“A told B and B told C, ‘I’ll meet you at the top of the coconut tree.’ … Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, Will there be enough room?”
Last spring, snatches of story floated through the air of the Media Center at Bay Haven, a magnet school in Sarasota, Fla. Kindergarteners sat in rapt attention as volunteers from UCC-related Plymouth Harbor met one-on-one with them to read the tales of The Little Red Hen, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, and other classic books for kindergarteners.
The story time was part of Rockin’ Readers, a nationwide program that first came to Sarasota in 2004. Rockin’ Readers is designed to shrink the vocabulary gap among children by exposing them to high quality literature and rich language.
“The program helps expose the students to new vocabulary,” says Susan Eckert, a retired educator and a resident of Plymouth Harbor who volunteers with the program. “Children who are read to and exposed to a larger vocabulary get a leg-up in learning.”
Plymouth Harbor has partnered with Bay Haven School for more than 10 years. Each month, volunteers prepare “Snack Packs” filled with healthy snacks. The packs are delivered to the teachers, who distribute them during snack time to children without a snack. Often, the students show their appreciation by coming to Plymouth Harbor for special events, including singing songs at Christmas.
So when the Sarasota County Board of Education selected Bay Haven School to participate in Rockin’ Readers, it was a logical choice to ask Plymouth Harbor to be involved. Eckert says an orientation session for the program was held at Plymouth Harbor, followed later by a two-hour training session. Five residents were part of the first group of reading volunteers. Two were assigned two students each, and the other three worked with one student each.
“The students go to the school’s Media Center to choose a book,” Eckert says. “Then we sit at a table and read to them” for about 30 minutes. The time frame also allows for discussion time. The volunteers fill out cards tracking which books the students choose.
Experts point to many benefits of reading early and often to young children. Reading aloud to children builds motivation, curiosity, memory, and an understanding of how stories work. Sound and letter recognition improve, as does vocabulary and the ability to listen.
In 1985, a landmark Becoming a Nation of Readers report concluded that “the single most important activity for building knowledge for their eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.” But subsequent surveys have shown that only half of all parents in the United States read to their young children daily. That’s the gap that the Plymouth Harbor volunteers are trying to fill.
“We live in Sarasota County in this beautiful residence, but everyone in the county is not the same, and some need our help,” Eckert says. “They need our time and our resources.”
The volunteers have not yet begun sessions with the kindergartners in the current school year. Teachers spend the first weeks assessing which students will benefit from the program. Eckert expects the 2019-2020 program to begin soon.
In addition to helping the students, Eckert says that the program benefits the volunteers, too, because of the sense of satisfaction they derive from helping the students. But for Eckert herself, there also is an element of challenge.
“I thought that I would benefit from being around young people in a school again,” she says. “I like the nature of volunteering. I look for ways to get outside my comfort zone and do things in the community.”