Language Learners in the Library: Developing a Partnership with Pre-College ESL at a Community College

By Haruko Yamauchi
Teaching Coordinator
Eugenio María de Hostos Community College


The United States is a vibrant and diverse country, made up of people with roots in many nations. While immigrant communities are now caught within political disputes that lie beyond the scope of this article to address, a few statistics about the current population of our country, our cities, and our colleges will indicate why teaching information literacy to English Language Learners in post-secondary education is and will continue to be of pressing concern, whatever may be the outcome of current battles over immigration policy.

Between 1970 and 2010, the foreign-born population of the United States more than quadrupled, from 9.6 million to 40 million. More than one out of eight U.S. residents was born in another country (United States Census Bureau, 2012). Between 2006 and 2014, the number of children with at least one foreign-born parent increased by 12 percent, and now includes nearly one-fourth of the population under 18 (Woods and Hanson, 2016). Among undergraduate students, 81% of Latinx immigrants and 76% of Asian immigrants mostly speak a language other than English at home; for children of immigrants, the percentages are 37% and 35%, respectively (Arbeit, Staklis, & Horn, 2016).

Being bilingual does not, of course, in and of itself indicate a need for additional development of English before taking college classes (ICAS, 2006). However, in a national survey of community colleges, whose ESL students are more likely to be either low-income immigrants or refugees, 89% reported that a majority of their students whose first language was not English did need additional instruction in language skills before being ready for college courses (Ellis, as cited in Blumenthal, 2002). In a California survey of two- and four-year colleges, 64% of faculty said that ESL students had difficulties reading and writing at the college level (ICAS, 2002).

As more accessible institutions of higher education, community colleges have served as entry points for low-income students, whether native-born or immigrant (Bailey & Weninger, 2002; Rafzar & Simon, 2011; Teranishi, Suárez-Orozco, C., & Suárez-Orozco, M., 2011). The average cost of tuition at a community college is just over a third of the cost of the average public four-year institution (American Association of Community Colleges, 2018). Community colleges are also more academically accessible: the large public systems in California, New York State, and New York City all observe an open admissions policy only for their community colleges, admitting any student with a high school diploma or high school equivalency diploma (California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, 2017; California State University, n.d.; University of California, n.d.; State University of New York, 2002, Tsao, 2005).

In describing the kind of academic literacy that students need to succeed in college, faculty cite the ability to summarize and synthesize information, to read a variety of texts (including textbooks, news, websites, and other sources), and to “embrace the value of research to explore new ideas through reading and writing” (ICAS 2002, 14). Librarians in urban community colleges that serve a diverse student body should be sure not to overlook those students whose academic progress includes the learning of English as their second (or third, or fourth) language. This article will describe the experience of one urban community college library in addressing the following questions:

  • How can the library, in working toward our goal to prepare all our students for college-level research, ensure that we are inclusive of pre-college English Language Learners by creatively developing activities, collections, online supports, and teaching collaborations with pre-collegiate ESL instructors?
  • How can we better welcome students whose home country experience did not include use of public or school libraries, and help them feel that the library is theirs to explore and to use to support their academic and personal growth?

ESL and college students

Research on ESL instruction in college is somewhat sparse compared with the existing literature regarding ESL instruction in primary and secondary grades. There is no national source of data about immigrant students in community colleges (Blumenthal, 2002; Bunch, 2009; Harklau, Losey, & Siegal, 1999; Patterson, 2015; Szelényi & Chang, 2002; Teranishi et al., 2011). There are, however several studies on college-level ESL, such as Rafzar & Simon’s (2011) examination of the academic trajectories of Latino ESL students in urban community colleges who did or did not “mainstream” into college-level content courses.

Researchers have observed that there exist at least three broad categories of students in college-level ESL (while acknowledging that within each of these groups there exists much variety): international students, adult immigrants, and “generation 1.5” students (ICAS, 2006; Razfar & Simon, 2011; Reid, 1987; Teranishi et. al 2011). Although earlier research on college-level ESL often failed to make distinctions among these three groups, more recent scholarship has stressed the importance of examining their differing strengths and needs in English (see Asher, Case, & Zhong, 2009; Blumenthal, 2002; de Kleine & Lawton, 2015; Haras, Lopez, & Ferry, 2008; Patterson, 2015; Szelényi & Chang, 2002; Teranishi et al., 2011). Blumenthal (2002) in particular gives an overview of the diversity of ESL students, programs, and instructors at community colleges.

International students are analogous to U.S. college students studying abroad for a year (de Kleine & Lawton, 2015). As what Reid (1987) calls “eye learners” who have mostly studied English through reading and writing, such international students tend to have a strong academic foundation in their first language and a good theoretical grasp of English grammar and syntax, but often struggle with aural comprehension, oral fluency, idiomatic speech, and an unfamiliarity with cultural norms of the United States.

Although much research has been done on international students, this paper is more concerned with generation 1.5 and adult immigrant students, as they are more representative of ESL students at urban community colleges. The term “generation 1.5” was coined by Rumbaut & Ima (1988) to describe young people who were born in another country, but after family immigration experienced at least part of their primary and/or secondary education in U.S. schools. Harklau et al. (1999) expand the definition of generation 1.5 to include children born in the United States who have grown up in communities wherein nearly all communication is conducted in their immigrant parents’ language.

Generation 1.5 students are often fluent or near-fluent in conversation and tend to be more familiar with idioms and U.S. culture. They have what Cummins (1979, 2008) defined as Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS), but have often not developed Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) in English. Hodara (2012) notes that generation 1.5 students may not identify as ESL students, and may be offended by placement into ESL courses. However, due to interrupted schooling in their home country and/or insufficient academic instruction in their urban public schools in the United States, these students, as what Reid (1987) calls “ear learners”, have developed their English from casual conversation and media, and are prone to ingrained errors that result in speech that is “fluent but inaccurately so” (Blumenthal 2002, p.49). Although they may have an intuitive sense of what sounds correct, they might not distinguish well between types of written and spoken English, or pay much attention to different verb endings, consistent subject-verb agreement, or the use of possessives and plurals, as such precision is not a prerequisite to understanding or being understood in informal conversation (Thonus, 2003; Reid, 1987). Because it is rare to find bilingual education that advances students’ first language, immigrant students who have partially gone to school in the U.S. also tend to halt development of their first language before having learned its structure at a sophisticated academic level (Thonus, 2003).

