Creating a Student Literacy Corps in a Diverse Community

Article excerpt

The authors describe a program aimed at creating and nurturing literacy opportunities and successes for area children, adolescents, and adults while simultaneously helping all participants develop an appreciation of their language and of their culturally diverse community.

Fitchburg, Massachusetts, originally a mill town, is a community with a rapidly expanding African American, Asian, and Hispanic (particularly Puerto Rican) population. It is also the site of Fitchburg State College, a regional institution with approximately 5,000 undergraduate students. In 1990 the college was awarded a federal Student Literacy Corps grant, which led to the establishment of the Literacy Corps Program. The program's primary goal is to create and nurture literacy opportunities and successes for area children, adolescents, and adults while simultaneously helping all participants develop an appreciation of their culturally diverse community. Those served by the program include whites, African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, and Pakistanis.

Program Description

A new elective course, "Literacy Corps," was developed for college students who wish to take part in the program. Undergraduate students from a variety of college majors enroll in this course and meet with an instructor one evening per week. Required readings and class discussions provide the students with a foundation of knowledge regarding pertinent issues in literacy education, including bilingual education, the use of various dialects of English, the influence of bilingualism on literacy development, approaches to reading instruction for newly literate adults, literacy assessment, and how literacy might affect one's economic and social development.

Decisions about the course were shaped by the fact that many of the participating students are not education majors or are first- or second-year students with little training in or familiarity with literacy development and tutorial situations. For example, we had to consider the backgrounds of our tutors as we selected and developed the assessment tools they would use. Likewise, all decisions regarding the discussion topics for the weekly seminars or the type of instruction, guidance, and supervision that the course instructor would provide throughout the semester were influenced by the inexperience of our tutors.

Each school or community agency involved with our program identifies individuals who are most in need of tutorial services to foster their literacy development. The college students then administer a series of informal assessments to gather information concerning the tutees' feelings about reading and writing, their current abilities and performance, their reading behaviors, their interests and future goals, and the resources currently available to them. Informal assessment procedures are used because they are more flexible and can be readily adapted to differing situations.(1) After analyzing the information gathered from the assessments, the college student, the tutee, and the classroom teacher or site manager work together to develop a study plan.

The college students provide the learning tools for their tutees, assist them with instructional strategies, give encouragement and moral support, and closely monitor their successes and setbacks. The pairs work as teams to allow tutees to travel along personal paths of literacy development, and the college students also work cooperatively and intensively with the site managers or teachers to meet the needs of the tutees. In addition, parents and families are contacted to let them know that the tutoring relationship has been established. They are asked to evaluate their child's or family member's progress at the end of the semester using an attitudinal scale developed by Anthony Fredericks and Timothy Rasinski.(2)

Each weekly class meeting for the college students begins with a session in which they express any concerns or problems they have regarding their tutoring. …