Seven-year-old Amare dreams of becoming a scientist when he grows up. Some days, he says he wants to be a firefighter and other days a police officer.
Even as a first-grader, Amare is very technically-minded, interested in thinking critically and exploring his world.
“He likes to see how things work,” his mother Omeka says. “I’m pushing him to be independent, to do things on his own.”
But despite his determination, Amare struggled as he learned to read throughout kindergarten.
Omeka noticed he was having trouble with his speech, so she enrolled him in speech therapy after school. Then she discovered the Y Literacy program through the YMCA of Middle Tennessee, which offers free one-on-one reading tutoring to students who are reading below grade level. That’s where he met his tutor and friend Heather.
Heather and Amare spend every Monday afternoon together, working on phonics, fluency, comprehension and vocabulary.
“Just from working with Heather for the fall semester, he made a whole year’s growth,” says Jordan Waller, senior director of the Y Literacy program. “He went from [reading on] kindergarten level to the beginning of first-grade level. It’s hard to make an entire year’s growth in that short of time.”
Heather starts each session by reading a book. Amare typically enjoys his after-school snack while Heather reads and points out specific pictures and words. Whenever she sees him struggling or frustrated, she encourages Amare to break the sentences down into individual words.
“I just say ‘What’s this word? OK, what’s this word?’ Then we put it together. He’s getting really good at that.”
The Y Literacy program is important for students like Amare because of the individualized attention he gets. Amare is vibrant and energetic but at school he’s a little more reserved. With Heather, he has the confidence to ask questions that he might not ask at school.
“He’s very inquisitive with me,” Heather says. “He’ll say ‘Why does this word have this letter? Why does this word have to look like this?’ ”
Now in her second year of tutoring at the Y, Heather knows how important learning to read was to her own development and loves seeing that growth in her students.
“I have been an avid reader since I could read,” she says. “I read … I don’t know how many books a year, and I want to instill that in Amare. Tutoring helps me do that in a small way. It’s just an hour a week, but that could make a big difference.”
Omeka says she knows Amare is strong-willed and will continue to excel in school.
“He has it in him. He wants to learn,” she says. “He adores math. I keep telling him, ‘You know you have to have both pieces. You’ve got to be able to read well so that you can do the math.’ ”
And Omeka is exactly right. In a couple years, Amare’s reading skills will be critical to his success in other subjects. Third grade is the turning point when children make the transition from learning to read to reading to learn.
And with dreams of becoming a scientist, learning to read is an integral investment in Amare’s future.