: Yes, you’re right, it looks a lot like a bug.  I wonder if the caption would tell us more? “An eyelash mite in its natural habitat: your skin.”

Ahmed: Ah man, a bug in your eyelash.

Tutor: Totally! It looks like it lives near your eyelash.  But it said skin, so I wonder where it would be? (Points to eye)

Ahmed: This is so disgusting.  On your eyelid where the eyelashes are?

Tutor: Definitely.  That is disgusting.  I wonder if you and I have eyelash mites.

Ahmed: Come on…

Tutor: I bet we will find out…. How big do you think they are?

Ahmed: Not sure.

Tutor: I’m not sure either.  In the picture they look really big.  Do you think they are that big in real life?

Ahmed: You know what, I think that’s what they look like… when they are in those things… you know…. When it makes it really big and stuff?

Tutor: I totally know what you are talking about.  A microscope?

Ahmed: Yeah, they make them huge and like you can see really small things.

Tutor: Do you see anywhere on the page if it says the size?

Ahmed: (Looks) Ah yah right here.  (Ahmed reads it aloud, miscues on some words).  “Magnified 240 times, this image is scientific proof of how ugly mites can be.”

Tutor: You are right.  (Rereads caption correcting miscues)

You don’t need to do a ton of professional development with a tutor to prepare them for dialogic reading.  I recommend the following:

1)   Model a session for them

2)   Model POSITIVITY (do you see how positive the tutor was?)

3)   Model asking what questions going back to the text

4)   Model how to expand

5)   Model asking for open-ended questions

Dialogic reading is another piece in the Reading Without Limits puzzle.  It’s very teacher (or volunteer!) centered, so it’s unlike choice and guided reading where kids have extended independent work.  Kids love it because it’s really positive, interactive, and safe.  I can’t wait to share this strategy with our Teach for Australia volunteers when school starts!

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