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Programs - 1999

Service Learning with a Literature Focus:
Literacy Development and Service Learning
Kaye Anderson, Ph.D.
Department of Teacher Education
California State University Long Beach

With the current crisis in literacy development in the United States, accompanied by innumerable conditions in our society at large which detract from optimal literacy development (a general anti-intellectual mindset, parents who for a variety of reasons may not sufficiently reinforce literacy practices in the home, large student-teacher ratios in many classrooms preventing quality guidance for young learners, and in some cases teachers who are underprepared themselves to teach literacy), I came to the conclusion— along with a growing number of others across the country—that something very different is needed to provide students with the support they need to become motivated learners, skilled in various aspects of literacy, and knowledgeable of a range of subject matter and the ability to make connections of that information to their lives and across disciplines.

Proposed solutions often include inviting older students and adult volunteers to work one-on-one with needy youngsters so they can improve their literacy skills, devoting time to literacy practices such as in after-school sessions, and emphasizing reading instruction in classrooms. Research cited in the America Reads Challenge Resource Kit (http://www.ed.gov/inits/ americareads/resourcekit/misdocs/tutorwork.html) verifies
that tutoring helps improve literacy. Logically, tutoring is more effective when tutors are trained in helpful practices.

I have been interested in finding out if older elementary students (youngsters with whom we have direct influence in elementary schools) can be trained to help youngsters K-2 improve their literacy as a service learning activity. The purpose of this presentation is to allow others to learn from my action research involving defining a limited number of helpful practices so that they are readily accessible to tutors and establishing a peer-tutoring program. The following information describes four essential activities, presents insights regarding initiating such a program, and identifies next steps.

Four Helpful Lessons

I believe it is necessary for optimal literacy learning that tutors provide on as regular a basis as possible (daily if possible) four activities or lessons. Each of the four lessons, which have produced helpful results whenever they have been implemented, can be modified in an infinite number of ways to meet the changing needs of youngsters as they develop in their literacy journey:

1. Real Reading of Good Books. This lesson includes the tutors reading aloud to children and/or children reading to tutors accompanied by discussions of the books to enrich children‚s understanding of the material and to encourage interest in other literacy experiences.

2. Describing and Labeling Pictures. In this lesson the tutors (a) lead a discussion of a picture so children bring meaning to the visual representation, (b) lead children to spell, with assistance as needed, words and word phrases to label various elements in the picture (including, as desired, a title for the picture and a sentence about it) while the tutors write those labels on a chart to which the picture is affixed and children connect the written labels with the picture, and (c) periodically during the lesson they help the children review (name) the words written to help them practice their sight vocabulary with the assistance of the pictures.

3. A Beginning Research Activity. This versatile lesson involves children searching for a limited amount of time in a newspaper, magazine, or various other printed material (book, phone directory, menu, map, etc.) to find words with a specific pattern (e.g., words which contain the spelling pattern IE) and/or words which relate to a specific category (they name things, show action, have 2 syllables, are related to weather or another topic, etc.). The items found are recorded (by highlighting, cutting and pasting, or writing down words) and shared with others searching for the same item(s) in different material.

4. Studying Words (including Spelling and Writing). In this tutor-led activity, children first brainstorm words which conform to a particular pattern (e.g., words which contain, anywhere in them, the sound at the beginning of the words CITY and SAID and/or words which relate to a specific category, such as they name things, show action, have 2 syllables, are related to weather or another topic, etc.) and tutors write them on a chart. Following that, children look for patterns among the words brainstormed and they practice spelling words of their choice and writing words, phrases, and/or sentences which contain words brainstormed or other similar words.

Insights Regarding Implementing a Tutoring Program

1. While it is possible to implement lessons #2, #3, and #4 with individual students, the lessons work even better with groups of children because students can learn from the experience and knowledge of others and they are frequently motivated by such group interaction. Until children have had scores of experiences working with the lessons as participants where they have observed a leader effectively work with groups, it is unrealistic to expect them to be able to implement lessons with more than one child. Therefore, a choice must be made whether these lessons should be implemented in their less-effective fashion with a tutor working with one child OR whether these lessons should be reserved for older students and/or adults working
with groups of children.

2. Youngsters are eager and willing to assist younger students. An impediment, however, is that their own skills are often severely lacking. When students misspell words on charts, for example, it is necessary that someone work with them to help them compare their invented spelling with the standard form (while simultaneously convincing them by counting the number of letters they got right that they are good invented spellers and reinforcing the notion that mistakes can be fixed and we often learn best from our mistakes). Another problem which arises in the Describing and Labeling Pictures lesson is that young tutors are sometimes more eager to complete a chart (so they do much of it themselves) than to provide an opportunity for a child to use language, make decisions, spell words, and practice sight vocabulary. Since youngsters are often motivated extrinsically, it may be necessary to institute a strong incentive program so young tutors develop a sense of ownership over the notion of helping someone else learn.

3. When a reading specialist institutes a tutoring program and can be on-site only once a week, it is essential that individuals on site are familiar with the program so they can encourage continuation of the program on other days. A regular schedule, including which student tutors which child or which lessons will be implemented at which time slots, can be a useful tool to ensure that the program continues and to assure tutors that they still have time for activities which they enjoy engaging in, such as eating snacks and visiting with their friends.

4. In order for there to be the greatest continuity of a child's learning journey, it is advantageous to enlist the support of parents to support and reinforce a tutoring program (by showing interest in their child's progress, by reading to/listening to their child read 20-30 minutes daily, by sharing with caregivers in an after-school program the topics the child is studying at school, etc.) so these programs can enhance learning in regular school programs. Additionally, it is helpful for children to see a description of developmental growth in various aspects of literacy (such as is available when districts identify academic standards, such as those of the Long Beach Unified School District) to encourage children to become responsible for their own growth and development.

5. It is extremely difficult to describe these lessons in such a way that someone unfamiliar with teaching can readily implement them while simultaneously describing multiple variations to meet the growing needs of children. Too much information can obscure the relative simplicity of the lessons and can inhibit tutors from implementing them. Simultaneously, in some after-school programs (such as those the YMCA conducts in the greater Phoenix area), program coordinators are seeking “canned” programs which can be readily implemented in multiple sites simultaneously. Possibly the easiest way to accommodate these seemingly contradictory perspectives is for someone very familiar with the four lessons and ways to modify them to work directly with adults who then directly implement the lessons with groups of students. In this way a limited amount of information can be provided to tutors initially and, in meeting regularly with an experienced practitioner to reflect on their experience, tutors can refine their knowledge of varying lessons as they themselves have questions.

Next Steps

At this time I am continuing to refine descriptions of the lessons so many people can implement them. Next fall I am planning to train adult tutors who will begin implementing the program in several YMCAs next year. I am also eager to find others around the nation interested in using these techniques and sharing experiences (Please contact me). I continue to believe that it is possible for older elementary students to help children improve their literacy skills, but such experimentation at this time must be conducted with those who have more direct influence with such students than I do. It is my hope that ties with Federal programs can be made in the future so children who tutor in such programs can earn credit for college.


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