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Drexel Students Help Children Improve Reading Skills at the Free Library


April 14, 2017

It’s a bright Sunday afternoon at the Walnut Street West Library and Camiya Mercer-Bristow has her eyes up focused on a story that her teacher is reading out loud. The 8-year old came to the library, located just blocks from Drexel’s campus in West Philadelphia to spend the sunny afternoon working to improve her reading skills.

Most kids Camiya’s age would rather spend the weekend off from school playing video games or running around outside with friends. But not Camiya. Her mother, Samia sought out programs to help her daughter improve her reading skills after noticing her falling behind some of her classmates. She heard about a new program offered by the Free Library of Philadelphia called the Sunday Literacy Program through the city-wide Read by 4th Campaign. The program, currently in the pilot stage, offers free afternoon classes to help children in first-through-third grades improve reading skills and comprehension at eleven Free Library neighborhood libraries across Philadelphia.

“I really like what I see going on here,” she said. “We’re always looking for programs to help her get better at reading and it’s good to have programs like this one that are free.”

Camiya and other children in the class begin each session with a reading warm-up where they read a story to themselves. After the warm-up, they gather at the front of the class where a certified teacher reads a story out loud, asking the children questions along the way. Suddenly, Michael Shell’s hand darts up, “I’ve read this story before,” the seven year old from West Philadelphia says, before predicting what will happen next in the story.

Michael is the energetic one in the group, quick to raise his hand and give his take on the story. His mother, Adrianna Shell, brings him each week after learning about the program from a flyer posted at the library. “I noticed improvement in his reading within the first month,” she said. “He went from learning the mechanics of sounding out letters, to recognizing characters and events in the stories.”

Adrianna says Michael has more confidence with his reading and is more eager to read than he was before she brought him to the program, traits that are very obvious to everyone in the class.

The Sunday Literacy program began last November and runs through May. The Free Library aimed to create a program that makes reading fun, by having children play games like Sight-Word bingo and Slide-A-Word, which helps children to learn the sounds that letters make. The Free Library developed the program to support the goals of the Read By 4th Initiative which aims to dramatically increase the number of children reading on grade level by 4th grade. Currently, two of every three Philadelphia school children are not reading on grade level by the time they start 4th grade. “Learning to read well is the keystone of all future learning,” said Siobhan A. Reardon, Free Library president and director. “Extra reading support on Sundays with a certified teacher in eleven of our libraries is a tremendous new offering available to students and their families. We are thrilled to be advancing literacy with our youngest readers. “

To get the program off the ground, the Free Library needed volunteers to help the teachers facilitate the classes. Through a partnership with Drexel University, undergraduate students from the School of Education, as well as students enrolled in Drexel’s Lindy Center for Civic Engagement, signed up to spend their Sunday afternoons working one-on-one with children at Free Library neighborhood libraries at Walnut Street West Library, the Whitman Library in South Philadelphia and the Widener Library in North Philadelphia. Students will be dispatched to other neighborhood libraries as needed. “The partnership with Drexel University has been great for the Sunday Literacy Program,” said Christine Caputo, Chief of Youth Services and Programs at the Free Library. “Having skilled Drexel volunteers to assist the teacher enables the program to provide more individualized attention to the participating children. We are excited to continue the relationship in the next school year.”

Yendri Longoria, a Drexel senior majoring in elementary and special education said she had prior experience working with children who were struggling with reading through one of her practicum courses. “I felt like I really enjoyed that and I felt like I could apply what I learned from that to this program and kind of get more out of it and help more effectively.”

Another student volunteer, Kim Delporte, a junior majoring in elementary education, agreed adding that she has been able to apply the lessons she’s learned in her classes at Drexel to the children she works with in the program. “Just the different techniques in getting kids interested in the material. Some kids, they have no attention span and others who are really interested… it’s nice to actually be able to implement it and see the different techniques in action and working with the kids.”

Students can join the Sunday Literacy program any time and come and go as they wish. The program offers two sessions each Sunday at Walnut Street West Library and ten other neighborhood libraries located throughout the city. The Free Library plans to offer the program every year from October to May to coincide with the school year.

Adrianna Shell hopes more children take advantage of the program. “It would be really great to have more children Michael’s age reading and learning together.”

A full list of neighborhood libraries and hours for the program can be found online at