A Way With Words and Numbers helps improve Columbia children's reading, math skills

Saturday, April 21, 2012 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 7:48 a.m. CDT, Saturday, April 21, 2012

Editor's note: This is part of a special section on Columbia's kids. Read more here.

COLUMBIA — Kenny Yang understands what his students are going through. Although born in Wisconsin, Yang's first languages were Hmong and French, which he learned from his parents who came to the U.S. from Laos and Thailand.

How to help

Graduate and undergraduate students may download an application to volunteer for A Way With Words and Numbers from its website.

The group is located in the Student Success Center at MU. Call 882-5535 for more information.

Donations are also accepted and are applied to tutoring recognition, supplies and scholarships for volunteers. To make a donation, supporters may visit A Way With Words and Numbers' website.


Alpha Hart Lewis Elementary School, Benton Elementary School, Blue Ridge Elementary School, Boys and Girls Club, Cedar Ridge Elementary School, Columbia Public Library, Derby Ridge Elementary School, Fairview Elementary School, Gentry Middle School, Grant Elementary School, Lange Middle School, Lee Elementary School, Midway Heights Elementary School, Mill Creek Elementary School, Moving Ahead, New Haven Elementary School, Parkade Elementary School, Paxton Keeley Elementary School, Ridgeway Elementary School, Rock Bridge Elementary School, Russell Boulevard Elementary School, Shepard Boulevard Elementary School, Smithton Middle School, Two Mile Prairie Elementary School and West Boulevard Elementary School.

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Yang teaches children, some of whom are learning English as their second language, at the Columbia Public Library. Parents bring their children and sign them up for 30-minute sessions with A Way With Words and Numbers, an MU program that helps improve reading and math skills. 

"When they leave, I feel good I've been able to improve their literacy skills and made everyday life easier," Yang said.

Yang is one of the program's approximately 250 graduate and undergraduate tutors. A Way With Words and Numbers began in 1996 as a result of government funds to support the America Reads Initiative. Math was added to the program in 2002.

A Way With Words and Numbers sends its tutors to 25 locations throughout Columbia, based on availability. These locations include 19 elementary schools, three middle schools, Moving Ahead, the Boys and Girls Club and the library.

Tutors work with children individually, something that's not always possible in a classroom. Yet the program helps children beyond the classroom, too.

For Yeyoung Song, an 11-year-old from South Korea who plays the violin, piano and recorder, A Way With Words and Numbers has helped her improve her skills in the musical arts. Learning English has made it easier for her to count notes in music. 

Although the language tutoring also helps her work on her assignments for school, Yeyoung said she likes it when tutors ask about things other than school. Like a lot of children, she enjoys playing and learning outside of class.

Kwanwoo Yi, 10, also visits the library to learn with the help of A Way With Words and Numbers. Outside of school, he enjoys drawing comics about Harry Potter and watching the stars.

After visiting Kansas City, Kwanwoo found that he preferred Columbia because the buildings aren't as tall and there's a better view of the sky.

"Until you understand the student you're working with, you can't teach them," said Ashley McCoy, A Way With Words and Numbers tutor. "Relationships are key."

Like Yang, McCoy said she also thinks it is important to get to know the children before diving in.

"You never know what they're going through," she said.

One student McCoy worked with was far behind in school, and after learning more about him, McCoy was able to help.

"His parents weren't invested in his education," McCoy said. She used her own resources to print worksheets and spent extra time to help him catch up.

The interests and backgrounds of the children of Columbia vary. No two children are alike, and Yang and McCoy have learned to adapt to the needs of each student. 

"A Way With Words and Numbers has opened my eyes to the diversity of Columbia," Yang said.

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