Bright Spots are written and produced by the Campaign to showcase the work in Grade-Level Reading communities to make progress on school readiness, school attendance and summer learning by 2016. Continue reading below or download a PDF version.

Wisely using its local talent, the college town of Ames, Iowa, offers free one-on-one, individualized tutoring during the summer to young struggling readers, provided by community volunteers trained by a literacy development expert.

About 150 children in kindergarten through fourth grade will be matched in summer 2015 with one of 70-some volunteers trained by Iowa State University Professor Donald Bear, who developed Words Their Way, a reading intervention designed to address each child’s needs.

“We give each child a diagnostic test that determines where they are in spelling, writing and reading, which helps us hone in on the child’s needs and the activities to do,” says Diana Schmidt, coordinator of Reading Buddies, the summer tutoring program.

Reading Buddies is one of many volunteer opportunities available through Raising Readers in Story County (RRSC), a longstanding early literacy effort that is part of Ames Reads, the local grade-level reading campaign led by United Way of Story County.

Ames volunteers — including retirees, employed residents and college students — will contribute about 7,104 hours in 2015, up from 4,726 hours in 2011. “We try to know the volunteers well enough to know their expertise and interests,” says Judy Dahlke, RRSC’s volunteer coordinator.

Promoting citizen service to help children read is a GLR Campaign tenet. National Volunteer Week — set for April 12–18, 2015, and sponsored by Points of Light, a national civic engagement group — offers an opportunity for GLR communities to highlight their volunteers.

In Ames, each Reading Buddies volunteer takes a two-hour training course followed by on-the-job training. Each volunteer tutors a student for 45 minutes, twice a week for six weeks. The program is offered at seven sites, from churches to public housing complexes. Some tutors work with a series of children in back-to-back sessions. Parents are encouraged to reinforce reading experiences at home.

Tutors are trained in Words Their Way, which includes ready-to-use word study, spelling, vocabulary and phonics activities arranged in developmental sequence. The site supervisor prepares each tutor’s daily lesson plan with a specific student and troubleshoots.

“We tell volunteers that it is research based, that they’re going to be trained and supported, and that they will be making a huge difference in a child’s life,” says Dahlke. The presence of the GLR Campaign in Ames and beyond has aided recruitment because “more people realize how important reading on grade level is by the end of third grade because of all the publicity it gets.”

Reading Buddies began in spring 2013 as a 12-week after-school program for 18 kindergarten through third-grade students at an elementary school. Trained volunteer tutors each met with a student twice a week for 12 weeks. Children’s vocabulary grew significantly — 10 of 17 met benchmark achievement expectations and reading levels improved for 16 children.

Impressed, the public school district took over the after-school program and expanded it to other schools, using Iowa State University students as tutors. RRSC decided to offer a summer Reading Buddies program in 2014, using trained volunteer tutors. The hope is to extend the program into fall 2015 so it lasts 12 weeks, which has proved particularly effective.

“Our goal is for kids to not suffer summer reading loss,” says Schmidt. “Some teachers have told me that if kids don’t read during the summer it can take until January for them to catch up to where they were the previous May.”

Two related efforts during the school year, also using trained volunteer tutors, are an after-school program for 14 elementary school students — supported by professional basketball player Harrison Barnes, an Ames native — and the Story Pals program for 36 4- and 5-year-olds at a community preschool, which will have a summer kindergarten readiness component in 2015.

“We try to give them a love of reading,” says Schmidt, about Story Pals. “We’re not teaching how to read. We’re giving them prerequisite skills so they will flourish once they get to kindergarten.”

For more information, contact Diana Schmidt at 515-520-1658 or Photos: RRSC; Publication Date: Spring 2015. To nominate a community to be featured as a Bright Spot, please contact Betsy Rubiner at


Does your community have literacy volunteers? If so, share your experience in the comments box!

Want more? Check out how Camden, New Jersey and Wake County, North Carolina  use volunteers.


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Betsy Rubiner is a writer and senior consultant with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

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  • Ames is such a great model for how to recruit, train and tend to volunteers. Definitely a community that celebrates its contributions from volunteers. Thanks for sharing your expertise!
  • This reply was deleted.
    • Carolyn, thank you for offering your expertise and the opportunity for others to connect with you!

      Quick Huddle usage tip for the future: If you click "Reply" in orange below someone's comment, a text box will open and you'll be able to reply directly to them. Commenting this way will trigger an email notification to that person.
  • Great job, Ames, on promoting reading through the use of trained volunteers! We are just getting started with GLR in Jackson County and are very impressed with your efforts.
    • Hi Linda! Carolyn responded to your comment above with an offer to connect. Good luck with getting GLR started in Jackson County. You've got a great state network for support and inspiration.
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    • Thanks for sharing Carolyn - your secret sauce strikes me as very smart (and I say this as a longtime reading volunteer at a Des Moines elementary school...)
      • I feel like Yolie's "secret sauce" catchphrase is finding traction! I find myself saying it too.
  • Wow -- fantastic work! What a nice solution to the problem of whether or not you let unskilled volunteers provide tutoring. The side benefit is you got 70+ members of the community to spread the word about Summer Learning Loss in your community.
  • Great way to both promote summer literacy and engage volunteers over the summer! Do you do anything to incentivize attendance of the students or to promote the event before summer starts?

    Great work! Thanks for sharing your story!
  • There's so much to adore in this profile, but this is my favorite: "The presence of the GLR Campaign in Ames and beyond has aided recruitment because 'more people realize how important reading on grade level is by the end of third grade because of all the publicity it gets.' "

    It clearly portrays how a public awareness effort about the activities of a community coalition yield tangible benefits for programs that help turn the curve for children.
    • Congratulations to our neighbors in Ames for such an organized, sustainable effort. Engaging volunteers is hard work and you have created a model other communities could use! Love the photo!
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