Reading Seed: Planting a Love of Literacy

By Jessica Lyons


During the 2011-2012 school year, Reading Seed, which is part of the organization Literacy Connects, sent over 900 volunteer Reading Coaches into more than 100 Pima County schools to work with students on their literacy skills. Reading Seed's Program and Communications Manager, Tamara McKinney, tells about how the organization is developing students' reading skills and the impact the program is having on them. How did the Reading Seed program come about?

Tamara McKinney: Reading Seed Children's Literacy Program was started in 1994 by a group of volunteers who wanted to positively impact children's literacy in Pima County. By 2003, Reading Seed had over 150 Reading Coaches working with first-, second- and third-grade students in 13 schools, and the coordination and leadership of the program was provided solely by committed volunteers.

The program really began to grow and thrive in 2004 when Reading Seed partnered with the Rotary Club of Tucson (RCOT), the largest and oldest Rotary Club in Pima County. Rotarians raised and donated thousands of dollars to hire the first paid Reading Seed staff, cover start-up costs and assemble a specialized Lending Library of books for volunteers.

Further growth and opportunities for interagency collaboration occurred in 2007 when the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona founded the Literacy for Life Coalition in response to a community-wide town hall that identified education as a major priority. The Coalition now includes 35 government, non-profit, business and educational organizations who work together to increase literacy levels, advocate for literacy and create awareness. Reading Seed, along with other literacy providers, began building trust by collaborating on Coalition projects and committees.

This trust led Reading Seed to explore other ways to strengthen and deepen collaborative work, and ultimately resulted in our organization joining in an unprecedented merger of five local literacy organizations in July 2011!

E-P: What is Reading Seed's mission, and how does it accomplish that mission?

TM: The mission of Reading Seed is to help children in Pima County learn to read so they can read to learn. We accomplish our mission through a combination of strategies, including consistent and sustained one-on-one mentorship, reading assistance that focuses on interactive read-alouds and story writing, a leveled Lending Library that optimizes student success and access to free books for students to keep. Reading Seed supports elementary schools and students by working to:

  • Train volunteer Reading Coaches to work with students in first to third grade who are reading below grade level.
  • Emphasize reading as a positive experience in a non-judgmental environment where student choice is a priority.
  • Inspire a lifelong love of reading and increase confidence, vocabulary and reading comprehension in students.
  • Deliver high-interest, low-reading level resources from the Reading Seed Lending Library to schools for Reading Coaches, librarians and teachers.
  • Provide free books for children throughout Pima County to encourage independent reading.

All Reading Seed Coaches are trained, fingerprinted and have a background check completed prior to being placed at a school. There is no cost associated with the Reading Seed program for schools or volunteers, and Reading Seed also provides free materials and incentives to keep the learning process fun and relevant for students.

E-P: Why do you feel it's important to focus on reading?

TM: Kindergarten through third grade is a critical time in the development of a child's lifelong literacy. During these formative years, students are learning to read. But starting in fourth grade, students have to read to learn and those not reading at grade level are simply unable to keep up. That's why the Reading Seed program focuses on supporting students in first through third grade. It is our vision that every student in our community will be reading at grade level by the end of third grade.


E-P: How does improving reading abilities impact the students' work in other areas of school?

TM: An improvement in a student's reading ability is reflected in almost every other subject. The ability to adequately read and comprehend school texts - from word problems in math to history documents in social studies - dramatically impacts a student's success in those subjects. In addition, reading is inextricably connected to the writing process, so a student who reads well will typically be a better writer and communicator than their less literate peers.

Literacy can impact students' participation in extracurricular activities as well. If you love to sing, but are terrified to join the school choir because you won't be able to read the lyrics on the page, then an improvement in your reading ability means not just greater academic success, but also access to a source of personal joy, artistic enrichment and positive socialization.

E-P: What sort of lasting impact do you think it will have for the children as they get older?

TM: I think immediately of the Dr. Seuss quote from the book I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!: 'The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.' The ability to read opens doors and windows and even ceilings; it allows students to dream big and gives them the confidence to work towards those dreams.

E-P: How do you see the program participants transform throughout their time with Reading Seed?

TM: We see students gain confidence in their ability to succeed and in their self-worth as individuals. They develop a positive relationship with reading (sometimes even a passion!) and they become active participants in the classroom. Most importantly, they are motivated to continue learning and growing. This is especially exciting given that Reading Seed's target population, students identified by their teachers as needing additional help in reading, automatically fall into the 'at risk' category.

We view our 900+ volunteers as program participants also. Volunteer surveys at the end of each school year consistently show that at least 97% of Reading Coaches agree that Reading Seed makes a difference in their own lives.

E-P: How can people get involved and help Reading Seed?

TM: If you live in the Tucson area, we're always looking for additional volunteers to be trained as Reading Coaches or to help clean gently used books for our Free Book Area. Our next New Reading Coach Training is scheduled for Thursday, March 29 from 9 AM to noon. Interested volunteers can register online or by calling the Reading Seed Center at 520-798-0700.

We also maintain an Amazon Wish List of books that we need for the Reading Seed Lending Library. We are very grateful to our book donors and recognize their generosity with a personalized label inside each Lending Library book.

And of course, we always gratefully accept any financial support that you are able to provide. The cost to provide a student with a Reading Seed Coach for one school year is $120 - just $10 a month! Donations to support the Reading Seed program can be made through our website. Donors will simply select Reading Seed from the list of Literacy Connects programs on the donate page. We are a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization. All donations are tax-deductible and also qualify for the Arizona Tax Credit for organizations that serve the working poor. Our tax ID is 23-7047508. Donations can also be mailed to Reading Seed c/o Literacy Connects, 2850 E. Speedway Blvd., Tucson, AZ 85716.

E-P: Is there anything else that you'd like to share with our readers about Reading Seed?

TM: There are few things that impact a child's ability to succeed more than literacy. Please read to the children in your life - to your own children, to your nieces and nephews, to your grandchildren and your friend's children. And if you're able, please volunteer to read with a child in need in your community. You can read just about anywhere, and every minute counts.

If you want to encourage the children in your life to love reading, you should consider reading aloud to them.

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