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How to start a reading buddy program

From jaded to jazzed:

How and why reading buddy programs work

By Pam Withers

Here’s the best-kept secret about reading buddy programs: The teens who saunter into a room wary of reading to some restless youngster, typically end up gaining as much as their “little reading buddy.” They gain self-confidence, reading skills, academic growth and a new desire to read. Why? Because they thrive on having someone look up to them, and they’re able to read easy books that boost their own confidence; sometimes backing up to an easy book is just what a struggling pre-teen or teen reader needs, but won’t do on his own.

More than that, they’re sitting down and reading for leisure each week, something they may not have done for a long time. So whether it’s supposed to be about someone else or not, being a Big Reading Buddy can unexpectedly attach rocket boosters to someone’s ability and desire to read, as well as build self-confidence about relating to another age group. All while the Little Reading Buddy gains the same.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. What, exactly, are reading buddy programs? They’re older kids (“Big Reading Buddies”) paired with younger kids (“Little Reading Buddies”) for one-on-one reading time. Or adults paired with children for the same. Such programs are organized by schools, public libraries, community centers or religious institutions – or by parents who hire the kid next door to read to their kid on a regular basis. (Aim for a buddy of the same gender, experts suggest.) Where schools or local libraries don’t have such a program, often it’s parents who get them to initiate one.

In fact, where parents often despair of being able to help their less-than-keen reader – fearing it’s entirely in the hands of the school – getting their child involved in a reading buddy program may be just the ticket they need to feel empowered and get the task done. Due to government cutbacks and the pressure teachers are under to spend class time preparing for assessments, teachers and librarians are unable to spend the one-on-one time they’d like to with students, or encourage the leisure reading time they know fosters a love of reading. A reading buddy can accomplish all this.

There are downloadable pages for how to start and manage a reading buddy program. And there is good advice out there on everything from how to match kids up, to how long reading sessions should last. But first, let’s look at how effective they are:

With just 15 hours of reading buddy contact, one group of fourth and sixth graders in Oregon gained the equivalent of more than 2.5 years in reading abilities ( Even students with as few as five hours of contact gained the equivalent of a year and a half.

And according to a U.S. Department of Education study reported by Teacher Vision:

  • Improvement in academic performance amongst those reading below grade level:

Reading buddies, 25%; others, 12%

  • Improvement in classroom behavior amongst poor readers:

Reading buddies, 16%; others, 3%

  • Poor readers who said they often or always enjoyed reading:

Reading buddies, 55%; others, 31%

After one school year, “both teacher reports and student self-reports found significant gains in reading attitudes, self-esteem, library use and academic performance.” (

After reviewing almost 20 studies on students’ motivation to read, Ellen S. Friedland and Kim S. Truesdell reported that reading buddy programs result in motivation “skyrocketing,” the major factors being the readers selecting their own material, and having a partner with whom to read it. “All teachers reported that confidence improved and students with low self-esteem perked up.” (

Low literacy is related to crime, poverty and unemployment, according to the National Institute for Literacy.

Convinced? Good! Then here are some
answers to frequently asked questions:

Q: How can I find a reading buddy program?

A: Click here

Q: How can I start one?

A: Click here for two free booklets, 20 and 24 pages respectively, with everything you could possibly need to set up a program

Q: How old are Big and Little Buddies?

A: Typically, Big Buddies are sixth grade and up, and Little Buddies are fourth grade and below, while fifth graders can fall either side of the divide. The exception is ESL students, who benefit from being Little Buddies to non-ESL Big Buddies or peers, right through high school.

Q: How often should buddies meet?

A: It’s best to meet consistently – the same day, time and place – whether that’s monthly, twice-monthly, weekly or twice-weekly. Most reading buddy programs opt for weekly sessions of 30 to 40 minutes, but anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour are common.

Q: How should book selection work?

A: Ideally, involve a librarian in this. Also, check the book reviews and other resources on locating books here on the Keenreaders site. Big Reading Buddies sometimes bring a basket full of options and then let the Little Buddy choose. Studies have found that giving the Little Buddy options is key to the program’s success.

Q: What are some tips for pairing up buddies?

A: Some programs match by hobbies, some by personality, some by reading abilities. Some hold a “get to know each other” session and then let Little Buddies submit three names of people they’d most like to be assigned to. Too often, coordinators take the “logical” route of assigning strong readers to weak readers, but pairing older weak readers with younger weak readers not only offers a more likely personality match; it will build confidence on the part of the older weak reader.

Q: How long should the program run?

A: Experts suggest several months.

Q: How should the reading work?

A: Sit beside one another and allow the Little Buddy to hold the book and turn the pages. Talk about the title, study the pictures, and pause to talk about what you’ve read now and again. Talk about your favorite parts when you’ve finished. And try out these different options:

Reading aloud: Big Buddy reads while Little Buddy follows along

Echo reading: Big Buddy reads a sentence, paragraph or page, and then Little Buddy reads the same section.

Choral reading: Big and Little Buddy read everything together.

Popcorn reading: Big Buddy reads most of the material, pausing occasionally to let Little Buddy read a few words.

See-Saw reading: Big and Little Buddy take turns reading, by sentence or paragraph or page.

Q: What’s the difference between a reading buddy, a tutor and a mentor?

A: Reading buddies just read; Big Reading Buddies aren’t trained to be reading tutors and are not meant to deal with homework or academic issues.

More tips:

  • Have a coordinator give Big Buddies plenty of support throughout the program, including some Big Buddy-only sessions for training, questions and debriefing.
  • Pair two Big/Little Buddy pairs for “backup,” so that if one person has to miss a session, the partner can still attend, as part of a threesome. But don’t pair two Bigs who are good friends, or they’ll be tempted to socialize with each other too much. (Usual reading sessions will still be one-on-one.)
  • Allow buddies to find cozy spots on the floor, rather than stick to desks.
  • If possible, meet in a place surrounded by books. Studies have actually shown this to be more effective.
  • Provide a clipboard and pen to help buddies keep a log of what they’ve read.
  • Emphasize it’s not a drop-in program; the buddies must attend all sessions.
  • Let the kids name the program themselves.
  • Provide training to Big Buddies, with advice on everything from how to deal with behavior problems to how to use dramatic flair while reading. (The link to the booklet above covers that.)
  • Provide options other than reading to do on occasion, from skits and song time to field trips. This creates a tighter bond between buddies.
  • Consider adding a writing component. In some programs, Big Buddies write books for their Little Buddies, or the two write and illustrate books together. Check out Keenreaders’ writing contest to win books for your reading buddy program.
  • Organize prizes or certificates to give out at the end of the program.
  • Above all, remember that the bonding and modeling is at least as important as the reading, so cut some slack to partners who are not reading every moment of their scheduled reading time.


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