Academic Exchange Quarterly         Winter  2002: Volume 6, Issue 4


Bilingual Information Literacy and Academic Readiness:

Reading, Writing and Retention


Dr. Miriam Laskin is Assistant Professor and Instructional Services Librarian at Hostos Community College, CUNY.



The common ground between academic and information literacies, which serves as a foundation for building skills needed by ESL/Spanish dominant students, is described. This article addresses innovations in the teaching-learning environment at Hostos Community College, City University of New York, through the development of an information literacy program designed to support the academic readiness skills required by a bilingual, urban student body. A collaborative initiative with the Counseling faculty was established to deliver a course integrated program reaching the majority of freshmen to teach students how to think critically, compare and contrast, and evaluate and analyze information resources.




As the dawn of the Information Age becomes early morning, academic administrators, faculty, and librarians have begun the complex but imperative restructuring of the higher education teaching-learning environment in order for students to be successful in their studies and in their future careers. Many educators have studied, conferenced, networked and written about how to meet the challenge facing higher education institutions, of ever-increasing access to information afforded by digital technology and the Internet (Blakeslee, Owens & Dixon 2001; Breivik 2000; Bruce 1994; Leckie & Fullerton 1999; Rader 1996; Shapiro & Hughes 1996; Taylor & Stamatoplos 1999).


U.S. faculty and administrators have been both urged and supported by national educational organizations, library associations, regional accrediting agencies, state education departments and commissions, and independent organizations, to prepare students for life in this digital, information-laden world (ACRL 1998). In its most recent Standards, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education notes:


Information Literacy is vital to all disciplines and to effective teaching and learning in any institution. Institutions of higher education need to provide students and instructors with the knowledge, skills, and tools to obtain information in many formats and media in order to identify, retrieve and apply relevant and valid knowledge and information resources to their study, teaching and research (MSCHE p.32).


In response to these Middle States mandates and to better serve our students, the Hostos Community College Library of the City University of New York (CUNY), developed and implemented an information literacy (IL) program in Spring 2001. In addition to fulfilling the Middles States goals, there were other practical and impelling reasons for the Library to create a strong information literacy program at this bilingual, urban community college. This article addresses innovations in the teaching-learning environment through the development of an information literacy program designed to support the academic literacy skills needed by a bilingual student body.



Hostos Community College, a Bilingual Institution


Eugenio Maria de Hostos Community College is the youngest and smallest of CUNY’s six community colleges. In 1970, it opened in the South Bronx with a special mission, to provide “educational opportunities leading to socio-economic mobility for first and second generation Hispanics, African Americans, and other residents of New York City who have encountered significant barriers to higher education” (Hostos 2002).


Hostos is the only CUNY campus whose mission is specifically bilingual; it allows Spanish-dominant students to begin courses in their native language while developing English facility in an English as a Second Language Program. Of the 3,283 students enrolled at Hostos in 2001,

70% were Hispanic, 25% African American, and 64% of the student body were not born on the U.S. mainland. Further, 35% of the 2001 freshman class did not attend high school in New York State; many received their secondary education outside the U.S. (CUNY 2002).  Most of the students receive State or Federal financial aid, and in addition to ESL, many students take remedial courses in reading, math and English. This demographic portrait of Hostos students encapsulates the challenges faced by the faculty, administration and staff to retain students after enrollment, help make up academic deficits, and provide a quality education.


Practical Reasons for an Information Literacy Program


Like many other library faculty, the librarians at Hostos support the goal of an information literacy program in which its constellation of skills is taught in a multi-level, curriculum integrated program that starts when students first enter the college and continues throughout their academic careers. For Hostos and all of CUNY, however, there is now a very practical reason for such a program, and a good reason to make it a requirement for all entering freshmen. This is the CUNY Proficiency Exam (“CPE”) that, since 2000, must be taken and passed by students between their 45th and 60th credit. Passing the CPE is required for graduation from all of the CUNY colleges as well as for community college students wishing to transfer to a CUNY four-year college.


The CPE is a challenge to Hostos students. It is described on CUNY’s Web site as a test of  “academic literacy: the ability to understand and think critically about ideas and information presented in print and the ability to write clearly, logically, and correctly.” The three-hour exam tests students in analytical reading, analysis, comparison, and integration of information from a diverse range of subjects and graphs (CUNY 2002).


