A Bilingual Literacy Experience in Tertiary Education: A Study
Raquel Fernández Fernández, Spain
Raquel Fernández is a university teacher working at a teacher training college in Alcalá de Henares (Madrid, Spain), where she also coordinates its bilingual project. She holds a PhD on the use of literature in EFL and has contributed to a good number of seminars, workshops and publications. E-mail: email@example.com
Context and participants
The literacy plan
The final questionnaire
The observation diary
The following article is focused on the study of a literacy experience I developed in a teacher training college in Spain (Escuela Universitaria Cardenal Cisneros). A group of students taking an optional subject on English language and literature took part on three activities which aimed at promoting a more aesthetic reading (Rosenblatt, 2005), and increasing their awareness of the importance of enjoying reading and writing books. The activities were the creation of a Spell Book, a newsstand and a bookcrossing experience.
Effective literacy is defined as “(…) intrinsically purposeful, flexible and dynamic and continues to develop throughout an individual’s lifetime” (Australian language and literacy policy, 1991). If one of the European Union first priorities is to help students master two Community foreign languages, as the European Union Education Commission indicates in its White Paper on Education and Training (1995), we should pay attention to the development and expansion of the literacy skills of our students.
In Spain, the concept of learning how to read and write, termed as “lectoescritura” has been traditionally linked to the first stages of children’s schooling (see Fernández and Halbach, 2007 and 2009 for more on this). Literacy skills in tertiary education have thus remained unexplored and almost forgotten. Nevertheless, it seems obvious that if literacy is part of the life-long learning of students, we should not take for granted that university students already know how to cope with reading and writing.
This article describes an experience which aims at attracting the attention towards the importance of offering students’ literacy-enhanced learning environments. It follows prior research of the author focused on improving students’ reading experiences by using diaries (Fernández, 2007) and enhancing aesthetic experiences (Fernández, 2006). More specifically, the literacy plan tries to implement a personal growth model of reading and writing (see Carter and Long (1991) for more about this concept), and following the guidelines stated in a previous study on this approach (see Fernández, 2008). The experience also tries to put into practice the concept of “loop input” (see Woodward, 1991), as if valuable and rich reading and writing experiences are given to future teachers, these may be transferable to the primary and secondary education classrooms.
Our Teacher Training College (Escuela Universitaria Cardenal Cisneros) was established by the Marist Brothers (a Catholic congregation) in 1973, and it is administratively linked to the worldwide known University of Alcalá (which dates back to 1499). The basic features of the teaching at our Escuela are the close relationship with students, the emphasis on cooperative work and the relevance of affective factors in the learning process, such as favouring communication, tolerance or collaboration with others.
Students taking part in this study were enrolled in the optional subject “English language and English children literature” during the course 2009/2010. I have been responsible for this subject since 2007, when it was offered for the first time after some years of absence in the teacher training programme. I took the “double hat” of teacher and researcher, paying careful attention to ensure research validity and feasibility.
The subject is offered during the second term (from March until May) and lasts for 50 hours (5 hours per week). It is taught in English and Spanish although there is a higher focus on English in the last weeks of the course. An integrated approach of both language and content is used in the classroom.
The participants were 13 (10 women and 3 men). The low rate of men is common in the Teacher Training studies at our college, being the women the highest percentage of students in all years and modalities. The ages in this group ranged from 20 to 39. About their level of English, this ranged from elemental to advanced, although most students considered to have an intermediate/upper-intermediate proficiency level. All of them were in the last year of their studies, although 7 of them were studying the Infant Education Teacher degree while the other 6 were taking the Foreign Language Teacher degree.
The main data gathering tools were an initial questionnaire, a final questionnaire, and a diary of observations. The university teacher was also the researcher, and to avoid biased results the use of different research tools was advised.
The initial questionnaire was given at the beginning of the term to check students’ reading preferences. This also helps the university teacher choose the reading list for that year. Students should also explain their expectations on the course. In this sense, most of the participants in the study said that they were looking forward to finding new ways of working with literary texts. Some stated that they did not like reading and wanted to raise their motivation towards books, and half of them explained that their experiences with literature were not satisfactory (not in Spanish or in English), providing some examples that were closer to the cultural and language models described by Carter and Long (1991).
