Come Join the Literacy Club: One Chinese ESL Child's Literacy Experience in a 1st-Grade Classroom.
Due to the large number of immigrants to the United States, public schools, long regarded as children's first opportunity to interact with the different beliefs, customs, and people found in the United States, have become home to international students (Crawford, 1995; Lessow-Hurley, 1990; National Center for Education Statistics, 1993). This dynamic is particularly true in college towns, which affect families from all over the globe. For the parents, it may mean an advanced degree at an American university. For the children, however, it may mean starting school in a strange country with a strange language. The challenge of this reality affects both teachers and students. Nowadays it is not unusual for regular classroom teachers, with no prior knowledge of English as a second language (ESL) methodologies, to have in their classrooms children who do not yet speak English. By the same token, many language minority students are faced with a myriad of challenges as they attempt to survive in all-English classroo ms. Moreover, their entrance to school can be a transition marked by significant discontinuities between the new, structured school environment and their prior experience with their families and communities (Delgado-Gaitan & Trueba, 1991).
The educational treatment of students coming from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds and who are learning English as a second language has been a matter of concern in recent years (Rigg & Allen, 1989). A growing body of research focuses on understanding how language minority students acquire English in school. Within this larger context, one line of research considers how various classroom activities constitute an optimal language/literacy learning environment for ESL students. In essence, studies in this area suggest that major factors determining whether a classroom is supportive toward second language acquisition include the quality and quantity of the language used by the teacher (Ernst, 1994a; Guthrie & Guthrie, 1987; Wong-Fillmore, 1982); literacy practices in the classroom, such as using literature to encourage children to talk about and write about stories (Allen, 1986; Ernst, 1994b: Lindfors, 1989); and an understanding of students' cultural and linguistic backgrounds (Allen, 1986; Fu, 1995 ; Igoa, 1995; Scarcella, 1990). Although numerous studies have focused on the effectiveness of pedagogy, including teaching approaches and appropriate materials, very few studies, however, have documented the initial behaviors and sense-making experiences of ESL children in an all-English environment. By documenting the newly arrived children's initial experiences to new school contexts, as well as the family influences that children bring to the classroom practices, the present study aims to shed light on the transition processes experienced by newly arrived children as they acquire English literacy.
Two lines of research on literacy learning inform this study: 1) the social nature of literacy learning, and 2) the study of factors affecting the writing process as a literacy event, which encompass a myriad of transactions among a variety of constraints and influences originating from three categories--the literacy community, the writer, and the written text (Goodman & Wilde, 1992).
Recent research on beginning literacy has pivoted on the social nature of literacy learning (Freeman & Freeman, 1994). According to Smith (1988), we learn from other people not so much through conscious emulation, but rather by "joining the club" of people we see ourselves as being like, and by being helped to engage in their activities. One of the most important communities any individual can join is the "literacy club," because membership ensures that individuals learn how to read and write, and because reading is the entrance to many other clubs. Literacy learning occurs in the literacy club when the language and its use are: meaningful, useful, continuous and effortless, incidental, collaborative, vicarious (we learn from others without effort if they are the kind of people we admire and we want to do what they do), and risk-free. These seven characteristics of the literacy club imply that the classroom, as one of the most predominant social contexts for literacy learning, should be a place full of meanin gful, useful reading and writing activities, where opportunities for collaboration are always available.
As mentioned above, the creation of meaning by young writers involves complex interactions among the writer, the literacy community, and the written text. This implies that children represent their personal histories--their language and the worlds of their homes and communities--in their writing. Moreover, the educative style of families also may shape the literate experiences of children (Taylor & Dorsey-Gaines, 1988). Thus, children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds may need to take initiative to absorb and synthesize the myriad of educational influences in their lives.
Participants and Setting
A 1st-grade classroom in a Northwest rural college town was the site for the study. The Mountain view Elementary School  is one of three elementary schools belonging to the College Hill school district. It is a Chapter One school with a K-S student body of approximately 300 students. Students attending Mountain view Elementary School are children of faculty and staff employed by the nearby university or business community, or are international students. At any given year, approximately 10 to 20 different countries are represented in the student population of the elementary school.
