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Individual Literacy Case Study
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Individual Literacy Case Study
Observing and working one on one with my case study student allowed me: to use the knowledge I had gained in my literacy course, to see the value and tremendous potential of individualized attention, to recognize the ways in which I would work with this student in future, and to desire and seek effective and efficient ways of pursuing similar observational and pedagogical approaches with each and every member of my class in future.
Broadly stated, two particular texts have most influenced my work with this case study. Sylvia Scribner’s article, “Literacy in Three Metaphors,” sparked my thinking about the personal and social functions of literacy generally, and Ruth Schoenbach, Cynthia Greenleaf, Cristine Cziko, and Lori Hurwitz’s Reading for Understanding text provided specific techniques as well as a schema for developing what they term the “metacognitive conversation,” which I found particularly helpful. I have divided the following study into six major sections, (i) background, (ii) reasons for choosing this student, (iii) reading, (iv) writing, (v) speaking and listening, and (vi) ways I would work with this student in future.
This student came to the United States from Columbia when she was six years old, together with her mother, father, and younger brother. She comes from a supportive family environment and speaks affectionately about her home life. She speaks Spanish at home, and translates for her father who she said speaks less English than her mother. At parents night her father said that his children are his life and that he is very proud of her, and she translated both statements in front of the group with little embarrassment (even though she told me she does not feel comfortable speaking in front of people she does not know). Her fourteen-year old brother is in a wheelchair due to muscular dystrophy and she spends a lot of time with him. She also speaks more English with her brother than with her parents.
She is a rising tenth grader at Blackstone Academy, and is evidently a diligent and dedicated student. She enjoys sports, especially soccer, but also likes indoor activities, especially art and reading. She reads a lot at home both for school and for pleasure. Her favorite author is Nora Roberts (a celebrated American romance writer) but she reads all sorts of different things and is currently reading Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. She is reading the book on recommendation from her mother who read it in Spanish, but she is reading it in English because she thought it might be more difficult for her in Spanish.
Based on my initial observations of her, I could see that she was initially soft-spoken, a little self-conscious, and shy. She becomes more vocal and willing to participate in class discussions once she gets to know people and when she feels more comfortable. Although she does not like to read aloud in front of teachers or her peers in the school setting, she informed me that she does enjoy reading out loud to her mother. When asked to say a little more about that, her comments reflected the safe and loving home environment in which she feels confident and supported. She is very self aware of her own learning, quick to tell me her likes and dislikes and in which areas she feels she is strong. She likes science, art, and history and is very explicit about her dislike for writing. She also informed me several times that speaking in front of people is difficult for her, as is reading out loud in front of people.
She sets goals for herself and works to accomplish them. In her art, for example, she is working on drawing humans better (she showed me her art work and how she is now concentrating on rendering the face as she feels good about the other parts of the body). Similarly, in reading she keeps a journal in which she records unfamiliar words to look up and define and practice.
Reasons for Choosing this Student
I found the assignment to choose a student who you think is “struggling with literacy” slightly problematic for two reasons: I was still struggling to define what exactly the concept meant and encompassed, and we had only a short amount of time with the students. I was initially drawn to this student as a candidate for my literacy case study because of her quietness, her written “entrance tickets,” her conduct during a small group read aloud, and her responses to the “funds of knowledge” survey. I also wanted to learn more about myself as a teacher and to challenge certain assumptions linking student behavior and ability. This student is very “well behaved” in class, that is to say she would excel in a classroom that prized quiet attention and orderliness. I fear that such a student might also go unnoticed by some teachers, or at least not receive as much individualized attention as other students. In the past I had worked with particularly rambunctious young men who had disciplinary problems in school and failing grades. I think it may often be implicitly assumed that students who “act up” or have poor grades also struggle with literacy and that quiet students who do their homework and pay attention must be doing just fine. (It is usually distant or seemingly angry quiet students that catch the teacher’s attention).
Unlike students who immediately catch the teacher’s attention, I had trouble remembering this students name in the middle of the first week (when I had mastered all the other students’ names in the class). When I observed one third of the class taking turns reading aloud, she was noticeably quieter than the other students and did appear to struggle slightly more (although she did not have any major problems that distinguished her reading ability from that of her peers in this instance). To what extent did the difficulties I observed in her reading aloud come from the social aspect and to what extent from possible comprehension issues? Disentangling her shyness from possible issues with literacy, I thought, would be an important first step in working with this student.
