TNCS Reading Buddies Program Expands to “Buddy School,” Wolfe St. Academy!

The New Century School‘s reading buddies program has long been a popular activity on the TNCS campus, uniting younger and older students and enhancing camaraderie among divisions. The social and emotional benefits are enormous; additionally, the mentor–mentee dynamic has other built-in advantages like instilling confidence in participants on both sides as they develop together. The cognitive benefits are likewise tremendous. The increasing confidence in burgeoning readers, for example, allows them to take bigger and bigger risks such as with trying out new words and so on—just believing they can do it is huge. Let’s face it, it’s also just the cutest thing ever. (But don’t take our word for it—check out Cooperative Learning at TNCS: Reading Buddies, Budding Readers for details . . . and adorable photos.)

Image-7With all this wonderful social, emotional, and cognitive magic happening, thought TNCS Dean of Service Learning Alicia Danyali, why not share it on a broader scale? It just so happens that Ms. Danyali has been partnering with Leah Beachley, MSW, LMSW, the Community School Coordinator for Wolfe Street Academy #023. Ms. Beachley is also a Clinical Instructor, Social Work Community Outreach Service (SWCOS) at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.

Together, Ms. Danyali and Ms. Beachley coordinated on a plan to team up TNCS and WSA students for a new Reading Buddies trial. Ms. Beachley explained that many of her students speak English as a second language, and their ELA reading skills can lag behind the expected proficiency for grade level. She has been working on ways to close this gap since she came to WSA 3 years ago. Adult volunteers from the community have come to WSA to practice reading with the students, but Ms. Beachley sensed that a more effective plan was possible. “With adults,” she explained, “WSA students were not as comfortable and would show that by losing focus and disrupting the sessions.”

So, on March 6th, TNCS 5th- and 6th-graders accompanied by homeroom teacher Ms. Sharma took a walk to WSA to try out the new Reading Buddies program. They arrived at 1:30 pm and were given a brief orientation and tour of WSA’s lovely building and grounds by Ms. Beachley.

TNCS students met with WSA 1st- through 4th-grade students until 2:30 pm. They brought along books they thought would make good read-aloud choices and were also given access to WSA’s library. In their 30 minutes of reading, some students had to make multiple trips to the library to re-up!

Interestingly, TNCS students seemed to gauge their particular situation immediately and adapt to what it called for. For example, some WSA students preferred to absorb the experience of being read aloud to, whereas others preferred to take the reins and do the reading themselves but appreciated the ready support.

The initial Reading Buddies trial was an overwhelming triumph, with WSA and TNCS students alike enthusiastically reporting positive feedback. Several WSA children didn’t want the session to end! Said Ms. Beachley, “I am so happy to report that we had such a successful Reading Buddies session today! I spent some time with our Wolfe Street students at dismissal and they were gushing about how much fun they had with their TNCS buddies!” Ms. Beachley also noted how well her initial match-ups of TNCS and WSA students went and has decided to use the same pairings for future sessions. All students wore name tags, too, and became very friendly with each other.

Ms. Sharma was in complete agreement: “Thanks to you, [Ms. Beachley] for making such a perfect arrangement for the reading buddies service opportunity. The TNCS grade 5,6 students were also very satisfied and happy with their experience! They will definitely be bringing more books to read to their buddies next time. We can’t wait to be back to greet our new friends!”

Ms. Beachley summed up the experience perfectly:

The Reading Buddies activity is extremely valuable to the Wolfe Street Academy students. Not only do the WSA students receive literacy support from an older student, but they also have the unique opportunity to form a friendship with a student close to them in age. During the course of the Reading Buddies meetings, I observed Wolfe Street and TNCS students bonding over their favorite books, and I saw the WSA students growing in their confidence to read aloud. After TNCS buddies left, the WSA students already began to ask when they would be back next! We hope that our continued collaboration will grow the bond between WSA and TNCS students so that they can learn from each other, learn about their different school settings, and share their love of reading!

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TNCS 7th- and 8th-graders will also take a turn at this marvelous example of service learning, although that may be delayed due to Baltimore City school closings related to the COVID-19 outbreak beginning March 16th.

