Some of the 3- and 4-year-olds in the United Way of Northeast Florida’s ReadingPals program have their own twist on certain words.
One of them told longtime reading volunteer Vickie Robinson that the color commonly known as purple was actually purpril. Others said avocados are advocados and porcupines are porcudots.
Robinson has joy in her voice when she talks about how she helps voluntary prekindergartners learn the shapes and sounds of letters and words, preparing them for kindergarten. She said she learns more from them — even if it’s a colorfully incorrect version of a word — than they learn from her.
“You just have all these wonderful stories to tell. … That’s the reason you go back,” Robinson said. “They have imagination.”
Robinson, a retired public school teacher, is one of about 135 adults who volunteer for ReadingPals. But about 200 are needed to meet demand for the current school year, said Madi Bateman, the regional United Way’s early learning engagement coordinator, who is also a ReadingPal volunteer.
The agency needs more volunteers because the recruitment process last summer and fall was interrupted by staff changes and hurricanes, she said.
For 30 minutes each week, a ReadingPals volunteer spends time with a pair of preschoolers, reading a book, completing activities and developing skills the children will need for success in school. Each child also receives age-appropriate books to help build their home library; this year, they’ll each get 10 to 12 books. The children are tested at the beginning of the 29-week ReadingPals term and at the end to measure progress.
Volunteers must be at least 18 and pass a background check. Training and materials are provided, although volunteers are welcome to supplement them.
“I brought in finger paints one time,” Bateman said. “They were so excited, they were on their best behavior.”
The program is at 20 school sites across the Jacksonville area. Individual students are recommended by their teachers — many are from homes where reading is nonexistent or not a priority — based on the educational need.
The children quickly look forward to visits from the volunteers, who also function as mentors.
“It’s so important for their self-esteem. … They want to see you,” Bateman said. “They say, ‘Thank you, Miss Madi.’ It’s the sweetest thing. They want to learn. They just need a platform to do so.”
Watching them discover the power of words is awe inspiring, Robinson said.
“The key here is words … to deal with their world, to deal with their feelings, to express their feelings,” she said.
Through third grade, children are being taught how to master reading. After third grade, “it’s about content, reading to learn. If they don’t have a wealth of words to label the world, school is not fun,” she said.
That’s why ReadingPals focuses the shapes and sounds of letters and words. Some people ask Robinson what shapes have to do with letters. To the 3- to 4-year-old mind, letters may be more easily understood as shapes, she said.
“The letter ‘C’ is one half of a circle. ‘D’ is one half of a circle going the other way with a stick on it,” she said.
Beth Reese Cravey: (904) 359-4109