Service Learning: Literacy Lift Off At NUI Galway
Rebecca Gavigan reflects on her service learning experience at NUI Galway.
My name is Rebecca Gavigan, I was born and raised in a small village in County Donegal called Portnoo. I study Arts at NUI Galway, my two subjects of choice being English and Sociology & Politics. For our second year of studying English, we had the choice of picking our own seminar subjects and Service Learning: Literacy Lift Off was one of them. It appealed to me because I have always enjoyed working with children and have considered teaching as a future career. I decided that it would be a great achievement to help children see the excitement in reading because I know many children don’t view books as anything other than school-work if they aren’t encouraged otherwise. I wrote this article as part of my course and I hope it sheds some light on the wonderful experience I’ve had so far.
After attending the first class of my Literacy Lift Off programme, I knew I had made the right decision in picking this specific seminar. Not only do we get to miss out on writing long essays and sitting in two-hour classes talking about really fun, old books (not!), we get to spend our time with energetic and inspiring little rascals (no sarcasm included this time). The service learning programme itself is one that prides itself in giving students the opportunity to engage with the surrounding community in a way that benefits local school children and the programmes students themselves. All participants get a chance to improve on practical skills, such as coming up with creative ways to make literacy more inclusive, and also allows us to gain real-life experience working in a school with young kids (Burns, 1). Similar to what Prosser and Levesque discussed in their article on literacy through service learning, we partnered with a national school to come together as ‘people from diverse backgrounds’ to ‘share a common bond in literacy’ (Prosser and Levesque, 1). In short, our programme consists of getting up relatively early (too early for most nineteen-year-olds) on Tuesday mornings and making our way to a small, local primary school not too far from the college campus. We walk in to the third- and fourth-class students and (if we’re lucky) they give us warm welcomes and waves. Each of us are paired off with one or two of the children, so we get into our groups and emerge ourselves into our stories. We spend half an hour reading and the other half playing games, who wouldn’t want their work to be that fun? Then, later in the week, we have a two-hour class where we talk about how it went for us on the previous Tuesday, get given helpful advice on how to improve our techniques when reading with the kids and spend time making the games and questions for the following week while listening to some (sometimes questionable) music. Now, I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a darn-good seminar class to me!
Most people have heard of service learning before, but if you haven’t, or if you don’t know much about it, I’m going to explain a bit about my college (NUI Galway)’s service learning programmes. Service learning aims to “engage students in activities that enhance academic learning, civic responsibility and the skills of citizenship, while also enhancing community capacity through service” (qtd. in NUIG CKI website, 1). Service learning is built to immerse people in real-life situations in communities and give people the opportunity to adopt individual responsibilities. NUI Galway’s programmes not only aim to benefit the college’s students in many ways, they also strive to “enhance the capacity of the group or community with whom they work” (NUIG CKI website, 1). NUIG’s Community Knowledge Initiative website (NUIG CKI website, 1) points out that as of 2013, over 40 of the college’s academic courses were advanced to include service learning programmes which over 1,400 students participate and engage with. These programmes are designed to give students a chance to gain real-life work experiences and develop skills in order to be more prepared for life after college. They can also benefit the college itself in ways such as strengthening the college’s relationship with the surrounding community. Service learning programmes are becoming more widely available as education systems encourage people to learn actively through getting out into the world and doing things rather than theoretical learning.
