Academic journal article Journal of Developmental Education

Literary Letters: Developmental Readers' Responses to Popular Fiction

Academic journal article Journal of Developmental Education

Literary Letters: Developmental Readers' Responses to Popular Fiction

Article excerpt

Research suggests that reading deficiencies are the greatest obstacle that underprepared students face in college (Wirt, et al., 2002). The problem is so acute that only 51% of the high school graduates tested by ACT are prepared for freshman courses (ACT, 2006). In part, this might be attributed to a lack of practice reading books for pleasure. According to Atwell (2007), "the major predictor of academic success is the amount of time that a student spends reading. In fact, the top 5 percent of U.S. students reads up to 144 times more than the kids at the bottom 5 percent" (p. 107). It follows that readers who enjoy books and become actively engaged in the reading process are more likely to read extensively and to experience success academically.

The study instructor, a 22-year veteran of community college instruction, has observed that most developmental reading students are disengaged, passive readers. In her experience, use of a skills-based approach (Crismore & Busch, 1984) has yielded low retention rates and limited advancement in reading ability. To promote self-efficacy and enjoyment of reading, she has added a literature-based component to her reading courses. This component features selfselected popular literature with multiple opportunities for writing and discussion.

This article describes pedagogy employed in a developmental reading class and presents findings from action research using class assignments and activities as formative data (Reinking & Bradley, 2008). The assignment we focus on is the literary letter (Atwell, 1984), an informal mode of teacher-learner correspondence: Students respond to books through letters and receive a personal reply from the instructor. In addition to writing a personal reply, for this study the instructor also "coded," or labeled thought patterns in, each letter. The instructor theorized that by using the literature component and coding system students might report improved comprehension, richer responses in writing and discussion, greater engagement and self-efficacy, and improved attitudes about reading. Three questions guided the inquiry:

1. How would the depth and breadth of students' literary letters change when we taught them different ways of elaborating in their written response to reading?

2. Would students report that learning elaborative thought patterns helped them to better comprehend, write about, and discuss their novels? If so, in what specific ways did it help them?

3. Would students report changes in their perceptions of themselves as readers, their attitudes about reading, and their engagement with books? If so, what sorts of changes would they report?

After exploring the literature that informs our study, we briefly describe the pedagogy used and then provide a description of the formative data collected and analyzed.

Interactive Pedagogy in English and Reading: Research and Applications

Theoretical Foundations

The intervention of focus in this study is informed by several theories related to literacy education. The strategy provides instructional engagements that elicit and affirm aesthetic responses to literature (Short & Burke, 2001). As personal engagement with the text is affirmed, students become invested in understanding both the text and the reading process itself (Tashlik, 1987).

If indeed "everything about learning and developing is social" (Vygotsky as cited in Wink & Putney, 2002, p. 62), then college literacy is not only an instructed process but also a "cultural learning process" (Gee, 2004, p. 11). A cultural learning process engages the learner through mentoring relationships and a set of expectations situated in an informal cultural context. Students can benefit from this added dimension of the literature-based component, as authentic interactions occur during literature circles, group presentations, and through written correspondence with the instructor. It is essential to provide developmental reading students with such opportunities for interaction (Sinagra, Battle, & Nicholson, 1998). …

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