“The problem was it was really dry,” eight-year-old Madison tells her reading tutor. They’re sitting side-by-side at a children’s table in the Y lobby. Madison is writing down answers to questions about a story they just read together.

“What was really dry?” Julia prompts her, “The…”

“Land,” Madison replies.

“Yes, do you remember how to spell ‘land?’” Julia asks. “Let’s sound it out.”

Madison writes “and”—the word she recognizes—then remembers to put an “L” in front.

“If it’s a big word, you need to try and find some words you know [within it],” the third grader explains.

This is one of the reading skills Madison has learned in the Y-Literacy program, which helps struggling young readers in our community develop the skills they need to succeed in life. Volunteer tutors work with them once a week to improve their literacy and build their confidence.

When Madison entered the program a year ago, she was reading at the beginning of a first grade level and is now reading at the beginning of a third grade level. Her mother, Christina, sees an improvement in her daughter’s attitude, along with her ability.

“She used to give up trying, and now she’s actually determined to figure out the word. She’s more focused,” Christina said.

Meeting a pressing need

It’s a success story more Middle Tennessee parents need to be able to tell about their kids. Reports show that only 1 in 3 third-grade students in Nashville are on reading level. The staggering statistics have led to new intervention efforts from Tennessee’s education leaders.

The Y is uniquely positioned to meet this need. Every year, our literacy program serves 200 students in grades K-4. More than 100 volunteers provide one-on-one tutoring at seven schools and three Y locations. It’s a free resource that focuses specifically on the essential components of literacy: phonics, fluency, comprehension and vocabulary.

Jordan Waller, Y-Literacy senior director, believes the program is helping fill a gap by focusing solely on literacy (instead of homework help) in young students. Research shows that a student who is a poor reader at the end of first grade will remain so by the end of fourth grade unless they get help.

“The Y is really good at identifying a need in our community—and literacy is number one right now,” she said. “Our program is one-of-a-kind.”


Literacy unlocks the door to success in all subjects.

“If they’re in the fourth grade and reading on a second grade level, they cannot read their math book; they can’t read their science book; they can’t read a recipe,” Jordan said. “It’s a core function to being able to excel at anything else. So, we’re really setting them up to succeed in school in general, not just in their reading.”

Christina said that Madison has also improved in math as a result of Y-Literacy.

Levi reported his recent good grades to his tutor, Kyle, before they got to work on literacy skills.

Fostering a love for learning

To finish up their hour together, Madison and Julia play a fast-paced words game.

“I like the slapping game because I always win,” Madison says.

Julia agrees. She said she recently made new cards for it because the words became too easy for Madison. Like all the tutors, Julia helps to make reading fun and offers an extra source of support outside of school and home.

“We have big goals,” Julia says.

The mentoring piece of the literacy program is central to its success. Jordan said some of her favorite stories involve nervous, first-time tutors and students who end up exceeding their reading goals and forming strong relationships by the end of the semester.

Y-Literacy senior director, Jordan Waller, helps distribute more than 1,000 books into the community annually.

“Having that positive role model in their life as well, that’s the dual aspect of our program,” she said.

The power of someone believing in another and helping them grow is immeasurable. Christina says when Madison comes home now, she reads to her little brother.

One child feels empowered to learn and soon, she’s teaching others. The ripple effect can extend from one family out into the community and beyond.

Get involved with Y-Literacy

Y-Literacy offers free one-on-one tutoring to Davidson County students grades K-4 who are reading below grade level. Learn more about volunteering or enrolling your student.