“I have been through so much with my kid.”

The friend I was talking to looked taken aback.

“Well, not, like, a biological kid.” I explained. “She’s my reading buddy, but she’s my kid.”

When I joined SEAL, I thought it would be about tutoring. When I first applied, I figured most of my focus would be on the books we were reading. To be totally honest, I read an insane number of articles on phonetics….only to learn that most schools practice a different teaching style now.

After I’d worked at the same school for a few weeks, I realized how unimportant the mechanics of reading are to SEAL’s work.

Expanding literacy across an entire city is a broad but technical goal. SEAL, as a program, is designed to aim at a specific problem but allow for flexible initiatives to try and solve it.

The problem is that students in underserved schools exhibit lower test scores, lower graduation rates, and generally less academic success than those who have access to better resources at home and in school. I know, this sounds obvious.

What is less obvious are the ways in which we should be working to correct this injustice. Obviously, there is no magic bullet. But I believe there is a resource that has flown under the radar — time. Your time, specifically.

By no fault of their own, kids whose families or schools are in stressful situations are denied access to adult’s time and attention that their wealthier counterparts are given automatically. If parents are working two jobs, it is a lot more difficult for them to find the time to read to their child, and hiring help to give their kid similar academic attention is out of the question. If a teacher has half a class of kids whose needs are not met, as opposed to one or two who are struggling, it changes the dynamic of the whole classroom.

There’s a shocking statistic about vocabulary — which is closely tied to reading performance — that says by 5 years old, poor kids will have heard about 30 million fewer words than their affluent peers. While economically disadvantaged kids are not the only children who have trouble or need extra help learning to read, they are often at an even greater disadvantage from the get go.

The mechanics of learning how to read, the letters and vocabulary building that has to happen, is not possible if a child is not receiving positive attention that allows them to think beyond simply getting their physical and emotional needs met.

In SEAL we don’t focus on training our volunteers to be counselors or tutors, instead, we encourage them to become their kid’s best friend and cheerleader. We want to provide our SEAL kids with mentors whom they can rely on and trust.

I’ve been paired with my reading buddy for four semesters now, two years. My reading buddy is clever and loving. Throughout the time I’ve known her, she’s developed her skills, sarcasm and decided she wants to spend her life working with animals because they are “just nicer than people.”

We’ve gone from stumbling through Dr. Seuss to short chapter books in that time. But, more importantly my buddy told me I made her feel happy. She told me I made her feel important.

More than the newfound ability to finish a whole children’s book in our hour together, my reading buddy and I have reached a place where we can work hard together.

In the time we’ve worked together, the backbone of her improvement in reading has come only on the heels of the bond that she and I have developed. Over time we’ve developed a lexicon of shared experiences, sitting around particle board tables and running out of breath sprinting to get to the playground.

Children form their attitudes about school and reading from an amalgamation of sources. They listen to what they hear from their parents, their older siblings, TV shows, and friends. But few of those sources can or do spend time telling a child that they’re good at reading.

The ability to read is not a magical talent that can be turned on at the switch of a button. The ability to read is often developed over months of frustration and hard work piecing together letters and sounds until they make sense. It’s a hard process to get through unless you have some support.

 

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