Texas Tech University

Through service learning, students bring joy of reading to local schools

Robert Stein

December 6, 2019

A student in Texas Tech University's "Early Literacy in the School Setting" course reads aloud with an Ervin Elementary School student

A service learning course at Texas Tech lets students practice teaching literacy at area schools.

For Dawn Burke, the best way to learn is to teach.

Burke, an instructor in the Texas Tech University College of Education, teaches "Early Literacy in the School Setting," a course that focuses on getting preschoolers ready to read and write. Students learn how to design lesson plans and promote high-quality literacy skills.

Dawn Burke during a read-aloud day at Ervin Elementary School
Dawn Burke

Twice a week, Burke buses the class to east Lubbock elementary schools. There, the Texas Tech students apply their theoretical learning to real-world classrooms by grouping up with pre-k and kindergarten students for 30-minute lessons that revolve around a children's storybook.

This marriage of academic study with community engagement is called service learning, and it provides a variety of benefits for everyone involved.

The lessons can be helpful for east Lubbock youngsters, who attend schools where nearly all students qualify for free and reduced meals and who may not have been exposed to reading at a young age.

"It gets our Texas Tech students off campus and into the community while addressing an educational need," Burke said. "Research shows that most students who enter school behind their high-socioeconomic peers tend to stay behind. This class gives elementary students supplemental instruction in the critical areas of language and literacy, and our students get hands-on experience teaching."

The elementary students love the visits, said Debbie Thomas, a pre-kindergarten teacher at Ervin Elementary School.

Students become more engaged when they break from routine and learn from someone who is closer to their age, she said. Plus, college kids often bring new ideas and perspectives with them.

The reading days can even be transformative for the Texas Tech students, many of whom are aspiring teachers, she added.

Dawn Burke and one of her students work with Ervin Elementary School students during a read-aloud day

"They get to see different learning styles and kids from different cultures, backgrounds, environments," Thomas said. "It's a great experience."

The mini-lesson typically starts with a phonological awareness activity, a pre-reading exercise that ensures the young students are able to hear and identify the various sounds in spoken words. These activities can include practicing nursery rhymes or playing sound and word games.

After that, the college students read aloud with their younger partners. The college students incorporate strategies they learned in class to encourage reading comprehension and oral language and vocabulary development. The session is rounded out with a writing activity.

Cassidy Campos, a 19-year-old Texas Tech freshman studying to become a teacher, said she enrolled in the class to get hands-on experience before starting Texas Tech's educator preparation program, TechTeach.

A Texas Tech University student reads with Ervin Elementary School students

Education students don't normally begin field experience until their third year of curriculum, so the class was an opportunity for her to get into the classroom during her first year at Texas Tech.

She said she started the class unsure on what to expect from kindergarten students, but she soon developed confidence and a system for working with them. The class also gave her relevant experience for work she does at an after-school care program.

"Once I found out we actually got to go to the school and interact with the kids, I thought it would be an amazing opportunity," Campos said as she wrapped up a day of reading at Ervin Elementary. "They don't have the same opportunities as other kids. I feel like being able to help them – and seeing how they enjoy us coming – is really rewarding."

The class, which fulfills a multicultural core requirement at Texas Tech, is also taken by students with a variety of majors. Burke said she has students who want to go into speech pathology, physical therapy and pediatric nursing.

Burke, who first became passionate about university-community connections while leading an AmeriCorps Jumpstart program at Texas Tech for 12 years, said she hopes to foster more service-learning opportunities across the Texas Tech and Lubbock communities.

As the service learning liaison for the College of Education, she is tasked with helping faculty integrate service learning into their teaching and research. She helps faculty members earn a service learning designation for their courses, which can provide funding for teaching or research assistants, class projects and school supplies.

A Texas Tech University student reads with Ervin Elementary School students

Burke also coordinates with a Service Learning Faculty Fellows program, which is offered through the Teaching, Learning and Professional Development Center (TLPDC).

"As seen in the university's strategic plan and mission statement, the Texas Tech community is paying increased attention to the role of civic engagement in the development of our students," Burke said. "Service learning embodies this focus. It can be a game-changing experience for students, and we want to provide as many of these opportunities as possible."