The syllabus of the subject consists of eight topics. Each of them has a reflection section and a practical application part. Some of the topics included in the syllabus are “How to create motivation towards reading in the classroom”, “How to work storytelling”, “Models of teaching reading”, “Literature and new technologies”, etc. The theoretical grounding of the course is based on Rosenblatts’ work and on a core book (see Fernández, 2008), which establishes the starting point to work with the personal growth model and fostering an aesthetic stance, as explained by Rosenblatt.
Along the syllabus of the subject, students should carry out a long-term plan. Each year I suggest a different activities or set of activities to my students, depending on their likes and dislikes, the classroom atmosphere I can share with them, and the time and resources available. To do that, I give them an initial questionnaire in which students indicate the amount of time they dedicate to reading (both in the mother tongue and in English), their favourite genres, and what they expect from the subject. In that way, I design a tailor-made long-term project which will suit their likes.
In the case of the students of the course 2009/2010, they were heterogeneous both in their likes and dislikes and their reading habits. However, most of them agreed upon their willing to experience literature from a different perspective, and to know how to make their students be involved and enjoy reading and writing. These ideas made me organise three different activities around the reading and writing process:
- The Spell Book
- The Reading Corner
- The Bookcrossing
The usefulness and value of the three experiences would be checked through an end-of-course questionnaire. In that way, advantages and disadvantages will be collected, and suggestions for improvement or change will be taken into account for future lessons.
The Spell Book
This idea was taken and adapted from the website:
I brought to the classroom the Spell Book available at the link above, called “Spells to Grow Up” and focused on professions. It came out as a surprise that they thought that the book was originally intended to make students improve their spelling mistakes. When they encountered a magic book, the atmosphere of the classroom changed completely. I chose each of the students and read out loud each of the spells. Students had to carry out the actions asked for in each of the incantations, and they could check the usefulness of the material taking the role of the infant or primary student. The activities ended up with great enthusiasm. Students highlighted the main uses of the Spell Book, as it was a great resource to check students’ comprehension, develop vocabulary, foster cooperative work in the classroom (by letting students help each other to understand the instructions), and it was a good attention-catching material.
I then suggested them the idea of taking some colour cardboards for the next class and elaborating their own Spell Book. Students were engaged with this task for two hours. They each created a different Spell Book with different topics, such as “How to help a desperate student” or “How to get what you wish”. All of them were carefully written and presented, using a hand-made binding.
It was interesting to note that students had the need to exchange their writing long before the book was finished. Students asked for opinion to those around them, some of them checked if the spelling was appropriate, some other were searching for ideas to complete a rhyme. Soon after the books were ready, students use their invented incantations with their mates in the classroom. They read aloud with a mysterious or funny intonation, choose one of their colleagues (or they volunteered to participate) and follow the procedure I had shown during the presentation of the original Spell Book.
The Reading Corner
One of the most common activities in the subject is to write down a plan to foster reading in a school. Taking that my students were clearly very kinaesthetic, I considered that this activity could better work if carried it out. In April I asked my students for opinion about the idea of having a Reading Corner in one of the corridors of the College. Students considered the activity very challenging, and could not stop suggesting ideas about what colours to use, which sections to include, etc. We finally decide to use the shape of a newsstand made of paper (see appendix), and include the following sections:
- The reading of the week. This was a tale (in English or Spanish) that was photocopied and available for passers-by to take and read at home or in their way back home using public transport.
- Events. Here we announced events related to literature. We chose some book releases and theatre plays of some interest they could see in Madrid.
- Opinion box. Students design and prepare a box (similar to a ballot box) and make available some pieces of coloured paper. Their main aim was to encourage visitors to write their suggestions for improvement and put them inside the box.
- Links. Students looked for Internet links related to the teaching of reading and writing. They found particularly useful those including illustrations or videos.
- Recipes. This was a section students introduced later one. One of the students was very interested in cooking, and we launched the new section presenting a recipe and offering it (once prepared) to the visitors. It was a way of including taste in our reading corner.
- Poll. Students suggested two polls along the three months during which the reading corner was available. The first poll was about the favourite book of students. They could then write the title on a piece of paper and stick it on the poll board. The second poll was about their favourite literary character.
