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Saturday 7 December 2019
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Teaching children the love of reading: Aunty Marci’s Book Buddies

Book buddies, hold up their book Lions at Lunchtime from the Magic Tree House Series, as they celebrate their final day of the Book Buddies vacation camp at Nalis, Port of Spain.
Book buddies, hold up their book Lions at Lunchtime from the Magic Tree House Series, as they celebrate their final day of the Book Buddies vacation camp at Nalis, Port of Spain.


MANY people stress the importance of reading on a child, but few teach children the love of reading. Marcia La Borde wants to teach her "Book Buddies" the beauty and wonder that lie between the pages of a book.

La Borde, or Aunty Marci as her children fondly call her, created Book Buddies, a book club for children and teens when she wanted to get back into reading. She found most interest in children's literature, a type of work that was fun, fantastic, but deeply complex with powerful themes of resilience and overcoming odds.

"In advocating for reading, generally we have people who write books. Everyday people write books and we have stories that sell books. We have people who market books, but we don’t have many people to read books. We don’t have many people who inspire people to read books. We have people who talk about reading as well. All teachers, all educators, all policy makers talk about the importance of reading, who is actually helping people, inspiring people to read?"

Aunty Marci of Book Buddies (Marcia La Borde) poses with her two book buddies Jakeeda Jackson, left and Kelsee Lucas, right.

Newsday met with La Borde on July 19 at Nalis, Port of Spain where she concluded a two week vacation camp for children of the Port of Spain North/St Ann's West constituency supported by MP Stuart Young.

“We deal with what we call ‘reluctant readers’ on a daily basis. Most children now are reluctant, because we have pushed them to learn to read before teaching them there is joy and pleasure in reading, so we put the cart before the horse and tell them go learn to read without teaching them there is a benefit to reading, the joy, the value, the escape, a safe space, learning of new experiences... So the overarching goal of this camp is to get them to gravitate to books,” she said.

Approximately 60 students from 14 schools were treated free of charge to the camp. This is the third year Book Buddies held this camp. Approximately 200 students from the Port of Spain North/ St Ann's West constituency benefited from the reading camp.

“This camp was phenomenally successful. What we measure success by is engagement and interaction by participation and recall. We teach them how to remember and if we know they can recall we know they have read deeply, which is the ultimate goal we are seeking.”

La Borde said if they are reading then they are using their brains, their imagination, they are aware of issues in the world and they will ultimately learn.

The child’s ability to articulate and express themselves is another way La Borde measures success.

Stuart Young, MP for Port of Spain North/ St Ann's West, reads with a book buddy at Nalis, Port of Spain.

“When they first came (children in the camp), they were lacking in confidence. They weren’t able to form their sentences properly. By the end, everyone is screaming to talk.”

The children read Lions at Lunchtime from the Magic Tree House Series by Mary Pope Osborne, a book about Jack and Annie, two children transported to the plains of Africa where they have to solve a riddle. They encounter Masai warriors and African animals such as the lion, wildebeest and honeyguide.

La Borde said one of the most valuable parts of reading is the knowledge that lies in between the pages of the book. Through the book the children learned about the continent of Africa, countries such as Tanzania and Kenya and the Mara River. They also learned about animal migration patterns, the difference between a plain and a savannah, the Masai warrior's relationship with the honeyguide bird.

“The honeyguide, is a little grey bird that lives inside of the forest.They honeyguide goes after the honey in the beehive, but so does the Masai warrior. The Masai does not know where to find the honey, so the honeyguide comes to guide the warrior. The warrior follows the honeyguide and gets to the beehive and chases away the bees, gets the honey and having chased away the bees then they honeyguide can get the honey comb and have his share of the honey, so they are dependent on each other and connected. That connectivity and teamwork was another theme in the book.”

Rene Davis, teacher at Book Buddies, supervises a group of children before their final Book Buddies class begins at Nalis, Port of Spain.

Book Buddies is celebrating its fifth anniversary in September 2019. Over the five years La Borde has interacted with approximately 500 children. The programme has three initiatives: the holiday reading programme with children from Young's constituency. The second is a corporate social responsibility initiative, where companies or major corporations sponsor the programme in government primary schools. For the past two years a company from the banking sector has sponsored a Book Buddies programme in Rosary Boys, Bossier RC, Sacred Heart Girls and Belmont Girls for 30 children per school.

The third Book Buddy programme is a premier initiative where parents pay for their children to take part. In that programme La Borde is able to see her students grow as they return every year to her class.