During the 1995-1996 school year, six Chinese-speaking children started kindergarten in College Hill. Their parents were students at a land-grant state university, which has long been the hub of College Hill. Four children came from China, and two from Taiwan. They all spoke Chinese as their primary language. From the initial group of six children, one boy, Ning-ning, left the school in late February. In late March, Tong-bing, a recent arrival from China, joined the kindergarten class. During that time, while the rest of the five children had experienced one year of an enriched kindergarten curriculum and were functioning quite well in both the regular and ESL classes, Tong-bing remained a silent stranger in the classroom. When the school came to an end, the Chinese-speaking children had developed strong English skills and seemed to be adapting quite successfully to their new school--all except Tong-bing.
Interviews with the parents of the six kindergarten "graduates" revealed that language socialization at home during the summer vacation was predominantly done in Chinese. In other words, during the summer, these children had few opportunities to practice their newly acquired English skills. During the 1996-1997 school year, the five Chinese children from the initial group of newly arrived students, as well as Tong-bing, were assigned to two different 1st-grade classes. Tong-bing, Pei-wen, Quan-lin, and Shao-min were assigned to Mrs. Allen's class. Jin-yi and Wei-li were assigned to a different class. Pei-wen, Shaomin, and Guan-lin integrated very well in the 1st-grade class. Tong-bing did not. According to Mrs. Allen, an experienced Euro-American teacher in her early 50s, all four Chinese children were doing well in mathematics, but only three--Shao-min, Guan-lin, and Pei-wen--were reading at grade level. Thus, when compared to these three children who benefited from one year of an enriching experience in ki ndergarten and had obtained a certain level of English proficiency, Tong-bing's journey of literacy learning in the 1st-grade classroom became intriguing in several aspects. First, how does a limited-English proficient (LEP) student such as Tong-bing participate in literacy events when his command of English is very limited? This question is especially interesting when observing the way Tong-bing participated in free journal writing, which demanded a certain proficiency in English (e.g., vocabulary, spelling, basic syntactic structure). Other questions include: What were his reactions and strategies to fulfill such a requirement in a language he was just learning? What type of classroom literacy practices supported Tong-bing's literacy learning? What role did Tong-bing's family literacy practices play in enhancing or constraining his English literacy learning in school? What kind of home-school connections were available to Tong-bing's parents? These questions are explored in the following sections.
Data Collection Procedures
Data informing this case study are drawn from a larger investigation that explored the learning experiences of six recently arrived Chinese-speaking children in kindergarten and 1st grade (Han, 1996). For this study, the data collected through ethnographic methods included: intense participant-observation for over a year; informal and formal interviewing with the kindergarten, 1st-grade, and ESL teachers, the focal child, and his or her parents; and collection of writing samples. Central to this study is an attempt to understand the local (emic) meaning of the participants. According to Davis (1995), socioculturally oriented qualitative research takes a semiotic approach, which considers the immediate and local meanings of actions, as defined from the actors' point of view.
Furthermore, a constitutive approach to culture and ethnography proposes that a school day can be segmented into constituents called "events" (Mehan, 1982). The research focused on one such event called "the centers." In Mrs. Allen's 1st-grade classroom, the centers were a one-hour block (in the morning) during which children were divided into four groups, and rotated to participate in one activity every 15 minutes. This article will provide a vivid portrayal of the focal child's participation in the centers. The focus will be on presenting how literacy activities in the 1st-grade classroom were organized, the meanings they had for the child as a participant, and the actions undertaken by the child to participate in the literacy events.
When reporting the data, the concurrent four groups of activities will be defined as four sub-events. This is because an important goal of the study was to discover how the focal child performed in different types of activities (sub-events) during the centers. Moreover, the selection of sub-events as focal points allows us to observe children as active explorers in the literacy community and in the classroom, where children were encouraged to read and write on their own. As will become clear when the analysis evolves, this format of selfinitiating involvement with meaningful literacy activities is challenging for all children, but especially for the LEP students because of their incipient English skills. Thus, how they "get along" in this type of learning environment becomes an important question to explore.
