Students wishing to improve their English reading and writing skills need to trust their tutors' expertise and follow their requirements. A successful improvement program will included easy-to-read popular literature, dialectical journals responding to selected reading passages, and practice in reading aloud and listening by both student and tutor.
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If this response was an expose of how the educational system has failed to meet the needs of society, Sabrina's case would be a perfect example. Upon enrolling in college, she was given no placement tests or advisement. The college's learning disabilities specialist gave no help to Sabrina, in spite of the fact that the number of misspelled words, the word additions and omissions, and the lack of focus and coherence in her writing indicate that she is a strong candidate for learning disabilities testing. The ESL specialist also shuttled Sabrina aside, ignoring the common ESL errors present in her writing and the fact that she has had limited exposure to native English speakers.
Sabrina's English class offered virtually nothing for her. The instructor's critiques of Sabrina's writing focused on grammar and spelling and ignored Sabrina's great difficulty in organizing and expressing her ideas with any coherence. By suggesting that Sabrina start with a rough draft, and neglecting to conduct prewriting activities to help Sabrina organize her thoughts, Dr. Samuels showed that she was either ill-equipped to help students who did not already have strategies for writing or was disinterested in serving all her students' needs. Instead of dealing with Sabrina's problem, this instructor gave Sabrina a C for the course, even though the only passing grade she earned was for a paper that Dr. Samuels thought was plagiarized. Like the learning disabilities specialist and the ESL instructor, Dr. Samuels chose not to help Sabrina. She became a throw-away student.
Paul Kelly, the tutor who Sabrina approached for help, had interest and compassion but did little more than provide temporary rescue. He helped Sabrina memorize the definitions to the vocabulary words, analyzed the poems for her research paper, and wrote the outline for the paper. He gave answers but did not show Sabrina how to find them herself. We can hardly blame Paul. Faced with assignments and teacher expectations beyond Sabrina's developmental level, he was tightly wedged between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
Looking at Sabrina, we see an inquisitive woman who is haphazardly grasping for answers to her many problems. Without much concern about the validity of what she reads, and despite her problems with concentration, Sabrina relies heavily on the printed word to diagnose her learning style, tell her how to raise her children, and give her ways to deal with problems and life in general. She solicits help but often chooses to ignore the advice. An example of this is when specialists prescribed Ritalin for her son. When the medication put him to sleep, Sabrina took him off the drug and put him on a special diet. Although a natural diet rather than drugs might have been the better way to deal with her son's disorder, I find it interesting that she didn't first consult the experts who diagnosed him. Perhaps Sabrina had more faith in one of her parenting magazines. Curiously, she bribes her overly-demanding children with a sugar-laden treat, demonstrating her inability to understand one of the basic principles of behavior modification diets.
Her academic life is similarly characterized. Even though Paul gave her strategies for memorizing the definitions of the isolated vocabulary words, Sabrina stuck to the belief that her problems would end if only she could find a good dictionary. Ironically, she was correct. When Dr. Samuels accused Sabrina of plagiarism, the instructor repeatedly asked, "Where'd you get those words?" Sabrina's answer, "The dictionary," placated Dr. Samuels, and the next thing Sabrina knew, she had passed the course. At last Sabrina learned something: With the help of Paul, divine intervention, and a "good dictionary," she could pass English.
Although her prior actions indicate that she will wait until she realizes she is failing a course before seeking assistance, perhaps Sabrina will return to Paul at the beginning of the next term for the help she needs and deserves. If she does, I hope he will step back for a good look at his student and design an educational plan that fits her needs rather than the agenda of the school. In order for any plan to be successful though, Paul must first establish himself as the person in charge of facilitating Sabrina's language development. This won't be easy since Sabrina tends to gather information from nonacademic sources such as friends and magazines and often makes incorrect decisions about which advice to follow. Further complicating the issue are the opposing pedagogical beliefs and methods of Paul and Dr. Samuels. Even though it is unlikely that Sabrina will take a class from Dr. Samuels in the future, she will surely remember this instructor's approach. Sabrina may be hesitant to accept that learning esoteric vocabulary words presented in grammatically incorrect context is not appropriate, and that good writing is not simply a collection of words written in grammatically correct juxtaposition, but she will need to trust Paul's expertise.
