So what can we do to encourage struggling readers? Ask some grandmas and grandpas for help!
Researchers at Niilo Mäki Institute in Finland set out to design a volunteer program to provide reading support to struggling readers in Finnish schools. In a language like Finnish, where each letter corresponds with just one sound, the most common reading difficulty is in reading fluency. Special education teachers and regular educators can address reading deficits in their classrooms, but to provide additional support and motivation to students from grades 2 through 6, the Reading Grandma and Grandpa program (lukumummit ja-vaarit) was developed and implemented.
To participate as a volunteer in the program, prospective grandmas and grandpas receive training regarding how to support the development of reading fluency in school age children. The initial training is a 2 hour session led by researchers at Niilo Mäki Institute. Reading grandparents can continue to develop their skills in optional peer group sessions, meant for volunteers to meet with each other and discuss their experiences. Interestingly, the majority of volunteers did not have a background in education. Of the original volunteer reading grandparents, only 28% had a background in teaching. The original group of retired volunteers ranged in age from 50-80 years old.
Students that participate in the program are identified by their teachers. Classroom teachers complete assessments to identify which students have difficulty with reading fluency skills. After identification, students are matched with a volunteer grandma or grandpa. One-to-one sessions take place, typically in 20 minute sessions once or twice per week during the school day over the course of a semester. The grandparents model fluent reading, provide instant feedback to students, and encourage students about the importance of reading. Reading grandparents utilize evidence based strategies to improve reading fluency, including echo reading, choral reading and shared reading with students.
Results from the first study found that after 14 sessions of participating in the program, students improved their own belief in their reading skills. Students completed pre and post measures rating aspects of self-efficacy and the findings indicate that participating in the program led to increased feelings regarding reading skills and continued ability to improve reading skills. The motivation and encouragement provided by the grandparents played a vital role in these improvements, which is an important building block to improving reading skills. After all, in order to do something, you first have to believe that you can.
Benefits were also noted for the volunteer reading grandparents. For those that participated, volunteers noted increased feelings in self worth, increased social activities, and increased social relationships.
The Reading Grandma and Grandpa program continues to grow and several different versions of the program are currently being introduced and piloted. While the initial study focused on disfluent readers, a new program addresses developing vocabulary skills for students that are learning Finnish as their second language. Grandparents are trained to use 9 evidence based vocabulary development strategies to help build vocabulary through reading. Next spring, a third version of the program will be started that utilizes immigrant seniors to encourage reading in the first language of immigrant students.