Ohio State Spanish student Rachel Cannata reads a story to a group of first-graders at Salem Elementary School. Courtesy: Jill Welch

When Ohio State professor Jill Welch learned six years ago that some of the students at a local elementary school couldn’t read at home with their parents due to a language barrier, she knew just the solution.

Since then, Welch, a professor with the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, has ended every semester of her Honors Spanish Composition class by having her students write short stories in both Spanish and English for bilingual first-graders at Salem Elementary School. This way the first-graders can read the stories at home with their parents, who sometimes only speak Spanish.

The project started when Welch’s daughter, who was student-teaching at Salem Elementary School at the time, told her mom that some of her Spanish-speaking students were not able to read at home with their parents because many of their parents could not read English.

“It was at a time when I was getting ready to start a story-writing chapter in my honors composition class and I said ‘Oh my gosh, I could have my students write stories in Spanish, and then we could translate them, and then it went from there,’” Welch said.

Welch pitched her idea to Celeste Guglielmi, the English as a Second Language teacher at Salem Elementary School, and the two women collaborated to create the Bilingual Storybook Project. This, Welch said, helps college students improve their Spanish composition skills and have the opportunity to connect with a child in the community.

“We do a lot of talking about culture and reading about culture,” Welch said. “But to provide a real life, meaningful contact in the community, and to use writing to create a product that (bilingual elementary students) value — that’s meaningful to me.”

Guglielmi gives her Spanish-speaking students an “All about me!” form, asking the first-graders simple questions about their best friends, favorite animals and favorite things to do. The first-graders also draw a picture to accompany their questionnaire. The picture can be about whatever the child wants.

Afterwards, Guglielmi delivers these drawings and questionnaires to Welch, who asks her students from OSU to choose an elementary student based on the drawings and answers.

The college students then write stories about the drawings, often depicting the children as heroes with magical powers.

Kirstie Sippola, a third-year in Spanish and international studies, for example, wrote her story about a little boy who fought off a witch with his magical strength. Sippola said she was inspired by her student’s drawing.

“It looked like there was a witch and spiders and they were in a movie theater with popcorn,” she said.

However, Sippola said, the best part of the project was not writing the story, but getting to meet the student who played her story’s hero.

“All of (the first-graders) were really cute, but I feel like he was especially cute,” Sippola said. “When I read him my story he got really embarrassed, but not in a bad way.”

Ultimately, the project not only helps bilingual first-graders learn how to read, but it also gives the students something positive to look forward to.

“It validates who they are and where they came from,” Guglielmi said. “Here they are surviving in English all day long, day in and day out, and to have something in their native language, that especially their family is going to be able to relate to is very gratifying, and goes a long way.”


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