A student reads to Fury, the literacy dog.

Read to me!

Volunteers make a difference

Louise Botko, ’65, owns a miniature schnauzer ranked top in the country for obedience by the American Kennel Club. Every Tuesday afternoon, Fury sits patiently with second-graders at Zachary Lane Elementary School in Plymouth, Minnesota, as they read book after book to her. They choose books they think Fury will like and point to the pictures.

A student reads to Louise Botko and Fury, the literacy dog.
Volunteer Louise Botko checks comprehension after a student reads to Fury.

“When you read to the dog, there’s no judgment,” says Botko. “What it does is give the students practice and confidence in their oral reading fluency. Fury listens while they read.”

Botko sits in the background, close enough to listen. She checks the students’ comprehension by asking followup questions, such as a word unfamiliar to Fury.

“I admit I never thought in the beginning that they could read aloud for a full 20 minutes, but they can,” she says. “Reading with Fury is fun!”

Minnesota has long stood among the top states in the nation for volunteerism. In 2013, the Twin Cities metro area ranked first among major U.S. metropolitan areas in percent of active volunteers. And a quarter of those volunteers, like Botko, give their time to educational organizations.

A student reads to Fury, the literacy dog. “The thing I missed the most when I retired was the interaction with the kids,” says Botko, a retired educator. “Volunteering gives you an opportunity to go in and connect again with the kids, and that’s the fun part of teaching.”

For Botko and Fury, the jump from obedience school to elementary school was pretty simple.

“Fury is the one that I felt really connected with people and kids, and I thought this would be a great thing for her to do,” says Botko. “It just seemed like a perfect job for her.”

Botko found a good match in a district with the R.E.A.D. Dogs program. She has worked closely with classroom teacher Christy Larsen for the past three years.

A student reads to Fury, the literacy dog.“Louise is very faithful, and we are flexible,” says Larsen. “She always lets us know her schedule well in advance.”

Larsen has witnessed the impact of Botko and Fury’s presence on her students. Beyond reading experience, those who are afraid of dogs are able to have a positive interaction.

“And they all enjoy that one-to-one attention that kids crave,” says Larsen.

As the year progresses, Botko can see the effect of their work on the students, too. Kids tend not to be absent on Fury’s Tuesdays, she notes.

“This is a way to support students’ learning—helping to individualize their instruction so they can get more out of their school,” says Botko.

Getting involved

“Classrooms are often crowded, and we know that there are often not enough adults to give individualized attention,” says Megan Pieters, a coordinator for America Reads, a program in the Minnesota Center for Reading Research (MCRR). “Think about a kid from a crowded family with busy parents, in a crowded school, in a busy classroom—a volunteer can make a world of difference to them.”

A child reads to Fury.

America Reads trains and employs University students as literacy mentors for elementary and middle schoolers in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Pieters worked for America Reads before graduating from CEHD with a degree in family social science in 2011. Her experience and the program’s mission drew her back.

Being a mentor to a young student isn’t just about schoolwork. The tutor–student relationship revolves around connections, says Pieters.

“It’s about life experiences, social interaction, and how to be connected to someone in your community,” she says. “We want students to have consistent adult role models, and whether the role model is a college student or an older adult, the importance is the same.”

Several research studies have shown the difference that volunteer tutoring can make. America Reads provides training and resources for undergraduates before they begin and as they develop their experience, including tips and guidelines (see sidebar below).

Tips for reading volunteers

  • • Be positive and organized.
  • • Set goals and have a plan.
  • • Limit distractions—choose organized tutoring spaces.
  • • Connect tutoring material to your student’s interests.
  • • Track progress and recognize accomplishments.
  • • Capitalize on your student’s strengths.
  • • Build background knowledge by asking students questions before reading.
  • • After reading, ask students to reflect and make connections.
  • • Be generous and explicit with feedback and praise.

—CEHD America Reads

“It is so important to get all hands on deck,” says professor and MCRR director Lori Helman. “Volunteers can help to ensure that developing readers have opportunities to practice with support and engage in high-level conversation around texts. We know that tutors can positively impact children’s academic success, particularly when they receive training and oversight by knowledgeable personnel.”

Volunteers in the gap

Generation Next is a Minneapolis–St. Paul nonprofit that aims to bring people together with the goal of closing the achievement and opportunity gaps through volunteer work and community partnership.

“Nobody has 100 percent of the answer when it comes to literacy,” says Victor Cedeño, director of networks for the organization. “We want the community to know that they can be a part of the solution.”

The Gen Next Reads initiative involves community members as tutors in Minneapolis and St. Paul and provides access to training to help them prepare. Prospective volunteers can get involved in the effort through the Saint Paul Public Schools Foundation at sppsfoundation.org/volunteer.

“People can have a say and have a role,” says Cedeño. “We may not all be able to be teachers . . . but we can all volunteer.”

“We won’t sugar coat this: We have a deep challenge with literacy in our community. The results are simply not good enough, not even close. But the country’s top volunteer community has the capacity to close the country’s largest achievement gap.”

—R. T. Rybak, Generation Next

For Botko, who worked as a reading specialist and later as a district language arts consultant during her career, volunteering has helped her maintain a relationship with educational work since retiring from the profession. But, she emphasizes, experience as a teacher isn’t a prerequisite to be an effective volunteer.

“If there’s something you really loved doing and can offer it in the schools, teachers would love that,” says Botko. “Just try it.”

Learn more about the Minnesota Center for Reading Research, Generation Next, and the R.E.A.D. Dogs program.

Story by Ellen Fee | Photo by Greg Helgeson