Mrs. Allen's 1st-grade Classroom
Mrs. Allen is considered by many in the school district to be a very knowledgeable and experienced teacher. Since she got her degree in elementary education in 1970, Mrs. Allen has taught kindergarten, 4th grade, and, in the last years, 1st grade. After some years of teaching, she pursued a master's degree in education. A final requirement for her graduate degree included an action research project utilizing a literature-based approach to teaching literacy. When asked about her basic belief in teaching beginning literacy, Mrs. Allen put it very succinctly: "I believe in doing it, and doing it a lot..." She also believes "in [not only] quality literature, but also the quantity of doing reading and writing." Mrs. Allen's classroom clearly reflected her beliefs and goals. In her 1st-grade classroom, children were provided with numerous interesting books throughout the school day--especially during small-group reading instruction as part of the centers, or during whole-class story-reading time and free read-write -and-draw-time.
The Physical Arrangement. Mrs. Allen's classroom is located on the north side of the school, with two entrances that open to the hallway and the outdoor playground. At first glance, a casual observer can recognize that the room is functionally organized (Figure 1). In the classroom, there are four to six different clusters made up of children's desks to provide work places. A large section of carpeted floor serves as a group meeting area, where children actively participate as the teacher reads stories. Two large tables, one near the entrance and one at the other end of the classroom, serve for small-group activities during the centers.
Mrs. Allen's Classroom As a Literacy Community
Mrs. Allen's classroom most noticeably immerses children in print. Books of every type imaginable are everywhere. Around the loft area (see Figure 1) there are several bins filled with books, ranging from pictorial to informational books. There are also three shelves of books located in different areas of the classroom. The shelf close to the sink area stores more advanced chapter books for more proficient readers. Whenever there is some free time, such as while waiting for others to accomplish tasks, students are encouraged to read, write, or draw. This means that students in Mrs. Allen's class have plenty of opportunities to investigate all kinds of children's books.
Every Thursday afternoon, "reading buddies" from the 4th grade come to read to the 1st-graders. During this time, children and their big "brothers" and "sisters" scatter around the classroom. The 4th-graders read stories to the 1st-graders, who listen attentively, and talk and laughter are pervasive throughout the period. This cross-age, interactive reading program is one of the highlights of the day.
One other literacy activity in Mrs. Allen's classroom includes the Read-at-Home project, which began in October. All children participate in an every-night-take-home reading program. Students are expected to read and record a minimum of 10 books per month.
Typical Daily Activities in the Centers
Although activities in the centers may include some arts or mathematics, most activities are organized around reading and writing practices. Basically, there are four groups of activities going on concurrently during each 15-minute period. Each of these activities is briefly explained below.
Mrs. Allen's Group: Reading and Talking About Literature. Reading in Mrs. Allen's group generally includes a great variety of literature books. Children are first exposed to story recall, and gradually to analysis of themes and characters. On the average, in one week, Mrs. Allen uses one or two books in her group. Every day there are particular goals to accomplish around the same book; for example, checking on comprehension, such as cause-and-effect relationships or recalling the story sequence. One important characteristic of this group is that the teacher asks many questions before, during, and after the reading. Thus, interpersonal interaction is maximized in this group.
Mrs. Burnett's Group: Skill-based Activities. Every morning, Mrs. Burnett, an instructional assistant, works with the children during the centers. Mrs. Burnett writes single words or sentences on cards and asks students to sound them out. This method is used as a word-attack device to help children recognize the words in the text. In this group children do "choral reading," using mainly basal readers and trade books, followed by individual reading. This allows the teacher to identify individual strengths and needs. As the year evolves and as children become more skilled in their reading, some children are encouraged to skip the group and read on their own.
Seatwork: Journal Writing and Worksheets. In this group, children sit quietly at their desks and complete the assignments of the day, including journal writing, math problems, spelling, cut-and-paste, and many other activities. Journal writing was included about once a week during seatwork time. At the beginning of the fall semester, Mrs. Allen sends home a copy of "Topics for My Journal" and asks parents to fill it out. It includes family, friends, pets, interests, favorite activities, important memories, and special people. The completed list is stapled in front of the journal so that the children can consult the list and generate some topics.