A series of essays published in Harklau et. al (1999) examine generation 1.5 students in the context of teaching and learning writing at the secondary and post-secondary level. Within this collection, one essay describes the experience of immigrant students moving from New York City public high schools into City University of New York (CUNY) colleges, noting that a particular challenge to learning English in New York City is that many immigrants live in communities where they are not obliged to speak English on a regular basis (Lay, Carro, Tien, Niemann, & Leong 1999).

Adult immigrant students include people who may not have been in school for several years, and who are studying at the same time that they are working full-time and raising a family. Much of the research about adult ESL students describes continuing education, community-based, and other non-collegiate programs, such as Menard-Warwick’s (2005) examination of the sociopolitical contexts around English language learning via case studies of Central American immigrants in a Californian family literacy program. Szelény and Chang (2016) note a relative dearth of research done on adult immigrant students in community colleges, while offering a broad overview of the issues confronting these students, including but not limited to questions of English language learning. Teranishi et al. (2011) provide another overview of immigrant and second-generation students in community colleges (also noting the scarcity of relevant research), and describe some pre-college programs (among them, CLIP) and programs that connect students to college while they are still in high school.

Differences in levels of academic preparation and cultural capital affect how much immigrant students benefit from their college-level ESL studies. Becker (2011) studied the transition from non-credit to credit ESL courses for adult immigrant students in a southern California community college. Her findings that students with lower cultural capital struggled more than others are congruent with Curry’s (2001) case study of an ESL class, which found that immigrant students with lower educational, economic, and social capital were much more likely to drop out.

Other relevant “gray” literature about adult immigrant ESL students includes two extremely thorough papers written for the Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy, which provide a broad survey of adult ESL in community colleges, including discussion of types of programs, faculty, instructional strategies, educational outcomes, and challenges with funding, administration, and outreach (Crandall and Sheppard, 2004; Chisman and Crandall, 2007); Hodara’s (2012) dissertation studying the effects of ESL and developmental education on language minority students at CUNY community colleges; and de Kleine & Lawton’s (2015) white paper on serving linguistically diverse students in college.

ESL college students, information literacy, and the academic library

Research on information literacy in college has tended to focus on native English speakers, while articles about information literacy and ESL has more often addressed K-12 education. However,  some researchers have addressed collaboration between college librarians and ESL instructors, such as Conteh-Morgan (2001), who advocates for close integration of information literacy into ESL curricula. She points out that both fields of teaching share some common characteristics, such as evolving from a focus on tools and skills (e.g., “where to click” in databases in the library, repetitive grammatical drills in ESL) to instruction that incorporates broader underlying concepts. Patterson (2015) describes a case study of students enrolled in linked ESL writing and information literacy courses. He found that it was important to offer students contextualized information literacy activities that were embedded in real ESL assignments, and to build a learning community that broke down the segregation of ESL students from the rest of the community college.

Other strategies for college librarians to better reach ESL students include keeping in mind language acquisition theories, foregrounding collaborative and hands-on learning, using language within authentic information-seeking contexts, and a warm teaching style that helps lower the “affective filter,” or the psychological stress that inhibits learning (Conteh-Morgan, 2002).

A number of articles address immigrant students’ perceived obstacles to engaging with libraries. Haras, Lopez, & Ferry (2008) found that a majority of the first-year undergraduate Latinx generation 1.5 students they studied had not used their school library in elementary or middle school, and slightly less than two-thirds had used their high school library. The researchers found that even students with a positive view of the library did not have a strong understanding of the research process or of the library tools available to them, indicating a need for academic librarians to support students’ development of research skills. Asher, Case, & Zhong (2009) found that generation 1.5 students said that receiving “more knowledge about using the library” and “a better understanding of looking for books on your topic” were important deciding factors in using their college library. Bordonaro (2006) did find some ESL students who regularly engaged in self-directed use of the college library to support their English language learning, in part by browsing for recreational reading. However, her small sample of volunteer participants at a private four-year college was almost entirely composed of international students who had lived in the U.S. two years or less, so these findings of confident self-directed use may or may not resemble the experience of adult immigrant and generation 1.5 students at a community college. Asher & Case (2008) found that generation 1.5 students were more likely than others to avoid asking questions in the library, out of concern that they might communicate incorrectly. Although their study was of students’ relationship to public libraries, it is reasonable for academic librarians to be aware that such hesitancy could apply to our libraries as well.

Hostos Community College and bilingualism

Eugenio María de Hostos Community College was established in 1968 in the South Bronx, at a time when the local Puerto Rican community had been demanding (and litigating for) greater cultural pluralism in the school system. As part of a national movement for bilingualism, activists demanded respect for Spanish as a home language and an asset for future learning, rather than a deficiency (Del Valle, 1998).

From the start, Hostos offered not only ESL classes, but content courses taught in Spanish, and self-identified as a bilingual college. The reality, however, has been more complicated. A decade into Hostos’ existence, Otto and Otheguy (1979) charged that the primary outcome of the Hostos curriculum was a transition to English as the main academic language, despite a stated goal of bilingualism. In its most recent academic catalog, the college describes its ESL mission as “transitional language instruction,” i.e., moving students from Spanish (or another home language) to English (Hostos academic bulletin 2018).

There are many reasons behind the shift from a bilingual approach to one of transitional language instruction, including very public criticism of CUNY’s community college standards conflated with anti-bilingual education arguments in the 1990s (Del Valle, 1998; Renfron, 1999). The number of content courses taught in Spanish has continued to drop, with the percentage of students enrolled in Spanish content classes falling from 28% in 2002 to only 1% in 2016 (Hostos student profile, 2016).