- The box of gifts. Students prepared some bookmarkers, printed and laminated them and give them for free to passers-by. This, together with the reading tales, had a great success.
Each week one hour of the subject was devoted to the organization of the editorial board. The teacher read aloud the sections and each student was in charge of finding out and bringing material for each of them. Materials could be in English or Spanish. Students also checked the reading corner every day to see if something was missing or needed. They enjoyed telling the rest of students that the reading newsstand was their creating and encourage others to participate in the polls.
At the end of the experience, we had some information from our visitors (apart from being fan of bookmarkers). The favourite book of visitors was “A song of ice and fire” by George RR Martin, and the favourite character was Mafalda, a cartoon character. We also gathered opinions of students which were interested in the bookcrossing activity (see below) and many writings were dedicated to praise the initiative of having a reading corner and encourage creators to keep on making available interesting writings and places to share opinions and ideas.
The Bookcrossing experience
Keeping in mind that my students needed to experience books from a different way from the one they accustomed to, I decided to start a bookcrossing project. Bookcrossing consists in registering books with a number or code and some contact details, leaving them in public places, and keeping track of the “trip” of the book by looking at the web. People finding the book should register it with its code in a website, and they should write an entry about when and where they found it, and anything relating to the reading experience.
At the beginning, I suggested them a local experience organised by the creation of a blog in which students could follow the route of books but this idea was too complex. We then entered the website www.bookcrossing-spain.com and found it a better idea to register there under the name “los quiosqueros” (the newsstand owners), making reference to our newsstand at the College. We then gathered second-hand books (some were brought by the students, some were collected from other teachers and classmates), and register them in the website.
The last step was to spread the word about our bookcrossing project. I sent an e-mail to all my colleagues to let them know that they should inform their students. We also designed some posters with information about why some books were going to appear “alone” in the college, and what students were supposed to do with them. Last, but not least, we took advantage of the day we were presenting our recipe (see in the reading corner section) and create some stickers saying “I’m a bookcrosser” for those students who visited the newsstand. That was a good chance to meet them and let them know about the initiative.
A total of 11 books were “released” in the public space. Students used a password to enter the bookcrossing webpage and check if the books had been caught or if they were still travelling. The experience was not successful at the beginning, as nobody seemed to have seen the books. Later on, two people had caught two books, and they left some messages in the user profile on the website. This was a really motivating event for students, and they started to discuss why some books could be more attractive than others to people, and which could be the best places to leave books for students of our college.
Students evaluated the subject at the end of May using a questionnaire written by the teacher. The questionnaire consisted of 5 questions:
- How would you evaluate your progress in the subject? Why?
- What do you like more of this subject? What would you suggest to be used again next course?
- What do you like less of this subject and suggest not to be used again?
- Which of the resources and materials used you consider useful? Why?
- How would you rate the most theoretical presentations? Have they been informative and helpful?
Although the questionnaire was intended to have a global evaluation of the subject, it was expected for students to name the three literacy experiences explained before and describe their opinion about them. In what follows you can find extracts from the students’ evaluation sheets. Three of the evaluations have not been included because they repeat ideas mentioned here.
One student says: “I’ve loved the idea of fostering reading habit at the College through the bookcrossing activity and the newsstand. I also loved the Spell Book. I consider them useful resources that I’ll use in the future in my classroom and, apart from them, they’ve been helpful for my self-realization too”
Another student states: “I’ve enjoyed the newsstand because it makes people participate and contribute in an activity. It is a good way of social interaction. I’ve seen that it is really important to create a good atmosphere in (and out) the classroom to enhance learning and sharing”
A third student indicates: “The best things have been the newsstand and the bookcrossing experience. I wish I had more time to devote on them during the course”
The fourth student considers that: “I’ve found the Spell Book a great practice. In fact, I’m using it to cheer me up when I’m low. I love the newsstand, it’s been great to participate in this activity”
One student also says that: “With all the activities in the subject I have learned to use many resources and to see the theory carrying out the practice. I’ve learned having a good time, and it is the best way for me to learn effectively. Apart from that, I’ve improved my English a lot”.
