Volunteer Tutors Help First-Graders Improve Reading Skills - University of Houston
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Volunteer Tutors Help First-Graders Improve Reading Skills

June 9, 2017 – Once a week, Visiting Associate Professor Sharon Johnson would take a break from grading papers, email or whatever else she was working on at the time. From her home or office at the University of Houston College of Education, she would call into a classroom at Crockett Elementary School for one of her favorite appointments.

Johnson, who teaches in the college’s Human Development and Family Studies program, served as reading tutor for a first-grader named Samuel. The two used an online program that allowed them to see the same images on their own computers while talking on the phone. As Samuel read aloud, Johnson would offer strategies to support him. Some sessions they focused on word games such as tic-tac-toe or hangman.

“Samuel’s reading ability improved significantly throughout the year,” Johnson said. “In the spring, he read at the top level with more fluency and expression.”

Johnson had a chance to meet Samuel for the first time during a celebration in April at Crockett Elementary in the Houston Independent School District. Seventeen faculty and staff members from the College of Education participated in the virtual tutoring program with Crockett students during the 2016-17 academic year.

“I enjoyed meeting my student and seeing his big smile and dimples,” said Johnson, who has volunteered as a tutor for the last two years.

Idara Atai, a first-grade teacher at Crockett Elementary, north of downtown, said the tutoring program served as great reinforcement for her students, allowing them to practice reading strategies they learned in class.

“It really closed the gaps of my students,” said Atai, a 2015 graduate of the College of Education. “I could see tremendous growth in my students’ reading and self-monitoring.”

The volunteer celebration included a read aloud, of course.

Bobbie Koen, a College of Education Ph.D. graduate who works in UH’s Office of Institutional Research, read from her favorite book, “‘Stand Back,’ Said the Elephant, ‘I’m Going to Sneeze!’” She asked the students to help her with the final phrase.

“Oh please, don’t sneeze!” they said together.

Koen’s student, Xavier, said his favorite parts of the tutoring sessions were “playing games and reading stories.” The online program, called TutorMate, includes word activities and picture stories, making the lessons fun.

“My tutor is nice,” Xavier said.

Laura Turchi, an assistant professor of secondary education, said serving as a tutor has given her fresh insight as she helps train aspiring teachers at the college.

"Each year TutorMate has given me a window into how fast readers can develop," Turchi said. "It’s exciting to think we at UH are contributing to a new reader’s vocabulary, skills and confidence – even though we don’t meet in person until the end of the year."

Laura Lee, who coordinates the tutoring program at Crockett for the college, added: “The tutors may enjoy the program even more than the students do.”

To wrap up the meet and greet at Crockett, the first-graders got into small groups to read to their tutors – showing off the progress they had made.

–By Kathy Patnaude