Despite this shift away from the original mission of bilingualism, Hostos remains a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) that is proud of its ties to Latinx cultural heritage and the Spanish-speaking communities within the Bronx (CUNY Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, 1981; Hostos student profile 2018, Hostos Center for the Arts and Culture 2018, Hostos annual report 2016, Hostos academic bulletin 2018). Many students, staff, and faculty are at least conversationally bilingual, and Spanish speakers, whether Spanish-dominant, English-dominant, or fully bilingual, are not isolated minorities, as they might be at some colleges. The upside to being part of a Spanish-speaking (or in the case of Francophone African students, a significantly smaller French-speaking) community is a sense of social belonging and positive cultural identity. However, not being immersed in English in daily life makes it more challenging for students who are still developing their English skills to progress in the language.

Pre-collegiate ESL at Hostos

The first pre-college ESL program at Hostos, College Prep, was founded in 1995, combining 15 hours of ESL instruction per week with five hours of Spanish instruction in literacy, critical thinking, and literature. (F. Makloufi, personal communication, January 31, 2019). The same year, CUNY  began the CUNY Language Immersion Program (CLIP) in Manhattan, and in 1999, Hostos shifted from its homegrown program to join CLIP.

CLIP is for students who have been admitted to CUNY, but who have scored low on the writing placement test and are considered to have limited proficiency in English. Students can re-enroll in CLIP for up to one fall, spring, and summer semester if they choose. After completing CLIP, they re-take the CUNY entrance tests, in hopes of either testing out of ESL altogether, or starting with a more advanced ESL class (CUNY Language Immersion Program, n.d.)

A common problem that students face is having to pay tuition for ESL and developmental English classes that do not earn them academic credit, running out of financial aid before they can finish their degree. CLIP was founded to give students a chance to build their English skills in a low-cost, intensive program before they must pay tuition. In CLIP, students pay a nominal fee (a sliding scale from $45-180 per semester for in-state students) and attend classes five hours a day, five days a week. At Hostos, students may choose either a daytime or evening section according to their work schedule and other obligations. As is true for many other Hostos students, most CLIP students balance their 25 hours of class each week with the responsibilities of work and family, and also confront the multiple pressures that come with living in economic precarity, such as living in poorly maintained public housing, or working in demanding but ill-paid jobs that do not offer security, benefits, or flexibility.

The student population of CLIP at Hostos is overwhelmingly from the Dominican Republic, with a minority of Spanish-speaking students from other Latin American countries, French-speaking students from Western African countries, Bengali speakers, and a very few students from other language backgrounds. CLIP students at Hostos range in English ability from higher-level students, sometimes generation 1.5, who are comfortably fluent speakers but learning to read and write at an academic level, to others with low listening comprehension and difficulty forming whole sentences in English. Students with extremely low English levels may take part in a “pre-CLIP” program to strengthen their skills before entering CLIP itself. Pre-CLIP functions as a more traditional ESL class, with a focus on basic grammar and listening and speaking skills, while CLIP is intended as an academic bridge program that marries English instruction with content intended to ready students for college work (A. Durkis, personal communication, February 5, 2019).

Part of connecting students to college is connecting them to the library. Hostos does not have a campus to speak of; most of the college is housed in three physically connected buildings that straddle a major thoroughfare in the Bronx. In 2014, the CLIP program was moved out of one of the main buildings and down a hill. While a five-minute walk would not seem like much on a residential campus, for a compact urban college whose buildings blend into the rest of the city, the physical separation and the need to walk up a hill has created a greater sense of isolation between CLIP and college facilities such as the library (A. Durkis, personal communication, February 5, 2019).

This separation only increases the importance of our inviting and welcoming students, giving them low-pressure opportunities to become comfortable with the library and its faculty and staff. The current CLIP director has expressed a desire for students to come out of CLIP “as comfortable going to the library as going to the cafeteria,” with a strong understanding of the resources available to them, and ability to confidently navigate the physical and digital spaces of the library (A. Durkis, personal communication, February 5, 2019).

Hostos Library’s work with CLIP

In 2014, I was hired to be Hostos Library’s first liaison to the “college transition programs,” a term referring both to programs like CLIP that provide students with developmental academic support before matriculation, and to programs that allow high school students to take college courses for credit. These programs fell outside of the library’s traditional discipline-based liaison structure, and although there had been some contact between librarians and the program, the library created the liaison position to promote the development of more sustained partnerships (F. Makloufi, personal communication January 31, 2019; M. Ford, personal communication February 1, 2019).

As the library’s first liaison to CLIP, and as a new librarian, I have been challenged to create new instructional activities, orientations, collections, and other supports that are engaging and welcoming, and that help lay the groundwork both for the research that students will conduct when they matriculate into a degree program, and for everyday personal information-seeking.

I believe that when working with English language learners, we should not avoid the big-picture information literacy questions, such as those described by the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy’s threshold concepts. Regardless of English level, our CLIP students are adults who can engage in critical thinking practices. My desire to create lessons that are accessible but not watered-down has been a spur to get creative and to continually try new approaches.

In addition to conducting more outreach to faculty through individual contact and presentations at faculty meetings, I wanted to partner with instructors to create workshops that would be relevant and authentically tied to work in their classroom. Along the way, I have found that the activities we have generated do not have to be limited to working with ESL students, and I have used many of these ideas in workshops with other beginning researchers.

Creating a new collection: Subway Reading

Although the promotion of extracurricular reading in academic libraries has declined since the early 20th century, many college library collections include some popular reading; Elliott (2007) found in a survey of libraries belonging to the Association of Research Libraries that 70% of respondents said that they had a browsing area for extracurricular reading. Recreational reading may be something that students want to do, possibly more than academic librarians suspect, and they may welcome assistance from librarians in identifying books that are suitable for leisure reading (Gilbert & Fister, 2011). Noted linguistics scholar Stephen Krashen has said that free voluntary reading, “reading because you want to, is one of the most effective tools we have in second language and foreign language education. It is also the easiest and most pleasant to use” (Krashen, 1997, p. 11). Kim and Krashen (1997) address some of the obstacles to language learners’ engaging in recreational reading, such as not having thought about reading books of their own choice as a way to improve their English, particularly if previous English classes focused on grammar drills and rules, or assuming that reading books in English would be too difficult and take too long.

