FAIRMONT - "I am thinking of boy's name that begins with M!" sings Robin Armitage to a bus full of preschoolers. "M sounds like mmm."
The kids respond with a chorus of names - some starting with M, some not - but nevertheless, this is a breakthrough.
"They are shooting out sounds and understanding what a sound means," she said.
Above: Head Start aide Robin Armitage plays a game with kids Thursday afternoon at Lincoln School in Fairmont.
Armitage is teaching the students that letter sounds are used for more than singing the alphabet, a concept she says needs to be shared intentionally.
A new program is helping Armitage, a Head Start preschool teacher's aide, find new ways to connect literacy skills with activities and games that children will enjoy.
She is participating this year as a Minnesota Reading Corps professional member, meaning she has received special training aimed at enriching the children's learning environment so that every activity encourages literacy skills.
For example, each day of the four-day school week, students are read the same book.
"We read it on Monday, to familiarize the kids with the book, touching on vocabulary," Armitage said. "The next day we build on that. It is a scaffolding effect."
By the fourth day, students are able to come in front of the group and explain what is happening in the book - "reading" it - even before they can read.
This is the first year a Reading Corps member has volunteered in Fairmont.
Members serve for one to two years, completing 17,000 hours of service between August and July, including five civic engagement activities each year.
Armitage, who as a professional member can count her working hours toward her service, will receive an award at the end of the year. She has worked with Head Start for nine years.
But she said she is getting a greater reward than she expected.
"I am getting a fresh, new look at what I am doing and why I am doing it," she said. "It is so rewarding when the kids are saying, 'It's a B!' Kids are getting ginormous words. It is really nice to see them being so excited about literacy activities. Everything they do is fun. They love it."
Even after spending nearly a decade with Head Start, Armitage is seeing learning literacy in a new way.
"I did not realize how difficult rhyming is," she said. "We have to be very intentional. It is so much more rewarding. It isn't just having them go play and teaching them to be nice. It is getting them ready for kindergarten."
Students are tested three times per year to gauge their progress in pre-reading skills, and although they just finished their first round of testing, Armitage already can see the program is working.
"They love it," she said. "They are asking for more, and we have only been in school since September 14. We have English Language Learners that are just coming alive."
The Minnesota Reading Corps recruits and trains members to provide extra support for children who are at risk for not reading at their grade level.
Students up to third grade are eligible for Reading Corps assistance.
Armitage said students who aren't fluent readers before third grade face challenges in school and life.
"They say from preschool to second grade you are learning to read," she said. "From third grade on you are reading to learn."
Minnesota Reading Corps, which began in 2003, as a part of AmeriCorps, has grown to include 555 tutors at 161 sites across the state.
Armitage, part of the Reading Corps SEED program, will teach what she has learned to other Head Start teachers in the area.
She said her excitement about the program has caused the other teachers to give her a hard time.
"They say, 'You've been bitten by the Reading Corps bug!'" she said. "But I can't help it. I am absolutely in love with the program."