Reading champ's first language is Arabic
Arizona Daily Star
May 3, 2009


Tucson, Arizona | Published:

Sarra Said can hardly go a day without picking up a book.

She devoured the four-book "Twilight" series in 26 days. Each installment is 500-plus pages; the latest exceeds 750.

When the 15-year-old is not in class at Amphitheater High School, she has her nose in a book.

She reads between classes.

She reads at lunch.

She reads after school.

And she reads before bed.

What's so remarkable about Sarra's love of books is that she couldn't speak a word of English when she and her family arrived in Tucson almost two years ago from Tripoli, Libya.

"I tell myself I will try to go one day without reading, and I see my little brothers reading and I say, 'Let me see what you are reading,' " Sarra said.

Sarra, whose first language is Arabic, was honored for having read 1,547,525 words, which amounts to more than 40 books, since October at an Accelerated Reader celebration Friday for about 130 English-language learners at Amphi.

Her copy of "Gone With the Wind," which has more than 1,000 pages, is her current companion, so she'll probably reach 2 million words by the end of the school year.

Sarra's quest to read more than 1 million words is part of the English Language Development Department's "Million Word Challenge."

Department Chairwoman Jayne Huseby and her staff started the challenge three years ago to change the culture of reading among the English language learners at Amphi.

Students in the department have read a combined 18.5 million words since October.

"I want to put a generous helping of books in front of the students, and I hope they enjoy the taste," Huseby said.

Sarra's classmate and friend Abraham Vargas, who arrived in Tucson from Sonora almost three years ago and spoke no English, read 1,078,072 words and was runner-up to Sarra in the challenge.

Both are intermediate-level students in Huseby's class.

"They have been true role models for our department," Huseby said.

Abraham's brother, Jesus Vargas, had the third-highest word total among Huseby's students: He read more than 717,000 words.

Razan Saleh read just over 690,000 words, and Homa Shayan read a little more than 600,000 words.

Luis Cota surpassed 534,000 words.

Students taking part in the challenge only added words to their total count after they passed a computerized Accelerated Reader multiple-choice test to measure their comprehension of a book.

Accelerated Reader is a computer-assisted reading program used in the Amphi district.

Participating in the "Million Word Challenge" and the Millionaire's Book Club for ELLs helped Abraham and Sarra appreciate books. Both admit to not being too fond of reading before the challenge.

One particular series of books changed Sarra's and Abraham's outlook.

"I read just to get my grade or for an assignment. I didn't read for fun," Sarra said. "When I read the 'Twilight' series, I feel like the character Bella is me. The 'Twilight' books changed my life."

Abraham is blunt about his past distaste for books.

"I want to be honest. I didn't like to read," he said. "All the 'Twilight' stories came out and I enjoyed reading. Now I read for hobby."

And both are better students because of their affinity for words.

"We build our vocabulary. We are able to pass tests, like AZELLA and AIMS (Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards). We have the ability to read any books we want," Sarra said.

Vargas, 19, passed the writing and reading portions of the AIMS test which high school students must pass to graduate this school year.

He is scheduled to graduate May 21. "Reading has helped me a lot," Abraham said. "It helps me with writing."

Sarra, a sophomore, will no longer have to take designated English language learner courses because she just recently passed the AZELLA test.

Students deemed proficient on the Arizona English Language Learner Assessment, or AZELLA test, are labeled fluent and make the leap from ELL classes to mainstream classes.

That means Sarra won't be able to defend her title next school year, but she won't unload her backpack full of books anytime soon.

"Until there are no books in the world, that's when I'm going to stop reading," she said.

Contact reporter Andrea Rivera at 806-7737 or