By Vanessa McQuarrie
By 2010, the Reading for Life program aims to help 10,000 children with reading difficulties. It's a big project but, with a highly developed program in place since 2003 and a pool of willing 'reading buddy' corporate volunteers from some of Australia's biggest companies and student volunteers from the University of Western Sydney, the ambitious ending is already in sight.
Initiated by Unilever, Reading for Life provides the opportunity for employees to volunteer to 'buddy up' with primary school children. The volunteers work from a semi-structured reading pack, which features games, 'sight words' and other activities designed to develop a child's literacy skills. Each volunteer spends 45 minutes of one-on-one time with their buddy every week for 15 weeks. Many volunteers enjoy using their 'elementary teaching skills' so much that they keep committing to the program every semester.
Sarah Clarry, Unilever's Corporate Social Responsibility Manager, said: "Reading for Life is continually reaching new heights. We are actually getting even better results now than we did in that original pilot program. We have occasionally seen children gain three years in reading age, which is extremely rewarding."
Reading for Life started in a small way when the Unilever Australasia Foundation ran focus groups and questioned employees about what sorts of programs they would like to support. Literacy emerged as a constant, so the company partnered with Learning Links (a not-for-profit organisation that works with children with learning disabilities and their families) and the company Positive Outcomes to design a pilot program.
"[We wanted] something that our employees could deliver – obviously not being trained teachers," said Clarry. The model also had to factor in the volunteers' limited availability.
Learning Links employs teachers, educational psychologists, speech pathologists and other trained professionals. It is able to go into schools to offer the program and conduct testing to identify students who have fallen behind in their reading age.
The pilot program began in early 2003 with 44 children. "We were really staggered by the results," said Clarry. "They were making average gains of 6, 8 and 9 months in their reading age, accuracy and comprehension just from this small amount of one-on-one attention from the employees."
"Given that it was successful, we decided to roll it out to all of our sites in Australia and New Zealand." Reading for Life is now a stand-alone program, and Learning Links recently hired part-time coordinators in NSW, Victoria and New Zealand to expand it.
"Employees just have one reading buddy," explained Clarry. "The university students take on a caseload of between 8 and 10 students. They go into a school for two full days and do one program after another, seeing one child after another." The students also conduct pre- and post-testing as part of their training.
Recently, the Self-concept Enhancement and Learning Facilitation Centre (or SELF Research Centre) at UWS was awarded a grant to study the Reading for Life program over three years. "They are interested in, not only the academic outcomes but also the impact on the child's self-perception and self-esteem and on the family dynamic as well."
Reading for Life is aimed at children in grades 2 to 4. About 150 Unilever staff become involved each semester. Some are Reading for Life regulars, while others volunteer to be 'back up' readers and fill in when someone is away. At the end of each semester, Unilever throws a party for the children and invites their parents, too. "The Paddle Pop Lion comes along, we play games and give out lolly bags and a book to take home," said Clarry. "It's to celebrate their participation and success in the program."
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