Five years ago two teachers who happen to be sisters, Ashley and Erica Smeltzer, started the Reading Buddy Program at Ward Traditional Academy. They wanted to build a sense of community and camaraderie among their students. They had no idea it would blossom into an annual program that plays a big part in the sense of community at their school.
Erica Smeltzer’s first-graders are paired with Morgan Reid’s fourth-graders and Ashley Smeltzer’s second-graders are paired with Tina Gartland’s fifth-graders. Alison Ganssle’s fourth-grade class also buddies up with Kaylie Walker’s first-grade class.
Once a week the buddy groups meet for 30 minutes. Smeltzer’s and Reid’s classes meet outside Erica Smeltzer’s class in the shaded breezeway that faces the park. Lined up in pairs, the buddies file inside to quickly select a book. They then head back outside to a spot on the ground where the students sit in pairs (or threes) to read to each other.
The sound of light chatter fills the air as the buddies sit side-by-side, the little ones grasping a stuffed animal as the older buddies read a book to them. Some couples pause slightly for commentary, questions, and discussion. Others just keep reading intently. After they finish the book, each pair goes back inside to choose another, and this repeats until their time is up. Afterward, they line up again, and the teachers select the two pairs that they had witnessed reading together with the best behavior that day. Those couples win the opportunity to read inside the classroom in the special reading chairs the next week.
Ashley Smeltzer and Tina Gartland’s classes work on the second-grade standard of the week for reading. The fifth-graders will ask the second graders questions based on what they are learning in class. This helps the fifth-graders work on higher order thinking and helps the second-graders work on the given skill of the week. The second-graders enjoy telling their buddies about that they have learned during the week in class. They also meet for 30 minutes every week.
This is the third year that Smeltzer and Reid have done the Reading Buddy Program together. Smeltzer explains, “Buddy reading builds confidence in the lower level readers and it helps build up the older students because the younger peers don’t judge.”
“The older students teach the younger ones how to read better while they teach them about theme, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and fluency,” adds Reid.
The students keep each other accountable, not just in reading, but in their overall behavior around school. “If they see each other doing something they shouldn’t be doing,” says Reid, “they call each other out and keep each other on task.”
Reading Buddies started the end of August and will continue throughout the whole school year. But before they begin, the teachers get together to match up personalities and ability levels, making sure not to put siblings together. Then they make adjustments if they need to. The pairings usually work out very well.
At the beginning of the year, the older kids read to their younger buddies. Then they switch later in the year. As the school year progresses, the students start to try books they normally wouldn’t pick before they had a buddy.
“And it’s more than just reading,” says Erica Smeltzer. “We also do special projects together around the holidays, we do STEM activities, and we recently wrote letters to the hurricane victims.”
Fourth-grader Aaron Diez de Medina likes being a buddy to first-grader Lukas Martin. “He doesn’t care what I read to him,” Diez De Medina says. “He just likes me reading with him.” Martin likes buddy reading, too. “I like learning about football and hearing all about football.”
Erica Smeltzer says she likes seeing how the buddies become like brothers and sisters to each other. “I love how the community of Ward is enriched by the connection the students make.”
Fourth-grader Joselyn Jensen-Rogers is a buddy with first-grader Maliya Rodarte. What do they like about being reading buddies? Jensen-Rogers puts it simply, “We are like best friends and I like to read, so it’s awesome!” Rodarte couldn’t agree more. “We became best friends because of it!”