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Detailing the integration of Spanish language teaching in an authentic setting, this article contributes to empirical research on the positive value of community-engaged learning in foreign language pedagogy. Reading to Play, Playing to Read is an innovative model for community-engaged teaching that combines learning goals from upper-level language and literature courses with the objectives of a non-profit organization serving the Latino community in Southwestern, Pennsylvania. This community-engaged project bridged language and literature curricula in the same department to prepare students for careers in a multicultural society. Students from both courses worked cooperatively to develop a three-week project on Mexican history for Hispanic children, ages 5 to 8, who recently immigrated to the United States. Reading to Play, Playing to Read provided the children with a safe space where they learned about Mexican literature and history, enhancing their elementary education. University students reported gains in their Spanish conversational and listening skills and changes in their future career plans geared towards Spanish-speaking populations. This article describes the project, research results, and challenges, and it discusses the implications for research and practice.


community engagement/participación en la comunidad, culturally relevant/culturalmente relevante, interdisciplinary/interdisciplinario, listening skills/habilidades auditivas, service learning/servicio en la comunidad, speaking skills/habilidades orales

1. Introduction

In 1987, Ernest L. Boyer asserted that higher education has the obligation to teach students a sense of responsibility to their community that extends beyond their career goals and personal interests (296). Today, in our increasingly complex globalized society, community-engaged teaching and research provides a pathway to meet these standards by engendering relationships between institutions of higher education and partners that benefit all stakeholders. This article details the success of one such project, Reading to Play, Playing to Read (RPPR), conceived and developed at Duquesne University, a private, liberal arts, Catholic university in Western Pennsylvania serving 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students in the downtown area. RPPR combined disciplinary, departmental, pedagogical, and university goals into one coherent project that benefited college students of Spanish and the community.

Confronted with two challenges: 1) declining enrollments in Spanish upper level courses; and 2) a growing, yet invisible, Hispanic community in the Pittsburgh area, an applied linguist [End Page 357] and a literary scholar bridged their disciplines to create RPPR. Participating in a university-wide effort to employ community-engaged pedagogy, this project forged a partnership between the non-profit organization Casa San José and the university's Department of Modern Languages and Literatures. Students enrolled in Spanish Conversation and Composition and Spanish American Theatre of the Avant-Garde developed a three-week learning experience for Hispanic children, ages 5 to 8, who had recently immigrated to the United States from Honduras, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. College students wrote mini plays and planned lessons to work with children in an after-school project twice a week.

Designed following a community-engaged teaching and research model, RPPR proved beneficial for the college students enrolled in Spanish courses and the children included in the project. Focusing this pedagogy's impact on language acquisition, this pilot study details the effect on college students of Spanish. Two research questions guided our mixed methods research project. The first aimed to determine RPPR's influence on language skills—speaking and listening, in particular. The second explored the effect that participation in RPPR had on students' personal and professional career plans. RPPR increased students' interest in Spanish courses and the Spanish-speaking community, successfully met university-prescribed community engagement practices, and, above all, empowered students of Spanish. Students reported gains in the development of Spanish speaking and listening skills and changes in their career plans to include Spanish-speaking populations. Additionally, RPPR organically bridged language and literature curricula, better preparing college students for careers in a multicultural and transdisciplinary society. The first section in this article describes the context and theoretical framework upon which we created RPPR. The second part of this article details the project, results, and how they were analyzed. We conclude that RPPR is a useful model for language and literature educators at other institutions of higher education and encourage them to incorporate this practice in their pedagogy.

