Inviting the Community In: How Engaging Volunteers Can Improve Literacy Outcomes

 //  Apr 30, 2019

Inviting the Community In: How Engaging Volunteers Can Improve Literacy Outcomes

As the Executive Director of SMART (Start Making A Reader Today), a children’s literacy nonprofit in Oregon founded 27 years ago, I am now in the fortunate position of meeting adults who participated in, and benefited from, SMART as young children.

In a recent conversation with Marissa, a program alumna in Portland, Ore., she shared the positive impact that having an adult volunteer read with her consistently had on her literacy development. She remembers feeling anxious about reading in front of her peers and struggling with comprehension. With her SMART volunteer, Don, she was able to read at her own pace, talk about the story one-on-one, and importantly, it changed her perception of reading. “To see an adult get excited about the books was wonderful,” she says. “I started to enjoy it, and then I started to love it. My mom used to joke that I would refuse to watch TV because I preferred to read.”

When I think about the impact that SMART has in Oregon—providing one-on-one reading support to more than 11,000 PreK through third-grade students and giving away more than 140,000 books each year—I am struck by how much Marissa’s story resonates with what we regularly hear from principals and teachers. In a 2018 survey to teachers with SMART in their classrooms, they reported that 91 percent of students in SMART showed improved confidence in their reading skills, as well as greater pleasure in reading or being read to. Additionally, nearly two-thirds of SMART students met or exceeded age appropriate benchmarks in reading, compared to less than half of third-graders statewide. 

SMART’s proven model is focused on these key indicators of reading motivation and engagement because of research highlighting their importance in overall reading performance. In order to support the reading instruction taking place in the classroom, SMART connects children with one-on-one reading sessions with trained volunteers and provides books for students to keep and build their personal libraries.

Our nonprofit relies on the generosity of individuals, businesses, and foundations to support operating costs. However, equally important is SMART’s focus on engaging an often-untapped asset for schools: community members who care deeply about the future and want to make a difference in the lives of local kids.

Each year, more than 5,000 volunteers like Don give their time to read with kids weekly in 300 elementary schools and Head Start sites across the state, fostering a love of reading while building self-confidence and skills. With our training and support, this powerful partnership not only provides a direct benefit to students, it also relieves some burden on teachers and offers a structured and meaningful way for the community to be involved in local schools.

We can all agree that we must better prepare our children and generations after them for successful, prosperous futures through a strong foundation of literacy, but schools don’t have to do it alone. Inviting nonprofit and community organizations into your schools provides opportunities for positive adult mentorship and one-on-one or small group academic support; working hand-in-hand with a nonprofit partner also allows schools to leverage infrastructure and systems for training and supporting these volunteers. As Susan Scott-Miller, a teacher at Newby Elementary in McMinnville, Ore. said, “SMART has helped our school to become a more integral part of our community. Many local retirees, business people, and others have come to our school to support our children. Children have bonded with these folks and all our lives have been enriched.”

I invite you to learn about the nonprofit organizations supporting kids and families in your community and to seek out opportunities to bring volunteers into your schools.

To learn more about how to bring a program like SMART to your community, visit

Image courtesy of Chris Otis