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10 years of Club de Lectura at NV shows amazing results

Research backs up the reason Nooksack Valley Schools offers its groundbreaking Club de Lectura program. Research also backs up the success within Nooksack Valley. Add in anecdotal observations and this, year 10 of the club, offers an opportunity for Club to tell its story, even as it moves forward in assisting Spanish-speaking students throughout the district.

Club de Lectura pairs bilingual high school students as tutors—tutores—with Spanish-speaking elementary students, known as readers, or lectores, throughout the district, helping the younger students improve their Spanish in the once-per-week after-school club. Improving their Spanish also helps them improve their English.

“Research shows that if a second-language student learner has a good foundation of literacy instruction in their first language, it will easily transfer and help the second language,” says teacher Sylvia Mendoza, who, along with Vicky Walkinshaw and Carol Hagen, started the club a decade ago. “If we don’t have bilingual teachers to support the students, the next best thing is to use tutors from the high school who are bilingual and biliterate. It has been an amazing program.”

Anywhere from 20 to over 30 high school students sign up as tutors—tutores—each year to help the three teachers lead the program. What started at Everson and Nooksack elementary schools spread to Sumas Elementary about four years ago, meaning that all three schools have groupings of high schoolers dropping in one afternoon per week. 

Everson generally has about 30 students in grades three through five join the club, while Nooksack has about 25 in grades two through four and Sumas, with the lowest population of Spanish speakers, has less.

The structure of the program sees the high school students interacting with the elementary students—speaking only Spanish—during an opening snack time. The club time also includes an activity that helps relationship building and then a time of reading, the backbone of the instruction.

“Our readers are seeing their tutors as role models who look like them and speak like them,” Mendoza says. “They are able to connect with the culture and the language. There is a bonding relationship that allows the readers to move into a structured literacy program.”

Every tutor, who must pass a test to prove proficiency in reading and writing Spanish, gains a level of training to help with the literacy instruction. Tutors get teamed with two readers that stick with them throughout the year, allowing the tutor to select proper reading level books to challenge their readers. “They are trained to be thoughtful for what is coming up next, how they are going to teach the next lesson and what books they are choosing,” Mendoza says. “They are very skillful at that.”

High school junior Gively Lopez says the tutors learn from each other about how to become better teachers, sharing different strategies. She enjoys the opportunity to watch students move through reading levels and challenge the readers along the way.

Club includes cultural connections, whether through poems, song or activities, that help students tie to meaningful events at home. “We prep for big cultural events,” Mendoza says. “It is really, really powerful. They are learning about cultural values and traditions.”

Along the way, students improve their native language, helping them translate that into English. “We get the benefit of what the club does with our kids,” says Nooksack Elementary teacher Jeanne Maxwell. “It is just great.”

For Nooksack fourth-grader Leslie, she says that joining Club offered her a fun experience. “We get to have a time to be with people who talk Spanish,” she says, switching to English for the sake of the interview. “My Spanish has gotten better. And my English too.”

With 10 years of readers, organizers have seen the benefits for students as they progress through high school. Former club readers have started taking key Spanish state tests, which open up college credits for high performance. The highest scores at the high school come from former club readers. “It is very powerful to know,” Mendoza says. “Data shows we are making a difference.” And as students have the opportunity to prove their bilingual and biliterate status with a new state assessment, it is the former club readers leading the way with this state seal getting added, for the first time, to high school diplomas.

As the students improve literacy, they also gain confidence. Walkinshaw says as former readers turn to tutors at the high school, she sees them become powerful leaders schoolwide.

“We teach our tutors and readers to be proud of who they are and sometimes they shy away because they are embarrassed,” Walkinshaw says. “We see that change as they become leaders at the high school. Sometimes they think, ‘How did I volunteer for that?’ but it is all the training and exposure of being involved in community and they slowly become more comfortable and confident to being in front of peers at the high school.”

The tutors serve as part of the high school leadership and, as such, Walkinshaw embraces the opportunity to develop the students with leadership retreats and about two trainings per month. One annual trip includes the Latino Legislators Day in Olympia, which this year included dinner with all the leaders. “The students saw the leaders and were able to think, ‘Oh, I think I could fit into your shoes someday,’” Walkinshaw says.

In a school district with 36 percent Hispanic students and not even a handful of Spanish-speaking teachers, Club de Lectura serves a key role in helping fill the gap. In the past 10 years, 262 tutors have served 600 readers with 86 percent of those tutors moving on to earn post-secondary education.

High schooler Alan Villaman, who arrived from Mexico just two years ago, serves as a powerful example. “If Club did not exist, where would, with his limited English, he be able to prove he is really intelligent and has a lot to give?” Walkinshaw asks. “Where could he volunteer? He is bright and he slips right in and it gives him a sense of belonging and an opportunity to engage and practice being a leader.”

And it shows. Villaman had no trouble explaining—in English—how he hopes to help the younger students grow within their roots and not forget their history. “I think teaching them how to write and read their first language is great for them,” he says. “I see people lose their roots. They come from Mexico or Spanish-speaking families and when they grow up they don’t know (their language and history). It isn’t their fault nobody was there to teach them Spanish. We surround them with more people who speak their language and know their traditions.”

Lopez, in her second year as a tutor, says she had a reader from Guatemala, like her, who didn’t want to learn Spanish at the start of the year. “Many children are losing that opportunity to learn two languages and I just try to encourage them to speak a lot of Spanish,” Lopez says. “At the (end-of-the-year) celebration, they were thanking their teachers for helping them learn Spanish. Now when I see them, they just speak to me in Spanish.”

The benefits extend beyond Club. “What I love about the program is the high school tutors get a chance to commit to their community in a very real way,” Walkinshaw says. “They see the difference and that the kids need them. If they weren’t here, who would be here for them? It is an authentic contribution to our community and in turn that makes them better leaders.”