When I retired as a preschool director last year, my friend Doris quickly snagged me into tutoring with the Alexandria Tutoring Consortium. It wasnt a hard sell: my previous experience had been with the five and under set and I was curious about six- and seven-year olds. What would it be like working with kids whod been assessed as already falling behind in first grade? What would it be like supporting kids whose parents might not be able to provide the kind of out-of-school experiences that Id been able to give my own kids? What difference would an hour a week make?
I was assured by the ATC that it would make a big difference. I was forthwith oriented and trained, and before I knew it I was meeting with my two adorable first grade tutees at William Ramsay Elementary School. Here and at a couple of other elementary schools, they use a tutoring system called Book Buddies, which provides an individualized activity folder thats constantly updated according to each childs progress and incorporates feedback from the tutor about the childs interests and unique circumstances. The structure of the lessons and activities in the childrens folders each week means you never feel at a loss and you can see their week-by-week progress as the lessons are changed out. The children are similarly attuned to this, eagerly pulling out their new readers and activities.
From the start I was concerned about Alex (not his real name). He knew all the sounds that the consonants made, so clearly he had some skills in place, but he had trouble putting the sounds together in words. I had a hard time understanding him as his speech was mushy.
I wasnt sure he was seeing words in left to right orientation or that he was even all that sure of the difference between a letter and a word. He labored over simple words like cat and bat, saying, kuh-at and buh-at in the decoding strategy called push it and say it. And each time he encountered what are called high-frequency words, it was as though he were seeing the word for the first time. I truly despaired! He was at the lowest level of emergent reading. Everything was so effortful I wondered what would happen once fluent reading was really a necessity for learning academics not to mention whether reading would ever bring him joy and pleasure. Did he have an underlying reading disability?
All fall I fretted, but we just kept at it. The first glimmers of hope came after the winter break, which shouldnt have surprised me; thats when we always noticed the greatest leaps forward with the preschool children. The brain needs time to organize and make sense of all the inputs, to lay down neural pathways. All of a sudden Alex had accumulated a whole bunch of sight words (the kids keep a word bank on a ring clip in their folders). He was up two reading levels. Progress!
And just this past week, he added more sight words to his bank than hed gained in the two previous months. At last hed reached the point of no longer needing a word bank for he had cracked the code. He eagerly turned over his reader to verify that he was now at Level D and read it through with hardly a hitch. The child was positively smirking, he was so pleased with himself. Now this is what learning to read should be like! Is he over all the humps? No. Its still hard for him to get the brain patterns down for consonant blends, fluidly reading words like crest, chest, black, track and so forth. And hes not yet up to short vowel and long vowel rules. But its coming faster and faster.
Alima, by contrast, spent time in the classroom for English Language Learners when we first began working together. Extremely shy, it was almost impossible to hear her speak and her teacher reported she never spoke up in class. Her English was halting and she was often frustrated in trying to respond to some of my friendly questions (how many sisters, brothers, what do you do at home, etc.), which tutors are encouraged to use to break the ice with their new acquaintances. Yet, in no time at all we were on giggling terms.
Alima is a voracious learner. She has killer instincts when it comes to acquiring knowledge and academic skills. From the beginning she wanted no help from me in the reading department; instead she preferred to show me how much progress she was making. Although Arabic is her first language, Alima aggressively began to master English expression and comprehension. She may still be awfully quiet in class, but as far as Im concerned in the tutoring environment, I can hardly tell shes not a native English speaker.
I love it when she adopts favorite first-grade expressions like easy schmeezy. She also complains that her words are too easy and weve jumped her to compound words to keep her interest high. Shes mastering the rules for long and short vowels and vowel blends. Do you remember the old rule that when two vowels go walking the first one does the talking? But heres what she doesnt know. What going around the block means. How to cut out a snowflake with folded paper. What a chimney is. What famous means (we eventually settled on Obama). How to make an inference in a story (what will happen to the little gingerbread boy if he goes in the river?).
We use some of our tutoring time exploring things that are so much a part of adjusting to life in the U.S. But Alima also teaches me. During Eid, I noticed that her fingertips and palms were stained with henna. With great pleasure and excitement, she related to me how her grandmother had painted them for her and how the family prayed and celebrated together. She wrote for me the Arabic words for the numbers one through 10. I shared with her the same thing in French, Spanish, English and German, and the equivalent Roman numerals. The joy on this childs face told me all I needed to know: Alima is a lover of all the world has to offer, a learner, a student par excellence. I hope she goes to Harvard.
In September, both my tutees faced an uncertain, malleable future. Today, the arc of possibility is positive for each of them. Alex may always approach reading in a more workmanlike way, but hes a little chugger, optimistic and good natured to a fault. He gets the job done. Alimas spark has been ignited and who knows where that may lead. The pupil will assuredly surpass the master. Its a humbling thing to know that your small efforts can make such a tremendous difference in the lives of others. So often you dont get to see the results of your efforts, but with helping children learn to read, you see firsthand the beginning manifestations of their innate potential. You can imagine what that might herald for all those children being tutored today, 20 or 30 years from now. I hope some of you reading this will decide to touch the future.
Sissy Walker is the former director of Beverley Hills Church Preschool and is an early childhood consultant.