Recently I’ve been working with some volunteers who wanted to read with students in a first-grade classroom. Though the volunteers had some past educational experiences, they were not familiar with working with early readers, especially struggling readers. I had 45 minutes to share information with them and then each one watched me as I read with some students. With less than an hour to impart some knowledge, what would you choose to share?
Here are the things I decided would be most helpful for them:
- Learning about the three sources of information (meaning, structure, and visual cues) that students need to use when solving words was of utmost importance. Many parents and other volunteers might think that early readers solve words by “decoding” only (sounding out words.) We need to use the questions “Does it make sense?” “Does it sound right?” and “Does it look right?” so that students eventually internalize these questions and use them automatically. We want students to learn to cross-check one source of information against the other flexibly and fluently. For more information on this topic (in case you want to share this info with your volunteers) see Chapter 4, “Beyond Sound It Out,” in Catching Readers Before They Fall.
- Another big issue for volunteers is “when do I jump in and help when a child is stuck?” For this reason I talked a bit about prompting. We looked over some possible prompts from the Fountas & Pinnell book, Guided Reading: Good First Teaching for All Children, page 161. I wanted them to review some prompts for solving words, some for supporting fluency, some to encourage self-monitoring, and some just to get the students to be active and try something (even if the child couldn’t solve the word.) I also shared the strategic behavior card that you can find in Appendix 4 of our book. After all the prompting ideas, I did tell the volunteers that if the child made some sort of attempt or two, it would be OK to give the word. Having the child feel safe and comfortable with the volunteer is crucial.
- The teacher and I knew that, because of the population of students at this school, the individual attention would be beneficial for the students. Just having an adult listen to them read their familiar books would be time well spent. The volunteer could also read aloud a book to the student, especially if the child had been absent for some of the Read Alouds that the teacher had done recently.
- Language, language, language. Because many of the students they would be working with are English Language Learners, I stressed how important it is to have conversations with the students about what they are reading. Authentic conversations support vocabulary building as well as the student’s oral communication. The kids need someone who will carefully listen to what they have to say and work at understanding them.
The Q/A chapter in our book, Chapter 11, may also help if you find yourself in a similar situation. The volunteers I worked with asked to borrow a book so that they could read through those suggestions. So what would you do if you had only 45 minutes to train your classroom volunteers? What’s your top priority?