Students are required to write two to three sentences, and are encouraged to use "temporary" spellings. Generally, no prewriting activities are included and children are encouraged to write whatever they want. Most children are happy writers during this activity; they feel free to explore new topics, and they can write whatever they like. Most topics selected in the fall semester center around seasonal holidays such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Sometimes, Mrs. Allen asks adult helpers to interact with the children during journal writing. Adults may provide correct spellings or ideas for the children's journals. Yet, most of the time, students complete their journals individually.
Miscellaneous Activities: Loft, Listening Center, Arts, Computer Time. Children in this group work in pairs, or in groups of three, as they participate in art activities, join the listening center, or work on math and language art activities on the computer. During the first two months, children could go to the "loft," where they can choose books from the bins and read quietly.
An Authentic Literacy Club. As described above, the nature of literacy learning is, in large part, social. This is especially true for young children beginning to read and write. In light of Frank Smith's (1998) assertion that literacy is acquired in a meaningful context through interpersonal interaction, the one-hour centers, organized around intense peer and adult-student interactions, were set up like an authentic "literacy club" where children could freely explore at their own pace. Moreover, the numerous children's books with realistic and meaningful text, available almost everywhere in the classroom, contributed to the construction of an authentic literacy club. During free reading time, children had plenty of opportunities to select and read books. Often, they could read to each other and inquire about certain words. Children were also encouraged to write freely what they wanted to express--using temporary spellings.
A Particularly Challenging Literacy Environment for LEP Students: The Case of Tong-bing. As stated above, an authentic literacy club is made possible by a great amount of interpersonal interaction, coupled with children's avid desire for making meaning from a social context. This type of literacy learning environment can unintentionally constitute a particularly challenging literacy environment for LEP children, as the analysis of Tong-bing's participation will demonstrate. While most of the children were already happy members in the literacy club, Tong-bing had gone through a different journey to make sense of, and participate in, a new literacy environment.
Tong-bing in the Centers
Right before the centers started, Mrs. Allen would explain to the children what activities were included on that day and point to the names of the children, which were organized in a colored-card chart. Many times, after all the children went to one of the four groups, Tong-bing would look at the name chart but not know where to go. On several occasions, Tong-bing would ask the first author in Chinese, "A-yi, wo yao qu na ge group?" ("Auntie, which group do I need to go?"). Since Mrs. Allen had intentionally separated the four Chinese children in different groups, Tong-bing often did not have anyone to interact with in his native language. On other occasions, when he seemed puzzled while standing in front of the name chart, one of the children would say: "Tong-bing, come here, you belong in here." Tong-bing would rush to his group. During the first two months, Tong-bing was quiet and reserved. If the centers were orchestrated like a symphony, where everybody knew which part to play, Tong-bing was like a mute instrument, not knowing which part to play.
Mrs. Allen's Reading Group. As mentioned above, Mrs. Allen's reading program focused on comprehension. Many pre-reading (brain-storming) and post-reading questions were asked, to enhance children's comprehension of the stories they read. At times, answering the questions required certain "cultural knowledge" or "funds of knowledge" (Moll, 1990). One day, after reading a book called Breakfast in Bed (Neville & Butler, 1988), Mrs. Allen asked the group members what they liked to eat for breakfast. Children in the same group generated answers such as bacon, sausage, pancakes, and eggs. When it was Tong-bing's turn, he hesitated and answered "pizza"--one of the few food words he knew. All of the children laughed, while one child said, "We do not have pizza for breakfast."
Mrs. Burnett's Group. As mentioned earlier, literacy activities in Mrs. Burnett's group centered around "skill-based" practices. Children were asked to remember sight words such as the interrogative "wh" words (where, when, what, who, which). Sometimes Mrs. Burnett would write a short sentence on a wipe-ease board and ask the children to copy it down on the paper. In this type of penmanship practice, Tong-bing was a "super" student. When compared to others in his group, Tong-bing's handwriting was impressively neat (Figure 2). Once, Mrs. Allen commented that "Chinese ESL children's handwriting is beautiful." Emphasis from family practices could probably explain the neatness of Tong-bing's handwriting, as he was asked by his parents to practice handwriting in English daily.
The Group of Miscellaneous Activities. Tong-bing was a silent worker. As a classroom rule, when working with computers, students needed to take turns to operate the mouse. Often Tong-bing was a passive partner and kept silent. Occasionally, however, he protested and would say loudly, "Please share!"
