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While some educators are pulling their hair out looking for ways to make students great readers, Linda McClure, principal of West Street Elementary School, might have found the secret:


About three weeks ago, McClure started what she calls a "Reading Pals" program at the Niagara-Wheatfield school. It matches 14 "responsible big kids -- fifth-graders" with pupils from kindergarten through second-grade who can benefit from a friendship with a good role model and from help with reading.

"Since the younger students admire and look up to the older ones in a school, the fifth-graders volunteered to help by reading to them, listening to them read books and working with word cards. They go to the children's classrooms every morning, help them pick out a book and work with them for 15 minutes," McClure said.

The children and their fifth-grade mentors meet daily from 9:20 to 9:35 a.m. to practice reading.

After only a few weeks, McClure said the effectiveness of the program has not been determined.

"We've been getting a lot of positive feedback and good reactions (from students and teachers). As it turns out, the fifth-graders seem to enjoy the activity as much as the smaller children. They're doing a wonderful job," McClure said.

She said the fifth-grade pupils show their charges how much they love reading and, she hopes, plant the seeds that will blossom into a bumper crop of children who develop a love of reading as they continue to grow.

First-grader Donald Zhang recently showed his stuff in the school's Lady Bug Pod by ripping through two children's books with little hesitation. "Little elephant, little train . . . red rectangle," he read.

"He's really doing great," fifth-grader Marco Notaro said of his little buddy. "He's learning to read a lot faster than I thought he would." As for himself, Marco said, "It's fun. I really like my little friend."

"He's a good teacher," said Tim Morgan, a first-grader teamed up with big guy Troy Wagner. Tim said he likes the book, "Weather and Sky," "because I know how to read it."

"Tim's improving a lot," Troy said. A big bonus, he said, is that "Tim makes me laugh because he makes faces, especially when he can't get a word. When that happens, I help him sound it out, and he gets it."

McClure said this is the first time her school has used such mentor reading. She said she doesn't know if other schools use it, but is sure it must be going on elsewhere because it's a logical approach.

She said she wants to see children grow up knowing how much fun reading can be and the many doors it can open. She also noted an enjoyment factor.

"We want our kids to be reading at least 15 minutes every night at home," McClure said. "This gives these children a little more. It's important because research shows the more children read, the better they get in everything they do, including writing, reading and speaking."


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