Third-grader Aalliyah Tate’s bookshelf is straining under the weight of all her books.

She loves to read and participate in other worlds.

“I always like to play a part in the book,” said the 8-year-old Aalliyah.

Two years ago, Aalliyah was able to read but had trouble comprehending everything. Then a partner from the Volunteers in Public Schools Everybody Reads program began meeting with her every week and reading with her.

“She grew, yes she did. She grew a whole lot,” said Edna Calvin, Aalliyah’s reading partner. “She was a little sponge. She wanted to learn.”

Aalliyah has always been smart, said her father, Bruce Tate Sr. But she didn’t get as much one-on-one reading time as she needed, he said. Tate works during the day as a concrete finisher and at night as a school janitor, and Aalliyah’s mother works nights. They regularly work on homework early in the morning.

“It’s not like we want it to be,” Tate said. “The extra help comes in really good.”

For 30 to 45 minutes each week, Calvin would read to Aalliyah and ask her questions about the text. Then Aalliyah would read to Calvin and tell her what she had learned.

That interaction is all many students need to improve their reading skills, said Tony Pryer, the VIPS Everybody Reads coordinator.

“It’s not just about reading a book,” Pryer said. “It’s about getting hands-on with them.”

Reading friends, as they are called in the program, help with students’ vocabulary, comprehension and phonics. Most importantly, they expose the students to the joy of reading.

Pryer said the students see noticeable changes when they get 20 sessions with a volunteer. Administrators tell Pryer they often see students’ behavior improve along with their reading skills.

“You start to see students make more gains academically, and it closes the achievement gap that tends to grow wider each year for students with reading skills deficits,” Pryer said.

Teachers choose which children would benefit most from the reading program. Students with learning disabilities that affect their reading skills are often not placed into Everybody Reads. They often need more intensive help, Pryer said.

Students like Aalliyah, who needs help in just one or two areas, are perfect for the program, Pryer said.

Retired after working 30 years at BellSouth, Calvin enjoys volunteering.

“The time goes by so fast,” said Calvin, who is 70. “And when you have a student who is eager to explore or learn, it makes the time go by swiftly.”

Calvin trained to be a teacher in college, but then decided she didn’t want to teach full time.

Reading friends don’t have to be trained teachers, Pryer said. They don’t need to be college educated, either.

“You just have to have a heart for children and time to dedicate to the program and the student you’re matched with,” Pryer said.

This year Aalliyah has progressed so far that she does not need a reading friend. She spends time with her favorite books — those featuring Dora the Explorer — and is a straight-A student, said her father, who is grateful for the assistance the VIPS program gave.

“That makes a parent feel really good,” Tate said, “when you have someone that interested in your child.”