Tong-bing's puzzlement was especially prominent in the "loft time," a time reserved for free reading. Around the loft, there were several bins of books for children to choose and read. Many times Tong-bing sat around the bins, not knowing what to do. He did not like books with words. "Tai nan le" (too difficult), he said to the first author, if she was around. "But you are supposed to read," she would respond. "Wo bu xiang" (I don't want to), he would answer. Occasionally, Tong-bing selected books with huge pictures and few words.
Journal Writing (Seatwork). The three other Chinese children--Pei-wen, Guanlin, and Shao-min--did not seem to have any problems with journal writing. They could easily produce several meaningful sentences. What distinguished these three Chinese children from Tong-bing was that they were already very much assimilated into the particular literacy culture of the journal group--writing down their ideas--even though they were not sure about correct spellings. Better control and knowledge of English made this assimilation possible. Moreover, these three children could easily interact with others and were aware of available resources. For example, Pei-wen, the girl who was still going to the ESL class, would discuss with her neighbors what to write if she could not come up with a topic for her journal. For spellings, she would look through several books or environmental print for accuracy. Onetime, during the first week of December, Pei-wen was asked to write about Christmas. She searched through all the print disp layed on the walls of her classroom until she found the word "Christmas" on a book cover.
Unlike his peers, Tong-bing felt very intimidated during journal writing. His difficulties can be explained as follows:
1) Not knowing the nature and purpose of journal writing. The first thing that puzzled him was that he did not know what a "journal" was. He asked, several times in Chinese, "What's journal?" Sometimes he even asked, "Do I have to write?" Because Mrs. Allen would ask children to read to her what they wrote in the journal at the end of centers, Tong-bing knew he needed to "produce" something on paper.
2) Not knowing how to "invent" spelling. Although Mrs. Allen stated very clearly that children could use temporary spelling as long as they could sound out letters and write sentences that made sense, Tong-bing did not know how to sound out letters, and so he tried to use words for which he knew the correct spelling.
3) Family influence: "I have to spell everything right." The clash between home and school cultures became evident when literacy practices were compared. For example, every day Tong-bing's parents asked him to memorize several words from a primer English-Chinese dictionary and asked him to copy the words in a notebook. Thus, at home the emphasis was on memorizing words and on having perfect spelling, while at school the focus was writing out ideas and using invented spelling. Therefore, if Tong-bing had an idea but did not know how to spell it correctly, he would ask before frying to spell it on his own. His first journal entry did not include words. However, with the passage of time, Tong-bing developed some strategies in order to "survive" journal writing.
What Helped Tong-bing Survive in the Literacy Club
Using Vocabulary Memorized at Home. As stated earlier, Tong-bing's parents asked him to memorize English vocabulary at home. At the beginning of the fall semester, Tong-bing memorized words for animals and colors, which he used for writing in his journal for two months. During three consecutive weeks, Tong-bing wrote about a yellow duck ("See my duck. He ce YELLOW"), an orange-white tiger ("See Tiger He ie ora WRITE"), and a black bear ("I have cow ie black whl").
Using the Environmental Print on Hand. When writing about the colors of the animals, Tong-bing picked up the crayons on his desk and copied the words from the crayon wrappers. When done, Tong-bing smiled, obviously proud of his accomplishment.
Learning More English and Becoming Familiar With Routines. With the passage of time, and as his English improved, Tong-bing gradually adapted to the culture of the writing community. He began to write more and did not always care about perfect spelling. For example, when asked to write about his Halloween costume, Tong-bing wrote down what he thought was close to the right spelling ("I have blaok maks. I ha ipeoclantern maks. I have maks."). In addition, towards the end of November, Tong-bing was able to write simple words with correct spellings.
