I remember volunteering in a first grade classroom and working once with a young boy who was having trouble with some of the phonetic building blocks of reading. Was this the most effective use of my time as a volunteer? Probably not, according to two memos from Harvard’s Lead for Literacy series that present ways to harness the interest and energy of volunteers to promote children’s development as readers. As one memo states, “Volunteers are a potentially powerful resource for supporting children’s literacy development, but in too many cases, they are underutilized and/or mismanaged.”
My experience illustrates a common pitfall cited in “Designing a Volunteer Program Focused on Literacy.” The pitfall? “Having minimally trained volunteers work with the children who have the greatest needs.” The recommendation? “Children who require individualized support need highly-skilled adults who work with them regularly.”
How, then, to design a volunteer program focused on literacy? The memo recommends using volunteers in ways that match their skills and interests. It also recommends assigning volunteers to tasks that free teachers or other trained professionals to work with struggling readers. For instance, volunteers might:
Organize or prepare lesson materials, log books taken/returned from a lending library [or] construct bulletin boards to celebrate literacy progress.
Supervise children at learning centers while trained staff work with struggling readers [or] read aloud to children as the teacher conducts assessments or provides small-group instruction.
A second memo – “Implementing a Volunteer Program Focused on Literacy” — advises casting a wide net for volunteers from all segments of the school community, planning in advance how to utilize volunteers and monitoring how volunteers impact child outcomes.
“When used wisely, volunteers can make an impact on children’s literacy skills,” the memo notes. “However, many educational settings lack attention to recruiting, managing and monitoring volunteers in a way that would create sustained and effective volunteer programs.”
The Lead for Literacy memos are an initiative of the Language Diversity and Literacy Development Research Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The research group is headed by Professor Nonie Lesaux, author of “Turning the Page: Refocusing Massachusetts for Reading Success,” which we commissioned in 2010 and which informs the memos.