I believe that being aware of both the benefits and obstacles to recreational reading should inspire us as librarians to create accessible and interesting voluntary reading collections for ESL students. An obstacle for CLIP students (like many students at Hostos) is the constraint on their time as they juggle responsibilities of work and family in addition to school. Reading for pleasure might seem like a luxurious habit that is out of reach, or an additional task that they do not have energy for at the end of the day. However, nearly every student commutes to and from CLIP, and to and from their job(s) on public transportation. It seemed a modest hope of CLIP instructors to encourage students to build the habit of reading non-course-related English books of their choice for a few minutes per day, looking at a book instead of a cell phone on the subway.

Our library already had a leisure reading collection, made up of popular fiction and non-fiction, including paperback thrillers and romance novels. However, these books tend to be as thick as many other books on our shelves, and their girth discourages students who have little experience reading entire books in English from picking one up to read “for fun”.

I sought the advice of a CLIP curriculum designer who had also taught full-time in CLIP for six years; she suggested the Oxford Press Bookworms collection, and I ordered a set of these slender entry-level-English books written for an ESL audience. The library’s head of technical services created a new code within the catalog so that students would be able to search for these books through our discovery layer, and our head of access services cleared the way for us to create a new section in the first aisle of the stacks upon entering our main reading room, to be used as a place for this kind of “subway reading”.

Oxford Bookworms collectionOxford Bookworms, organized by reading level,
in the newly created “subway reading” section.

The Bookworms collection has eight gradations of reading difficulty, and include both simplified English versions of classic (mostly British) literature and short non-fiction works on historical figures, cities, and natural phenomena. As can be seen in the photo above, the slim Bookworms (many are only 56 pages long) are much more approachable than a standard paperback in our existing leisure collection.

Although I do believe that all readers benefit from reading about lives both similar and dissimilar to their own, I was disappointed that nearly all the protagonists in the collection were White, and sought to add books that were a little closer to our students’ lives. Based on a recommendation from the then-director of Hostos CLIP, I ordered books from the Townsend Press Blueford Series, which feature young Latinx and African American protagonists in contemporary urban settings. I also ordered Townsend books made up of first-person non-fiction accounts, including Voces Latinas (stories from Latinx men and women, in English), La Vida Real: True Stories of Latino Students Today, and the pair Brother to Brother and Sister to Sister, with narratives from a range of African American writers. Other Townsend books have addressed personal accounts of adventure, of overcoming violence, abuse, addiction, or illness, and have included biographies of people such as Roberto Clemente, Muhammed Ali, and Michelle Obama. The ongoing challenge of building this collection is to find books whose content is of high interest to an adult audience, but whose prose is written at an accessible level of English.

We decided not to overtly label the area as ESL reading, in order to avoid any potential for stigma, but we publicize the area during orientations for CLIP students, or while leading a CLIP class to the library classroom for any kind of workshop. I have also brought samples of the books to CLIP faculty meetings to pass around and encourage them to spread the word. Although we have not yet tracked the circulation of these books in a systematic way, and should consider doing so in the future, one indicator that they have been receiving a fair amount of use is that over the four completed academic years since the collection began in 2014, its annual circulation rate has averaged .30 loans per item (with a high of .40 one year), compared to an overall rate of .31 loans per item (with a high of .38) for our entire circulating collection. Anecdotally, we have also found via inquiries at the reference desk that several ESL professors teaching for-credit courses outside of the CLIP program have recommended Bookworms to their students.

Hostos CLIP Independent Reading Project

For Spring 2019, I have been partnering with a CLIP instructor on a semester-long project encouraging leisure reading with her students and the students of another instructor. Both groups of students are choosing any book they like from either the Hostos Library or CLIP’s in-house collection of books, reading it during dedicated independent reading time in class, and will give an oral report.

Aware of the limitations of the “subway reading” section, while not wanting students to become discouraged while hunting for books of an appropriate reading level in the general stacks, I  curated a selection of books for this project by combing through the stacks, looking for books of high interest and simple English reading level. To encourage students to consider all their options, and not gravitate only to the slender subway reading books, students who choose a longer book will only be obliged to choose a section of at least 50 pages as the basis for their report.

The project libguide includes:

  • descriptions of several dozen books, including non-fiction and fiction, each with a pared-down description, cover thumbnail, and call number (the subway reading collections are described, but they fall outside regular call number order);
  • the teacher’s directions for the project;
  • instructions on using call numbers to find a book;
  • a map of the library; and
  • tips for using a book’s table of contents to select relevant chapters, if students have chosen a longer non-fiction book from the general stacks.

The classes also came to the library for a “Where should these books go?” workshop (see below) and time to browse the stacks.

Now midway through the semester, the instructor has reported that some students are feeling overwhelmed by having outside reading on top of the reading for class. At the end of the term, I plan to meet with the instructor so that we may consider possible adjustments to the project to ensure that independent reading, while a perhaps challenging activity, is one that feels like an opportunity and not a burden.

Thinking about book organization: Where should these books go?

Quite a few Hostos students (regardless of language background) arrive at college unfamiliar with certain norms of library use. Students ask at the reference desk how much it costs to “rent” a book from the library, or express surprise that they may take books home. A fellow Hostos librarian, who has an academic background in Latin American studies, notes that many of our students are coming from countries that do not have a strongly developed system of public or school libraries, and would have most likely encountered libraries for the first time at the university level; even then, the libraries might be likely to have closed stacks (J. Matos, personal communication, January 29, 2019).

