The Buddy System: Everyone Gains When Kids Read Together

Reading buddy and paired reading initiatives are on the rise. Here's what these programs look like today—and tips for creating your own.
Photos by Matt Carr

Photos by Matt Carr

Louder, read louder!” Alla Umanskaya urges two sixth grade girls as they stand before a class of first graders, holding up picture books in trembling hands. As the librarian at PS/IS 30 Mary White Covington, a K-8 school in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, NY, Umanskaya has run a wildly popular reading buddy program for nearly two years, building on eight years of experience facilitating similar programs at Brooklyn Public Library.

Buddy programs typically consist of older and younger children reading together, but in some libraries, such as the Columbus (OH) Metropolitan Library, a librarian serves as the buddy. “Paired reading” refers to children of the same age reading at different levels. These initiatives have been gaining traction in libraries internationally, alongside a rising trend in peer tutoring. Increasingly, libraries are places where students teach students. Alison de Geus, librarian at the Evergreen Branch Library, part of the San José (CA) Public Library (SJPL) system, says that reading buddy programs have become essential at her library. “We’ve had to figure out different ways to make [these events] happen with limited staffing,” she says. Librarians with more tech responsibilities who have less time to read aloud also benefit from these peer activities. One great thing about them, de Geus says, is that once they are up and going, they are “self-run,” requiring little supervision.

 Alla Umanskaya (center front) with middle school reading buddies at PS/IS 30 in Brooklyn, NY.

Alla Umanskaya (center front) with middle school
reading buddies at PS/IS 30 in Brooklyn, NY.

Educators also recognize an opportunity to give students more individualized classroom attention. A January 2016 article in English Teacher, the journal of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), explores the concept of havruta, or partner learning, a word derived from ancient Jewish texts; the Talmud was traditionally studied in pairs. The concept may be ancient, but its practice in education is current and innovative. As authors Rebecca Shargel and B.P. Laster argue, students deepen their interpretation of texts when they “read” each other’s responses, and their comprehension is strengthened by another student’s reaction.

A two-year research study at Durham University, Scotland, published in 2011, examined 129 primary schools and revealed that cross-age tutoring and paired reading improved students’ academic achievement. Peter Tymms, a professor at the School of Education at Durham, praised reading buddy programs as “an inexpensive scheme to implement” that “involves no fancy equipment.”

Reading as a game

Without exception, children can’t wait for their big buddies to read to them again, librarians interviewed here say. The activity boosts small children’s love of reading, and, Umanskaya reports, the older children also gain a lot. One key to success is creating a playful atmosphere. To help assuage older kids’ performance anxiety, she helps them select books that encourage interaction. A favorite is Snowyboy 1, 2, 3 by Joe Wahman, illustrated by Wendy Wahman (Holt, 2012), which teaches kids to count down from 10 to one.

During a winter holiday unit, The Christmas Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Renata Liwsa (Harcourt, 2012) was also a hit. As teen and tween buddies invited younger children to join in and whisper the word “quiet” together, the repetition and anticipation made children giggle. Descriptions of surprising or embarrassing moments—the shattering of Christmas ornaments—prompted more laughter, even among the most reserved readers.

By the end of the program, even the shyest of sixth graders could “read with their heads up and…talk to little ones,” says Umanskaya, who works with approximately 40 older reading buddies, 15 of whom volunteer regularly.After months of practice, her sixth grade student Esa now holds court in a room of first graders, addressing them as “ladies and gentlemen.”

“I think this program helps [both] children build their confidence,” adds Ellen Tweedy, children’s services librarian at Loudoun County Public (VA) Library (LCPL).

At SJPL, where these initiatives are popular at all 23 branches, the program is “directed by the younger child,” according to de Geus. The smaller kids pull books from the shelves and read them to their older buddies, who offer encouragement and “gentle literacy correction.” After, the older ones ask questions about the story in a way that doesn’t make the younger ones feel like they’re being tested. De Geus recommends simple conversation starters such as, “Is it right to steal someone’s stuff?” after reading This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen (Candlewick, 2012).

Children who cannot yet read also choose the books at SJPL. De Geus and her colleagues strive to keep a low ratio of readers to participants, offering as many one-on-one opportunities as possible. Typically she expects two teen volunteers and six to eight children per session; since the groups remain small, children receive lots of individual attention. “A certain bond can happen between a second grader and a 15-year-old,” de Geus says. “When children can look up to a teenager and have them relate, magic can happen.” Indeed, there can be an increased comfort level in the learning experience. Her initiative is part of a larger teensReach library program, open to teens 13 and up (

Left: Seventh graders at PS/IS 30 read Ezra Jack Keats’s Goggles! to a second grade class during Black History Month; Right: The PS/IS 30 school library features books in Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, and other languages. Sixth grader Hussam checks out a title in Arabic.