The Writers' Workshop
In early January, Mrs. Allen started implementing the Writers' Workshop. Every Tuesday, from 12:45 to 1:45, Tong-bing and his peers participated in the Writers' Workshop. During the first Writers' Workshop, children were given a red "writing folder" with two sheets of paper attached: "Writing I have published" and "I have read my published writing to ..." These two sheets provided children with a place to record what they accomplished in the Writers' Workshop. In addition, children stored their unfinished drafts in their red folders. The Writers' Workshop was guided by a process writing approach, an approach to literacy that focuses on content and process rather than on skill acquisition and form (Atwell, 1984, 1987; Calkins, 1986; Graves, 1983: Reyes, 1992). Based on this approach, children are exposed to authentic literature and have the freedom to select topics for their writing. Writing activities in the Writers' Workshop were divided into several stages: 1) drafting, 2) revising (i.e., conferencing with the teacher), 3) editing (i.e., typing, with the help of adults), 4) layout (i.e., children cut and paste their typed work on a pre-made book covered with beautiful wrapping paper), 5) illustrating, and 6) author's chair (children who finished publishing and illustrating could read to the class their "book," and receive feedback from their peers).
When it was time for the writing workshop, children scattered throughout the room alone, in pairs, or in small groups. Some were drafting; others were illustrating. There were also some children waiting for a conference with the teacher. In addition, two adults almost always were present to help children type their revised works. Although the children were at different points in their projects, everyone was following a similar process approach to writing. After they selected a topic, children sometimes created a web of ideas, wrote first drafts, read their draft to friends, revised and edited, conferred with the teacher, and eventually published their writing. This process could be completed in a single writing workshop period or over the course of months, depending on each child's pace.
Tong-bing's Participation in the Writers' Workshop
Drafting. The first story Tong-bing wrote was called "Dad and Baby." During
this stage, Tong-bing did not interact with other children, and he wrote quietly. When he did not know the spelling for his story's key word "baby," he looked it up in the B section of his dictionary--a list of words frequently used by 1st-graders compiled by Mrs. Allen. After he found the word, he first said the whole sentence before writing it down on paper. It took him a single one-hour session of the Writers' Workshop to finish the draft.
Conferencing. The next Tuesday afternoon, Tong-bing had a conference with the teacher. Mrs. Allen congratulated him on writing a very interesting story. She suggested that he change the tense of the story. "When you are writing a story that happened in the past, you need to use past tense," said Mrs. Allen to Tong-bing. As she pointed to "going to shopping," Mrs. Allen suggested, "Let's change this to 'went shopping."' Tong-bing agreed and murmured "went shopping." Then Mrs. Allen wrote a note on the margin of his paper, "change verbs as needed," intended for the adult typist.
Editing. With the draft having been revised by the teacher, each author read his or her story to the adult typist (a parent volunteer). As his story was being typed, Tong-bing mentioned that verbs needed to be changed to past tense. When this was finished, he read the story to the typist and a copy was immediately printed out.
Layout and illustration. Tong-bing carefully cut each sentence and pasted it in his book. Since Mrs. Allen had emphasized the importance of illustrations, Tong-bing, who was a very dedicated artist, spent a whole hour on his illustrations.
Author's chair. Reading stories to the whole class was an exciting event, and it represented the end of the publishing process. Every week, during the last five minutes of the Writers' Workshop, children read their stories according to the order in which they were "published." It was during the fifth Writers' Workshop that Tong-bing sat in the author's chair. He then proceeded to read his book in a loud voice and proudly showed illustrations to the whole class. The following is Tong-bing's first story:
Dad and Baby
One day the dad went shopping.
The baby was crying.
The baby fell down and the dad came back.
The dad couldn't find her.
The dad heard a sound. He said, "It is my baby!"
Then the dad put the baby in the bed.
The mom came back.
When comparing Tong-bin's writing with the other children's published work, the plot is not as sophisticated. However, it was during the Writers' Workshop that Tong-bing could work to his fullest potential and at his own pace. In particular, he had the opportunity to talk with the teacher and receive suggestions and attention. During the conference regarding the story of "Dad and Baby," Tong-bing understood the issue of tenses. When starting his second story, "A greedy cat," Tong-bing wrote down, "One day mama went shopping." In understanding the usage of tense, Tong-bing had benefited from the conference with his teacher.
As described above, the Writers' Workshop in Mrs. Allen's classroom, which was organized around individual work and interpersonal interaction, provided LEP students authentic opportunities to develop as writers. LEP students could work at their own pace and obtain individualized assistance from the adults.