Cooperative Learning at TNCS: Reading Buddies, Budding Readers

Peer mentoring is a built-in, powerful tool at The New Century School, arising as a very natural consequence of its philosophy and mission. Classes comprise mixed-age groups quite deliberately, a big difference between TNCS and traditional classrooms, in which each grade level corresponds to a single age. A vital element in TNCS’s approach to education is that older children assist younger ones, and younger children not only learn from their mentors but also develop better social skills through this interaction. The older children also benefit greatly; another key element of TNCS’s approach is consideration for others. Practicing compassion and kindness for their younger classmates teaches the older children how to conduct themselves graciously in any social milieu. Yet another advantage to mixing ages in this way is that students remain with the same teacher and many of the same children for more than just a year, developing trusting, long-term bonds.

Incidentally, the teacher also comes to know each child very well and gains an intimate knowledge of how each child best learns.

Not only does social and emotional learning (SEL) increase from the mentor–mentee relationship, but academic gains are also made. Furthermore, there is scientific evidence to back up the suggestion that mentoring and being mentored provide cognitive advantages that conventional teaching does not. A 2017 study from the Journal of Educational Psychology demonstrates that partnering with higher-achieving peers can have a positive influence on a student’s learning, and students who are older, more capable readers can be these peers for young students.

Reading Buddies at TNCS

That’s where Reading Buddies comes in. This practice pairs different grade-level classrooms for community reading time—an upper-grade homeroom connects with a lower-grade one, and students pair up for time with books.

This cooperative learning method happens all over the campus, in all divisions. In a check-in post from earlier this school year, TNCS Dean of Students/Head of Lower School Alicia Danyali enumerated many of the initiatives she was undertaking for the 2018–2019 school year, including establishing various class partnerships for service learning purposes—read more on that here. And the roots of the school community deepen as classes across campus work and share together. Because of the success of Reading Buddies, in particular, we’re revisiting this lovely tradition in more detail.

“Every second Wednesday, my 4th- and 5th-grade homeroom students go to Ge Laoshi’s K/1st class to participate in service learning by reading to their young friends,” explained TNCS teacher Nameeta Sharma. When asked what he liked about the Reading Buddies program, one of her 4th-grade students replied, “Everything!” “It’s fun to read to the little kids, and they really listen to me while I’m reading,” he continued. “Sometimes the teachers pair us up, and other times we just go read to whoever we want to. We all like to read Dr. Seuss books while we’re there.”

Benefits Abound

Reading Buddies also promotes reading. It allows younger readers to see what being a fluent reader looks like, as they have a peer model demonstrating reading skills. Older students become positive role models as well as develop patience and empathy as they work with their younger buddies. As the year progresses and the skills of the younger readers increase, students take turns reading to each other. In some cases, the mentee goes on to become the mentor of an even younger student. The relationship is thus bidirectional and enormously enriching.

The benefits are profound. Both sets of students get excited about Reading Buddies time because it’s a chance to do something different, visit another classroom, have fun, and make new friends. Even the Middle Schoolers love it!

Strengthening Community

Cooperative learning is also a great way to build community in the school, a primary part of TNCS’s mission. Another benefit of cooperative learning is simply that the Upper Elementary and Middle School students would not have another opportunity to get to know their younger schoolmates without this special time together. The upper and lower classrooms are situated in different buildings, and even lunch and play spaces are kept separate, as appropriate. Thanks to Reading Buddies, though, younger students recognize their role models around campus and can wave hello. It’s so nice to see, and these relationships can extend beyond the reading partnership. They can even have a positive impact on disruptive behavior. Younger children yearn for the respect of their older heroes and tend to comport themselves with more self-awareness in their presence. Older children develop a sense of protectiveness and want to nurture their adorable young friends. It’s easy to imagine how these SEL moments take root and flourish in a child’s character.


The practice of sharing a book is a delightful gift in and of itself; Reading Buddies deepens the enrichment exponentially. Now that’s a happy ending!