teaching children with dyslexia

How Do Reading Mentors Support Kids with Learning Challenges?

By Sydney Clevenger

Grade levels behind in reading, Freddy* wasn’t sure where he fit in at his Portland, OR elementary school. It was particularly hard when the rest of the class was reading silently and all Freddy could do was sit and watch because his learning challenge made reading a struggle.

Then Freddy was referred to an adult reading mentor through The Shadow Project for individual reading coaching using audio-visual technology specially designed for students with disabilities. At first, the third grader was shy and unresponsive with his mentor, a pre-graduate student named Taylor, when the two met weekly in his special education classroom to discuss books and set reading goals.

Fast forward three months and Freddy can’t stop talking about books. “I can hardly get Freddy to stop reading, and go back to class!” says Taylor.

What made the difference?

“Freddy feels a sense of belonging in school now,” says Taylor.

1. Mentors make kids feel included

Children with disabilities face many barriers to participating in school, including social isolation and physical exclusion, according to the National Mentoring Resource Center (NMRC). Young people with disabilities are more likely to be ostracized by their peers, and are three times more likely to experience social exclusion because of their typically smaller social network, says the NMRC in an October 2018 article Mentoring for Youth with Disabilities. In fact, children with learning disabilities are at high risk for life-long physical health problems, and mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or suicide.

Mentors are one positive way to combat the social seclusion kids with disabilities experience.

Having Taylor show him how to access and download the same books his classmates were reading opened a new world for Freddy. With Taylor’s encouragement, Freddy was motivated to set and work toward achievable reading goals. He was able to read with his ears and eyes on the assistive technology, and so could participate in classroom conversations about books and do the classwork and homework assigned by the teacher, while boosting his vocabulary and reading comprehension. Freddy was able to read his downloaded books at home to hone his new literacy skills. And knowing Taylor would be at school once a week to ask what he was reading and offer help, pushed Freddy to try when the words got tough.

“Mentors give kids undivided attention,” said Taylor, “and it’s a really positive relationship because the kids feel special that you are here for them, which makes them feel more comfortable at school.”

2. Mentors are positive role models

Mentoring also offers children with disabilities the chance to share experiences with an adult to whom they look up to and want to emulate. Most children look to their parents or caregivers as role models. However, given that children with learning challenges are twice as likely to be homeless or in the foster care system as those without (National Center for Children with Learning Disabilities) teachers and volunteer tutors are equally as important for children with disabilities, particularly those in lower-income communities whose parents may be absent and/or working.

Fourth-grader Juan,* who has a learning challenge, lives with his dad and sister in the bedroom of a small house they borrow from a friend. Juan’s dad works two jobs to support the family, and is not always home to give Juan the extra support he needs to read and complete homework. Juan struggles to read, and says it is extra hard to focus on a book in the small room where he is constantly surrounded by others.

A caring adult mentor in Portland Timbers Mascot Joey Webber, who had reading struggles when he was Juan’s age, was especially empowering for Juan. Timber Joey not only set motivating literacy goals for Juan on audio-visual technology and print books, but the two talked about tools Juan can use to make it easier to read at home, and the kind of environment where it’s easier to read, such as outdoors when the weather is decent.

Having a trusted figure to listen, share his own reading struggles, and genuinely care enough to offer constructive strategies made all the difference in Juan.  Juan was so excited to have a consistent male presence in his life who showed up weekly to talk to him about books, and encourage him to read, that he worked extra hard to excel, and his reading jumped two grade levels.

“Having the opportunity to share the challenges of reading and help struggling kids realize their potential is a very special experience,” says Timber Joey.

3. Mentors help kids build confidence in themselves

Children with learning challenges are at risk for poor self-concept, according to the National Institutes of Health. Mentors can address and support this social-emotional need by being a stable and non-threatening presence in kids’ lives.

Fourth-grader Robert,* who has dyslexia and read at a first grade level, kept his hood on during class to try to make himself invisible, especially during reading. Robert had almost given up.

A mentor helped Robert believe in his own ability. As Robert built confidence in his literacy skills and advanced his reading level, he felt empowered to make his own decisions about what and when and how to read, and then he began advocating for himself.

The belief in one’s capability, or self-efficacy, is considered another key piece to academic achievement, motivation, and learning.

“I love seeing the progression from when they started through three months of mentoring,” says Timber Joey. “I have students who are now taking off hoods and opening up in public a little more. Mentoring has had a great impact on my life, too.”

Freddy can’t stop giggling. “I’m reading Diary of a Minecraft Zombie,” Freddy tells Taylor, pulling off the headphones that help him concentrate on his audio-visual book. “The character was being bullied and his parents couldn’t help and then he grew really big to fight them off, and he escaped. And then he ate something funny!”

Taylor laughs, too. “That sounds like an awesome book you’ve found. I can’t wait to hear where the story takes you next week.”

*Children’s names have been changed for privacy

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