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- Fostering Literacy Development in Early Graders with Immigrant Background with Story Telling - Observations and Reflections
Fostering Literacy Development in Early Graders with Immigrant Background with Story Telling - Observations and Reflections
Shiauping Tian is an assistant professor in the department of Applied Foreign Languages at National Taiwan University of Science and Technology. She is interested in reading strategy instruction, project-based teaching, and Philosophy for Children. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
As cross-cultural marriages brought more new immigrants to Taiwan in recent decades, there has been an increase in the number of children with immigrant background (with at least one parent from foreign country) in school. According to the Ministry of Education in Taiwan, in the academic year of 2015-2016, nearly 10% of all elementary school students have immigrant background, a large percentage of them with mothers from China and South East Asia. The increase of new immigrants has led the government to pay attention to challenges faced by these new immigrants. In addition to offering language lessons and assistance in adapting to local culture, the government has also directed attention to education and literacy development of the children of these new immigrants. Potential challenges faced by children of these new immigrants include lack of family support in school work, slower literacy development due to lack of literacy-based activities at home, lower academic achievement, discrimination from peers, and cultural identity crisis. Given the potential difficulty of these children in receiving sufficient support in school work at home, the Education Bureaus have subsidized various programs aiming at helping these children improve their academic performance and adapt better to local culture. Among such programs, storytelling is one of the major themes because it is believed to be a fundamental way to help these children develop basic literacy skills and stimulate motivation to read, which would then help them do better in school work. Thus, various storytelling groups targeting children of new immigrants or disadvantaged children have been organized by elementary schools in major cities around the island.
The benefits of storytelling and reading, as documented in the literature, include enhancing motivation to engage in literary activities, fostering literacy skills, social skills, creativity and problem solving skills, developing children’s imagination, confidence, and independent thinking (Fisher & Terry, 1990; Hamilton & Weiss, 1991). In other words, storytelling is perceived as an excellent vehicle for promoting literacy development in school and within family (Palmer et al., 2000). That is why scholars advocate telling and reading stories to children, and stories have been playing an increasingly significant role in the elementary classroom.
In recent years, inspired by the success model of the Head Start Program in the United States and the family literacy programs (Morrow, 1995), the government has subsidized various programs to help children with immigrant background by promoting literacy-based activities. The program described in this paper also received partial funding from the Bureau of Education in Taipei city and aimed at fostering literacy development of children with immigrant background with storytelling. The following section presents details about the program. After that, based on the researcher’s observations and reflections, along with feedback from participating story tellers, some suggestions are made regarding implementation of similar programs for future reference.
Fourteen first and second graders (6 first graders and 8 second graders) in a public elementary school in Taipei city participated in the program, which was organized by the Counselors’ Office of the school and run by volunteers. The school recruited first and second graders from families of cross cultural marriages. The homeroom teachers recommended students with immigrant background, and only students on the recommended list who had obtained parental consent were admitted to the program. The teachers, or story tellers, of the program were 13 volunteers, all mothers of current or previous students of that school. The researcher was one of the volunteers and was present in all storytelling sessions.
The students met twice a week for 12 weeks in the school library. Each meeting lasted about forty minutes in the morning before the regular classes started. An adapted version of Aesop’s Fables, translated into mandarin Chinese and adapted for children (Aesop’s Fables Adapted by Grandma Lin), was assigned by the program organizer, a full-time teacher at that school, as the material, and the volunteers took turns in telling stories. In most meetings, four volunteers were present, with two in charge of storytelling and the other two assisting in behavior management and other matters. During each meeting two fables were read to the students and follow-up activities were conducted. Due to limited funding, only a few copies of the book were available to the volunteers, and the students did not have access to the book. The students sat at four big reading tables in one corner of the library. For convenience of reading aloud practice, the first graders were usually seated together.
Since the story tellers were volunteers with widely different educational background and training, they naturally set different goals for storytelling and adopted very different approaches. Overall, they focused on the following four objectives.
