Volunteer “Reading Pals” Program Brings Lasting Benefits to Local Children
The advantages to reading to children from ages birth through five years is substantial. This is why the Early Learning Coalition of North Florida (ELC) continues to expand its Reading Pals program in all six counties it serves (Baker, Bradford, Clay, Nassau, Putnam and St. Johns). Reading Pals are trained by ELC and then connected with local preschool child care centers and VPK classrooms to simply read on a weekly basis to small groups of children.
Of the advantages of reading to this formative age group, one major benefit of reading to children is building vocabulary. Studies show that the best opportunity to influence our children’s lifetime of learning is before kindergarten when their most rapid period of brain growth occurs. Instilling an early love for reading is crucial to children’s future success in school.
Children also learn how to better communicate with others through reading. The interaction between characters in the book teaches valuable lessons of which the children can relate. Discussions afterward between children and their Reading Pal also builds their communication skills and memory retention.
Finally, it provides preschoolers with a longer attention span. It fosters an environment where the children are sitting still and listening for a period of time and then asking related questions. As a result, children are better prepared for their elementary school years, which will carry on into adulthood.
For the safety of the children, all Reading Pal applicants will sign an affidavit of good moral character and will also go through a background screening. Once the volunteers have successfully completed the requirements, ELC assists the volunteers through a classroom training to ensure future success with the children.
Not only do children benefit through the Reading Pals program, but so do the volunteers in many ways.
Through the training, Reading Pals learn the following skills: how to choose age-appropriate books; child development, including the attention span of preschoolers; presenting books to preschoolers and promoting early literacy through phonetically reading.
Volunteers become role models who directly impact the children through the program. Children are constantly monitoring the actions of adults, so volunteers will be able to see this first-hand when children begin to read from left-to-right and turn pages of books just like their Reading Pal.
Reading Pals who volunteer their time may ultimately feel they have more time of their own as well. Wharton professor Cassie Mogilner recently reported to the Harvard Business Review that her research showed those who volunteer their time feel they actually have more of it; similar to those who donate their wealth feel to have more wealth of their own.
Finally, as Reading Pals, volunteers have the opportunity to make their time near and dear to their own hearts and have fun.
For example, Clay county Reading Pal Ellen Prest has been learning how to play the cello. Prest is a seasoned Reading Pal and knew this elegant instrument would win over the hearts of the children so she brought it in to perform for them. Prest also gave every child a turn to play the instrument.
“It’s so much fun to walk into the classroom and hear the children cheer, ‘It’s the book lady!’ on a weekly basis,” Ellen Prest said.
If desired, ELC also encourages volunteers to dress up as characters from the specific book they are reading as well as use props and other creative ways to enhance the story.
For example, volunteers quite often share personal photos with the children of their pets or of a recent vacation. These teachable moments enlarge the scope of a child’s world, bringing in new and interesting experiences they may not have had yet in their young lives.
“We encourage Reading Pals to add their own personal experiences,” ELC’s Early Literacy Coordinator Joan Whitson said. “Just last week, Crescent City volunteers, Gerry and Kathy Miller read a book about worms and brought in fake worms, and real worms for the daring, so the children could get a visual aid.”
Teachers are supportive of Reading Pals in their classrooms because it increases the children’s love for books.
“I so appreciate your weekly reading pal volunteer,” said Director of Elkton Academy Erin Kochanski. “She lights up the room when she arrives and the kids so look forward to her coming each week. Every day they ask, is this the day Miss Julia will be coming? I have really seen the kids love for books increase since Miss Julia has been coming.”
Applications for Reading Pals can be found under the “Volunteer” tab of ELC’s website: www.elcnorthflorida.org. Contact Joan Whitson for more information at [email protected] or 904-342-2267. ELC coordinates services in North Florida for children birth to five years of age. Visit www.elcnorthflorida.org to learn more.