At neighborhood social gatherings, Anne Horsley is often asked about area preschools and activities to prepare children for kindergarten. She has one universal piece of advice.
“To me,” said the reading specialist in her office at Creeds Elementary School, “the number one factor of reading success is if your child comes into kindergarten knowing their letters, they’re off at a running start.”
She continued, “People think: if my child can sing the alphabet song, then they are proficient in the alphabet, and it’s so much more than that. Really, the book is the core of it – it’s knowing how to form the letters, it’s knowing what the letter’s name is and it’s knowing the sound the letter makes.”
The book Horsley is referring to is an alphabet tracing book by Dr. Jan Richardson, a literacy expert and former teacher and reading specialist.
“What [Richardson] says, these kids who are coming in and not knowing any of their letter identifications and sounds need one-on-one practice, using a tracing book every single day,” Horsley explained.
“It only takes 5-7 minutes once they get the gist of it. The child traces the letter with their finger and they say the name of the letter, the sound the letter makes and the name of picture that’s associated with it. It’s that kinesthetic feeling, forming the letter, that’s associated with it.”
The daily one-on-one support with undivided attention is critical to improvement and, according to Horsley, “the classroom teacher really can’t afford to do that in their instructional day.”
That’s why Horsley enlisted staff members and parent volunteers to work with young learners in need of extra assistance when she was the reading specialist at North Landing Elementary School. While the adults provided excellent support, Horsley considered a different approach when she brought the ABC Buddies program to Creeds Elementary School two years ago.
“When I got to Creeds I thought, we have a bank of fifth-graders who in the morning are coming in and unpacking; how perfect would it be to utilize our kids and give them that kind of mentor relationship?”
Turns out, it was pretty perfect. Just ask the fifth-graders serving as ABC Buddies to kindergartners.
“What I really like about it is it gives you some time to help somebody that needs help so they can get better at that skill,” said Torren Taylor. “Someday they’ll finish that skill and they’ll be really good at it when they get to higher grades, and when they need to use it in life, it will help them a lot.”
While helping his ABC Buddy practice letters, Zeke Parker said, “I like to just teach him. It’s fun because I get to help him learn.”
“I like when every time you go up to them in the morning, they start smiling and they get so happy,” said Dezeray McGreevy. “Every time you help them it helps them get better at learning so then when they go on they can be something like the president. It’s really fun to help someone younger learn.”
Nathan Flagg also likes sharing his expertise and seeing someone else succeed.
“When you’re older, like in fifth grade, you learn more stuff. And when you’re in kindergarten, sometimes you might need help,” he said. “Maybe you help your friend so much that when they’re in first grade they’ll ace everything, which will be really good.”
Acing the alphabet is the first goal, and ABC Buddies have helped kindergarteners do just that.
“G is for gate. G-g-gate. H is for hat. H-h-hat,” practiced kindergartner Hunter LeFeaux with his ABC Buddy Preston Lineberry.
“We started off this year with roughly 12 kindergarteners and a handful of first-graders as well. By December we were able to graduate seven or eight students,” Horsley said.
“It’s a celebration,” she said of the graduation. “The kindergarteners know this is not an isolated skill. They are living this every day in their kindergarten classrooms, with their parents, with their ABC Buddy and they know it’s one of their goals. So to have that celebration in December to say, ‘I got it, I’m there, I’m ready to start learning my sight words and getting into books.’ It’s such a level of pride as well for the fifth-grader because they feel like, ‘I had a hand in this. I helped with this. This little guy got somewhere in a really huge way and I was there with him every morning on his journey.’”
The journey isn’t over when kindergartners show proficiency with alphabet letters. The fifth-graders wouldn’t let that happen.
“They’ve really taken this ownership where they are all about these kids. I mean, they didn’t want it to end,” said Casey Conger, Creeds Elementary principal. “When the students learned the alphabet, then we had to let them start working with sight words. The little ones love it so much too. It really took off.”
The evolution of ABC Buddies to Word Wall Buddies, said Horsley, began in February for some students after a break for everyone in January. Some students are continuing to practice their alphabet letters and others are getting assistance with high frequency words that show up most in their reading and writing.
There is clear evidence that the extra daily practice with alphabet letters and sight words is helping kindergartners develop their skills. There is also evidence that the daily time together leads to another outcome – positive relationships.
“I love counting out letters and looking in the book. She’s my best friend,” said kindergartner Kai Conner of her ABC Buddy Dezeray, who also reads books to her in the morning.
Kai’s sentiment makes Horsley smile.
“Isn’t it nice to know – don’t we all feel that way, that you feel better and more confident when someone is looking out for you? Kai walks around the school thinking, ‘Dezeray’s got my back.’”
Y is for Yes. Y-y-yes.