Nationwide, two thirds of incoming college freshmen are not reading proficient, according to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. At Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY), many of those students—a significant portion whose first language is not English—find themselves in non-credit bearing developmental reading courses.
Introductory Academic and Critical Reading (ACR) or developmental reading courses are designed to improve students’ comprehension and bring them up to speed for college-level work. Even so, as recently as Spring 2016, around one third of developmental reading students did not progress or dropped out of college altogether.
In an effort to make developmental reading courses more engaging, two ACR professors, Patrick Flink and Tim Leonard, are applying an innovative approach. “BMCC has cultivated an environment where professors can reflect on practice, consider new teaching methods and implement those innovations as well,” Leonard says.
The interactive trial program also falls under BMCC’s Service Learning umbrella—a college-wide effort that guides students to take skills learned in the classroom, and use them to give back to their communities.
Students spend one full class each week, reading stories aloud to the pre-school-aged children of fellow BMCC students in the college’s Early Childhood Center.
“Each student picks a storybook, then sits down and reads it to a child, connecting the preschooler to the story,” said Flink.
“We designed this program to help our students become more involved with the class and improve their reading skills. We wanted them to take part in something bigger than themselves, to give back to their college community, which helps fulfill the college’s service-learning mission,” he said. “It also counters some of the frustration or stigma many students in non-credit bearing developmental courses feel.”
Gaining critical skills
Early one morning during a typical session at the childhood center, a BMCC student sat alongside a child, both in tiny chairs, as the BMCC student pointed to an illustration of a big house. “It’s really red, isn’t it?” the BMCC student asked the child, who answered “Yes!” and began naming other colors on the page.
Leonard say that the program is helping the BMCC students think more critically about what they are reading, as they work to keep the child’s attention and engage them in the narrative.
“A lot of students who came up through the New York City public school system can read, but they haven’t pushed themselves to read critically,” Leonard explains.
Both Leonard and Flink say that the oral reading process also helps improve comprehension and fluency. Bringing an audience of small children into the equation, they say, nurtures social and emotional wellbeing as well.
Reflections on the process
As the BMCC students read to the children, they are encouraged to employ classroom concepts such as identifying the main idea of the story, and to make critical connections between the book and societal issues.
At the close of each session, the BMCC students gather to reflect on their experience, recording their thoughts into a handwritten journal.
Sociology major Carline Resiere says the children warm her heart. “I love to entertain them. I put my own little twist in the way I read them the story,” she says. “When you read to them, you’re modeling pronunciation of simple words that they can take into their vocabulary, and that makes me very happy.”
Accounting major Zhinyuan Chen, who plans to transfer to a four-year college and pursue a career in business, came to the United States from China at age four and has struggled with his English over the years. “I’ve had ups and downs,” he says. “This class has helped me overcome my self-consciousness about speaking English to people who grew up here. I like reading to the children because I feel like I’m also helping them gain confidence in their skills.”
Criminal Justice major Vincent Lallo said he takes his time reading, and helps the children, many who come from homes where English is not spoken, understand how to pronounce words in the books.
“When they laugh at the story, it makes me happy, because I know I’m bringing them some joy,” said Lallo.