Reading Buddies Program Gives Young Readers—and Pre-Service Teachers—a Jump Start

One aspect that makes Syracuse University School of Education’s teacher preparation program stand out is that it offers undergraduates opportunities to be immersed in diverse and inclusive school environments as early as their first year. For undergraduates signed up for the EDU 202 primary grades practicum, that means participating as volunteers to read once a week with young children in the Syracuse City School District (SCSD).

“The Reading Buddies program is a chance for our pre-service teachers to get to know a young student while engaging in literacy activities. For most, it’s their first experience in the Syracuse City School District, and for many perhaps their first time in a school not as a student themselves,” explains Professor Christine Ashby G’01, G’07, G’08, who coordinates the inclusion program program.

Adds Ashby, “The program is part of our commitment to offer our students sustained field experiences throughout their four years. Reading Buddies gets our students comfortable being in schools, being careful observers, and making connections with the concepts—such as inclusive educational strategies—that they are learning in our classes.”

“The program is part of our commitment to offer our students sustained field experiences throughout their four years.”
—Professor Christy Ashby

Thanks to Reading Buddies, young readers get a chance to practice outside their classroom and form a relationship with a young adult who is a consistent figure in their lives and throughout the year. The program builds on a previous collaborative relationship with an established Central New York literacy program that supports grade level reading for SCSD students.

To learn more about how the SOE program works, the joys and connections it makes, and just how a 6’5” freshman navigates furniture in a kindergarten library, we spoke to spring 2023 Reading Buddies participants who were assigned to SCSD’s Ed Smith K-8, Huntington, and STEAM at Dr King schools, as well as their supervisors.

Reading Buddy: Qin Gao ’25

Qin Gao is a rising junior who was assigned to Ed Smith Pre-K-8 School.

Qin Gao headshotReading Buddies provides an excellent opportunity for pre-service teachers to support elementary students with their reading skills. During sessions, I encourage students to choose books that interest them, and I ask them to read aloud while I offer guidance and support. I also take the opportunity to observe the lead teacher’s lesson planning and delivery to gain insights to improve my teaching skills.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the program is building strong connections with our buddies. I will always remember when one buddy gave me a heart that he had drawn on my first day. This small action reinforced my dedication to teaching. The program has given me many heart-touching memories, and it has given me valuable hands-on experience that I can’t get from simply reading textbooks or attending lectures. I can observe experienced teachers and get a feel for what it’s really like to be in a classroom. I think it helps future teachers become more confident and effective for when they enter their own classroom.

“These hands-on experiences allow students to apply and reconcile what they learn in classrooms through real-world interactions with students, teachers, and administrators.”
—Lucy Winnie King, Ph.D. student

EDU 202 Coordinator: Lucy Winnie King

Lucy Winnie King is a School of Education Ph.D. student and Program Coordinator for EDU 202: Practicum in Primary Grades.

Lucy Winnie King headshotMediated field experiences are an essential part of our teacher preparation program. Starting with Reading Buddies, teacher candidates are required to participate in the field right from the beginning of our program. These hands-on experiences allow students to apply and reconcile what they learn in classrooms through real-world interactions with students, teachers, and administrators.

Importantly, Reading Buddies offers our students experiences in underserved school districts, so they have opportunities to challenge their preconceptions about other cultures and families living in low socioeconomic school districts. This gives our students a better understanding of the diverse student experiences they work with and increases their confidence.

Reading Buddy: Jack Withee ’26

Jack Withee is a rising sophomore assigned to Huntington PreK-8 School.

Jack Withee headshotI’d say I have a strong relationship with all my reading buddies. They are always excited to see me, and I them. One of my current buddies is learning to trust me, I think. Observing him, I think he struggles with confidence, sometimes with choosing a book with words I know he knows. I think he understands that he reads below grade level, and he doesn’t want to be seen like that.

But I’m learning flexibility from him. He recently crawled under the table in the library, so I crawled after him with our book, even though I didn’t fit because I’m 6’5″! I thought, what does it matter where we read? School can be such a controlled environment. Structure is important, but you need to let students take ownership sometimes. It was the same learning going on under the table. It’s valuable to stick with this student. I’m gaining a firm understanding of his abilities and thinking—and that foundation is important.

Reading Buddies has been a very motivating experience, and I’m not the only one saying that. In lectures you can sometimes forget what you are doing this for, so it’s good to be reminded of that. Oh, and education majors are allowed to bring cars onto campus, so they can drive to assignments!

“An engaged learning environment increases student attention and focus. It’s where meaningful learning happens.”
—Sabrina Ashkar ’25

Librarian: Janet Schuster

Janet Schuster is Librarian/Media Specialist at Huntington PreK-8 School. This was her second year of directing Huntington’s Reading Buddies program.

Janet Schuster headshotOur Reading Buddies program is typically for kindergarten through third grade students, although in spring 2023 we served kindergarten through second grade. Syracuse University students arrive at Huntington around 10:40 a.m., with the program running from 11 a.m. to noon. Classroom teachers choose two students whom they think will benefit from a Reading Buddy, letting me know where they are in their reading progression. Each Syracuse student gets two children to read to. We find out where the child is in their reading, and we build on that.

We lay out book suggestions on the library tables, such as guided reading and I Spy books. These books are participatory, which is especially important for English as a New Language readers. For older readers, there are the Don’t Let the Pigeon and Pete the Cat series. The children really, really enjoy one-on-one attention, and our teachers mention that this attention is very useful. We make sure the children are having a fun time, especially at the beginning when it’s get to know you time. You always want to make a lifelong reader. The children get a snack, which is important for those on a late lunch schedule, and there’s a treat at leaving time.

There are hugs from the Syracuse students as well. In their reflections, the pre-service teachers write about the bonds they are making with the children, as well as the progress they are making with reading. The students are really excellent, and I think it’s really good for them to practice.

Reading Buddy: Sabrina Ashkar ’25

Sabrina Ashkar is a rising junior assigned to STEAM at Dr. King Elementary School.

Sabrina and Selena Ashkar headshots
Sabrina and Selena Ashkar

One task in Reading Buddies is to build a relationship with young learners. I discuss home life, interests, school life, and I share about my life and my kids. I believe relationship-building plays a major role in shaping learning and behavior/social skills. At the school library, we talk about reading experiences and challenges. We find a quiet place to read, taking turns and stopping to make predictions and connections. My buddies know the routine and become more and more intrigued about learning to read.

I have always enjoyed reading, and this program gives me the opportunity to do what I love with a young learner. One buddy is from Africa, so we connect to other cultures, traditions, and the world through books. Of course, research tells us that reading is an indispensable skill that students will rely on throughout their journey to educational success.

What really stands out to me as a future teacher are reading’s common challenges. When my students come to a word they don’t know, their voice is lowered—they just want to skip over it. The opposite is when they feel like “I got this!” They are so positive about how far they have come. I have learned so much about myself and will carry that with me into the classroom. To be comfortable in the school environment is essential. An engaged learning environment increases student attention and focus. It’s where meaningful learning happens.

Learn more about the inclusion program (Grades 1-6) or contact us at