Most weekends third-grader Dayana Estrada Martinez brings home a book to read aloud to her first-grade brother, Esau.
Whether the book is about dolphins or mummies, Esau “likes all of them,” Dayana said.
In addition to having fun, the two are building their English literacy skills as a part of the Read to Me Please program at Hidden Valley Elementary in Savage.
The program is the brainchild of English Language Learner (ELL) teacher Kimberly Olson, who started it last fall with a grant from Foundation 191, the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district’s nonprofit foundation.
“I thought that a student could read an easier book to a younger sibling. Thereby, the younger sibling has the benefit of being read to and the older child will develop more fluency,” Olson explained.
Currently, 18 of her third-graders who are below grade-level in fluency are participating, some reading to a neighbor or cousin instead of a sibling.
About 39 percent of the school’s students are ELL students, she said, and “a lot of times their parents are working a couple of jobs or don’t read much English themselves.”
That’s why the program relies on kids to do the reading, with parents as supporters.
About half of the books Olson bought are nonfiction with realistic, colorful pictures. While elementary school tends to be focused on fiction, reading nonfiction is important for ELL students because it builds their academic vocabulary, teaching them key science and social studies words, she said.
Nonfiction books also don’t look like “little-kid books” when third-graders carry them around, she said.
When students return each Monday, they bring their book back and show Olson the work sheet they completed to demonstrate they read it. Every two weeks, students get a bag of pretzels or pencil as an incentive.
Because she’s “one of those thrifty people,” Olson used the $980 in grant money to buy hundreds of discounted books, most for $1 to $2 each.
Midyear, Olson tested participants and found their fluency is increasing, though that’s likely the result of many factors and teachers, she said.
Olson wants to continue the program next year while also examining ways technology can improve literacy skills.
When Olson asked parents about the program at conferences, one mother reported that “whenever [her kids] are with each other, they fight. But this brings them together to read a book.”