To address the writing skills needed to pass the CPE, CUNY faculty created a University-wide program with committees at each campus, called the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) Initiative. Its purpose is to organize and teach CUNY faculty to incorporate writing skills in their syllabi, thus offering means for students in all subjects and programs to learn and practice the “academic literacy” skills called for by the CPE. The Library faculty recognize that like WAC’s goal of a curriculum integrated writing program, the goal of a curriculum integrated information literacy program serves the same purpose: to teach students how to think critically, compare and contrast, and evaluate and analyze information resources.



Critical Thinking and the Hostos Library Information Literacy (IL) Program


While it is not within the scope of library IL programs to work on students’ writing skills per se, the Hostos Library IL program fits very closely with the overall aims of the CPE that address critical thinking. Library faculty are collaborators with the administration and academic faculty in providing a program that addresses the very concrete need for Hostos’ students to pass this important exam.


It is interesting to compare a definition of critical thinking with the skills that are addressed in many college information literacy programs, including the Hostos Library’s. Critical thinking involves developing an alertness to, and criteria for, assessing the factual accuracy of a statement; distinguishing relevant from irrelevant information; detecting bias, unstated assumptions or ambiguous claims; recognizing logical inconsistencies or fallacies in a line of reasoning; distinguishing between warranted or unwarranted claims; and determining the strength of an argument (Beyer 1985). The critical thinking skills necessary in order to pass the CPE are: analytical reading and writing, analyzing, and integrating and using information from graphs, charts and corresponding texts. Hostos Library faculty believe that the CPE goals and those of the IL program are the same: to teach students how to think critically, compare and contrast, and evaluate and analyze information resources; and furthermore, to use a variety of information resources in the process of learning critical thinking skills.


Successful critical thinkers, however, learn these skills over time, through practice and repetition. It is crucial that faculty from all departments, including the Library, be actively engaged in providing the tools and practice they need in order to pass the CPE and, in the long term, be successful in their academic studies and in their future careers.



Strength through Collaboration: Freshman Orientation Course and Information Literacy


The Library faculty wanted to ensure that the new IL program would be implemented immediately, and would reach as many Hostos students as possible. Therefore, an offer was made to the Counseling department for collaboration to bring the IL program to all students enrolled in College Orientation (SSD1000), a one semester course that covers subjects mandated by CUNY (i.e., sexual harassment, substance abuse, financial aid) as well as college success skills, including critical thinking, computer, and information literacy. Before the adoption of the new Liberal Arts Core Curriculum by the Faculty Senate (see below), the course was not mandatory, though it was strongly encouraged, and there are usually between 17 and 22 sections in a given semester, some of which are conducted in Spanish.


Since the College Orientation course is a major tool in Hostos’ retention efforts, it was felt that collaboration between the Library and Counseling departments could help in retaining students by strengthening the critical thinking, research, and academic readiness skills Hostos’ students would need in order to pass the CPE and be more successful in all their studies.


The Library Department proposed that all counseling faculty teaching College Orientation assign three IL workshops and make them a requirement for passing the course. The Library faculty provided attendance forms to make it possible for the teachers to know that their students were taking the workshops and had completed their assignment.


Between four and seven workshops were scheduled per week throughout the semester. The Counseling Department faculty was excited with the proposal, and the IL program began in September 2001. Rather than attempt to offer three specialized sessions to all sections of College Orientation, the workshop schedule was offered to all Hostos students, through signup forms online and in the Library. Thus, the IL workshops were attended by all the College Orientation students, by students from other courses whose professors had assigned them to take the IL workshops, and by all other interested students, faculty and staff. Thus, we were able to fill our workshops, and serve a wider range of students without creating an unreasonable workload for the library faculty. This arrangement of open signups for the IL workshops helped avoid a common deterrent to full faculty support and participation in Library-based IL programs because it doesn’t require faculty to give up valuable classroom time in order for their students to take the workshops.



Information Literacy Program in Brief


Three 75-minute workshops were developed which together provide a good foundation in information literacy concepts and the skills associated with them. Each session addresses specific information literacy principles as presented by Christine Bruce in her 1997 seminal work, The Seven Faces of Information Literacy in Higher Education. 