Another student confesses that: “I have the feeling I’ve learned things without noticing it, I mean, I have been involved in activities and experiences along the course, and it is only now that I am realizing that I have learned a lot with them. I love the newsstand, you can use millions of ideas with it, and you can take materials outside the classroom and make people participate”.
The seventh extract comes from the writing of a student who wrote that: “The best thing has been the bookcrossing activity. I think that it has improved the human relationship among the students in the classroom and we had a great time preparing materials for the rest of the college”.
Another student indicated that: “The best thing has been to experience activities. I have felt that I was part of them, and in that way I could understand it better. I am now much more motivated towards reading and towards teaching reading (and read!) with my students”.
The two last students say that: “I’ve loved all the activities. The resources have been really interesting and helpful”, and that “I’m completely fascinated with the subject. I think that the best thing has been that the activities have shown us how to use materials and resources by making us being involved in the process of creating them or preparing them. Apart from that, the atmosphere in the classroom has progressed very much. We started without knowing each other, and now we love to work together and share ideas”.
Overall, students were thankful to have been given the chance to be part of “something”, and they highlight not only the acquisition of knowledge but, most clearly, the possibility of using new resources and materials. It is my belief that teacher training should be focused in the “do it” more than in the “know it”, and this is one proof of this. Apart from this, it is also interesting to note that students felt comfortable in the classroom, and that they consider the use of new materials and projects the reason for this.
As this study was carried out by the university teacher responsible for the subject (me), observations were collected in an observation diary to make the process more systematic and objective. I noted down relevant ideas each week. From the entries in the diary, it can be stated that students improved their relationship along the subject. This was clear because, when in groups, students started to work cooperatively with any of their classmates. Another clear indicator was that students started to share their materials, notes, books and ideas openly; the amount of praising among them increased dramatically during the literacy plan activities, and their behaviour in class changed: they started playing a very traditional role, sitting down still, participating a little, remaining silent and serious most of the time, and ended up taking most of the class time to share, initiate and debate in a relaxing attitude (this was proved by their smiles, eye-contact and body language).
Students also increased their curiosity towards the English language. Those not taking the EFL teacher degree felt little by little more comfortable using the language, and checked words with the other group of students. They also felt at ease when looking for information on English tales and authors to be displayed in the newsstand.
A final recurrent feature in the entries of my diary is that students were constantly commenting on the multifaceted perspectives of the literary texts. Most of them thought that only summaries and reading comprehension questions will do, and felt that a window was opened to explore new methodologies which may better fit not only their teaching styles but, most importantly, their students’ learning preferences.
The main outcomes are that students developed empathy. They looked for materials that could be interesting for their classmates and try to reason why in front of the rest of the group. They also felt involved with the activities were responses were found or given (see the notes in the opinion box or the bookcrossing comments on the website). In that way, books created a network of communication, reflection, and collaboration. The reading experience was closest to how the human mind experiences art, closest to what Rosenblatt terms aesthetic stance, not only in the private sphere, but also in the public one. Students felt at ease when sharing views on books they wanted to display in the reading corner and find it useful to dramatize the Spell Book. The process of “sharing” made them think about themselves too, and, in that way, the projects contributed to a better self-knowledge. Finding the topic they wanted to focus on in their Spell Books or choosing a section in the reading corner, make them think about their choices, likes and dislikes.
The experience also was successful in improving students’ social interaction inside the group and outside it (by communicating with the rest of students in the college). This created a feeling of belonging to a group, and improved the classroom atmosphere. As students felt more comfortable in the group, they also shared their hopes and sorrows with the rest, developing a sense of self-awareness.
Students also improved their English language skills, by trying to communicate their ideas in the foreign language little by little, and by looking for reading materials written in the English language. They also found it useful to share the classroom with more proficient speakers of the language, favouring a collaborative environment where learning was taking place naturally.
All in all, the project has been worth the effort, and students have reached the aims stated at the beginning. However, one of the main achievement of this project has been to let students explore other ways of introducing literary texts in the classroom, fostering their imagination and creativity, and making them listen to the others and share.
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Available at http://ec.europa.eu/education/languages/pdf/doc409_en.pdf
(Last retrieved 1/06/2010)
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