Creating a Community of Super Readers

Posted by Remya Padmadas on June 20, 2017

Communities Rising runs after-school programmes for children attending government primary schools in underserved rural villages in the Villupuram District of Tamil Nadu. The not-for-profit reaches out to over 1,600 students in ten villages in the area, with a focus on English, Tamil, math and computer education. In addition to this, they provide enrichment programmes in art, music and leadership skills. Two years ago, Communities Rising started a new reading programme for students. Betsy McCoy, founder and President of the not-for-profit, asked students “How many of you ever read books for pleasure?”

“Communities Rising was struggling to find affordably-priced, beginner reader books in English and Tamil that the children would enjoy reading,” shares Betsy. 

This is a common problem faced by organisations working in education and literacy at the grassroots level: not enough books, in not enough languages, compounded by poor access and issues of affordability.

Most publishers cater to middle and upper income audiences in urban areas, often to the detriment of creating joyful books for underserved communities of children. StoryWeaver’s relationship with Communities Rising started earlier this year, when they attended a workshop and demonstration in Bangalore.  Via the platform, Betsy and her team have access to a wealth of books in both English and Tamil, which they can download quickly and print to share with children. A choice of titles in a variety of genres, including books on STEM subjects, are available across reading levels to suit the needs of all students. 

Communities Rising has downloaded 100 stories in English and Tamil, and is in the process of printing one set of all titles and distributing the same to each of its centres, thus reaching 360-400 students.

“We especially love the bilingual books printed in both Tamil and English that allow our students to read in both languages on the same page. These books are a tremendous help with comprehension – it’s like getting two books for the price of one!” says Betsy. “Plus, if a particular title is not available in Tamil, we can translate it on the platform and have it ready for the children to enjoy.”

Printing is often expensive and another roadblock so, Communities Rising experimented with a number of formats before narrowing down on one that worked best for them.

“We tried printing the books in two formats. One with single pages hole-punched and attached with rings, and the second with the pages stapled in the center. Durability is an issue so we printed samples on heavy, cardstock,” shares Betsy. The organisation believes that reading makes children learners for life, and encourages reading in a big way in their after-school programme. They have just opened their first community library in an area where there there are no other such spaces.

The organisation is running two other initiatives to great success. One is the ‘Daily 5,’ a reading programme developed by educators in the US; and the other is ‘CR Super Readers,’ a homegrown reading incentive programme. Both programmes are working wonders! Students are first taught how to pick ‘Good Fit Books’ that they can read comfortably. The books are then kept in a book basket which they share with a friend. 

Each day the students have to read to themselves for 5 to 10 minutes. Other days they have to read to their partner. In this way they can help and learn from each other.

Students keep a list of all the books they read and have it checked by a teacher for comprehension. This forms the basis of the ‘Super Reader’ program.

“In addition to the book basket which contains books, we also give the children a ‘reading necklace.’ They get a bead for each book that their teacher certifies they have actually read. After reading 10 books, they get ‘Readers Are Leaders’ pencils, and after 20 books, they get pins that proclaim them ‘CR Super Readers’.”

“I’m happy to say that we are giving out many pencils,” says Betsy, who believes that the necklaces, reading pencils and Super Reader pins help build a sense of community and sense of belonging to Communities Rising, amongst the children.

“At the end of the year, the top readers from each center will travel to Chennai to visit Tara Books for a program there and the top reading center will have a book party!” she says. “All of our students are now reading everyday; story books, non-fiction books, biographies, all kinds of books. They are discovering the joy of reading! Without StoryWeaver, this remarkable change in our students’ reading habits would not have been possible,” shares Betsy.

“Last year, I told some of our kids, that I was looking forward to hearing complaints from their parents that they were spending too much time reading, instead of playing or helping at home. We aren’t quite there yet, but with access to so many stories now, I have no doubt those complaints aren’t far away,” says Betsy.

We look forward to hearing those complaints too!