“The children spend more time with us in a personal, private capacity and so they stay for two or three years and we see that development. We’ve had children who have been with us from the very start who have stayed for five years and we see their development over time.”

Book Buddies classes typically revolve around book talk, where the group discusses the book, their likes and dislikes, they identify themes in the books and identify characters such as the protagonist and antagonists.

“The concept is based on encouraging, motivating and instilling the joy and pleasure through reading groups, so they get together with their peers, that in itself is a motivation. Talking about your books is the best way to learn. It’s the best way to use the words you’ve learnt. By talking about the concepts, you’ve learnt how to express yourself articulately. Book talk within the reading group is critical to the development of the child.”

A book buddy takes a selfie with Stuart Young, MP for Port of Spain/ St Ann's West, as the final day of the vacation camp at NALIS, Port of Spain

Through her programme however, there are a set of words prohibited from the mouth of a book buddy, and these are called: "baby words."

“Children tend to overuse some words and those words eventually become abused or stuck on those words and they don’t realise they are stunting their expression by not using bigger words. So those types of words that are overused and worn out we call them baby words."

Words such as good, bad, great, kind, nice and mean are baby words. She said once a character displays negative behaviour, that person is referred to by the children as mean instead of cruel, evil, malevolent, contemptuous, vengeful or scornful.

“It’s all mean, and mean encompasses everything for them, but mean does not tell you that much.”

When an author uses a word the children do not know, La Borde plays the inference game with them.

“We teach the meaning of new words. We teach them when they don’t know the meaning of a word, they can try to figure it our or infer the meaning by a technique.”

She teaches the children to read the sentence, then read the sentence above, the sentence below, if not read the whole paragraph. She said this technique is particularly helpful with the students’ comprehension, in particular when they are in exam mode.

Book Buddies is not only about studies. They play games as well, such as quiz contests.

“We play games because we have to make it fun, we have to make it stimulating and they love it. It’s competitive, but healthy competition of course.”

Quality content books are important for La Borde. She chooses the books that are filled with enriching information for her Book Buddies. Themes such as environmentalism, recidivism rates of juvenile offenders and education are all themes Book Buddies tackle in their reading circle.

“Content is important because I don’t want to offend parents. I have to be careful. I am dealing with a lot of children here. I’m not picking a book for my own child. I am picking a book for many children. So I have to be careful of what I choose.”

She prefers to use books awarded the Newbery Medal by the Association for Library Service to Children. Books such as Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, Kate DiCamillo’s The Tales of Despereaux and Carl Hiaasen’s Hoot are all books used in her class.

She chooses books by authors as well. Those authors who she considers are phenomenal are Roald Dahl, CS Lewis, Michael Murporgo and Lemony Snicket,

“These are world famous authors and they have written tonnes and tonnes of books which have been read by millions of children all over the world. Our children in Book Buddies are reading what their peers around the world are reading. So they are on par in terms of literature and reading books.

“They could go to any part of the world and meet up with somebody or maybe a peer who has read the same book that they have read and they could share the same book and that sharing could ignite a relationship.”

Size is also a factor in book choice as her children read a book a month.

“For the little ones in the five to eight year old category, we do picture books or books with illustrations. Smaller books for the nine to 12-year-olds and even up to the 15-year-olds, because we do have some 15-year-olds, who stay with us after SEA (Secondary Entrance Assessment). They read novels, because by reading novels, they are doing more, they are building their minds, they are building their memories, they are building their consciousness by reading novels, and by nine years they should be reading novels anyway.”

Though La Borde exposes her children to a wide range of authors, her favourite is British fantasy writer, Roald Dahl.

“I love Dahl. From working in this field, everyone loves Dahl. I don’t push Dahl in Book Buddies, but ultimately, inevitably, without fail, they begin calling on the Dahl books.

“I personally love the fantasy of Dahl. The fantasy takes you to another level. It takes you to places you would not imagine you could go. Not that these things are real, they are fantasy, but you can go there, or that you could create that in your mind, and it can do something for you and it’s fascinating that you could imagine anything, you could create anything in your mind before coming back to Earth.”

La Borde loves that Dahl raises children up in his stories. She says his children always become the heroes of his books. Animals are also the heroes of his books.

“Dahl always had a problem with how adults treated children. Adults would bully them or be aggressive or abusive to them and in his books the children always come out transcending, overcoming or out doing or getting the better of the adult.”

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