Reading doesn’t come easy for many students. In the U.S., adolescents often find themselves struggling to achieve the most basic reading skills by the time they have reached the fourth grade.
The process of learning to read becomes even more difficult for children who speak English as a second Language – or are English Language Learners (ELLs). According to the National Education Association, 80 percent of ELLs are Hispanic, and the National Center for Education Statistics reports that 47 percent of Hispanic students score below basic reading levels.
For 10 years, the University of Houston-Downtown has addressed the students’ reading challenges by creating bilingual e-books aimed at honing students’ reading and writing skills. Students in UHD’s Department of Urban Education—led by associate professor Dr. Maria Bhattacharjee—have worked to develop these texts, which are archived online in UHD’s Bilingual E-Book Library.
Bhattacharjee guides this project, primarily collaborating with Crockett Elementary School. This week, the most recent collection of electronic texts will be celebrated during the “UHD and Crockett Elementary E-Book Exhibit and Art Festival” at 5 p.m., May 11 in the school’s cafeteria (2112 Crockett St.). Books were written by Crockett first-graders and illustrated by fourth- and fifth-grade students. Students in Bhattacharjee’s Children’s Literature in Spanish class supervised the creation of these bilingual storybooks.
“Students in pre-K through second grade have a hard time finding books that are culturally meaningful to them,” Bhattacharjee said. “This is particularly true for Hispanic students whose first language is Spanish. They may be new to our country, so they don’t have a firm knowledge of American culture. Reading becomes difficult because they can’t comprehend what they read. They decode what they read, but they don’t have prior knowledge regarding the subject matter.”
As a former elementary and high school teacher, Bhattacharjee recognized the reading challenges faced by Hispanic students who were English Language Learners. Until recently, Bhattacharjee’ s students created the texts with input with students and their families. Now, the Crockett students are empowered to write and illustrate these texts.
“This is a project that transforms non-readers into readers,” Bhattacharjee said. “It also shows them they can write. Students might assume that only published authors can write books, but we teach them they can do it too.”
The recent books authored by Crockett students include stories about wrestling, visiting the beauty shop, cell phones and other everyday topics.
Bhattacharjee noted one memorable story about a girl who missed her grandparents. One grandparent was in Honduras, and the other was in Mexico. The girl then has a dream in which she and her family are transformed into fish that swim to visit both grandparents and ultimately reunite with them permanently.
The e-book project enhances students’ vocabularies and provides them with a sense of story structure, Bhattacharjee noted. For students illustrating the books, the project develops their critical-thinking skills as they must analyze narratives to provide effective images.
UHD Urban Education students participating in the project also benefit, Bhattacharjee said. As they guide students through the writing and illustration process, these future teachers gain insights on how to intellectually engage students.
“This project helps our students understand how to teach reading using texts that speak to children,” she said. “Selecting culturally meaningful books is so important when teaching young children to read.”
E-books are archived online and linked to the websites for the Harris County Public Library and the Crockett Elementary School Library. They are free for anyone to read on a computer, laptop, tablet or smartphone. The project is made possible through the participation and support of UHD Urban Education professor Dr. Irene Chen; Crockett Elementary School Principal (and UHD alumna) Claudia Chavez-Pinto; Crockett first grade art teacher Claudia Elizondo; and Crockett first grade bilingual teacher Berta Vital.
Bhattacharjee has collaborated on other projects with Crockett Elementary School for more than 20 years. This project, she said, is particularly important for both aspiring educators and children alike.
The books aren’t just for children learning how to read, she added. Parents who are learning English also benefit from these online texts.
“I’m pleased to have this longstanding partnership with a school like Crockett,” Bhattacharjee said. “This collaboration has helped young Houstonians learn to read while preparing teachers for the classroom. I look forward to continuing to produce more e-books and promoting reading education in our city.”