2. Theoretical Framework

2.1 Literary Scholarship and Linguistics

Despite regularly being housed in the same departments (such as Modern Languages, World Languages, or Spanish and Portuguese), scholars in Spanish linguistics and literary studies rarely collaborate. Instead, their academic research follows separate trajectories. Our inquiry into the reasons for these divisions yielded disappointingly fewer results than expected on the topic. However, the first issue of the journal Hispanic Issues Online, published in 2006, offers some interesting suggestions. For instance, in his contribution entitled "Thoughts on the Place of Spanish Linguistics in the American University," Dworkin (2006) points out that, whether linguists are housed in departments such as Spanish and Portuguese or World Languages and Literatures, they are the minority among tenure-track faculty. In fact, degree programs that include linguistics are less common at present. Dworkin also notes that doctoral programs have cut linguistics from their curriculum to such an extent that "the only linguistics training that many graduate students in Spanish receive is the teaching methods course often required of teaching assistants" (116). As a result, students that do choose to study linguistics in Spanish opt in favor of applied linguistics. Nevertheless, Dworkin also points out that multiple national and international research conferences focused on theoretical, applied linguistics, and/or second language (L2) acquisition suggest that the discipline is still doing well in the United States.

Notwithstanding divisions, Lipski (2006) explains that "in most programs linguists and literature specialists enjoy mutual respect and conviviality" (110). However, just as Dworkin (2006) mentions, Lipski highlights that literary studies continue to be a priority in departments as its faculty outnumbers linguists, which is the case in our Department of Modern Languages [End Page 358] and Literatures. Moreover, Lipski suggests that there is an "institutional glass ceiling" that is biased against linguistics in academic departments, "a disembodied institutional zeitgeist haunts us with the notion that anything short of imparting an appreciation for literature is not 'really' the mission of a Spanish department" (111). Our department exemplifies Lipski's description. Although language courses generally have greater enrollments than literature courses, when we designed RPPR, our department was still primarily focused on providing courses geared to offering students a thorough survey of the literary canon. Overcoming this inequity, Lipski maintains, requires organized action from linguists. He calls on his colleagues to reach out to their counterparts in literature, "I nonetheless recommend that linguists make the building of bridges to the other areas of their departments an essential life-sustaining activity. Our counterparts in other fields of inquiry will happily traverse these bridges and build more of their own" (112). Sharing Lipski's perspective, a literary scholar and a linguist, employed community-engaged research and teaching to connect our classrooms, our research interests, and strengthen our Spanish program.

2.2 Decline in Spanish Enrollment

In the fall of 2014, our Spanish program assumed the daunting task of updating the curriculum to revitalize course offerings. This effort was due in large part to declining numbers of majors and minors, a challenge many institutions of higher education are facing according to the Modern Language Association (Jaschik 2018). As Flaherty (2016) notes, students focused on specific career goals were less drawn to humanities courses such as languages and literatures. Therefore, seeking to strengthen the Spanish program, the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures first set out to develop a standardized curriculum based on the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) proficiency guidelines.1 In addition, our department wanted to develop more cutting edge and innovative upper level literature and culture courses to draw students to the major. At the same time, the university decided to overhaul its service-learning requirement for graduation, adopting a community engagement model instead, one that focused on balanced reciprocity and long-term collaboration between university and community partners. RPPR is, therefore, an initiative that combined our individual interest in breaking disciplinary boundaries, departmental efforts to improve the Spanish language and literature programs, and the university's movement away from Service Learning and towards community-engaged teaching and research. The following section details the differences between these two pedagogies.

2.3 Service Learning and Community Engagement (CE)

Scholarship has well documented the value of service learning in higher education foreign language instruction. Caldwell (2007), for example, points out that "[b]y its very nature, service learning places the student in an active role in the design of the experiential project, thereby promoting the use of the target language in a real-life context" (465). Additionally, Falce-Robinson and Strother (2012) maintain that "[s]ervice learning is both an aptly suited and goal-oriented teaching and learning strategy for foreign language classes at all levels. Heritage and non-heritage learners alike will meet student learning outcomes, achieve greater communicative competence and meet linguistic and extra-linguistic goals through participation in a service learning project or course connected to their study of a foreign language" (86). Finally, Hellebrandt's (2016) survey of service learning in the Spanish classroom from 1999 to 2003 maintains that "[t]he importance of service-learning research in Spanish is unquestionable: it advances . . . teaching and advising, helps departments gain recognition . . . and connects individual faculty work to disciplinary and higher education efforts off campus" (925). As a result, this pedagogy is widely [End Page 359] used across institutions of higher education in the United States and in many foreign language departments. Yet, how this pedagogy is implemented varies greatly across institutions.

