Teens learn from tutoring; Program: High schoolers offer help to elementary pupils for whom English is a second language


Catherine Farrar and Rebecca Lubitz, seniors at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, slide off their coats and ease themselves into tiny chairs in the children's reading room at the Central Library of Howard County.

They help their pint-sized charges -- first-graders Nereida Vasquez and Janet Diaz -- settle down at a round table littered with children's books.

Work is about to begin in a typical session of the Reading Partners tutoring program, which pairs Howard County high school students with children from families where English is not spoken at home.

Catherine points to a picture of a horse, and the two words under the drawing: "mane" and "man."

"Now, which one of these do you think goes with this picture?" she asks Nereida. "What does a horse have on its neck?"

The young girl circles the correct word and they move on to another reading exercise.

For the next hour, Catherine and Rebecca help the children spell out words and read sentences. Nereida and Janet are rewarded with enthusiastic praise and fruit snacks throughout the tutoring session -- a program that has come to mean more to each of them than they expected.

"It's really fun teaching Janet, and I've seen real progress since we started," Rebecca says. "She's almost like a little sister."

About three hours each week, Catherine, Rebecca and 35 other high school students from around the county -- including eight at Wilde Lake -- tutor elementary-age children who need extra help with their reading outside of school.

The main goals of the program are to improve reading skills and foster a love for reading.

Reading Partners was established through FIRN, the Columbia-based Foreign-born Information and Referral Network, a nonprofit organization that assists immigrants in Howard County.

Over the past decade, FIRN has worked with foreign-born children enrolled in Howard's public schools, particularly with the English for Speakers of Other Languages Department and ESOL teachers.

FIRN's volunteer coordinator, Piff Fitting, says most of the tutored children are from Mexico, Central America and Korea.

Reading Partners tutors work one-on-one with their charges, reading books and stories, and compile a journal on their experiences. They usually meet in a public place such as the Central Library, and sometimes meet more than once a week.

Each tutor is given a handbook with hints about how to teach reading skills. More than anything, says Fitting, creativity is the most important tool.

"We always say, 'How would you try to get someone to understand you if you didn't speak English?' " she says. "The answer is: You use anything that works. You point, you spell, you use your hands, anything to get them to understand what you're talking about."

But working with teen-agers and young children presents its share of challenges.

"It takes a lot of energy to keep them both going," Fitting says. "Teen-agers will sometimes do it [tutoring] but may want to stop if something better comes along."

"Getting her to pay attention is sometimes difficult," Catherine says of Nereida. "It's really hard to keep a young child's attention. They've already been in school for six hours."

Fitting says: "One of the things that we're seeing with the program is that the older kids are becoming mentors to the younger children. We try to keep in touch with them to get their ideas about how the program can be better."

Along with the tutors' feedback, FIRN issues certificates and awards, which are given to the tutored pupils after they complete 24 hours of reading lessons. "It's the small things that keep them motivated," Fitting says.

With the help of a $1,500 grant from the Dallas-based Southland Corp., which operates hundreds of 7-Eleven stores in the Baltimore-Washington area, Reading Partners began in the spring of 1997 with 30 high-school student volunteers who were paired with children in kindergarten through fourth grade.

The program has 47 high school teens tutoring elementary children and, with about 30 youngsters on the waiting list for help, could use more tutors.

"We don't focus on children who just aren't doing well in school," Fitting says. "We try to stay away from people who want to use the [tutoring] service just to improve their pronunciation. Because the service is free, we try to focus on those children who really need the most basic help with their reading and reading comprehension."

Rebecca says the experience of being a tutor will stay with her for a long time.

"I've learned a lot about being patient and about how important it is to give positive reinforcement," she says. "Keeping [Janet] motivated will have lifelong effects."

Pub Date: 1/10/99

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