I started to incorporate instruction on using call numbers into other workshops after reference interactions showed me that many students did not know what to do with a call number once we found one in the library’s discovery layer. At the same time, several CLIP and other Hostos instructors lamented to me that many students seldom thought to consider using physical books for research projects unless explicitly directed to do so. At first I explained call numbers to students through lecture, illustrations, and handouts, and students would say they understood, but when we went to the stacks, many had a difficult time finding books, or even determining which shelf would hold a given call number.

After some consultation with a CLIP instructor, I developed a hands-on workshop in which students work in small groups to put a set of books into an order of their own devising. I first used faux books made out of cardboard, to limit the factors to consider, but now use real books for a more authentic challenge. My main goal was to get students to notice that there is some kind of reasoning underlying the stacks. I often do an informal pre-assessment by asking the class if anyone knows how books are arranged in a library; most shake their heads no, but some will guess that books are lined up alphabetically by author name, title, or somehow grouped by subject matter. Very rarely, a student will mention the “sticker” or “numbers” that they have noticed on library books.

Each small group is given a set of three books whose call numbers present them with a number of questions, such as, “should L come before or after LB?” “What if the date is the same for two of the books?” I also ask students to examine their books to see what they might have in common, to plant seeds for later discussion about books being arranged by subject. Students notice that the grouping might be tight or loose, for instance when they have two books about racial tensions in the Dominican Republic, and a third book about Argentina.

Students tend to get delightfully animated while debating potential orders, and are inventive in their solutions: some have ordered books based on the perceived specificity, importance, or chronological evolution of the books’ respective subject matter. Looking at call numbers, most do not start with the top line, many start with the date, and a surprisingly high number start with the Cutter number (Yamauchi, 2016). Students often get frustrated when they realize they cannot create an order in which each line of one call number comes numerically or alphabetically before each line of the next. The idea that the call number represents categorical hierarchies is not an obvious one.

As students debate, the CLIP instructor and I ask clarifying questions, without correcting or imposing a system. Each small group must explain their choices to another group, and place their books on a “shelf” (usually a book cart) labeled strategically to raise more questions (e.g., “PR 200—PS 100? Shouldn’t 100 come first?” “Our books start with H, but this shelf says ‘G 70—J 300’?” etc.) Students who “get” the inclusivity of shelf labels usually persuade peers who do not, without intervention on my part.

During the whole-group debrief, I take care to honor the logic they employed while problem-solving, while also clarifying how the Library of Congress system actually works. Although we do not have time for an extended discussion of the constructed nature of the LoC’s authority, I point out that its determined categories carry along the point of view and biases of that institution and the time when it was created, giving examples such as the multiple subclasses devoted to Western countries’ political institutions versus the one subclass for all Asian and African political institutions. Nearly all of our students are of color, and mention of this kind of bias tends to bring out many nodding heads of recognition. I do tell them that while we should all be critical of such assumptions and shortcomings, knowing how the system works also gives them the power to navigate any college library in the United States. After discussing the idea that books are in fact grouped by subject and that the call number represents the subject, I urge them to consider the corollary that browsing on a shelf is a strategy they can use to take more ownership of their research, instead of feeling stuck with the first book they find in the discovery layer results.

Students then go into the stacks with a call number to find a book, browse its neighbors, and select one to bring back. My observing students in their hunt without guiding them allows me to informally assess what they have understood and how well they can apply what they have learned. Students who find theirs quickly tend to help their peers find their own. Back in the classroom, we examine the “analog search tools” of index and table of contents, and discuss how these tools can give them information about a book’s relevance and scope.

At the end of all my workshops, I ask students to respond to “exit ticket” prompts that generally ask them to let me know something they have learned in the class and to share questions they still have. Based on this informal assessment, most students who engage in this book ordering workshop emerge with at least increased confidence that that they now know how to use a call number to find a book. I have also used this workshop with non-CLIP classes, when a professor has indicated an interest in having students increase their familiarity with the use of physical books for research.

Media literacy: 2-D posters as a warm-up to websites

Librarians have long noted the importance of engaging students with critical approaches to media. Head & Eisenberg (2011) of Project Information Literacy (PIL) surveyed over 8,000 college students on 25 college campuses about how they use websites for everyday life research, and found that even with a self-selected group of students at mostly four-year colleges, just under half used author credibility as a criterion to evaluate a site’s trustworthiness, and less than one third considered whether a site had credited its sources of information. They found more generally that even though students can find many sources, they have trouble processing the vast amount of sites they find, and sorting relevant from irrelevant sources. The Pew Research Center surveyed over 2,000 teachers who mostly taught academically advanced middle and high school students, and found that the vast majority of teachers believed that the amount of information online was overwhelming to students, and that their own priority was enabling students to be critical judges of the quality of the sites they found (Purcell et al., 2012).

Many smaller-scale research projects by academic librarians report similar findings, for instance that first year students want quick and easy answers, and don’t assess much for relevance or credibility, and that even students who have had some information literacy instruction in high school struggle to connect what they learned to new contexts in college (Varlejs & Stec 2013). Brown, Wohn, & Ellison (2015) studied high school students in two low-income communities and reported that while they could also find sources easily, it was challenging for them to analyze and evaluate what they found.

Students come to Hostos from a range of academic backgrounds, from those who could immediately excel at any four-year college to those who continue to struggle with basic skills. In media literacy workshops, when I ask how they judge the credibility of a website, most students repeat simplistic rules that they might have been taught in high school, without apparent conviction that such rules mean much outside of school assignments: e.g., you can’t use Wikipedia because anyone can edit it; you should only use sites ending in .edu or .org instead of .com, etc.

Google tends to be a place to get information and run, not to examine results closely. When I ask students what Google actually does, most answers run along the lines of, “it gives you information” or “it gives you answers”—i.e., content with no perceivable author; students almost never say that Google finds websites, webpages, or anything else identifiable as a document that must have a creator. Recognizing that websites have authors is a necessary first step to interrogating their authorship and the author’s credentials, let alone to understanding that the kind of information they need to find may determine the level of authority they require in a source, an integral part of the “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” threshold concept as outlined by the ACRL Framework (Association of College and Research Libraries, 2015).