In observing this student read out loud in a group of nine students early in BSHS I noticed her reluctance. She was barely audible (even after being asked to speak up) and appeared to have more difficulty than the other students. Her responses to the funds of knowledge survey confirmed not only that she found reading out loud in front of other difficult but also my suspicion that her perceived difficulty in that instance had to do with the social environment and not solely with issues of literacy or comprehension. Three of her six responses mentioned that speaking in front of people was difficult for her: “talking in school in front of people is hard. Talking to someone who isn’t a friend or a family member is hard;” “[reading] alone because if I make a mistake in reading I won’t like be shy about it, I’m super shy to[o] reading in a group is hard for me;” “speaking – hard for me to speak in front of the class and to new people especially when school begins.”
In our conversation and interview she spoke primarily of the social dynamics at play, and not of specific challenges with reading itself. She does not like the pressure of being observed and judged by others and explained that sometimes she messed up words because she was nervous not because she was unfamiliar with them. The fact that she enjoys reading out loud to her mother further illustrates the important of the environment in which the reading takes place.
She seemed to have a much easier time reading out loud in our one to one interview. It was three weeks into the course and not a group setting. She read a passage from Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope, (which came out at the 10th grade level on the Fry readability scale). In her own reading she was slightly quiet but read at a good speed. Her rhythm was a little choppy but not halting (the cadence of her subtle accent gives her inflection a slightly staccato sound). The first word she had difficulty with was the word “candidacy” (the 22nd word in). She stopped before the word and then said, “can-”… “can-da-da-cy”… “can-di-da-cy.” She raised her inflection and looked at me questioningly. She had sounded it out correctly, however, and I nodded. Here she was clearly employing a graphophonic decoding strategy, using sound cues to find the correct pronunciation. She displayed slight difficulty with six other words. She pronounced “remained” as remainded,” and paused for noticeably longer before “endure” and “interruptions” (which came one after the other in a sentence). She also repeated the name Michelle with a questioning tone, even though she had pronounced it correctly the first time. The only other time she seemed to have difficulty was when she pronounced “projects” (as in projects itself into the world) as “projects” (as in the plural of things one works on). Overall, she read quite fluidly, was clearly, and was easy to understand.
She was able to summarize in her own words what she had read very well, and it was clear she had comprehended it. When I asked her if she had any questions she said she had not heard of Barack Obama before. Although I had began by introducing the reading saying that he was a Senator, running for President, and that he may be our first black President, her question reminded me of the importance of context for what is being read. I had made sure she knew what a Senator was and she demonstrated that was able to understand the nature of his public life. The passage was on how his life changed and stayed the same after being elected to the Senate, and J was able to relate it to her own experience when asked. She said that although not in the news like him, she felt that at this age she was under a lot of scrutiny (which reminded me again of her self-consciousness/shyness). She also said that she liked that he had not changed his routine too much, that he would still go out not matching sometimes for example. “I liked that he was honest, he seemed real.” (I made a joke about his honesty being especially noteworthy as he was a politician, which did not illicit a response).
When asked where she struggled, she immediately went back to the word “candidacy” (imitating herself in stuttering over the word). She said it a few times and then I said and provided positive reinforcement for the way she had sounded it out. Interestingly, she displayed metacognitive awareness of her own reading process. When I asked her what she did well, she replied that she thought her pace was good. I asked her what pace meant, and she explained that “I read not too fast and not too slow.” I asked her if she thought about that while she was reading and she said that she had. I asked if her teachers had made her aware of pace and she answered yes.
In our interview, J also described a reading strategy she had been taught. She told me that she keeps a little book and always takes notes when she reads. I asked her what kinds of things she would write down and she told me that she would keep track of unfamiliar words and then look them up and write in the definitions. She learned this strategy in eighth grade and has been using it ever since. She had clearly been made aware of her reading process, as she informed me that her “reading level went up a lot” after she started doing that. I asked her how the levels were determined and she said it was a computer test they took in school every year. I asked if she had worked really hard on learning new words between 8th and 9th grades and she replied that she had. She said that she enjoyed the reading level tests they were given at the beginning and end of each year much more as a result. When I asked her how she tried to figure out unfamiliar words, she told me that she looks at the things around it, and tries to pronounce it. When asked if she tries to pronounce it out loud or in her head, she said both.
