Creating Ready Readers

Kids who read succeed, “and seeing the look in their eyes when they fall in love with reading is one of the most rewarding experiences,” says Angela Sears Spittal, Executive Director of Ready Readers. Each week, hundreds of volunteers experience the adventure of reading with about 10,000 preschoolers across the St. Louis region, as part of Ready Readers’ mission to prepare children entering Kindergarten in low-income communities with the skills to be ready to read. Participants in YouthBridge’s YEP (Youth Engaged in Philanthropy) program selected Ready Readers as a grant recipient in 2019, which Sears Spittal says is funding programming for a classroom of students this school year.
“We all know the importance of building a child’s vocabulary at a young age in establishing their foundation for learning,” says Sears Spittal. “We’re supporting this goal by getting students excited about reading.” Through Ready Readers’ Storytime Program, volunteers visit the same classroom every week during the school year, armed with a new book and 30-minute lesson plan to engage students in the story. “They may incorporate music and singing, finger play and any number of activities to enhance the reading time,” she says.

While the majority of volunteers are retired professionals, some come from Ready Readers’ corporate partners who provide their employees time off to volunteer on a regular basis. All volunteers receive training, in-class mentoring and opportunities for continuing education. The part that is tough to prepare them for, however, is the sadness they feel at the end of the school year, says Sears Spittal. “They develop such special relationships with the students and are so committed to being there for them each week – it’s a hard goodbye,” she says, adding, “but not enough to keep them away. Some of our volunteers have been with us 15-plus years.”

Seven to eight times each year, volunteers will bring totes full of books for students to keep and enjoy at home. “Access is a huge barrier to children in low-income households, so we put about 80,000 books a year into those communities,” says Sears Spittal. “My hope is that they don’t sit on a shelf all shiny and new, but are ragged and torn up and overused.” Many of the books feature children of color and important concepts, and all include tips for parents on sharing the reading experience with their child. The organization also supports teachers in their efforts to connect with parents and provides professional development workshops on new ways to energize learning in the classroom.

What is the difference Ready Readers is making? In outcomes studies, children who participate in Ready Readers demonstrate higher gains in early literacy skills compared to students at similar sites without the program. The evidence validates what volunteers already know, says Sears Spittal. “When children are excited to ‘read’ or act out stories to their classmates, you know you’ve created a spark and taken an important first step.”