(1) Practice reading aloud. The volunteers worked on this skill by asking students to read the story out loud individually or in groups. For the first graders, reading out loud did present a small challenge because they just learned the phonetic symbols in the previous semester. Reading out loud was believed to help increase their speed in recognizing the phonetic symbols and enhance fluency in reading.
(2) Capture main ideas. A worksheet was designed by one of the volunteers and distributed to students after the story telling. The worksheet mainly asked students to write down the main ideas of the story by answering questions of the six Ws (who, what, when, where, why, and how), pick their favorite part of the story, and briefly write about the moral of the story.
(3) Implement character education. Most volunteers followed up the story with talks about moral lessons from the story—what certain characters of the story did wrong and what should be done in similar situations. These volunteer teachers intended to extend the storytelling by encouraging students to relate these fables to their own life and learn proper behavior to become ethical and responsible citizens in the future.
(4) Enhance motivation to read. Some volunteers believed that these somewhat “outdated” stories should be presented in a lively and fun style so as to engage the students. These volunteers presented the story by role playing, invited the students to add actions or sound effects during storytelling, and often devised some creative activities, such as balloon blowing contests or word relay, as follow-ups. They believed such fun activities would make the storytelling time more enjoyable for the students. If the students found storytelling time enjoyable, they would be motivated to read other stories on their own and benefit from the reading experience.
Observations and reflections
During the 12 weeks, some observations were made regarding class management, follow-up activities and motivation, and classroom interaction.
Some challenges in behavior management were observed during the process. Sometimes a student would openly reject sitting with a particular student or request to sit with his or her friends. To avoid seating arrangement problems taking up too much storytelling time, the volunteers usually asked them to sit at the same table each time, and the students were in the habit of doing so as well. Only when a particular student was showing difficulty paying attention or displaying too much disturbing behavior would the volunteers ask the student to sit at a particular table. To involve the students more, the volunteers tried to give students some responsibilities (e.g., handing out and collecting name tags, taking attendance) to involve them in the process, and let the students take turns in taking charge.
The story telling was mostly conducted in a stress-free atmosphere, and some post-reading activities designed by the volunteers were so interesting that the students sometimes became too excited and produced too much noise. Some volunteers later decided to enforce stricter rules about classroom behavior during their storytelling week. Therefore, during the entire program, the students experienced quite different class atmospheres—sometimes warm and relaxing, but sometimes quite serious and structured. A secure and warm atmosphere is generally recommended for storytelling (Ellis & Brewster, 2002). Storytelling needs to stand out from other regular academic activities to engage the students, and the students need to feel secure and relaxed enough to do the thinking and sharing for story discussions. Though the volunteers who decided to change the class climate did so for good reasons, students might fare better with a consistent class atmosphere (Ellis & Brewster, 2002; Scott & Ytreberg, 1991). One possible solution would be to set clear guidelines or rules about student behavior right at the beginning of the program and consistently stick to the rules throughout the program.
Follow-up activities and student motivation
A wide variety of post-reading activities were conducted throughout the program. The volunteers also tried different strategies to motivate the students, such as handing out small gifts to students and bringing in hand puppets in the storytelling process. Throughout the program, some student reactions toward these different activities were observed.
The most frequently conducted activity was “question and answer”, in which the volunteer teacher raised questions about the story content or moral lesson and the students raised their hands to answer. Students usually responded to the questions actively and came up with intelligent and interesting answers, though some students usually dominated the discussion and a few students tended to remain silent.
During the first three weeks, the worksheets described earlier were handed out in every meeting. Though not required to answer in great details, students were found to show disinterest or even resistance to completing the worksheet after the first few meetings. For example, some students wrote down “all” when answering the question “Which part of the story do you like most?” or directly copy the moral lessons from the book when asked what they have learned from the story, and some of them directly voiced their unwillingness to complete the worksheet. For these early graders, talking about the story presented little problem, but expressing their ideas in writing could be a difficult and rather time-consuming task. Observing the students’ reluctance in completing the worksheet, the volunteers decided to skip the worksheet sometimes.
