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Steps to Success: Learning to Read and Getting a Library Card


In Sapphire’s award-winning novel Push, Precious Jones gets her first library card at the Harlem Library. For hundreds of reading-challenged teenagers and adults who find help at NYPL’s Centers for Reading and Writing each year, learning to read and obtaining a library card is a key step on the road to success. NYPL News wanted to find out more about students like Precious, so we talked to NYPL Literacy Site Advisor Steven Mahoney.

What do you like best about NYPL?
Just like New York City, the diversity that makes up the New York Public Library truly makes it a one of a kind place. Aside from the vast collections and resources the library provides, simply visiting the city’s different neighborhoods, and seeing the populations that call the branch libraries home is like having a plane ticket to anywhere, all for the cost of a library card.

What's the most rewarding part of your job?
Right from the beginning, we ask our students what their goals are for joining this program. We want to know what they want to use their reading and writing for, and use that information to tailor lessons that convey greater meaning and use to our students’ lives. While some come to us with long term goals of getting their GED, and being able to go to college, most have more short term and immediate goals of advancing their reading and writing skills enough to pass their citizenship exam, or being able to read their mail independently. The most rewarding part of my job is being able to take this journey with my students and see the progress they make each day, until they reach their goals, and we can celebrate their success together.

How has the Internet impacted literacy?
The Internet has had a HUGE impact on literacy! Online forms, internet banking, and email all provide meaningful, real world practice for reading and writing development that my students need and ask for. Further, as students are doing some reading in class and they stumble upon a vocabulary word they don’t understand, with the Internet, they can do a simple Google search, and often times find an understandable definition or even a picture giving the student clarity.

Do you use new media to teach reading and writing at NYPL? Do your students publish a blog?
All of the Centers for Reading and Writing offer comprehensive software to develop basic reading and writing skills as well as provide an introduction to computing. However, over the last few years, with the advancement of technology, students are coming in asking for help in reading and writing in different formats. On Monday afternoons I offer my students a more formal computer class where we have learned about various forms of new media. Students have developed Facebook pages, learned how to use instant messengers, and we have established a pen pal system using email. I’ve also been witness to my students and tutors texting each other with homework reminders or to just check in! On the Centers for Reading and Writing website, you can also see Writer’s Voices . That is our online forum where students can publish and share writing they are most proud of, or express what’s on their mind.

What books do you recommend to your students?
In the CRW’s we have a rich collection of materials, which are all at or below a 6th grade reading level. When it comes to recommending books to the students, it’s vital to know what level their reading is at, and if they plan to read independently or with their tutor. But generally, if I were to give my first choice of book for a beginning, intermediate and advanced student it would be:

Beginning student: Stress, by Laurie Gould

Intermediate student: Poetry in Motion: 100 Poems from the Subways and Buses, edited by Molly Peacock, Elise Paschen, and Neil Neches

Advanced student: The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.

About Steven

NYPL Literacy Site Advisor Steven MahoneyNYPL Literacy Site Advisor Steven MahoneySteven Mahoney has been a Literacy Site Advisor with the New York Public Library since 2005 overseeing operations and instruction at both the Harlem and St. Agnes Centers for Reading and Writing. With a Master’s of Art in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), Steve has worked in adult education and literacy for over ten years, having previously taught migrant farm workers, and working as a program administrator for a non-profit’s ESOL program. Steve is currently working on his MLS degree at St. John’s University.

About the Center for Reading and Writing

NYPL’s Center for Reading and Writing helps adults improve their reading and writing skills in a comfortable setting at several locations throughout Manhattan, The Bronx and Staten Island.

Volunteer tutors play an important role at the Center. They lead small groups and read and write together with students twice a week. If you are interested in making a difference in the lives of these students, visit our volunteer information page.