HARRISONBURG — Learning a new language is no easy task, and having to read aloud in the early stages can be intimidating.

That’s why two ESL, or English as a second language, classes at Skyline Middle School are partnering with Elon Rhodes Early Learning Center to build the students’ fluency in a comfortable, relaxed environment.

Once a month, beginning in February, the middle school students new to the country walk across campus to Elon Rhodes to read to the preschoolers. The participating ESL classes, comprised of all sixth-graders, are Terri Martin’s Bridging English class and John Hostetter’s Excel English.

The students read to two preschool classes made up of 4- and 5-year-olds, with 18 in each.

“It’s a good partnership that allows for our kids to have access and experience with some of the older students they don’t normally get to see or interact with on a daily basis, and it gives a meaningful reason for the older students to be learning the particular text that they’re reading,” said Cynthia Arehart, one of the preschool teachers at Elon Rhodes.

Reading to the preschoolers helps build the students’ fluency, according to Hostetter. The ESL students are in his Excel English class until they are ready for the regular sixth-, seventh- or eighth-grade curriculum.

The Excel students must pass the Access Test, which evaluates their listening and reading comprehension, as well as writing and speaking skills. The partnership is geared to help build their confidence so they perform well on the test.

“The speaking part is so often what keeps them from advancing because they’re very self-conscious about speaking and reading English out loud. So, what happens is that they have to talk into headsets with the standardized tests, and they’ll get so nervous about it that they’ll not really perform to their level,” Hostetter said. “Any opportunity we can give them, especially if it’s authentic — to practice their fluency — it really helps them out in tests.”

The middle school students pick the books they will read, which are based on a certain theme each time. They are given time to practice reading the books to themselves before heading over to Elon Rhodes.

Hostetter said his students were a little nervous during the first visit, but have since felt more at ease.

“It’s not as uncomfortable as reciting to me in front of all their peers,” he said. “They can do it to younger kids who idolize them.”

Katie Long, an Elon Rhodes preschool teacher, said her students look forward to socializing with the older students.

“I think it’s awesome because they can build relationships,” Long said. “I know when I walked in today, I had a little girl who was like, ‘I only want to read with her’ because she remembered her from last time when they were in here. Some of my students need an older person to build a relationship with.”

Yordanos Melake, 12, moved to Harrisonburg from Ethiopia five years ago. She said she has enjoyed reading to the preschool kids. On Wednesday, she was reading a book titled, “How Do We Know It’s Spring.”

“For me to read to other kids, it makes me happy and it makes them happy,” Yordanos said. “It’s just fun to have them read with us.”

Ediliha Luisen, 11, a native of the Dominican Republic, also enjoys spending time with the younger ones, who she said like to look at the pictures. She read “How Big Is The Pig” on Wednesday. She prefers to read aloud to improve her pronunciation skills.

“I like reading out loud,” she said. “I don’t like reading by myself.”

Long said the middle school students encourage and motivate the preschoolers to want to learn how to read.

“A lot of my students who struggle with read alouds when I’m doing it as a whole group on the carpet are the ones sitting and listening best to these students,” she said.

The teachers hope to continue the program past this school year.

“I think it’s a unique social opportunity,” Arehart said. “Anytime I say that our middle schoolers are coming to read, they’re super excited about it.”

Contact Shelby Mertens at 574-6274, @DNR_smertens or smertens@dnronline.com

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