Tutoring relies on togetherness

SILVER SPRING — SILVER SPRING - Second-grader Greg Brower considers himself lucky to have caught the attention of one of the big boys at school. Jose Ruiz is smart, cool - and in fifth grade.

They get together twice a week during recess. They talk and tell jokes. But mostly, they read.


That's because Jose is more than a friend: He's Greg's reading tutor.

Their partnership is the result of an innovative reading initiative in Montgomery County - styled after a similar tutoring program in Israeli schools - that involves parents and fifth-graders who teach slow-reading second-graders to become better readers. The program, piloted in 28 Montgomery elementary schools last year, is being expanded to 60 schools in the county's less-affluent central corridor with the help of $450,000 in new federal funds.


"Reading is a door we have to open for every child," Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said Wednesday in announcing that the county would be a national demonstration site for Reading Together USA, a spinoff of the Israeli tutoring program.

"We know we don't have enough time just to do it in the school day," Weast said. "We have to extend the day ... and involve adults. If you think about it, if a fifth-grader can [tutor], we adults can, too.

During Wednesday's announcement, he invited Washington dignitaries, county officials and television crews to see for themselves. Sitting at pint-sized desks in the auditorium of Forest Knolls Elementary School near Silver Spring were a dozen parents, a grandmother and a handful of fifth-graders. Next to them were the second-graders. The participants promptly pulled out short stories and workbooks.

"We usually start by looking at pictures together," said Jose, 11, who gives up his recess to tutor Greg at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in Gaithersburg. "I listen to him read. I listen to see if he's reading correctly and check off his progress. If he gets to a word he doesn't know, I ask him to stop and repeat it."

Several desks away, Mary Bodkin bent closer as her 7-year-old son, Charley, read a short story about fireflies. Charley is her middle child, she said, and benefits from the extra attention.

"He's really excited about it," she said. "We read together every day, and I see him trying to improve."

Tutoring is a time-honored volunteer practice. But Weast and several second-grade teachers say that the Israeli program is more structured than typical tutoring efforts, and provides more training.

Israel created its Yachad tutoring program, which means "togetherness" in Hebrew, to help assimilate the steady stream of newly arrived children from Ethiopia, Eastern Europe, America and Arab countries. The program, designed to encourage cross-cultural friendships, is in its 18th year.


The program pairs second-graders who are slow readers with fifth-grade reading tutors. Parents receive nine hours of instruction and detailed handbooks that help them chart their children's progress. The fifth-grade tutors meet weekly with a teacher to discuss how to ensure that their young readers are understanding, and not just skimming, the texts.

"I'll be honest with you - when I first saw it in Israel, I said, 'So what?'" said Weast, who toured Israeli schools as a superintendent in North Carolina. "I had seen hundreds of tutorial programs. The magic turned out to be the structure, the materials, the training. It carries it to the next level."

The results impressed Weast to such a degree that he became the program's American godfather. He talked it up to the University of North Carolina, which collaborated with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to design a version appropriate for schools in the United States. Reading Together USA has spread to 14 states and receives $1.8 million in federal funds.

One departure in Montgomery County is that the tutoring isn't strictly school-based but includes home tutoring by parents, grandparents and other adults.

In Montgomery County, three of the 28 pilot schools used fifth-graders as tutors; the rest relied on adults. The expanded effort will include both types of tutors - and Weast hopes to recruit high schoolers who must fulfill a community service requirement for graduation.

Some of the fifth-grade tutors remember struggling to learn to read. Ruiz, who is growing up in a bilingual home with parents from Honduras, is among them.


Jose said he sometimes stumbled over words, as Greg Brower does. And, Greg used to have trouble paraphrasing what he had just read. But now, Jose said proudly, Greg is "doing great. He really likes coming and learning to read."