“Make two fists and connect your knuckles. Now, extend your two thumbs straight into the air. Doesn’t that look like a bed? The left hand represents the lowercase b and the right hand the d. So whenever you can’t tell the difference between the letters b and d, make your ‘bed’ under your school desk.”
You might think this multi-sensory literacy trick is going on in an elementary classroom, but this teaching technique is actually happening under trees and inside jungle gyms at local parks and recreation centers in Houston, Texas. Launched more than three years ago, Reading Aces is a nonprofit after-school literacy program founded by a high school student. Brette Machiorlette and her team of high school volunteers visit various Houston-area parks and recreation centers loaded with picture books and snacks. These teen volunteers work shoulder-to-shoulder with elementary students and help foster a love of books through the magic of oral reading.
The vision and mission of Reading Aces is to reach kindergarten through third graders each week during the school year, in the less structured environment of the great outdoors.
“Unfortunately, many of our Reading Aces kids do not have parents who read to them and, sadly, many of our children do not have any books at home,” explains its founder, Brette Machiorlette. In addition to the socio-emotional benefits of sitting beside an engaging teen volunteer, many aspects of language and cognitive development are thought to be improved by aloud reading. Studies have found that reading aloud to children strengthens vocabulary, fluency, and also introduces novel concepts of story structure and grammar. Another supported value of reading aloud to young children is that such exposure will introduce them to the world of print and motivate them to seek out these experiences on their own.
More than 240 elementary-aged children have participated in Reading Aces in park locations since its inception in 2009. The fall and spring sessions culminate with children receiving “reading” trophies that symbolize the life champions they will become as strong readers. Initially, Reading Aces mentors came from one Houston urban high school’s varsity tennis team. “We shared similar ambitions and received positive energy from the program’s launch,” adds Machiorlette, also a varsity tennis player. “But when I sought to expand the program, I quickly learned that I needed a much wider appeal than my tennis friends. In the early weeks, I needed to sell the program to new mentors and learned to dangle the “college resume” incentive to recruit and build volunteers. I am proud that today we have over 70 mentors from seven different public and private schools and have touched so many school-aged children,” continues Machiorlette.
Not only are the participants benefiting from the program, but the mentors have learned valuable life lessons and enhanced their abilities to interact with people of all socioeconomic backgrounds. In addition, the buzz of Reading Aces has spread, and at one park location that was once in danger of losing city funding, kids are now actually being bused from a local public elementary school to the Cherryhurst Park to participate. Reading Aces is supported by the Houston Tennis Association’s and the NJTL (National Junior Tennis and Learning). Launching something from nothing has countless rewards and satisfactions; however, the biggest rewards have come from the intimate relationships built between a child and teen mentor. “My most powerful moment came the day that my special student, Courtney, slid her knuckles together and hid them under our book and slowly sounded out the word, 'bubbles,'” Machiorlette recalls. For more information on Reading Aces, please visit the website www.ReadingAces.org.
Brette Machiorlette is a high school senior in Texas.