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Successful Transition into Mainstream English: Effective Strategies for Studying Literature


This is one of a series of reports on various aspects of a multi-year Spanish-to-English language arts transition curriculum that seeks to promote first and second language acquisition and academic achievement in the early grades. After providing an overview of the multi-year transition program, this report focuses on how an 8-week literature unit—the intensive study of a carefully chosen literature text—is conducted.

The following four fundamental theoretical premises that undergird the project are described: (1) challenge, (2) comprehensiveness, (3) continuity, and (4) connections between students' existing knowledge and the academic content to be learned.

Four strategies found to be effective and the corresponding tools used are as follows:

(1) Build students' background knowledge. Background-building lessons and activities support the literature unit and provide a means to integrate language arts and social studies. Students complete supplemental reading through assigned independent readings, teacher read-alouds, and books available for pleasure reading.

(2) Draw on students' personal experiences. Individual "literature logs" are students' written answers to specific questions about themes in the story being studied. The questions elicit students' personal experiences relevant to the story.

(3) Promote extended discourse through writing and discussion. "Working the text"— reading it, re-reading it, discussing it, writing about it, and listening to what others have written about it—gives students opportunities to develop new ways to interpret and articulate ideas. A final writing project shows how students' understanding of the literature text has expanded and how their ability to write about it has been enhanced.

(4) Assist students in re-reading pivotal portions of the text. In preparation for the unit, the teacher "chunks" the book into manageable portions of reading that begin and end at meaningful junctures. In one or more chunks, the content is complex and critical to the larger understanding of the story and its theme(s). Such chunks require more time and intensive discussion and may be further divided into parts. Using background knowledge that students gained during study of the story and through further exploration of students' personal experiences, the teacher guides students through each step of a pivotal portion.

Evaluation studies of the benefit of such literacy instruction suggest that the program is providing students with a demonstrably successful transition experience. Mean national percentiles scores for project students increased from the 44th to 72nd percentile in reading and from the 40th to the 78th percentile in language. In comparison, percentile scores for nonproject students showed smaller gains. Project students also scored significantly higher than nonproject students on project-developed performance- based measures of English reading and writing.

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