Community volunteers help immigrant children build English language skills


Photo by Sue Suchyta

Fourth-grade volunteer tutor Marea Huraibi (right), 9, works at the flash card station with first -grader Dobran Albanna (left), 6, second-grader Sara Alward, 8, and first-grader Nasma Ibrahim, 6, after school at Salina Elementary School in Dearborn to help them improve their reading skills.


Sunday Times Newspapers

DEARBORN – By helping recent immigrant children at Salina Elementary School practice reading aloud, community volunteers help students who may not speak English at home build stronger speaking skills.

Since the fall, about eight volunteers work at learning stations at an after-school reading club in the Salina cafeteria for an hour after school on Thursdays. They help 45 early elementary students – mostly first graders – practice their spoken English as they reinforce their reading skills.

Principal Nadia Youmans said Salina serves as a stepping stone for recent immigrants, many from Yemen, who often arrive in the United States with no English skills.

She said while the school staff provide many services for high-risk students with extensive needs, and many teachers stay after school to help students, they need more volunteer tutors to help all of the children in need.

“The parents are still struggling to learn the language and get jobs, so mostly there are a lot of needs at home and at school,” Youmans said. “Many of our kids go home and they don’t have an enriched environment in the English language because many of the parents do not speak the language, therefore the students do not find help at home.”

While many staff members speak Arabic, Youmans said most of the students understand spoken English well enough to work with non-Arabic speaking volunteers who

help them practice reading aloud. If needed, upper elementary and middle school students sometimes help translate as needed when they come to pick up their younger siblings after school.

It pleases Youmans to see the reading tutors each Thursday, especially those who volunteer despite living outside the neighborhood.

“They care about literacy and the children and the community,” Youmans said.

Volunteer Michelle Ullrich initiated the program this fall at Salina after two friends – Salina teacher Jennifer Price and Amy Clegg, whose sons attend Salina – told her about the great need for volunteers to help the younger children practice reading aloud.

Ullrich, who home-schools her own four children, decided to teach them by example the importance of volunteering within their own community.

She came up with the idea of stations, each with different activities, like flash cards, phonetic challenges and read-aloud books, and each child moves with a group of students of similar abilities to different stations.

Friends of Ullrich donated many of the books and phonetic learning materials the reading club uses at the stations.

Ullrich is quick to praise the Salina teachers for their great work with students, and hopes the after-school reading club gives students an added boost to their spoken English skills.

The children like adventure tales and silly stories, like Dr. Seuss books, Ullrich said. She said she typically reads a story to all of the children at the end of each Thursday session.

They need more volunteers to provide students with more one-on-one feedback, Ullrich said, adding that she loves watching the children improve.

She said the after-school reading club also provides a good opportunity for older Scouts and youth groups to earn service hours by working with the children.

“One little girl here … has a really hard time enunciating,” Ullrich said. “I can see her improvement… and how excited (she is)… the kids come and tell me how much they like to read, and show me that ‘I’ve just finished book 14!’ It’s worth it!”

Pleased to see her own children helping others, Ullrich wishes for more volunteer reading helpers after school on Thursdays at Salina.

She also teaches English as a Second Language to Yemeni women in a private home with an eleven-year-old girl as a translator.

“This section of Dearborn is isolated from the rest of Dearborn,” Ullrich said. “I think that people need to be the bridge to come on over here and… reach out.”

Assistant teacher Sana Hamade oversees the program and speaks French, English, and some Italian and Spanish. Bilingual children, she said, need to hear themselves reading aloud.

“When they read they listen to themselves while they are reading,” Hamade said. “If they have any mistakes they will realize it and they will… correct them.”

Fourth grader Marwa Huraibi, 9, likes to volunteer because she likes to read herself, especially Judy Blume books and scary stories. She wishes she could help for two hours every Thursday.

“I really think it’s important because some kids need more learning, so that’s why people volunteer here,” Huraibi said.

Volunteer Sue Herman of Melvindale said helping children do well academically ties in with her other interests. She emphasized the importance of giving young children for whom English is a second language a boost with their reading skills, especially through adult volunteers focusing on the children one-on-one.

She said helping children succeed at an early age is important, and that the program needs more volunteers.

Youmans said she finds it rewarding to open up the school to the volunteers and see the interaction between the volunteers and the students.

“We are very honored and proud to have volunteers come to our school and acknowledge our needs and try to do the best thing they can do – to give to others,” Youmans said.