This student wrote very little on her entrance tickets. She is not at a loss for ideas and expresses them in a concise way (she cuts right to the point), but she is explicit about her dislike for writing. In our interview I followed up on her response to the survey question “how do you honestly feel about speaking, reading, and writing in school.” She had written: “writing – I don’t like to write.” She repeated this same remark, and I asked her why not. She said that writing was not “her thing,” and that “grammar and rules take all the fun out of it.” She told me that she gets frustrated trying to get all her ideas out at once, a comment which led me to ask if she tried any prewriting strategies. She said she had not. I asked her if writing in her journal was easier and she said, “yeah, because it is not graded.” She went on to tell me that “writing was never my strong point,” to which I replied “it could be, you write beautifully.” She replied simply: “I don’t like to write, I just don’t.” When I suggested that there had to be some fun there to begin with if it could somehow be taken out, she laughed and explained that writing for herself was very different. She said that when you had to write a “certain thing, a certain length, a certain way,” she did not like it, and went on to tell me that she does not like English teachers (assuring me that she is not disrespectful to them, but just doesn’t get along with them). While wanting to pursue this a little further, I asked her about her journal instead. Writing in her journal was different than writing for a teacher, it was for her and it was not graded. She said that she liked to write notes, little collections of thoughts in different places on the page. I asked if she used mechanics, and she replied “not usually.” I could tell that she liked the freedom of knowing that only she would see it. She does not write in her journal every day, however, only when important things happen that she wants to be sure and remember.
I had noticed her terse replies to our entrance tickets, which consistently remained concise even after I encouraged her to write more. In the first longer essay assignment we had asked students to write two pages on their thoughts about the terms “internalization” and “terrorism,” both of which we had spent considerable class time dealing with. We also asked students to pay close attention to proper spelling, grammar, and so forth – “just as if they were writing for their strictest English teacher,” Darnell had said. J managed to complete only one paragraph, which made it difficult for me to assess using the rubrics provided in literacy class. She had gone to the dictionary first and defined both terms as a point of departure. I could see why she did this, and it connected perfectly with the reading journal she had told me about. She was very transparent about her thinking processes in this written piece and wrote in the first person. Her ideas were strong and were logically connected, expect for the second to last which was followed by the words, “I don’t understand the question.”
I chose her poem as my second writing sample. Although it was also difficult to assess this piece using rubrics, I was so impressed by this poem I had to include it! Students were to write a poem incorporating our vocabulary words as well as all sorts of associated words gathered from students in a “whip” activity. Although she did not use many of the vocabulary words, she used almost all of the associated terms. She used language creatively, clearly, and expressively and her writing carried the main idea through a logical progression that was dripping with emotion and feeling. I could almost viscerally sense her personal frustration with the injustice of the history we were studying. It was interesting that given the freedom to disregard the conventions and mechanics of essay writing she was able to articulate something she clearly felt strongly about. Were I evaluating this piece with the criteria from the rubrics we were given, I would surely give her high marks. In the ideas/content, organization, voice, word choice, and sentence fluency, for example, her poem clearly exhibits qualities associated with the top score of the rubric.
The third sample of her writing I used for this case study was her final essay, which was a two page reflection on both the content and the process of her group presentation/exhibition. She wrote in one continuous paragraph for one and a half pages and the essay had little structure or organization. She rarely varied her sentence structure which gave the piece a choppy rhythm and monotonous tone. Her ideas were well expressed at times and her word choice was often very good. She was very reflective on the group process and clearly engaged with the material and took the issues to heart. She also unabashedly explained her confusion with some of the ideas and concepts, although she was able to state them fairly well in the end of the piece. Evaluating this piece against the rubric, I would give her very low scores in almost every category. I wonder to what extent this is biased by my subjective opinion, knowing that she could do much better and having seen the potential in her writing through her poem.
Overall, this student is not a strong writer, nor does she consider herself to be. She has tremendous potential and could rapidly progress toward excellence in writing.