Several other activities in the form of language exercises were implemented throughout the program, such as reading aloud, sentence making, word relay, and finding synonyms or antonyms. Students generally responded well to these activities and were mostly able to complete the tasks successfully. Since the overarching goal of the program was to enhance their literacy development, these language-based activities were deemed as indispensable by most volunteers.
To enhance students’ motivation, some volunteers designed highly interesting follow-up activities, such as role playing, balloon blowing contests, and doing art projects. Students generally showed great interest in these activities. Nevertheless, it was observed that a few volunteers probably placed too much emphasis on motivating students and designed activities that did not seem to have a clear compelling purpose. Since the prime objective of the program was literacy development, it would be better to design fun activities that centered on literacy skills or expanded students’ understanding of the story. The instructional value of some activities like doing art projects would have been greatly enhanced if they had culminated in an integrated-skill literacy task, e.g., making masks for a later role play of the story, or creating a board game with literacy related tasks. Teachers are often encouraged to design fun instructional activities to enhance learning motivation and learning outcome. However, it is also important to bear in mind that activities are designed with a learning goal in mind and should align with instructional objectives (Redding, 2006).
Regarding classroom interaction, it was observed that most teacher-student interactions follow the IRF sequence (Sinclaire & Coulthard, 1975) in which the volunteer teacher asked a question, the students answered, and then the teacher gave a comment, especially during the language exercise and moral education activities. Though the IRF sequence itself provides well-structured learning opportunities for students in class, it does indicate that the learning process is pretty much controlled by the teacher with little opportunity for students to initiate or negotiate during the knowledge exploration process (Waring, 2009).
Similarly, most discussions were found to be teacher-dominated with few opportunities for students to initiate discussion topics. Since the students were in early grades, it was understandable that the volunteer teachers felt the need to structure the activities to meet the instructional objectives they had in mind. Even so, to better serve the purpose of fostering literacy development and enhancing motivation to read, it would probably be more rewarding to the students if they could participate to some degree in deciding what issues to talk about or be given more chances to reflect on the relevance of the stories to their life.
In addition, many volunteer teachers seemed to have a preference for closed-ended or display questions, even in contexts that let themselves to open discussions. For example, to implement character education after telling a story, a volunteer teacher asked, “So next time when you are in this type of situation, you should not easily believe what others said, right?”. Another one asked in a different meeting, “After reading the story, we know that if you’re mean to your friends, then your friends would be mean to you, right?” In these examples, the volunteers could have easily invited the students to do some critical thinking and to relate the stories to their real life experiences, and that might have helped to create more meaningful interactions in the classroom. However, the volunteer teachers in these examples seemed overly concerned with instilling a pre-processed moral into the students by embedding it in a closed-ended question. Such practices might have stemmed from the volunteer teachers’ own educational experiences and cultural beliefs. Influenced by the Confucian ideas, classes in Taiwan are usually conducted in a teacher-centered manner, and the teacher is usually seen as an authority figure whose job is to teach what is correct, and the students’ responsibility is to listen and learn. Since the volunteer teachers in the program were mostly in their forties, it was highly possible that their ideas of education were shaped by what their teachers did back in their school days (emphasizing single correct answer offered by the teacher).
Studies have documented different functions of teacher questions in the classroom, including maintaining student involvement, checking understanding, constructing knowledge, stimulating thinking, and managing behavior, and effective teacher questions are found to engage the students in sharing and collective exploring that facilitate not only language development but also concept formation (Myhill et al., 2006). In the context of storytelling and sharing, more open-ended, cognitively challenging, and higher order questions can act as a stimulus to enrich these students’ language and develop literacy-related skills (Kim, 2010; Massey et al., 2008). As most stories are closely related to real lives, and it is believed that children are natural philosophers who are capable of engaging in philosophical thinking (Lipman, 2003), more opportunities for children to decide what to focus their thinking on, and more space to discuss and come up with their own “moral lessons” for the stories will benefit the children on a wider basis.
