By Niamh Kelly
In the age of digital media, there is a constant question put forward by parents and teachers alike – how do we encourage children to read rather than become absorbed by technology? One NUI Galway programme – ‘Literacy Lift Off!’ – is attempting to solve this dilemma through weekly reading sessions between local primary school pupils and second year English students over a 10-week period full of interactive games and quizzes that show how fun reading can be.
As a second-year NUI Galway student taking part in this programme, I am delighted to report on its evident success of service learning and to share my experience in the hopes that exposure amounts to further implementation of service learning within the college and university curriculum. I also wouldn’t mind answering that question in relation to overcoming technology – nothing can replace a good book and the excitement these children displayed over reading shows that!
The first morning of the 10-week programme was an almost hysterical sight to see – a group of barely-adult college students shaking with nervousness and anticipation as they waited outside a classroom for their reading group composed of children, who, by contrast, seemed perfectly at ease. This was their territory after all, we were merely a form of substitute teacher they saw as ‘fair game’, and they would push our buttons as much as they could in the following weeks – but not just yet.
For now, my group were polite and attentive as we sat down in comically small chairs and began to learn a bit about each other, and I was already devising my theory on how the three children worked together as part of a group. This first interaction, we had been told, was a means of finding out who each child was and what their interests were, and perhaps we may find a way to relate their personal experiences to what they were reading.
My group were all too happy to relay every detail of their lives – they all took part in the same sport, they all had dogs (one was called Princess – a fact I found unbearably adorable!), and they were all 10 – and very soon I was discussing my interests, my pet dog and any other fun facts about my life (they loved that I spoke Spanish).
As we commenced our reading for the week, I quickly picked up on the reading abilities of my little scholars – all were able to read out their sentences at a slow and steady pace, yet, upon questioning them on certain word meanings, it was clear that there was some slight confusion.
This method of one to one learning and questioning with pupils is encouraged by studies that have found evidence of a reading comprehension impairment. This particular impairment can often go unnoticed, as children may be able to sound out words and notice patterns which allow them to read aloud, yet the actual content of what they read may be lost on them.
In our weekly two-hour reflective class (set in the university and away from the children), we discovered the many and ranging challenges each child faced, whether it be a lack of confidence, hyperactivity, or a struggle with comprehension. This reflective class placed all 14 students within the programme in the same room, and with such a small class size and a format where we shared experiences and suggestions with one another the comradery between us grew every week.
The further we progressed through the programme, the more I learned about these children – for instance, one of the girls told me all about how she and her granny read together on weekend visits and how much she enjoyed reading, and I even received a goodbye hug! Having been raised by foster parents and coming from a family that were not particularly interested in education or reading, I firmly hold the belief that the right teacher can turn any student into a capable, thoughtful reader.
The books we read with the primary school pupils were all donated to the school by our course director, and the excitement over books like ‘Mr. Stink’ and ‘Billionaire Boy’ brought a smile to my face, while simultaneously highlighting the need of access to books across the globe.
In doing this course, my expectation was solely to affect children and fuel their potential reading careers. What I never suspected was that I would be inspired by their willingness to learn and that my passion for reading would be enhanced by the experience.
I cannot recommend this programme enough – the cooperation of the school and its teachers, the invaluable teaching experience and encouragement from our course director made the journey a fun challenge that I will never forget.