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Reading Across the Curriculum

At the ESL Institute in La Crosse, I have been teaching a reading class for intermediate students. I wrote a paper about my initial reaction to this course which is pending publication in the English Teaching Professional. This posting serves as a follow-up to that article.

Upon entering my second semester (Spring 2008), I experimented more with content-based instruction. In the first four weeks, students read World Folktales by Anita Stern. In the last ten weeks, students read their choice of an academic text. The following are my guiding principles for the course. I will refer to the first module as WF for World Folktales and the second module as AT for "academic text."
  1. Students practiced reading in groups (WF) and individually (AT).
  2. Students read WF in a jigsaw activity that incorporated the entire text, thereby leading them to more autonomy with less dependence on the instructor. I acted as a guide rather than an instructor.
  3. More student autonomy was developed when students chose their own text for AT.
  4. Students were assigned a unit or chapter per day from AT that focused on a reading strategy (such as KWL, guessing unknown words, etc. ) or a study skill.
Here is how that course played out point-by-point.

#1 - The students enjoyed reading in groups, although I felt left out of the class. I was only essential at the beginning and end of class to explain the objectives and summarize the goals achieved. This feeling completely changed when students read individually. I was lecturing too much on how to improve reading strategies and study skills with few examples. Most individual reading was done outside of class as homework. I should have dedicated more time to students returning to class and sharing how they practiced their reading and what they learned from their academic text.

#2 - Most students enjoyed the jigsaw activity, although a couple of students with lower reading ability felt they could not contribute anything to their group. I tried to balance reading assistance between myself and the group. My goal was autonomy, so I didn't want these students to completely depend on me by telling them the answers. These couple of students were uncomfortable with my role as guide rather than instructor.

#3 - Some students were thrilled to choose their own academic text, while others were hesitant to jump from a book at or below their ability to one definitely above their ability. Nearly all students knew what their major would be after completing ESL classes, but one or two did not know what to pick. After reading from texts of their choice, most of them felt better about reading material from their major. Some of them felt they needed more practice, thus more instruction from me. The worst case concerned one student who admitted that he lost interest in his major because of my class.

#4 - Most students appreciated learning how to approach difficult texts with new reading strategies and study skills, however most students did not like the way I delivered this information, through lectures with little or no interaction. Here I felt the challenge of making reading difficult academic texts fun. I tried to vary the way I delivered instruction, but most of the time students were not entertained. I felt like this was my biggest flaw in the course, so I wanted to change it.

When reflecting upon this course and thinking of the next one, I realized that a lot of authentic reading material on one topic would be inundating the media--the 2008 U.S. Presidential Elections. I thought this would be a great topic for the Fall 2008 semester. Here is how I designed this course:
  1. Students read two academic reading texts at the high school level, We the People and Cast Your Vote.
  2. Students read various online news articles. Each student was given a different news source from The New York Times to FoxNews.
  3. All reading tasks were authentic and appropriate for their reading abilities.
Here is how that course turned out point-by-point:

#1 - Most students passionately disliked We the People as they did not care about the history of the American government and election process. Most of them thought the vocabulary that they were learning would not be useful. Some students disliked Cast Your Vote because it was too simple, but others liked it for that reason. However, in the end, students were thankful that they understood American politics better than many of their American peers.

#2 - Students enjoyed reading the news articles more as they related to their lives better. The became very well informed about John McCain and Barack Obama and why most Americans are split between Democrats and Republicans. However, students felt overexposed to these topics and were sick of hearing about McCain and Obama by the time the elections came. But I thought that reflected how Americans felt as well.

#3 - The reading tasks for the textbooks were authentic for American high school students, and I believe my students did not appreciate feeling like they were in an American high school when they were in a university. As for the news articles, some of them enjoyed researching given political topics from their news source. Nearly all students showed great improvement in writing summaries and reaction papers. I received praise from students who noticed that their reading abilities remarkably improved. In fact, word was getting around campus that my class was helping students receive higher scores on the reading section of the IELTS and the TOEFL.

After completing that class, I realized that the media wouldn't collaborate again on such a topic for months on end. However, I felt the formula of this class was successful. By the end of that fall semester, I was brainstorming about an academic subject that most students would find interesting. At first, I thought of business, marketing, and the like, but I didn't want to teach those topics because I don't have enough passion for these subjects. Eventually, I came to the idea of teaching science fact and fiction for Spring 2009. I will cover this highly successful class in a future blog.

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