Feedback from volunteers
The volunteers were interviewed at the end-of-semester party in the library to which all volunteer teachers and participating students were invited. They were asked mainly two questions: (1) How do you think this program is helping the kids? (2) What do you think can be improved about this program?
To the first question, most volunteers considered the program valuable in developing literacy skills and moral education. Through the program, the students had more opportunities to review the language items they learned in class, and since most children liked to listen to stories, it was considered a more interesting way than the regular remedial program to develop students’ language skills.
Also mentioned by the volunteer teachers was the benefit of character education. Though most volunteers viewed the stories in Aesop’s Fables as somewhat old-fashioned and the moral lessons sometimes not so easily understood by early graders, they still considered it worthwhile to talk about the issues that emerged from the stories because nowadays the students probably did not have much chance to think about those important moral issues in class.
Two volunteer teachers also commented on the act of offering small gifts to students after the activities. They acknowledged that receiving small gifts motivated the students to pay attention and do their best to complete the tasks. At the same time, they also worried that the small gifts might spoil the students because a few times students asked what they could get afterward before they even completed the tasks. They were concerned that what was meant to be the means later became the end itself. Also, once some volunteer teachers gave out small gifts, the other volunteer teachers felt compelled to the do the same in the following weeks. Therefore, in the last few weeks of the semester, small gifts were handed out to everyone in every meeting instead of as a reward for successful completion of tasks. Offering material rewards, although practiced as a way to motivate students or reinforce positive response following the behaviorist theory of learning, is found to undermine intrinsic motivation, especially for children (Deci et al. 1999). To avoid the negative effect, an alternative is probably to design a system for students to accumulate points to receive rewards later and follow the system consistently throughout the program (Scott & Ytreberg, 1991).
Regarding what can be improved about the program, most volunteers mentioned problems with the stories. All volunteer teachers thought there were better choices than the book assigned by the school. They preferred stories with modern backgrounds and characters or about issues more relevant to these kids, e.g., cultural differences and discrimination.
Based on the descriptions and observations above, three suggestions are hereby proposed about the program, which hopefully would be of reference to similar programs in the future.
Better communication between the school staff in charge and the volunteer teachers should be established before the program.
Almost all major decisions about the program, including goal, meeting place and time, target students, and reading materials were decided by the school beforehand. The volunteer teachers were recruited and informed about the program shortly before it started. As described earlier, the volunteer teachers emphasized different goals and designed widely different activities to meet the perceived goals. For a literacy program to run smoothly, an orientation in which the teaching personnel is informed about the goal, procedure, and other important information of the program, is usually recommended (Coming et al., 1995). After all, the volunteer teachers were the ones to carry out the instruction and try to achieve the intended objectives of the program.
Some basic training or orientation could be provided to the volunteer teachers.
In addition to an orientation of the program, sufficient training of teaching personnel is also required for success of literacy-based programs. Before the program started, this group of volunteer teachers were mostly responsible for individual academic remedial assistance, so they had very limited experience in conducting whole-class activities. Though unable to provide intensive training for the volunteers, the school could arrange for an experienced teacher to give a short talk or demonstration on some basic ideas about behavior management, activity design, and other important skills in teaching. The program would certainly serve the students better if the teachers were made aware of alternative interaction modes or the benefits of engaging students in thinking with more open-ended referential questions in settings like this.
Better coordination among volunteers is necessary.
Since most of the volunteer teachers had regular jobs, it was impractical for all of them to get together often to discuss anything. For future program implementation, the school can coordinate the volunteers better by calling meetings or initiating on-line discussions, and discussing with the volunteers about details of program implementation or assigning responsibilities before the program began.
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Educators’ Use of Cognitively Challenging
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Educators’ Use of Cognitively Challenging
Questions in Economically Disadvantaged
Preschool Classroom Contexts
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