Helping Young Children Cross the Bridge to Reading Fluency

Helping Young Children Cross the Bridge to Reading Fluency

CUSD, Sunrise Rotary, and the Reading Pals Program Collaborate to Meet the Challenge

Sixty-five years ago, when the first post-war baby boomers reached kindergarten, motivating young children to learn to read was easier than it is today. Most American homes had newspapers and magazines, while few had any consumer electronics other than, perhaps, a radio to attract children’s attention. Reading was an important pathway to entertainment, and most kids could not wait to join in the fun by learning to read like their friends and older siblings.

Starting in the mid-1950’s, however, a whole host of devices began to compete with literature for the time and attention of children and teenagers. And with the new century, the availability of personal electronics to school-aged children has become nearly universal. As a result, the old-fashioned comic book, storybook, and children’s adventure series (remember the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew?) have a much harder time competing in the new flash-bang world we have created. So we find it more difficult to motivate some kids to embark on the arduous, but ultimately rewarding path to reading fluency.

As of 2013, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, only 34% of public school fourth graders (and just 40% in Chico schools) were proficient readers; meaning they could read well enough to consider it a joy to tackle a new book rather than a chore to be avoided. Children who cannot read proficiently by fourth grade are much less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to suffer many other predictable negative outcomes as they find themselves increasingly alienated by a deficient level of literacy. They have not crossed the crucial bridge from Learning to Read to Reading to Learn; a transition that is essential to their future success in mastering math, science, history, and many other subjects that are important to career, citizenship, and life success.

To address the challenge of making sure all young readers in Chico are proficient by the fourth grade, several organizations joined forces in 2013 to form a collaborative effort, focused intently, but not exclusively on the students at John H. McManus  Elementary School. The Sunrise Rotary Club of Chico had already been promoting literacy throughout Chico by distributing free dictionaries to all third graders. Founded in 2002, this service club has also provided refurbished laptop computers to English-learning students at a convent school in Viet Nam. To support these efforts, Sunrise Rotary is hosting its Spring Fling Celebration fundraiser at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds on April 22 (find full details at
Meanwhile, the North Valley Community Foundation formed a partnership with the Chico Unified School District to create Reading Pals, a program that places trained adult volunteers one-on-one with second, third, and fourth graders who need extra assistance and coaching to assure their best chance for reading success. Almost immediately, Sunrise Rotary stepped forward to supply volunteers, support the library, provide incentive awards, and create an outdoor classroom space where supervised and unsupervised reading and related activities can take place. Other local organizations, including North Star Engineering, Culp and Tanner, Costco, Brad Jacobsen/Farmers Insurance, Enloe Hospital, Vespers Chico, Chico Noon Rotary, and Bidwell Presbyterian Church came in to play as well, adding their support both financially and via volunteers.

The Reading Pals program is surprisingly effective, with many participants making leaps of a grade level or more in just a few months. According to Principal Kristine Keene, the average McManus participant achieves 2.8 months of reading improvement for every month spent in the program. This success is the result of the strong positive relationships formed between the adult volunteers and student participants, as well as a tested and proven set of graduated books, both fiction and non-fiction, covering a variety of topics  of interest to young readers. In addition, volunteers and students may introduce reading materials and word games they find appealing and useful, while the community and the schools have come forth with an ever-changing assortment of books that the kids can take home to keep.

Reading Pals Volunteer Scott Chalmers points out: “Only an hour of our time can touch the spirit of these students in two ways. First, someone cares about them personally, and second, reading is building a foundation for the rest of their life. There is no greater investment than that”. Adds Dr. Mimi Miller of the CSU Chico Department of Education “Reading Pals has a positive powerful impact on students and is helping to build a new generation of readers in Chico.”

  1. Set the stage for literacy by making children’s bedrooms off-limits to television, electronic media and communications devices, but rich with books, paper, crayons and pencils.
  2. Build vocabulary and skill by reading to and with your children. Choose stories that are just a bit beyond your child’s current level and explain new words as they pop up. Include poems, riddles, and funny limericks.
  3. Expand vocabulary by visiting many low cost, no cost points of interest right here in Butte County. Places like Patrick Ranch, Chico Museum, Bidwell Park, Oroville Dam, and our beautiful orchards can provide rich opportunities to discuss new words and concepts. And don’t forget to visit the library!
  4. Although comic books might not have been blessed by your father’s elementary school teacher, they could be one way to develop interest in reluctant early readers. Choose age-appropriate materials and then take it one step further by encouraging your youngster to write and illustrate his/her own stories.

For information on how you can become a Reading Pal Volunteer, please contact Volunteer Coordinator Katie Good at or call 530-588-0119.

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