I want students to build the habit of reflexively asking of each website they encounter: Who wrote this? What is their point of view? What are their apparent reasons for sharing this information? What are they trying to convince me of, and why should I believe them? What kind of knowledge or expertise do they have about the subject? What kind of persuasion are they using to convince their audience?

When first planning a media literacy workshop with a CLIP instructor, I shared lesson plans that I had used with high school students taking college classes. She expressed concern that her students would find it overly complicated to evaluate multi-page websites with a lot of English text. I had already noted that the task of investigating authorship, parsing someone’s agenda, and tracking down their sources was considerably more work than most students were used to doing when looking at websites, and the CLIP instructor and I worried about losing students in the process. We decided to create a warm-up activity that would ask students to examine a simplified document and apply questions to it that  they would later apply in the more complex web environment.

I drew two-dimensional, colorful posters on 24”x36” chart paper that could stick to the wall. I wanted the posters to be attractive but approachably homemade in appearance, and a little humorous, so that the activity would feel low-pressure.  two posters about diabetestwo political postersSample posters from warm-up activity: (1)1-800 DIA-BE-GONE advertisement; small text includes a long list of increasingly dire side effects. (2) American Diabetes Association PSA; small text includes reasonable advice about managing diet and exercise and the ADA website URL. (3) & (4) Rival campaign posters for congressional representatives; small text highlights each candidate’s values in positive terms, with the second candidate’s poster also including negative commentary on her opponent (“greed” and “profit” resting on his shoulders).

Students work in small groups. Next to each poster is another 24”x36” chart that has been divided into sections with the following questions in each box:

  • WHO (the author) Who do you think wrote this?
  • WHAT (the message) What are the main ideas they want you to see?
  • WHY (the agenda) Why do you think they want people to see their message?
  • HOW (the presentation) How do they try to convince you of their message?
  • Bonus questions: WHO (the audience) Who do you think they want to see this message? Are you convinced by their message? Why or why not?

Each small group discusses their answers to each question and writes their response on a small sticky note that they place in the relevant section. I ask groups to address the bonus questions if other groups are still working and not yet ready to rotate to the next poster; having these optional questions allows for different rates of working. Using the sticky notes has a number of benefits: their size demands only a small amount of text; posting the notes allows students to see each other’s answers (unlike, for example, writing on worksheets that they would carry with them); giving each group a different color of sticky note allows the CLIP instructor and me to see at a glance around the room the progress that each group is making through the questions, and facilitates discussion when we come back together as a whole group (“green team, why do you think the authors want people to see this message?”)

Both small group deliberations and the whole group discussion reveal a range of student perspectives and tendencies toward trust or skepticism. Students listen to their peers’ reasoning and question each other’s assumptions, instead of just hearing the “right answer” from the librarian.

This activity helps prepare students for the more involved website analysis, when they must spend time digging further into the question of authorship, finding “about us” pages and conducting searches to see what others have said about the institutional or individual authors of the sites. They are also asked to scour denser text to discover if the website creators indicate where their information came from, to notice any advertisements present and decide what they think of them, and to consider how the website authors try to convince their audience of their messages.

Although listening to students’ remarks and reading their written responses has provided us with an informal gauge of how successfully the activity gets students to consider these questions, the instructors and I have not yet implemented formal assessment procedures. One possibility for future assessment would be a pre- and post-activity questionnaire about how students would evaluate websites. Another possibility could be a follow-up interview or questionnaire to ask the CLIP instructor how much and how well students applied these strategies to evaluating websites during the computer lab time that they use for finding websites for in-class research projects.

Primary sources: Connecting with the archives

Hostos maintains an archive that includes: works by and about Eugenio María de Hostos, the Puerto Rican writer, educator, and activist for whom our college was named; the history of Hostos Community College; and materials about our neighborhood, the South Bronx.

One CLIP instructor who is always interested in having her students go beyond online sources to conduct research initiated a collaboration with me and the Hostos archivist, asking us what kinds of primary sources her students could use from the archives. We settled on photographer Pablo Delano’s “On the Job” series of photographs, taken in 1986 up and down 149th Street, next to Hostos.

Pablo Delano photoPablo Delano photo Pablo Delano photoPhotos © Pablo Delano. Reproduced with permission.

Students examined these beautiful black-and-white photos at first without being given any information about what they were looking at, and were asked to look closely, notice details, make inferences, and speculate on whom and what they were seeing. Using primary sources that depicted a community they knew well, albeit in a different time period, allowed students to activate their existing knowledge to make educated guesses about the people and places before their eyes. The process of examining photographs very directly gave students the experience of researchers who must interpret primary source evidence, instead of relying on a secondary source’s explanation of its meaning. Following the activity, the archivist also introduced students to what archives are, and explained the resources available to them in the Hostos Archives.

This was the first time that we knew of archival collections being used with either CLIP or any other pre-college group at Hostos (W. Casari, personal communication, January 28, 2019). The workshop could be repeated with any group of students to introduce them to photographs as primary sources. However, what made this activity especially accessible to an ESL audience was the use of visual materials that were immediately engaging and that did not require students to interpret meaning through the medium of language.

 Making connections: Public libraries

Although, as noted above, our library includes some popular reading and general-public books in our collection, an ongoing challenge is that the relative paucity of lower-level English books does not allow for a clear way to scaffold students up into college-level reading. One CLIP instructor has also observed that her immigrant students often seem unfamiliar with public institutions that offer free services, including libraries (C. Steinhoff, personal communication, January 28, 2019).

The two of us decided to take her class on a field trip to the Bronx Library Center, the main Bronx branch of the New York Public Library (NYPL), to familiarize them with the public library’s greater collection of books that might be of an appropriate reading level in English, including YA materials. I contacted an NYPL librarian (who already visited Hostos to register students for cards), and she arranged for another librarian to facilitate a tour and orientation.