Left: Seventh graders at PS/IS 30 read Ezra Jack Keats’s Goggles! to a second grade class during Black History Month. Right: The PS/IS 30 school library features books in Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, and other languages. Sixth grader Hussam checks out a title in Arabic.

Beyond reading

Some programs combine reading with other activities. High school librarian Ellen Frank Bayer (now librarian at Flushing [NY] High School) and social studies teacher Stephen Heiss ran such an initiative at what is now the Hillside Arts & Letters Academy and High School for Community Leadership in Jamaica, NY. Bayer assisted with Heiss’s course, a leadership elective for seniors. In addition to reading together once a week for a semester, the teen buddies guided children to create their own picture books with the help of Story Starters—online writing prompts with story ideas (also see Scholastic’s Story Starters).

Some buddy programs include math, such as Josie Watanabe’s at the Seattle Public Library, featured in SLJ. Math buddy programs are different from tutoring because they focus on numerical games and activities, not problem sets. Math is also one of the many facets of the buddy program at the Challenger K-8 School in Spring Hill, FL. Media specialist Debbye Warrell includes Reader’s Theater, original scriptwriting, and puppet performances in buddy programs with sixth grade mentors and kindergarten and first grade students.

The most popular part of her program, however, is the reading competition “Battle of the Books,” where students in grades three to eight must read 15 books with the help of a buddy. Warrell’s students have competed against other schools and each other to demonstrate their knowledge of books. The spirit of competition encourages teamwork, Warrell says.

National conversations

“Reading buddies” is becoming a common term in many schools and households thanks to Reading Rockets, an online initiative to support reading backed by the American Library Association and other partners. Reading Rockets also produces several shows on PBS, including Martha Speaks, geared to children ages four to seven. The Martha Speaks Reading Buddy program, a website with free, downloadable cartoons and resources, offers an easy framework for building a program. From “Big Buddy Guides” to reading journal prompts to certificates of achievement, an entire adaptable curriculum is available.

The website for research-driven curriculum ReadWriteThink, part of NCTE, featured an article about paired reading by Cathy Allen Simon, an elementary school teacher from Urbana, IL. Simon worked with students of the same age who read at different levels. “Reading with someone else encourages students to try reading material that might be above their usual reading level,” she writes. In her strategy guide, Simon notes that her students take turns—each reading a sentence, paragraph, or chapter aloud. Struggling readers learn from hearing a stronger one’s voice. Partners are encouraged to repeat what the first person read if they need help with pronunciation or understanding. Pairs are supposed to ask each other questions about the reading afterwards. As Shargel and Laster emphasize, students can plumb the complexity of texts more effectively in pairs than in class discussions. They simply have more time to talk and listen.

What mentors gain

Some of Umanskaya’s middle school students haven’t read picture books in years, but struggling readers can often benefit from returning to basics. In addition, older buddies often have new motivation to learn how the library is organized and refresh their online catalog search skills, because they’re eager to help younger kids. Typically, she asks students to choose one fiction and one nonfiction title.

“I would like you to be in love with a book,” she tells students, inviting them to “stay with a book for a while” so they can deeply connect to what they’re reading. Umanskaya helps them assess which are most age-appropriate and engaging. This process of analyzing text and child development can be an education in itself.

Umanskaya’s school serves 724 students in two different buildings. Previously, there wasn’t much interaction between elementary and middle school students—but her program has unified the community.

Bayer’s collaborations with Heiss, whose teaching was geared toward economically struggling students, aimed to help kids stay in school. It also gave elementary students a tangible understanding of the high school experience. The younger kids couldn’t believe the size of the high school library—with so many books, a high ceiling, and stained-glass windows. Participants were also able to swim in the high school pool. The buddy program gave elementary students a glimpse into their futures.

A student reads Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar in Chinese

A student reads Eric Carle’s
The Very Hungry Caterpillar in Chinese.

ELLs and special needs kids

April Shroeder, youth programming coordinator at LCPL, has seen buddies play a powerful role in families whose parents or children are English language learners (ELL). Four of the eight LCPL branches offer buddy programs, where these parents can appreciate the literacy support children receive. Some of the older buddies in Shroeder’s library system are ELLs, and reading aloud to children is a gratifying, low-pressure way for them to learn. “Kids don’t care if you mispronounce a word,” says Shroeder, who often sees small children “snuggling” on their buddies’ laps. The buddies feel protective of their charges— and extra motivation to brush up on language skills. They’re honored to be role models.

These initiatives can also help “[older students] to keep their native language,” says Umanskaya. Her student Jason visits bilingual Chinese-English classrooms and reads in Chinese, including a translation of The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg (HMH, 1985), which was a hit. Her sixth grade student Hussam rose to the challenge of reading Arabic. Before reading aloud to a class, he took an Arabic book home and read it to his parents numerous times. When a first grader helped with his pronunciation, he didn’t mind at all.

Tweedy remembers a student who described himself as “very socially awkward.” However, his young buddies loved his dramatic flair and how he used different voices for the characters. Reading buddies gave him a place to flourish.

