K - 12 Non-profits Volunteering

The Reading Road: Guiding Youth Along the Path to Literacy

Penn Reading Initiative (PRI) is a volunteer-based program dedicated to increasing literacy of struggling elementary students at underfunded schools in West Philadelphia.

While several organizations at Penn work with youth in West Philly, PRI is unique in its mission and curriculum.  PRI utilizes a curriculum called the Reading Road, which was developed by the university’s Linguistics Laboratory specifically for these struggling readers.  The curriculum teaches crucial reading skills such as long and short vowels, but It provides so much more.  The Reading Road is an immersive experience with colorful stories and fun games that keep students fully engaged in the reading process.

The curriculum carefully weaves exciting stories that fit within the cultural context of the students who are reading them.  The program’s website notes how the stories “are aimed at the concerns and interests of children in communities that suffer from poverty, illiteracy and social conflict”. This allows the students to identify with the stories and their characters.

The program works especially well with discouraged and alienated readers.  The designer of the Reading Road, Dr. William Labov, explained how the curriculum focuses on assisting children who struggle with being “good students”.  He noted simply, “we teach our kids that you don’t have to be a good student to be a good reader”.  Dr. Labov explains how many stories within the curriculum get on the “side” of the kids and acknowledge the unfairness of life, justifying the students’ feelings of frustration and anger.

Disciplinary issues are often due to large classroom sizes that don’t provide individualized attention to each student.  Students may have behavioral differences that prevent them from sitting still and staying quiet in this large classroom setting.  PRI creates a comfortable and open one-on-one space for lessons that cater to each student’s interests and reading level.

As a tutor for PRI, I can personally attest to the effectiveness of the curriculum.  My tutee absolutely loves the stories with colorful pictures and rich storylines with characters that he can identify with.  He is often eager to finish the lessons so that he can begin to read the stories.  He also loves the games and activities outlined in the curriculum.  Despite having difficulty focusing in a traditional classroom setting, he remains completely engaged when the lesson includes, for example,

“The Tower Game”.  He cannot wait to read new words so that he can receive another foam domino to stack on top of his precariously tall pile.  His focus level is visibly sharpened with the integration of these games, and the quality of the learning experience is tremendously enhanced.

PRI works with students in Comegys Benjamin B Elementary.  Comegys’ students are far below national averages, with 13% of its students at a proficient level, and only 1% advanced in literacy on the PSSA.  The average classroom size is 33 students, an unacceptable number, especially for first and second graders.  Teachers are expected to fulfill the enormous task of teaching 33 students to read with few resources at hand, as well as prepare these students for standardized tests.  These problems will require decades of hard work and much more funding to reform.  Nonetheless, PRI begins this necessary work by providing the individualized attention needed to help struggling students succeed.

To learn more about the Penn Reading Initiative and their impact, as well as provide support, visit their website.