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Co-Learning Matters: Insights from SJSU Linguistics Students & San Jose 3rd Graders

By Dr. Kelly Glover, Ph.D., SJSU Department of Linguistics & Language Development, Katherine Cushing, Ph.D., Interim Executive Director CommUniverCity San Jose, Marisela Castro, Communications Specialist, CommUniverCity San Jose

According to national research, third grade marks a pivotal time in the academic life of students, when they make the transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” According to the 2010 study Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters conducted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 75% percent of students who struggle with reading in third grade never catch up and are four times more likely to drop out of high school. The research also highlights the equity gap, where students from low-income families demonstrate a disproportionate amount of literacy challenges.

CommUniverCity’s Accelerating Third Grade Literacy program provides local third grade students, many of whom live in immigrant low-income neighborhoods, personalized one-on-one reading support to help them improve their reading skills and confidence. By partnering third grade students with San Jose State University community engaged learning students, this program creates a proactive environment for Linguistics students to apply classroom learning about language and literacy acquisition in a real world setting. Our assessment indicates that many participants improve their reading skills by up to one grade level in the process of working with their older role models.

Below, Department of Linguistics faculty member Dr. Kelly Glover shares accounts of her students’ experiences, illustrating how tutors can gain just as much or more from the experience as their tuttees.

Imagine you are college student taking a grammar analysis course. In class, you diligently identify embedded clauses and describe inflectional suffixes. You accurately complete worksheets on the grammar forms of non-native speakers. You review and write summaries of research papers explaining why so many California English learners fail to graduate high school. A few grammar tests and a final paper later, the class is over.

As the instructor of this class, I worried about whether or not students would recognize relevant concepts outside the classroom, whether they would be able to connect theory with practical understandings and whether they would really be able to apply course content in their post-college jobs. Enter CommUniverCity. Together we designed and incorporated a community engaged learning component into my class in partnership with McKinley Elementary School and Catholic Charities CORAL (Community Organizing Resources to Advance Learning) program.

In Fall 2017, for an hour, weekly, over six weeks, SJSU students enrolled in Linguistics 107 (Patterns of English) worked one-on-one with a struggling 3rd grade reader. Some children were English learners, but others simply needed more language development support. I was amazed at the response from my students. Below I share some of the inspiring observations made by student tutors after just two sessions with their young tutees:

More than a worksheet

I started noticing the specifics of how my student uses language. I heard double negatives, for example, “I don’t have no pets,” and non-standard subject/verb agreement, for example, “They was kicking the ball.” I realized my tutee has not read enough or heard enough mainstream English to know there is a difference.

I get it now!”

Today, I understood what the “achievement gap” really means. . . . I learned my tutee never speaks English at home. He talked about feeling pressure from his parents, because his family expects him to do well in this country, but that they do not have the time or money to provide opportunities for him to help him improve his academic English. This lack of foundation will only widen the achievement gap for my tutee.

An ah-ha moment”

After my tutee read the story, I asked questions to check her understanding. I was confused when she could not recall what had happened, since the book was short and easy. Then I realized that since she is an English language learner, simply reading a book aloud is challenging. As her tutor, I must guide her towards understanding what she reads.

In reading these reflections and others like them, I was overwhelmed by the students’ ownership and engagement with the course content. It went far beyond my expectations!

I decided to continue my partnership with CommUniverCity this semester. The idea of providing a child with personalized academic attention, who then reciprocates with a learning experience for their tutors that reinforces, then surpasses, lectures, worksheets, and grammar tests is incredibly powerful. It makes me proud to be part of the local effort bridging the gap in literacy rates in our community.

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