Learning from Their Own Stories: Using YA Literature to Build Literacy in

English Language Learners

ALAN Research Grant Proposal

            Since I began teaching at San José State University in Fall 2004, I have had the privilege every semester of teaching Young Adult Literature, primarily to future middle and high school English teachers, but also to English literature and writing majors. The students in YA Literature invariably ask why they never knew about the books, the authors we read and why they never had the opportunity in high school to read from the rich field of YA Lit.

San José State’s student population is hugely diverse; over 100 languages are spoken on this campus.  This rich cultural and linguistic diversity is mirrored in many of the 33 school districts of Santa Clara County, where as Director of the English Credential Program at SJSU, I place student teachers and interns.

            Encouraging adolescents to become readers, especially in a cultural milieu where so many elements compete with reading, is in itself a challenge. English Language Learners (ELL) face even more challenges as they meet and try to comprehend texts in English (often their third or fourth language). I am increasingly aware of how much I need to learn to better meet the needs of the ELL and to better assist future teachers of ELL.  In my YA Literature classes, I’ve used Don Gallo’s collection, First Crossing as an introduction to immigrant issues.  Several students who have gone on to student teaching have used First Crossing, particularly with ELL, and have shared this “is the only text the students would really read.” Essential to ELL is that the books they read reflect their cultures and their lives.  Also, while the texts may need to be easy to read, they need to be about issues relevant to teens.

            The underlying questions for my research include 1) How might YA Literature, which is written in more accessible English, help build language comprehension?  2) How might YA Literature, with topics that appeal to adolescents, encourage ELL to do more reading and facilitate their acquisition of English? 3) In what ways can YA Literature serve as a bridge for ELL into the “canon” of literature in the English courses? 

As with the research I did for the book, Adolescents in the Search for Meaning: Tapping the Powerful Resource of Story, I want to begin with what ELL themselves say about what can help them more easily acquire fluency in English.  My proposal thus involves working with ELL in middle and high schools throughout Santa Clara County in San Jose, CA. I will be on Sabbatical in Spring 09 and will be observing in middle and high schools with significant populations of ELL and where there are ELD (English Language Development) or Sheltered English or SDAIE (Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English) classes.  I plan to interview students asking

1. What would help improve your comprehension of English? 

2. What topics interest you? 

3. What books have you read that you like and would suggest to other English


4. What authors do you know and what books or works by these writers do you


These questions will also be the basis of a survey that I will distribute to ELL throughout Santa Clara County, providing more data than I will be able to amass from in person interviews. 

            Marie Milner, high school English teacher who has worked directly with ELL for over sixteen years, is my co-researcher on this project.  Marie has done book report projects with ELL and amassed an extensive collection of books that have been particularly appealing to ELL.  She also has extensive classroom activities for integrating YA Lit and the canonical works, facilitating the move for ELL from Sheltered English or SDAIE classes to mainstreamed English classes.  Marie’s specific contribution to the research is her vast experience with ELL and the knowledge of what books have been particularly successful with ELL. 

            Once we have identified the books ELL recommend and the information about their interests, we will develop an annotated bibliography (again similar to what I did in Chapters 4-8 of Adolescents in the Search for Meaning: Tapping the Powerful Resource of Story where I gave synopses of the books, provided teaching ideas or resources, and explained why the book should be suggested to adolescent readers) of those works most helpful for assisting literacy development in ELL.

Proposed Timeline

Spring 2009     In person interviews with ELL in middle and high schools; distribution of

the Survey; Data collection

Summer 2009  Reading of books ELL identify; Begin reviewing data collected

Fall 2009         Continuation of data review; Further reading and development of an

annotated bibliography and resources

Spring 2010     Compilation of the annotated bibliography

Working Bibliography of Books Already Identified

(Space only allow this limited start of a list)

Bagdasarian, Adam.  Forgotten Fire

Beah, Ismael.  A Long Way Gone

Gallo, Don, ed.  First Crossing

Hobbs, Will.  Crossing the Wire

Jimenez, Francisco. The Circuit and Breaking Through

Latifa.  My Forbidden Face

McCormick, Patricia.  Sold

Mikaelsen, Be.  Red Midnight

Myers, Walter Dean.  Sunrise Over Fallujah

Nye, Naomi Shaib.  Habibi

Ryan, Pam Munoz.  Esperanza Rising and Becoming Naomi Leon

Staples, Suzanne Fisher.  The House of Djinn and Shabanu

Yep, Laurence.  Children of the Owl

Proposed Budget

Printing costs for producing the Survey and postage                         $250.00

Data Analysis of the Survey                                                              $500.00

YA Books to Share with ELL in Low Income settings                      $500.00

Costs related to the production of the Annotated Bibliography        $250.00

Total                                                                                                   $1,500.00