Conclusions and Implications
The Structure of Classroom Events and Their Consequences for Student Performance
The above description and analysis of Tong-bing's participation patterns in the centers, especially in journal writing, illustrates how an authentic literacy club and community may unintentionally constitute a particularly challenging environment for LEP children--especially at the beginning stages of language development. This is because LEP children have not yet acquired a certain repertoire of words and sentence patterns, nor, especially, do they yet have certain "cultural knowledge," and so they are not able to participate freely in the classroom. This is not to suggest that holistic teaching is not suitable for LEP children. In fact, this report shows how Tong-bing benefited from this kind of experience. At issue here is the question of how to help newly arrived children become active participants in their new literacy environment. In this regard, the instructional organization of classroom events, which definitely affects the nature of the social context for learning, becomes critically important. Tong- bing's initial difficulties, as revealed in his sense-making and participation patterns, point out the pivotal role played by the classroom's social organization.
The problem is not confined only to learning English. As demonstrated here, Tong-bing's difficulties early on were partly caused by the differences between the literacy practices at home and school. Interviews with Tong-bing's parents revealed that the literacy practices at home were deeply influenced by Chinese approaches to literacy.
Because Chinese logographs number in the thousands and are complex in regard to spatial configuration, language instruction in the primary grades in China has focused on practicing Chinese characters. In China, daily homework assignments for 1st- and 2nd-graders emphasize the writing of Chinese characters, in part because a character is supposed to fit into one small square. With the belief that "practice makes perfect," Tong-bing's parents required him to practice five to six characters and to read aloud a three- to four-sentence-long passage included in a Chinese textbook every evening. The emphasis on reading Chinese characters and the attention to penmanship are reflected in the way Tong-bing participated in the literacy practices in the classroom--especially in his journal writing. He only attempted to write words he was sure of spelling, and he paid great attention to his handwriting.
The Read-at-Home Project: A Bridge To Connect Family and School
As mentioned earlier, one unique feature in Mrs. Allen's classroom was the Read-at Home project, which was intended to involve parents in their children's education in general, and literacy learning in particular. Starting in October, when most children were learning to read, every child in Mrs. Allen's classroom took home one small book written in simple text. Some advanced readers were encouraged to check out books requiring a 3rd-grade or 4th-grade reading level.
The Read-at-Home project allowed Mrs. Allen to frequently communicate with parents about her pedagogical practices, her expectations, and how parents could get involved in their children's education. For Tong-bing's parents, the Read-at-Home project was undoubtedly an excellent educational experience. Although at home Tong-bing continued to he asked to practice his Chinese characters and to memorize words in English, he and his father began reading books together, rather than just copying the whole hook as he had done in the past.
What a Teacher Can Do To Help
Mrs. Allen's classroom provided a good model of practices that enhance LEP children's literacy learning. First, due to the variety of texts provided in reading and writing activities during the centers, Tong-bing was consistently immersed in meaningful print. Second, with the help of the Read-at-Home project, Tong-bing was able to learn and practice new vocabulary and sentence patterns. Furthermore, toward the second half of the fall semester, Tongbing began to feel at ease within the culture of the literacy community. Third, Tongbing benefited considerably from the repeated opportunities he had to interact with the teacher and other adults on a one-to-one basis. Fourth, equally beneficial were Tongbing's opportunities to write at his own pace, and to collaborate with peers and adults during the Writers' Workshop.
Moreover, Tong-bing's participation in Mrs. Allen's literacy club demonstrates that sophisticated oral language skills are not necessary for LEP children to successfully communicate their thoughts and experiences in writing (Hudelson, 1989; Samway, 1992; Urzua, 1987). It also demonstrates that writing is both a solitary and a social act. When children like Tong-bing are given opportunities to write for authentic meaning-making, message-sharing purposes, they can enjoy the benefits of joining the literacy club--even when they are emerging readers and writers, or when they are writing in a language that they have not yet mastered.
Acknowledgment: Portions of this paper were presented at the annual meetings of Teachers of English for Speakers of Other Languages in Orlando, March 1997, and of the American Educational Research Association in San Diego, April 1998. Special thanks to David Slavit, Carol Maloney, and Meredith Sage for their feedback on earlier drafts.
(1.) To ensure confidentiality of informants in this study, all names are pseudonyms.
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|Publication:||Journal of Research in Childhood Education|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1999|
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