Although some students already had library cards, several signed up for their first card on the field trip. This CLIP instructor now sometimes takes her class to the public library on her own. On a subsequent trip with a different CLIP instructor, we had students use the library OPAC to choose and then find a book in the stacks, and the NYPL librarian allowed us to use a small room where students could conduct a brief research activity with their selected books.

Getting in touch with public libraries provides benefits beyond access to a vast collection. Many of our students are parents, and can benefit from public library programs for children and teenagers; the public library also offers free services such as help with job-seeking, registering for the NYC ID card, and tax preparation. One student remarked that she lived much closer to the Bronx Library Center than to Hostos, but had never ventured in. Learning that they can freely walk into any branch library at any time opens up a wealth of potential “third spaces” for our students to use for study and personal enrichment. A possible future assessment of the impact of this kind of field trip could be a questionnaire about public library use given at the beginning and end of a semester.

Utilizar las lenguas maternas de vez en cuando

CLIP’s pedagogical philosophy is one of English immersion, and students are asked to speak only English in the classroom. The reality, however, is that with so many students sharing the same language and home country, most interstitial and transitional moments, and some conversations while working in small groups, are filled with Spanish. I sympathize with the CLIP instructors whose mission is to help students develop their English in a classroom that is as immersive as possible. However, as a guest instructor, I have also found that a little judicious bending of the rules has had multiple benefits.

Often I say one small relevant thing early in a workshop in my advanced-beginner-level Spanish (and in French when the occasional Francophone African student is present). Although at first my intention was just to let students know that if they were really stuck, they could ask me a question in Spanish, I have found this brief detour serves several other functions. Demonstrating that I am happy to speak despite my accent and errors (and thanking them for corrections) and mentioning that I used to live and work in other countries, so I understand how much hard work it takes to learn a new language, visibly puts students at ease. Speaking their language even briefly is meant to convey that their knowledge of Spanish (or French) is an asset that I admire, and to model risk-taking as a language learner myself. In my personal situation, this move also breaks the ice because it surprises students, who tend not to expect someone of East Asian descent to speak Spanish comfortably, and their good-natured amusement (which is visibly and audibly observable in the classroom) may help in a small way to lower the affective filter of anxiety that can make language learning difficult. It takes very little time and effort to reap this benefit.

Going further into Spanish, two bilingual colleagues in the library developed a bilingual orientation for the pre-CLIP program in 2014. Working with a pre-CLIP instructor, they first translated existing orientation materials into Spanish, and created a Spanish-English glossary of library terms. When we altered our orientation model to be more active, sending small groups of students into the library to complete tasks and report back (thus providing an opportunity both for low-stakes oral presentations and for students to teach each other instead of just listening to the librarian), they translated those tasks as well. My colleagues’ presentations were primarily in Spanish, with frequent translation so that students would begin to familiarize themselves with the corresponding English terms. My colleague notes that based on students’ informal verbal comments following the sessions, these orientations “helped demystify what a library is” and “eased their anxiety.” The orientations also would turn into de facto sessions about how the college worked, what to expect at the bursar’s office, etc., perhaps because students felt less shy about asking him such questions in Spanish. Between 2014-2016, they provided these workshops two to three times per semester, and only stopped because of some changes in personnel duties; we hope to offer these workshops again in the future (J. Matos, personal communication, January 29, 2019).

I have also used Spanish and French to adapt an activity for CLIP that I often include in research workshops for other classes. In the activity, students examine different kinds of sources on the same topic, and I ask them to notice and articulate the differences they see. Depending on the research assignment being supported, the texts might be a news article, editorial, and reference article, or a reference article, general audience book chapter, and peer-reviewed journal article, and so on. Students (asked to skim, not read closely) notice differences such as length, difficulty, and use of references, which leads us to a class discussion about types of sources available to them and strategies they can use depending on their research need.

During one CLIP workshop, I noticed early in the session that the students’ English level would not allow most of them to engage with the articles that I had chosen before class, although I had selected fairly low-level sources. Because it seemed to me more important that they engage with the broader research concept–the importance of distinguishing among types of sources–during the half-hour meal break, I found Spanish and French language articles for them to use instead. Students were able to skim the articles and engage in the discussion without English content being a barrier. Although I have thus far only done this once, given the CLIP emphasis on using English as much as possible, I would like to raise the possibility of doing this again in the future.

Additional support

I have created a number of libguides, including one for English language learners that includes sources for practicing listening and reading English; one that lists resources, support, and advocacy groups for immigrants regardless of immigration status, and one that promotes the three public library systems of New York City.

For a while, pre-CLIP also welcomed volunteers to help students practice their English conversation skills, and one of my library colleagues volunteered, further strengthening the connection between the library and CLIP. In addition, I continue to offer hands-on orientations to the library’s physical resources; as with all other workshops, these orientations always end with an “exit ticket” asking students about what they will take away from the experience and asking for their questions as well, so that we can informally assess what they found useful about the session and what they either found unclear or are curious about.

Underlying strategies

Beyond the specific projects and activities described above, I have used a number of strategies for working with ESL students. Some I learned from ESL teachers in public schools, when I worked for over a decade as an arts education administrator; others I picked up as a language learner myself (of French and Thai) when I spent seven years abroad, and had to learn to live and work in those languages. Some of these strategies are not limited to ESL students, but can make lessons more accessible for other learners as well.

