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Student volunteers helping kids
develop love of books
February 1, 1999

A dozen pre-schoolers listen attentively as Michelle Sevigny reads them a story about dinosaurs. Sevigny wiggles some finger puppets, eliciting giggles from her young audience.

Sevigny, a UConn sophomore, is in Hartford's Kinsella elementary school, where she spends two hours once a week to help children develop a love of reading. She is a volunteer reading tutor, one of 40 undergraduates who volunteer for UConn's America Reads Preschool Reading Corps. An active chapter of the National America Reads Challenge, President Clinton's response to America's need for improved early literacy, the corps hopes to ensure that children can read well and independently by the end of third grade.

"I try to pick books that are encouraging for them," Sevigny says. "One book I read is called I Can."

Sevigny loves tutoring. "I'm providing a positive role model for them. They look forward to seeing me." Another day, she helps the children make get-well cards for a classmate in the hospital.

The Reading Corps pairs trained UConn undergraduates with elementary schools and early childhood programs in local communities to help children prepare for reading. Tutors now volunteer at 15 Connecticut sites, including community or home daycare centers and pre-kindergarten programs in public schools in Mansfield, Windham, Willington, Columbia and Hartford. The average tutor teaches about four hours a week, in two-hour blocks.

"We want children to develop a love of reading and a love of books," says Laura Conway Palumbo, who coordinates UConn's America Reads Preschool Reading Corps program. "We want to inspire them to become readers." Palumbo is an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer, serving a 12-month appointment at the Center for Community Outreach. Her role is to develop and sustain literacy programs for children and families.

"I get to apply my advanced degree in a very concrete way to create new opportunities for children," says Palumbo, who earned a Ph.D. in linguistics from UConn.

Palumbo works with Charlotte Madison, director of the Child Development Laboratories at UConn and one of the founders of the Reading Corps at UConn, to train students in early literacy development and techniques for reading with children.

The volunteers work with teachers or daycare providers to develop activities that increase the opportunities for children to read and be read to, to speak, and to practice early skills that precede writing. Many of the sites serve children from low-income families or those who speak English as a second language.

The tutor's relationship with a child also boosts his or her self-esteem, helping the child become a confident reader, Palumbo says.

The program has expanded from 10 sites last year. Palumbo says some schools in Hartford have expressed interest in having tutors for first through third grades as well.

The Reading Corps is a joint effort of UConn's Center for Community Outreach, the Student Employment Office, the School of Family Studies' Child Development Laboratories, and the Mansfield Public Library. The program is part of UConn's Year of Reading, inaugurated in conjunction with the rededication of Homer Babbidge Library to serve as the umbrella for a variety of campus activities that promote literacy.

Sherry Fisher