Here is a stat that should trouble all of us: Children who don’t read at third-grade level by the third grade are four times more likely not to graduate by age 19. And here is something any caring adult can do about it, one kid at a time: Volunteer to be a “reading friend” in a local school system.

David Griffiths

For 12 years, Kim Moisan, an outstanding first- and second-grade teacher at Elm Street School in my hometown of Mechanic Falls, has sent her kids out in the hall, one by one, to read to me. Some struggle, some shine, but they all try, and I leave each one of them with a positive message: “You’re a great reader, y’know that?” That’s why the hands shoot up when I appear at the doorway of the classroom. They want to show off for someone other than a teacher or their parents.

Why does it matter? I’ll let Mary Martin, chair of the RSU 16 School Committee (Mechanic Falls, Minot, and Poland), who grew up in Mechanic Falls and served as principal at Elm Street, accumulating honors such as Maine Principal of the Year and president of the Maine Principals’ Association, explain:

“Learning to read in the primary grades provides the foundation for the complex learning that follows in other grades. One of the ways that children learn to read better is simply by reading to someone. Even better if the reading is accompanied by conversations about their reading and their lives. If we want children to love reading, we must engage them so that they choose to read voluntarily and often.”

I love the part about “conversations.” Gently interrupt a young scholar’s reading about, say, pets and ask about hers, and you could get advice about dog grooming, dealing with finicky cats, or handling the demise of a four-legged critter who has been part of her life going back to earliest memories. Same goes for superheroes, what to wear for Halloween, and dramatic recitals about fishing with Dad. The latter might stretch credulity in the details, but who cares? They are learning to tell stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. And besides, every fisherman is a shameless liar.

So what does it take to be a volunteer reading friend? Just think of yourself as a favorite uncle or aunt who stops by now and then to show some love via well-earned praise. It is blessedly easy and requires no preparation. Help with difficult words, get them giggling about the hilariously freaky artwork in a Dr. Seuss book, or exclaim at their mastery of a five-syllable word.

Any school, particularly at the K-3 level, would welcome volunteers. Security checks through the school to the state are mandatory and don’t take long. Then you sit down in the hall, give each reader 10 to 15 minutes of your time and wait while the teacher sends out another one. I guarantee you will leave the school feeling good about contributing to a kid’s self-esteem. That is the consensus among members of two Rotary clubs in Brunswick, including myself, who work with youngsters at Coffin Elementary School.

Just one caution, best illustrated on a day when I wasn’t at my sharpest. A second-grade girl and I were going through a book about the stages in an animal’s life. All went well until we got to “mating.”

She looked up at me and asked, “What’s mating?”

“Uh. Hmm. Mating, huh?” (“Ask your parents” occurred to me, but I thought better of it immediately, imagining a call to school the very next day).

I should have said, “Why don’t you ask your teacher?” But my mind raced and came up empty. I have  no idea what I finally told her.

That night, at our weekly meeting, a Brunswick Coastal Rotary member, said, “You could have said, ‘The boy animal and the girl animal became very good friends.'”

Why didn’t I think of that?

Dave Griffiths is a former chair of the RSU 16 School Committee. He is a resident of Mechanic Falls.

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