  • Using visual reinforcement of ideas is an obvious aid to conveying information to any student, and can be especially useful for second language learners (Conteh-Morgan 2002). Using simple graphic organizers and worksheets helps students keep track of an idea beyond the ephemeral nature of a class discussion.
  • At the top of a class, I will ask low-stakes questions as a rough diagnostic tool not only of a given class’s familiarity with content (does anyone know how books are organized in a library? How do you decide how much to trust a website?) but also to get a first impression of how strong students’ oral comprehension and speaking is, which will range even within the level assigned to the class.
  • Small group work encourages speaking and listening in English in low-stakes activities and allows students time to work out their responses before being called on to share with the rest of class.
  • Overall, I keep in mind the importance of lowering the “affective filter” that inhibits learning, by creating a classroom atmosphere that is welcoming, in which students will not fear that their English will be judged (Conteh-Morgan 2002). Creating an atmosphere in which students are willing to take risks speaking in English is important for helping them develop oral fluency (Razfar & Simon, 2011).
  • When speaking, I keep in mind a simple thing that was an obvious help to me as a language learner listening to native speakers, but that I sometimes see monolingual teachers avoid, perhaps out of fear of appearing patronizing or unnatural: speaking reasonably slowly and pronouncing clearly allows the listener time to process, instead of mentally scrambling to decipher words that she would have recognized had they not been said in a rushed and slurred-over fashion. Pausing after asking a question (instead of hurriedly answering it yourself or moving on) also gives students time to catch up to your meaning and to formulate their response.
  • Some word choices are more understandable than others. For example, phrasal verbs are notoriously difficult for English language learners. These are verbs paired with a preposition or adverbal particle. Linguists debate the category with more precision, but this definition serves well enough for teaching and most practical use. (Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman1999; Darwin & Gray, 1999). The particle of a phrasal verb sometimes indicates a literal direction (e.g., sit up, stand up), sometimes describes an aspect of the action, such as its continuity or completeness (e.g., hurry along, think over, eat up), and sometimes has a completely idiomatic meaning (e.g., this puts me off, I give up!). Phrasal verbs are among the most common verbs we use, particularly in spoken English, but are well known by linguists and ESL teachers to be challenging for people learning English as a second language, particularly when they are idiomatic (Bronshteyn & Gustafson, 2015; Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman, 1999; Darwin & Gray, 1999; Riguel, 2015). There is no intuitive reason, for example, why I take on a new job to take over from someone else because I want to take up new skills. Sinclair (1999, pp.26-27) notes that phrasal verbs’ often unpredictable meanings make them “the scourge of the learner” of English, and that grammar books “make apologies for their very existence”. Phrasal verbs are also polysemous, meaning that the same verb phrase has different meanings (word has gotten around that he gets around the rules).

The experience of native speakers of languages that do not use phrasal verbs is opposite to that of native English speakers; to the former, phrasal verbs tend to be annoyingly opaque, while to the latter they are associated with casual, informal, and comfortable speech, (Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman, 1999; Riguel, 2015; Siyanova & Schmitt, 2007). For example, native English speakers might feel that to “look up” or “figure out” sounds friendlier and easier to grasp than “investigate”,  or “analyze”, while to native speakers of Romance languages like Spanish or French, those latinate cognates are more recognizable, because they resemble investigar or investigation, análisis or analyser. Because at Hostos most of our students’ first language is Spanish, with French a distant second, I prioritize latinate cognates when possible, and do not assume that a phrasal verb will be obvious. I try to remember to append definitions, as in, “we go to the circulation desk to ‘check out’ books: to borrow books to take home.” With such idiomatic phrasal verbs, presenting them in context and with a definition, as with any other new vocabulary, can help students to learn them (Bronshteyn & Gustafson, 2015).

Future Directions

Over the past five years, I have worked collaboratively with CLIP instructors and administrators to build a variety of learning supports for students as they participate in their immersive pre-college English program. These interventions have led to some activities that are ESL-specific, such as the “subway reading” collection of short books written expressly for English Language Learners, as well as other activities that have proven equally appropriate for non-ESL students, such as the book-ordering activity and the poster activity to introduce questions of media literacy. Some activities, such as the examination of photographs from the archives, have not yet been used with other classes, but easily could be.

Although I am the library’s liaison to CLIP, the library’s partnership has involved others from the library as well, including the archivist who enabled our primary source activity, the colleague who volunteered to be a conversational partner to pre-CLIP students, and a third colleague he worked with to implement bilingual orientations. Our technical services head made the “subway reading” collection possible, our access services head and staff have smoothed the process of giving CLIP students borrowing privileges, and the support of our chief librarian has made all these efforts possible. In the future, I hope to involve other colleagues in the library as appropriate, so that the ties between the library and CLIP are tethered to several people, and students see more than one familiar face when they come to visit.

Although student and teacher responses to all the above interventions have been very positive, I have not yet put in place any systematic assessments. To date, the only assessments I have are observations during class time, students’ written responses to prompts (such as the sticky notes in the poster activity), qualitative remarks on exit tickets in which students describe what they have learned during a workshop, informal remarks from instructors after a session or planning the next session, and, to a lesser extent, circulation records of the “subway reading” collection. Future steps to more systematically assess student learning could include giving pre- and post-test questions before and after a workshop, or creating standardized follow-up questions to ask CLIP instructors how much a given intervention has affected their students’ work.

Because each of the activities and supports I described above was created on an ad hoc basis in partnership with one instructor or another, I have also not systematically presented a full range of choices to all CLIP instructors at the start of a new semester, reminding them of all the ways the library can partner with them to support their students’ learning. To make our partnership more visible and sustainable, a future project will be to concisely describe these different options and put them together in a teacher-friendly format, perhaps a one-page flyer or folded pamphlet. Future challenges include figuring out how to continue to reflect on our practices and revise them to improve over the course of semesters.

To date, I feel that despite my valuing the principles of critical pedagogy, I have taken only small steps in finding ways to infuse them into my information literacy workshops for pre-college ESL students, for example by employing some moderately constructionist or constructivist activities, and selecting books and photos that I perceive to be relevant to students’ experiences and interests, and that represent marginalized voices. I would also like to do more to go beyond basic skills to incorporate larger concepts of research into our instruction with these students, including more integration of the threshold concepts described by the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy. I hope to explore the possibilities for expanding upon both these endeavors as I build upon what I have learned during my first five years of librarianship, and move forward in my future research and practice.


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