Paul must warn Sabrina that, if she wants his help, she must agree to follow his suggestions. He needs to let her know that, regardless of what information and advice she hears elsewhere, he is the authority. Paul doesn't have to sound dictatorial, but he should be firm. He can explain that among educators there are differences in teaching methods and materials, but if she is to study with him, she must trust him. Sabrina can ask him to explain his rationale for using his chosen methods and materials, but she cannot expect him to use those of another instructor. He will be happy to work with her on an individualized educational plan, as long as it is one that is consistent with his pedagogical beliefs.
If Sabrina doesn't agree to abide by the ground rules, I believe that Paul should wish her well and refuse to work with her. If she does agree, then Paul can proceed with his professional integrity and his sanity intact.
Several factors should be considered when designing a learning plan for Sabrina. One factor, and perhaps the most important, is Sabrina's interests (Wadlington &, Hicks, 1995). She states that she enjoys reading information that can help her with her daily life, and her choice of leisure reading material validates her statement. Paul can successfully use Sabrina's affective domain to facilitate her learning by selecting reading material from the popular literature she enjoys. As an added benefit, Paul can help Sabrina make judgments as to the validity and effectiveness of the information found in these publications.
The second factor to consider is Sabrina's reading level. She may have read The Stranger and The Grapes of Wrath, but my guess is that both books were explained to her and that she did not independently understand them any more than she understood any of the reading material she read during the Winter semester. Sabrina needs good models of written English that are understandable and meaningful to her.
Likewise, Sabrina's developmental level of writing needs to be addressed. Rather than composing scholarly literary analyses, she should be focusing her attention on writing that has relevance to her life. At this time, journals, responses, and narrative essays are more appropriate writing tasks than analytical research papers. In addition, Sabrina should be helped to develop strategies such as prewriting activities to help her organize her ideas, and revising and editing activities to ensure that others will understand her ideas (Smith & Ramonda, 1997).
Numerous other factors, such as poor time management, personal problems, and her lack of understanding of academia will no doubt impede Sabrina's progress. Paul can help with some of these as the occasions present themselves, but he should realize his limitations. No one person can affect a total transformation of this woman.
At the first meeting of the new semester, I would advise Paul to write the ground rules in the form of a contract to be discussed with Sabrina. If she decides to sign the contract, the program can continue. Paul can then introduce Sabrina to the reading materials he has chosen with her interests in mind. Perhaps there will be an article from a parenting magazine, a novel she can understand, such as Steinbeck's The Red Pony or Of Mice and Men, or a self-help book. If Sabrina is willing, I would encourage her to read some of the wonderful books marketed for children but equally appropriate for adults (Wadlington & Hicks, 1995). Books such as E.B. White's Stuart Little, Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting, and Beverly Cleary's Dear Mr. Henshaw can be enjoyed by Sabrina and shared with her children, thus providing a cooperative learning activity and a pleasant diversion from the normal chaos of her household. As she progresses, Sabrina can move from magazines to the psychology textbook she will be using and from easy to more difficult literature.
During the first session or two, Paul can also introduce Sabrina to several writing activities. To help her overcome her writing anxiety, and to give her practice in expressing herself through writing, Sabrina can keep a dialogue journal where she writes about topics that interest her (Bardine, 1996; Daisey, 1993). When she visits the Learning Assistance Center, Paul can read her journal and respond in writing. If Sabrina's writing is insufficiently coherent to be understood, he can tell her he doesn't understand what she is expressing and ask her to explain. Then Paul can restate her ideas in a coherent manner. If Sabrina wishes, she can then correct her writing, but I would not ask her to. Dialogue journals are not meant to be corrected, as one of their main purposes is to encourage fluency rather than precision. What's more, corrected or graded journals will increase anxiety.
Another writing activity can be a fully developed narrative on a topic of Sabrina's interest (Tchudi, 1986). This topic should be one that is approved by Paul since Sabrina has a history of choosing topics far beyond her writing capabilities. After the topic is chosen, Paul can help Sabrina organize the "ideas swirling in her head" through prewriting activities such as clustering and outlining. Sabrina can then use her clusters, outlines, or both to help compose her first draft. At a later session, Sabrina can read her draft aloud to Paul who can give feedback by retelling her story. From listening to Paul's version of her narrative, she should be able to tell if she wrote with clarity. Paul's retelling will also show if Sabrina's narrative is sequential. If not, Paul can help Sabrina construct a timeline so she can revise her paper accordingly. In addition, Paul can ask questions that point out what needs to be clarified or developed. Paul can also use Sabrina's narrative to present grammar instruction in meaningful context as he guides her through editing and final revisions, including the use of a spelling checker.