Speaking and Listening
From my observations this student appears to listen well. Beyond my tendency to assume that quiet and attentive students must be good listeners, I have looked at her notes, checked for comprehension in various informal ways, and conducted an oral interview. Although she had more difficulty summarizing what I had read to her than what she read herself, this was not evidence enough for me to assume that she has difficulties listening.
She may have trouble understanding terms which are unfamiliar to her if she only hears them, as she is practiced in writing them down when she reads them. From what I can tell she may be more of a visual learner. She mentioned to me a few times that she had difficulty following what was being discussed around her (she even wrote this in her final reflection essay about her group work). She is also extremely shy and modest and may be slightly self-deprecating in her written self-assessment/reflection.
Although shy at first, J does not have difficulty speaking. In terms of formulating ideas, connecting her comments to previous statements, summarizing discussion, and asking questions she seems to have little difficulty. When translating for her father on parent’s night she did not fumble for the word in English, nor did she even hesitate. In this instance, she displayed good command of both English and Spanish and clear and unselfconscious speaking skills.
Toward the end of the course she became more vocal in class discussion and stuck up for herself, displaying persistence and determination when cut off by one of the more vocal and domineering students. She also spoke very well in her group presentation and was best able to answer questions for the group on the fly. This is in part because she is a very honest and independent thinker.
How I would Work with this Student in Future
I would work first and foremost on this student’s attitude toward writing. “I don’t like to write… Writing was never my strong point… Writing is just not my thing… I just don’t like to write… Grammar and rules take all the fun out of it… Writing for myself is very different than writing for school.” Working with J to become motivated and empowered to write would be tremendously beneficial for her continued acquisition of literacy skills and for her educational development more generally.
The four-dimensional schema described by Schoenbach et al. in Reading for Understanding applies perfectly to writing and relates to Scribner’s three metaphors of literacy. The “personal dimension” is to work to develop the student’s identity an self-awareness as a writer, as well as their purposes for writing and goals for writing improvement. The “social dimension” is about community building in the classroom, and creating the safe environment. The “knowledge-building dimension” is about identifying and expanding the kinds of knowledge writer’s bring to their work. The “cognitive dimension” is utilized in developing writer’s mental processes, including their problem-solving strategies. Although Schoenbach et al. use this framework for building the metacognitive conversation as it related to reading in what they term the “reading apprenticeship,” it can usefully be applied to writing and to working with this student’s writing development. She has already begun the metacognitive conversation about her reading and about her thinking when it comes to school. Somehow, writing has been left out and it will take a slightly different approach to stimulate her writing development.
Scribner’s three metaphors of literacy – literacy as adaptive, socially empowering, and self-enhancing – relate to these dimensions of the metacognitive conversation. While all interconnected, I see the self-enhancing metaphor as particularly related to the personal dimension, especially as they relate to motivations for pursing literacy. The socially empowering metaphor naturally relates to the social dimension, and both speak not only to the social context in which literacy skills are developed but also to the social functions and uses of literacy.
From what I have observed, the social and personal dimensions are particularly important for this student. Therefore, I would concentrate first on her relationship to writing and on the writing environment. She clearly writes at her best when she feels passionate about the material/content and when she feels a certain degree of freedom in expressing her ideas (that is, to disregard some mechanics of standard written English as in poem writing). She also feels pressure getting her ideas out all at once and pressure writing for an audience she perceives is judging her.
In working with this student I would try to provide experiences with writing which relieve the pressure she feels. I might introduce her to the idea of a “culture of power,” as described in the work of Lisa Delpit. This would help her to contextualize what may seems as somewhat arbitrary standards against which her writing is judged. I would certainly also work to unlock her less-inhibited side. Linda Christenson’s “Essay with an Attitude” provides a brilliant model for this, asking students what gets under their skin, what makes them really angry as a starting point for teaching the writing process. J has tremendous potential and her development as a writer could be usefully sparked by awakening her motivations to write in a provocative manner!
 Sylvia Scribner, “Literacy in Three Metaphors,” American Journal of Education, 93 (1984), pp.6-21; Ruth Schoenbach, et al., Reading for Understanding: A Guide to Improving Reading in Middle and High School Classrooms, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999. Kathleen Cuhman’s Fires in the Bathroom: Advice for Teachers from High School Students was very useful in thinking of students’ as active in their own learning processes, and Lisa Delpit’s work also influenced me greatly.