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United Way Of North Central Florida Launches Online Program To Help Children Learn To Read During The Pandemic

A student in Gainesville works to improve their literary skills through ReadingPals virtual program. (Courtesy of United Way of North Central Florida)
A student in Gainesville works to improve their literary skills through ReadingPals virtual program. (Courtesy of United Way of North Central Florida)
Field assignment 5

Having an accountability partner when learning a new skill is key, and a global pandemic shouldn't change that.

It's why the United Way of North Central Florida's ReadingPals program has launched a new platform called Vello at Girls Place in Gainesville. Although many learning programs have had to compromise in moving to an online format because of COVID-19, United Way employees leading the ReadingPals program are nevertheless trying to help students succeed while using computer screens.

Vello was adopted at Girls Place Inc. in late March, at the end of a long year when staff realized ReadingPals struggled to connect with its students due to the pandemic, according to Program Coordinating Assistant Victoria Vicary.

Girls Place Program Director Lynn Little said before the pandemic, many of the girls who came there looked forward to having a new mentor — one not affiliated with the public school system — who could listen to them.

“After the outbreak of COVID-19, our ReadingPals program statewide immediately started to seek ways to support our students with literacy development in a way that's safe for our community,” Manager of Educational Partnerships Rahkiah Brown said.

The ReadingPals Virtual Vello Program is a collaboration between ReadingPals and Vello, which is a one-on-one tutoring program created by United Way in Arizona. Students have the ability to log on to a computer and connect with volunteers. According to Vicary, the Vello portal will track volunteer hours, schedules, tutored students, classrooms and total sessions.

“One of the greatest benefits of ReadingPals is that it offers a mentorship style relationship for kids when it comes to reading,” Brown said. “In fact, it offers a relationship-building opportunity for kids to engage in some positive experiences with books.”

The goal of the program’s one-on-one interaction is to allow students to feel comfortable, even if such interaction is through a computer screen.

The program aims to help children up to 3rd grade improve their reading skills by still giving them face-to-face interaction with a mentor, even if it is through a screen. Those are the grade levels widely recognized as being essential to and indicative of a student's future learning outcomes.

“We’re hoping that this virtual experience will be able to reconnect students to the ReadingPals program after having such an abrupt stop due to COVID-19,” Brown said.

Vicary said students begin by logging on to the Reading A-Z website and, after they enter their username and password, they are automatically redirected to their volunteer. The program implements fun graphics, such as spaceships, and has a library full of virtual books for kids to use, as well as quizzes for them to take.

“The books are very direct and to the point of the lesson,” Vicary said. “The point is for the lesson to model what teachers provide the students in class, which is especially useful for new, young and under-encouraged readers.”

According to Little, students are awarded stars that they can use to “buy” advancements for their avatar.

After 30 minutes of interactivity between the given student and volunteer, it’s recommended that students practice lesson material with their friends, family and teachers.

“Sometimes, students who struggle with reading have a history of challenging experiences and discouragement when it comes to reading,” Brown said. “So when a student has a caring adult who’s signing on, visiting and showing up consistently to just read together un mentorship type of fashion, it really allows students to see some behavioral changes towards reading.”

According to Brown, the ReadingPals team has calculated that about 20,000 hours are volunteered annually. The program has also partnered up with nine different after-school and out-of-school programs, including YMCA and the Boys and Girls Club.

“Our greatest impact is to get students excited about reading,” Vicary said.  “We are not only showing them tips and tools on how to be a successful reader, but we are also giving them an opportunity to realize that reading is not as intimidating as it seems.”

Jolie is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.