I would also recommend that Sabrina respond to her reading through writing. An effective way to do this is with a dialectical journal where the pages are divided in half and the reader copies meaningful excerpts of text in one column and writes comments and questions about the excerpts in the other column (Sarmecanic, 1996; Smith & Ramonda, 1997). By constructing dialectical journals, Sabrina will be forced to thoughtfully study her reading material as she chooses which portions to copy. While copying, she will be exposed to the structural and grammatical elements of the text, and through her responses, she will reflect on the text and have an opportunity to ask questions about whatever she doesn't understand. Likewise, Sabrina's responses in her dialectical journal will give Paul an understanding of how Sabrina looks at text. He can ask questions about her responses, clarify any misunderstandings she may have, and suggest strategies to help her better understand her reading.
Dialectical journals can be used with literature and expository text, but as the term progresses, I hope that Paul will engage Sabrina in additional activities involving textbooks and other expository text. For example, he can encourage Sabrina to look for the differences between literary and expository writing. By developing an awareness of audience and purpose for writing, Sabrina can begin to understand the requirements of academic writing. Sabrina can also recall facts from her reading and put them in hierarchical or chronological order. With practice, and help from Paul, Sabrina will, hopefully, learn to find the major ideas in expository text.
Finally, I would encourage Paul to read to Sabrina (Wadlington, 1995). She needs to hear, as well as read, good models of English. My guess is that Sabrina's understanding of literature will be greater without the encumbrance of the written word, and she should be given the luxury of listening.
A typical session with Paul could begin with him returning Sabrina's dialogue journal from the previous session and letting her read his comments. If clarification is needed, it can be provided it at this time. Then they could move to a discussion of an assigned reading by going over the responses in Sabrina's dialectical journal, followed by an introduction of the next assigned reading. If there is time, the study-reading skills of choosing and organizing the main points and important details in expository text can be addressed at this session. If time is limited, Paul can alternate study-reading instruction and literature activities at separate sessions.
Paul could then review and guide Sabrina's work on her narrative. This will take a considerable amount of time since Sabrina has problems with all aspects of the writing task. But regardless of how much work is needed, Paul should reserve time at the end of each session for him to read to Sabrina. A pleasant ending will encourage Sabrina to continue her sessions with Paul.
At the end of the semester, Sabrina can gather her writing into a portfolio. She should tee encouraged to read all her writing in the order it was written and write a self-evaluation (McNamara & Deane, 1995). Paul might also encourage Sabrina to write her own plan for continuing her development as a reader and a writer. If Sabrina is going to succeed in an academic setting, she will need to continue this development. With help from Paul and some divine intervention, not to mention a good dictionary, Sabrina might just become the student she wants to be.
Bardine, B. A. (1996). Using writing journals with adult literacy students: Some options. Adult Learning, 7, 13-15.
Daisey, R (1993). Three ways to promote the values and uses of literature at any age. Journal of Reading, 36, 436-440.
McNamara, M. J., Deane, D. (1995). Self-assessment activities: Toward language autonomy in language learning. TESOL Journal, 5, 17-21.
Sarmecanic, L. (1996). Making meaning through a dialectical journal. In V. Whiteson (Ed.), New ways of using drama and literature in language teaching (pp. 43-45). TESOL.
Smith, L. H., & Ramonda, R. J. (1997). Read, write, react: An integrated approach to reading and writing. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Tchudi, S. (1986). The hidden agendas in writing across the curriculum. English Journal, 22.
Wadlington, E., & Hicks, K. (1995). Using the big book experience with adult literacy students. Adult Learning, 6, 14-16.
Lonna Smith is on the faculty of the Department of Linguistics and Language Development at San Jose State University in San Jose, California where she teaches development reading and writing.
Source Citation:Smith, Lonna H. "Creating an integrated language development program." Journal of College Reading and Learning 27.n3 (Spring 1997): 167(7). Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 13 Oct. 2009
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