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Virginia Journal of Education

Within Reach

Arlington members create ‘Reach for Reading’ to boost family literacy

By Lee Ayoub, Greg D'Addario, Anne Malleck, NBCT, and Sandra Sterne, NBCT

It’s 7 o’clock on a Wednesday evening, and at Long Branch Elementary School in Arlington, the library is buzzing with the sound of many languages. Children are reading, writing or drawing with their parents, surrounded by the hubbub of conversation flowing among the participants. The monthly session of the Reach for Reading family literacy program is in full swing.

The Reach for Reading team, made up of ELL (English language learners) teachers, the family resource liaison, the librarian, and three classroom teachers, has already greeted the families, introduced the evening’s program, and gotten everyone involved in the opening activity. There is no air of “this is something we have to do” from the students and families—everyone seems excited to be there.

For over a decade, our team of teachers and staff has planned, organized and implemented this family literacy program, which targets children from preschool through second grade ESOL-HILT students and their parents and guardians. We began as a group of volunteers without a budget, but over the years we’ve received a grant from the Arlington Community Foundation, as well as funding from our school’s PTA and principal, Felicia Russo, to support Reach for Reading.

We wholeheartedly agree with Arlington County Schools’ belief that “all English language learners should have the opportunity to achieve their fullest academic, cognitive and social potential while meeting the same academic standards that all students are expected to meet." The best chance of reaching those kinds of goals happens when educators, families and the community pool resources and share responsibility for the success of young people who are learning English. Toward that end, Reach for Reading works to increase family literacy through those monthly meetings, which also include community and school information, as well as instruction and modeling of reading, writing and classroom expectations.
We know that research shows family income is the most reliable predictor of school outcomes, that low socio-economic factors correspond with poor test scores, lower graduation rates, and lower participation in extracurricular activities. We also know that children who begin school without an enriched background of books, cultural experiences and quality early education activities are less likely to succeed academically. Through Reach for Reading, we’re striving to provide a more equitable opportunity for ELL students by helping their parents create a stimulating cognitive environment at home.

Our team sits down every August to plan each of the year’s meetings, including topics and themes. Then, the real work begins. Each Reach for Reading meeting revolves around modeling a reading, writing, math and/or social-emotional skill so parents can practice coaching their children at school and can continue to do so at home. The program’s heart lies in making connections with parents and encouraging them to become partners with the school in their child’s education.

The sessions began with only 8 to 10 people attending in the late 1990s and now has grown to 60 to 80 people attending each month. Most of the parents have limited education and their families are struggling financially, but others are well-educated and economically comfortable. Why has attendance increased, and why would a family choose to come out on a Wednesday night? We strongly believe the parents find the activities and information relevant and valuable, and the children enjoy working on the activities with their parents. The community is promoting Reach for Reading itself, by word of mouth.

Each meeting has a story time and a thematic activity that involves the whole family; children practice social skills, for example, by serving their parents and themselves a cupcake at the end of each session. The program also focuses on math literacy, using school supplies, letter writing, parents reading with their child, and playing games to support math and literacy. Families take home all materials, including pencils, erasers, glue, crayons, scissors, rulers, dice, etc., used during the session. They also periodically take home books, journals and academic games to keep and use at home. Reach for Reading also includes visits to the public library and presentations by representatives from the community (such as sports team coordinators, park rangers, nurses and local theatre talent). 

We know it’s working. We see it: Parents are now attending conferences and school-wide events, such as International Night, the Book Fair and the Spring Fair. In addition, they are chaperoning field trips, volunteering in classrooms, and are generally more visible in the building. They are more integrated into the Arlington County community; they are going to the public library, participating in county athletics, and visiting local nature centers and museums.

All of us who work in the schools know that many parents don’t have optimal resources, so it’s incumbent on all of us to provide the tools necessary for all to succeed. We can level the playing field!

Ayoub, D’Addario, Malleck and Sterne, members of the Arlington Education Association, are on the faculty of Long Branch Elementary School.


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