Umanskaya’s middle school special needs students sometimes feel embarrassed to still be reading picture books. However, when they enter the elementary classroom for their much-anticipated read-aloud day, they’re met with applause and treated like celebrities—a major confidence booster. To prepare, these students often practice a book until they know it by heart.

Umanskaya (right) with PS/IS 30 principal Carol Heeraman.

Umanskaya (right) with PS/IS 30 principal Carol Heeraman.

Tech buddies

Catherine Zahn’s pre-K students aren’t readers yet, but they are excellent reading buddies with nursery students. How? Through alphabet games on the iPad using the app Little Writer, which enhances kids’ letter recognition. Zahn works at St. Mary’s School in East Islip, NY, one of 43 Long Island Catholic schools offering reading buddy initiatives.

The pre-K students particularly enjoy websites including Starfall, ABCYA, and BrainPop. So they were ideally suited to helping the nursery students use Little Writer to trace letters, numbers and shapes, and navigate the device. “The pre-K children were so proud of themselves,” says Zahn. “They felt so big.”

Umanskaya subscribes to the online book platform from Capstone, and she finds ebooks helpful when student pairs want to use the same title simultaneously. For a celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., her buddies visited all elementary school classes to read Adria F. Worsham’s Max Celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Picture Window, 2009), with the book projected on a white board during the students’ read-aloud.

Volunteers and celebrations

Shroeder considers these programs ideal opportunities for middle school or high school students too young to volunteer elsewhere. In her area, many schools require community service, but some food pantries and hospitals won’t accept volunteers under 16. The buddy framework also promoted socialization, Shroeder notes. “You can’t be on your phone when you’re reading to a kid,” she says of the chance to “focus on one person for a given period of time.”

The number of volunteers at the LCPL seeking positions far exceeds the library’s capacity, so librarians invite them for a limited time: once a week for six weeks. Volunteers are only permitted to complete two reading buddy cycles per calendar year, but some move on to other volunteer opportunities in the library.

Many reading buddy programs conclude with award ceremonies. Bayer and Heiss’s participants presented original picture books created by the little kids, with their buddies’ help, to the school community. Warrell gives trophies to the top winners and takes them to a restaurant with a Go Kart track. They also take home free books for next year’s program.

Umanskaya wraps up each school year by acknowledging the buddies with certificates in a grade-level school assembly. She puts photos of participants in a glass case in the library—a place of honor. Students often bring their friends to the library just to see their photos. The reading buddies “like to see themselves,” she says. “They see how important they are.”

Tips for Planning Reading Buddy Programs

These are the top bits of advice compiled from librarians interviewed in this article and John Morriberon, youth services librarian and reading buddies program coordinator at the Cascade branch of the Loudoun County (VA) Public Library. Crunch numbers. How many little and big buddies will participate? How many days, weeks, or months will you run the program? Morriberon recommends offering the program weekly to create momentum. Organize training materials. Compile training guides, handouts, certificates, and posters from the Martha Speaks Reading Buddies Program, and adapt as needed. Plan reading with volunteers. Ensure that big buddies feel enthusiastic about the books they will read—while also considering age appropriateness, book length, and time limits. Rehearse. Coach big buddies on voice projection, pacing, interaction, and holding up and swiveling books so all children can see the pages. Advertise. Post flyers or visuals. Morriberon invites volunteers to decorate a whiteboard and design their own posters to personalize the reading space. Seek support and feedback. Connect with your school or library administrators and parents of children participating. Ask them to share hopes for the program. Accept vounteers! Invite all volunteers to participate regardless of reading level.  When you reach capacity, make a wait list.   Methods of reading together The below is adapted from Cathy Allen Simon’s paired reading strategy guide on ReadWriteThink and the Keen Readers site.
  • Each buddy takes turns reading a sentence, paragraph, or page (sometimes called “seesaw reading”). Active listening is encouraged.
  • The big buddy reads aloud while the younger buddy reads along silently.
  • The big buddy reads a selection as long as a page, and then the little buddy reads it back.
  • The buddies read in tandem.
  • The big buddy reads the majority of the text, encouraging the little buddy to jump in with a few words (“popcorn reading”).
  Additional Resources  Creating a Successful Buddy Program from Scholastic Paired or Partner Reading from Reading Rockets A list of read-together books from Reading Rockets Peer-Assisted Learning Strategy from Build Stronger Readers 15 Minutes at a Time video from the Columbus (OH) Metropolitan Library

Hinds-Jess_Contrib-webJess deCourcy Hinds is the librarian at Bard High School Early College Queens in New York City.

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Dee Porter

Thank you so much for writing such a helpful article at the same time I began planning my new reading buddies program for the new school year. When I saw the April cover of SLJ I thought to myself, they are reading my mind! Your examples and resources have been a tremendous help. I'm so excited to see how the reading buddies program at my library grows this year.

Posted : Sep 02, 2016 09:41



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