The importance of literacy is often underestimated or seen as less important than other subjects in school. It is taken for granted, where would you be now if you couldn’t read or write to a high standard? If early education doesn’t go all out to teach children to understand and regurgitate literacy accurately then difficulties emerge in the child’s formal education which will lead on to difficulties in adult life (Hulme and Snowling, 1). There are many well-known problems that people have in relation to literacy, such as dyslexia and reading-comprehension impairment which Hulme and Snowling discuss in their article on children’s reading comprehension difficulties (1). In their study, they discovered that in the 1,120 children that were screened in this study, 160 of the children were identified as having a ‘relative weakness in reading comprehension’ (Hulme and Snowling, 3). These issues must be identified and addressed in schools. If literacy is taught in a more creative manner, this might help children to understand and enjoy literacy. English can be viewed as a boring and repetitive subject after studying it from your first year of education ‘til your last, so it’s not only important for young children to be taught the subject in an engaging way but also for students in secondary schools. I know not everyone is lucky enough to have had great English teachers however, in my secondary school, I had a teacher who put effort into making our classes way more inclusive than most. I found that this made a difference to how much the students in our class understood and engaged with the texts we studied and also made the books and comprehensions generally more interesting for us. Cremin states that teaching English, at it’s best, can be an ‘imaginatively vital experience for all involved, developing youngsters’ competence, confidence and creativity’ (1). Service learning is an example of a creative technique that enables people to teach young people in a more inovative way. Cremin’s article focuses on the importance of teaching English creatively, the part where he discusses how creative teachers work with the aim to ‘extend children’s abilities as readers, writers, speakers and listeners’ (1) which is what we, the people involved in Literacy Lift Off, try to achieve in our weekly sessions with the children. We try to make every minute as fun and engaging as possible, both for the children and for ourselves in order to enable every child to expand their imagination, to express themselves through literacy and start to enjoy reading.
Now I’m going to get into the nitty-gritty details of my own experience so far; the good, the bad and the ugly! As I already mentioned, our sessions take place on Tuesday mornings. Now, I’m not going to lie, on that first Tuesday morning, I wasn’t as confident as I’d like to admit. I hadn’t been in a national school since the day I’d left my own, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Maybe they wouldn’t like us? Maybe they wouldn’t want to read? Maybe they wouldn’t like books?! (GASP). Anyway, I soon discovered that I didn’t need to worry at all because the kids all seemed lovely and quite excited to see our group walk in. We got matched up with one or two of the kids in order of our names, so it was completely random, and I was paired off with a little boy called Paul (Name changed for anonymity). He was extremely excited to get started with me as we were given a book called Storm Cloud and walked to the library of the school. We sat down and chatted for a bit about very random topics (“No, Paul, I’m not British, I’m just from Donegal.”) and then began reading the story together, taking turns reading each page. Paul was very in to the story and engaged with what was happening in the book immediately, which I was quite pleased about. Any words he couldn’t pronounce, I told him how to say them and any words he didn’t understand, I explained. I asked him questions about every page we read, and to my delight, he seemed to have grasped the story very quickly. When it was time to go, he promptly told me to remember the page we finished on and shouted, “See ya next week!”. I was thrilled with my first day and felt more confident coming back the following Tuesday. A few weeks in, two new children joined that class that week, so they were to be put into groups that had already been made. I offered to take one of the boys, called Matthew (Name changed for anonymity), as Paul seemed friendly with him. Matthew, being new to the school, was quite shy with me but seemed very eager to read and get involved. All in all, my experience has been a positive one so far. Don’t get me wrong, each week isn’t always a piece of cake, there are times where the kids aren’t concentrating and losing focus or are acting up which means I’ll have to give out to them, and I hate being the bad guy, but I’m enjoying every session and I can tell that they are too.
As I already said, Literacy Lift Off was one of the best things I’ve ever chosen to do. Not only am I gaining new skills and learning more about teaching than I ever have before, I feel rewarded for helping two really great kids with their reading and showing them that reading can be more than a school-work chore. Service learning is something I’d recommend getting involved with to anyone of any age. It’s not always easy to immerse yourself in a new situation and work with people you’ve never met before, but it’s a gratifying experience and one that I know I will never forget.
Burns, Dermot. ‘Service Learning: Literacy Lift Off! Course Description’ nuigalway.blackboard.com. 2018.
Cremlin, T. “Teaching English Creatively.” Chicago, 2009. Taylor & Francis. Web. 28 Sep. 2018.
Hulme, Charles and Snowling, Margaret. “Children’s Reading Comprehension Difficulties: Nature, Causes and Treatments.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 20.3 (2011): 139-142. JSTOR. Web. 28 Sep. 2018.
Prosser, Theresa and Levesque, Jeri. “Supporting Literacy through Service Learning.” The Reading Teacher 51.1 (1997): 32-38. JSTOR. Web. 28 Sep. 2018.