By Guest Writer, Melissa Miller
My path to literacy was a lucky, privileged one, as I was raised by a librarian. Mom worked at a business school library and was a very active volunteer at our local public branch. She read to me, presumably starting when I was still in the womb. Though I certainly can't remember that far back, I know I was reading on my own before I was three. Our house was chock-full of printed matter…quite cluttered with it, in fact, despite Mom's purported organizational calling. The bottom line: she would never have let me not read.
A quarter-century later, as a graduate teaching assistant in a large urban public university, I found myself emotionally distraught at the overall language abilities of my freshman composition students. ESL students from all over the globe did make up a solid 25% of my classes – but often, their work was better and their English proficiency seemed as high, or higher, than that of many of the American-born students! That part was frankly very disappointing, on a patriotic, sentimental level.
I had to remind myself that not everyone had been raised with my family's background, where education was emphasized or even worshipped as a constant imperative for success. Frustration, despair, pity, even anger ("why are these kids even in college?!") were rotating through my mind, along with a heavy dose of guilt and cognitive dissonance…after all, I liked my students and felt protective of them, at the same time as they made me recoil with existential fear for the future of our civilization. "What a horrible person I must be to have such thoughts," thought I. Until I confided in my fellow teachers and realized: this is just the internal struggle we have to deal with, and the only way to win is by doing the best possible job for our students.
The really difficult thing was that, though it was not technically a remedial course (you could test out, but you also had to test in, so these were probably the middle 60% of the incoming class), I was necessarily under-serving the best of these students at times, because I was essentially being counted on to teach not only college-level skills, but things that had been neglected along the way. It felt like I could hardly go back and inculcate habits I myself had formed from high school, middle school, elementary school, preschool…
But why not? I thought back to the way I felt about reading, way back at the very beginning. There was nothing threatening about it to my little toddler self, it was pure fun. Yet the outside world offered rewards for it. No wonder I continued down that path without resistance. Maybe I needed to encourage my students in that same pure way. But how?I remembered the summer reading program at that local public library. There was a wall of little colored stickers, a different hue for each reading level, that tracked the number of books we'd checked out (usually hitting the max of 15 per trip) and read (as confirmed by parent or guardian, I suppose). It sounds cheesy, but it worked. Might stickers still be the answer in college? I resolved to test it. Colored dots were passé, of course; I splurged with my limited grad-school budget on some fancy stickers of racecars, dinosaurs, and the like. I offered stickers for journal entries, stickers for answering questions in class, extra stickers for reports on reading serious long-form articles. Surely my students were too cool to be motivated by stickers.
Nope. The whole pedagogical dynamic changed with this silly incentive system. Classroom participation probably tripled. They began to sound excited about their reading, even the (admittedly dry) material in the comp textbook. I've never taught young children en masse (though I've tutored them one on one), but by taking a lesson from childhood literacy education, without dumbing down the content, I revived some of that spark of enthusiasm that makes the difference between drudgery and engagement.
Not only do students need incentives but they also need to be taught correct principles in order to experience reading fluency. Boost your reading instruction and sign up for our free online reading workshop today. You'll be glad you did!
About the Author:
Melissa Miller is a cheerleader for online associate degree programs. Not literally, of course (since online schools don't have varsity football), but in the sense that her writings will encourage you to "B-E aggressive" about your education. Throw your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.