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Helping New American families learn English via picture books

Collaborative project out of UND addresses English-learning needs of Grand Forks’ diverse immigrant and refugee population

This collage of books represents most of the material used in the curriculum co-developed by UND Assistant Professor Hyonsuk Cho. Through such texts – ones relevant to the experiences of immigrants and refugees – Cho engaged New Americans in a series of English lessons.

In teaming up with Grand Forks’ Global Friends Coalition to help New Americans learn English, UND assistant professor Hyonsuk Cho did away with stuffy textbooks and vocabulary drills.

Instead, Cho opted for picture books – ones that were more colorful, more insightful and ready to be shared with English learners’ families.

Hyonsuk Cho

An assistant professor and graduate program director of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), Cho said her project – co-creating a set of 24 English language lessons and 12 family book discussions – was specifically designed to address the needs of English learners from refugee and immigrant backgrounds, and provide meaningful ways to practice English through engaging with their children.

Working with frequent collaborator Tanya Christ, professor of reading and language arts at Oakland University in Michigan, the two produced a 24-lesson curriculum largely comprised of picture books. These books, purposefully chosen for their cultural relevance to New Americans, were able to be shared by adult English learners with their children as they learned new vocabulary and grammar.

Several of the books portray situations in which unfamiliar cultures meet. For example, in I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien, three children from three different countries meet each other at an American elementary school. And in My Friend Jamal by Anna McQuinn, two best friends come from households with distinctly different customs and traditions.

“We explored using culturally relevant texts in English language instruction as a way to support adult students’ success because, theoretically, those texts would let participants make more meaningful connections and use their bilingualism and biculturalism in conversations about the books,” Cho said.

In defining “culturally relevant,” Cho said the term goes beyond the ethnic backgrounds of New Americans, though that’s certainly an important component. Grand Forks, in particular, has a large population of refugees from Somalia and Bhutan.

“Peoples’ immigration experience, religions, family structures, gender and daily routines are all examples of cultural relevance,” Cho said. “When people have similar experiences or similar characteristic backgrounds, they can make connections more easily. Students can use that and participate in class in a more active way.

“There is a lot of research, including our own, that has shown the positive impact of using culturally relevant texts when it comes to reading outcomes, comprehension, recall and many other areas.”

Experiences as assets for learning

The research project came about through an American Educational Research Association (AERA) Research Service Project Grant awarded to Cho and Christ in 2019.

The purpose of the work, in large part, has been to help Global Friends Coalition, a community-based nonprofit organization, enhance their free English as a Second Language classes. Since 2008, the population of refugees in Grand Forks has risen considerably, Cho said. As recently as 2016, North Dakota had accepted the most refugees per capita in the United States, with 106 individuals being relocated in Grand Forks, specifically, that year. The mission of Global Friends Coalition is to foster integration through work with New Americans and the Greater Grand Forks community.

The grant award helped supply copies of 12 books used through the 24 lessons, as well as tablets for a family literacy-focused portion of the project. Cho worked with five New American families in facilitating book discussions recorded using the tablets.

Through the family literacy study, which took place alongside the broader 24-lesson curriculum in the spring of 2020, Cho and Christ aimed to recognize what are known as “funds of identity” shared among New American families – the social and cultural knowledge of a person based on life experiences.

“Oftentimes English-learning parents experience a cultural and language gap because their children are most likely school-aged and learning English faster,” Cho said. “We understand that parents and children in these situations have distinct cultural backgrounds and experiences. By having book discussions at home, and learning from each other’s stories and backgrounds, families can narrow that gap and sustain their shared identity.”

Having conducted the study and subsequent analysis through the past year, Cho and Christ presented their discoveries at this year’s AERA conference.

“Our findings showed that discussions around these culturally relevant books resulted in parents and children expanding their views of one another while affirming their shared funds of identity,” Cho said.

“Our project really centered on peoples’ background knowledge and respected their experience and knowledge as assets. Some might not have had formal education previous to their life in the U.S. due to global sociopolitical changes including war, relocations and immigration, but they have lived experiences and have cultural knowledge that they can contribute to the community and use for their learning.”

Integrative course, integrative mission

As for results of the English-learning curriculum, Cho said that interviews with students after the fact showed how books – such as the ones picked by Cho and Christ – activate culturally situated background knowledge that supports making connections, affirming identities and increasing motivation and engagement, all of which ultimately improves English-learning outcomes.

“As students listened to these books being read aloud, they shared their own experiences,” Cho said. “Participants told me that before this class, it was hard to speak up in class. They were able to better engage when talking about their own journeys as immigrants and refugees.

“One student said that practicing English was easier because she was talking about real stories that she knows well.”

Cynthia Shabb, executive director for Global Friends Coalition, credited Cho for stepping up to instruct the lessons after COVID circumstances precluded other volunteer instructors from delivering the content.

Cynthia Shabb. Photo by Erin Phillips/Soulshine Photography.

“She was a lifesaver,” Shabb said. “We had it set up so she could observe the classes as part of her research project, and it was off to a great start. When we had to pivot online, and our instructors couldn’t find time to teach, Hyonsuk was willing to do the teaching herself.”

Shabb, who’s been with Global Friends since first volunteering in 2010, said New Americans are concerned about being able to help their children as they’re going through school. “If children are coming home from school with information the parents can’t read, that’s a detriment to both the parent and child,” Shabb said.

“Our goal is to help integrate, and this is an integrative course,” Shabb remarked of Cho and Christ’s research service project. “Students are learning English while also learning to interact with their children to emphasize reading.”

Shabb believed that “the lessons were extremely well thought-out and culturally relevant, and the books dealt with varying degrees of English vocabulary and reading levels.”

Regarding the research, Cho feels as if she’s only scratching the surface, saying that working with adult immigrant and refugee populations on language needs further examination. Most previous research on the topic has been focused on school-aged students and young children.

“Oftentimes, we learn about refugee life through newspapers and media, but the details in the stories students provided were so vivid,” Cho said. “It’s so new and inspiring. I learned about their lives, and I really admire their resistance, persistence and effort – everything they’ve done to live a new life in a new country while sustaining their home language and culture.”