 Briefly, the three basic workshops can be described as follows:


In “Info Lit 101” the need for evaluating information resources and the Internet is introduced. It also includes a virtual library tour, and an introduction to subscription databases, Internet resources and print materials at the Hostos Library. The video “E-literate?” produced by Pacific Bell and UCLA is also shown (Pacific Bell 2001).


In “Keys to Database Searching,” critical thinking skills and strategies for successful library research are presented: formulating and focusing research topics, using Boolean connectors, and constructing keyword searches. Instruction and practice in using CUNY’s online catalog are emphasized.


“Surf Smart!” provides a short history of the Internet and WWW, and offers tips for keyword searching. Different types of subject directories and search engines are compared and students learn to decide when it makes sense to use the Internet, versus using subscription databases for research.


All of the workshops include hands-on exercises for immediate outcome assessment that the students do under supervision before leaving. Attendance forms are signed to return to instructors, and students fill out evaluation forms for important statistical data and feedback on each workshop.


Instructional handouts on how to use the catalog are available in Spanish and English. Students who wish to use Spanish language resources are directed to Informe, a Spanish language periodical database, and Ethnic Newswatch, a bilingual periodical database. Spanish language information links and other resources have been integrated into the library Web site and collection, and a Spanish/bilingual version of CUNY’s web-based “Information Competency Tutorials” is available on the Library Web site.



Program Highlights and Conclusion


A total of 65 workshops were offered during the Fall 2001 semester, the majority of which were the three basic workshops described above. Three additional workshops were added in both the Fall and Spring semesters to give the students more choice and variety, especially for those who had taken the three basic IL workshops. Several course-integrated workshops and workshops for faculty, administration and staff were also offered. The total number of workshop attendees for Fall 2001 was 610.


During the Spring 2002 semester, a total of 74 workshops were offered; because the college’s enrollment typically drops during Spring semester and so many students had taken the 3 basic IL workshops during the Fall semester, total student attendance was slightly lower, at 573.  Because Hostos’ total enrollment averages 3500 students per semester, the total attendance rates in the IL workshops during the first two semesters of the IL program approaches 20% of the student body and this figure is significant, particularly for a new program.


Of particular note is the Library’s policy regarding course-integrated instruction. As word of the IL program traveled and other departmental teaching faculty became aware of the Library’s initiative, a steady stream of requests came in for course-specific sessions. Therefore, a policy was created that faculty require their students to take at least two of the three basic workshops prior to scheduling a course-integrated session. Library faculty believes it is not practical to teach the more advanced workshops geared to specific subjects unless the majority of the class knows the basics. This approach has been successful and has helped further collaborative efforts with all academic departments. Moreover, teaching colleagues are reminded that the Library is an academic department, with a curriculum and similar pedagogic goals as the other departments.


The Hostos Library faculty has worked hard in a short space of time to create and launch a comprehensive IL program and a new Web site with an abundance of resources for students, faculty, administration and staff. Both the IL program and the Web site that supports it are only a year old and they will continue to evolve. As noted, three workshops have been added to the three basic ones, and students are learning. They come now to the library to do research (particularly to use subscription databases) instead of just email, chats and games available on the Internet. Workshops, hands-on exercises and other pedagogical tools that specifically address Hostos’ curricular needs must continue to be developed.


During Spring 2002 semester, the Hostos Curriculum committee, which included the Chief Librarian, developed a proposal for a new Liberal Arts Core Curriculum. The Faculty Senate passed it and there is one significant change that directly and positively affects the Library’s Information Literacy program. When the new Core Curriculum takes effect in the Fall of 2003, all students enrolled in Associate of Arts degree programs – about 80% of Hostos’ students - will be required to take the College Orientation course. Moreover, the orientation course will be redesigned to more fully incorporate information literacy into its curriculum. This innovative curricular development will enhance students’ education by providing a course integrated information literacy program that teaches critical thinking and successful information competency skills. The ongoing collaboration between library, counseling and other faculty increases the college’s ability to retain students by strengthening their academic readiness. Without our intense efforts, students in this brave new Information Age will be left behind.



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