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Californian columnist Lois Henry

Sometimes, I feel bad for the kids I coach as part of the Community Reading Project.

Really. Learning to read is tough.

How are these kids supposed to figure out that l-e-a-n has a long "e" sound but not l-e-a-r-n even though they have the same vowel combination?

Or why the "ou" in s-n-o-u-t makes an "ow" sound but it doesn't in e-n-o-u-g-h (let alone how "gh" somehow makes an "f" sound!)?

Seriously, if you think about how crazy our written language is you won't be able to keep reading this column (silent "w" in written? Silent "n" in column? Why?).

But, amazingly enough, the kids I coach one hour a week, which works out to only 15 minutes per kid, do pick it up.

Their little brains make the connections, they remember a new word they just read on the previous page and they use all the tricks you give them -- sound it out, break the word down into little pieces, just forget about the "k" and the "w" in know, etc.

And they're so excited to work with you.

I feel privileged to watch them improve every week.

Even though I'm proud and happy to see the handful of kids I work with doing better, I know it's not enough. Not nearly enough.

This is where you come in.

The Community Reading Project is a rarity in our world.

It's a low-budget, simple program that actually works. It's been around since 1999 and has proven itself successful every single one of those years.

It is limited only by the number of volunteers willing to commit one hour a week to give kids a few extra minutes of reading practice.

The volunteer base has hovered around 200 for many years, according to Teresa Twisselman, who oversees the program.

That means only about 140 students from 20 or so schools are served.

The goal of the program is to get second grade kids who are having trouble reading up to speed so when they hit the third grade, they're reading on par with their classmates.

That's a crucial time.

In third grade, the learning pace really picks up and students need to hone their skills.

By the time they get to fourth grade, kids are no longer learning to read. They must be reading to learn.

If lower-level readers haven't caught up by the end of second grade, it's highly unlikely they'll catch up in the third grade. Once they're left behind at that level, studies show, they're much more likely to drop out as they get into high school.

And just so you know what Kern is up against, state testing last year showed only 36 percent of our third-graders were rated as proficient or advanced in reading.

Think about that: less than half of our third-graders can read proficiently.

Obviously, we need to make a much bigger push to help these kids while they're still in the second grade.

You might think it sounds too simple to make a difference, but believe me, those few extra minutes of reading practice make a world of difference.

Pre- and post-testing show the Community Reading Program helps kids, on average, increase their skill level by a full academic year in just one semester.

So, if they were reading at the first-grade level when they started second grade, by Christmas break they'd be up to the second-grade level. One more semester of coaching and they'd be at the third-grade level by the time school was out in June.

That's right where we desperately need them to be.

If you're like me, you don't even remember learning how to read. It was so long ago and reading, now, is just a part of everyday life.

But someone clearly gave you a hand, or you wouldn't be reading this right now.

Tomorrow is a perfect time to give thanks for that person.

And then get your family, friends or co-workers to commit to one hour a week helping a child read.

I can't think of a better Christmas gift for our community's future.

It won't cost you a dime and you don't have to fight the crowds at "black Friday."

Happy Thanksgiving!

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.comCOMMUNITY READING PROJECT

Three orientation sessions are coming up in January for volunteers interested in volunteering for the spring semester.

Volunteers must attend one of the three orientations.

All orientations will be held in room 1B at the Kern County Superintendent of Schools office at 1300 17th St., in downtown Bakersfield.

Saturday, Jan. 4, from 9 to 11 a.m.

Tuesday, Jan. 7, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Wednesday, Jan. 8, from 3 to 5 p.m.