Written by Caitlin Barlow, ESL Coordinator
This summer I conducted a Reading Against the Odds (RAO) reading program with my students at the Cambodian Association of Illinois. We read an ESL leveled version of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I chose Little Women because I felt that it has a timeless and cross cultural theme of family that all of my students could identify with.
My students are all women in their 40’s and 50’s who are survivors of the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge. In large they did not attend school past eighth grade. Their English literacy skills are very low. Until this summer, my students did not self identify as readers.
Given my students limited experience with literature, I designed a reading program that was highly supported. I established a routine in order to ease the reading process. The first thing that I would do at the start of each class was to print out images that represented the major events that would take place in the section that we would read that day. I would tell the students what would happen in the story using the pictures. Then the students would repeat what I said using their own words. They could speak in English or Khmer as my focus was on comprehension. The pictures would remain visible during the entire class so that if students got confused they could be cued into the plot. I would then pre-teach the vocabulary in the story that I thought would be previously unknown to the students. After this, we would read through the story several times. The final part of the routine was an extension activity that varied week to week. The activities tended to connect the events in the story to either their lives or wider society.
I consider the RAO program at the Cambodian Association of Illinois to be very successful. My students were emotionally moved while reading the story and watching the movie. They still mention the different characters during class though several months have passed. My ultimate goal was to show my students the potential that books hold to touch the human spirit. By feeling moved by a book I hope that they will begin to form their own identities as readers.