A quick survey of practices for engaging the community in college courses across US university websites demonstrates that the terms community engagement (CE) and service learning are understood in many different ways. The University of San Francisco, for example, focuses service learning, which it describes as "a pedagogical method that engages students in organized service activities and guided reflection. The service activities benefit the client or community and, in combination with reflection, enhance the academic knowledge and skills of participating students" (University of San Francisco). Vanderbilt University uses both terms, explaining that "Community engagement pedagogies, often called 'service learning,' are ones that combine learning goals and community service in ways that can enhance both student growth and the common good" (Vanderbilt University). Finally, Hobart and William Smith Colleges explain that their "Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning stands for learning through service that produces students who are civically engaged and graduates who are active, global citizens" (Hobart and William Smith Colleges). Despite their differences, each of these descriptions underscores that both students and the community benefit from this type of pedagogy. Yet, in using the term "service," these descriptions also, perhaps inadvertently, imply a hierarchical relationship between students and the community. Students learn from serving. In an effort to restructure this type of relationship, our university decided to completely redefine its approach, casting the term "service learning" aside in favor of "community-engaged teaching and research."

The Center for Community-engaged Teaching and Research at our university promotes the development of programs that establish a reciprocal, enduring, and authentic relationship between the university and community partners. As Bower (2016) puts it, in this pedagogy, "We position students as listeners rather than as experts, and community partners as holders of knowledge rather than as objects of charity or study" (1). The inclusion of research in our university's approach also differentiates it from most service-learning projects. A community-engaged project that is directly linked to faculty research supports individual career development and increases institutional prestige, making the university a greater stakeholder. As Núñez (2014) describes it:

Engaged scholarship situates faculty, students, and higher education institutions in a more direct partnership with local communities. This reciprocal relationship allows . . . educators to see students and communities as mutually interrelated. In this view, community settings become an extension of the classroom and community partners become co-facilitators of knowledge creation and the development of critically thinking professionals.


Thus, community-engaged teaching and research pedagogy promotes a reciprocal relationship in which each stakeholder is part of the design and decision making process (see Dostilio et al. 2012: 17).

Nationally, the shift from service-learning models to community-engaged teaching and research pedagogies is recent and our university is an example of this change. As a result, scholarship on community-engaged practices in language classrooms is largely based on service learning models. Additionally, as noted above, the terms service learning and community engagement are often used interchangeably and studies conducted in language classrooms are no exception. Therefore, using both terms, the section that follows provides an overview of studies conducted in language classrooms that prove the benefits of CE/service learning. However, we do see a clear difference, outlined above, between service learning and community-engaged teaching and research and very carefully constructed RPPR according to the latter.2 Service learning has added much to the field of L2 acquisition, but, as RPPR demonstrates, we find that CE takes this model a step further and more significantly benefits all stakeholders involved. [End Page 360]

2.4 CE Pedagogy in The L2 Classroom

The US Congress and ACTFL combined efforts to develop the Year of Languages campaign starting in 2005. This initiative rendered the Discover Languages program, aimed at raising awareness about the cognitive, academic, and economic benefits that language learning provides and to help US students discover new languages in their own country and abroad. Since then, following the Discover Language project's vision, FL educators across the United States began implementing service learning/CE programs in their classroom practice. However, it was not until the Hellebrandt and Varona's publication of Construyendo Puentes (Building Bridges): Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in Spanish (1999) that the learning benefits generated from the connection between CE pedagogy and foreign language curricula were disseminated and prioritized. Language teaching has since seen an increase in the number of community-engaged courses offered nationally and internationally. These courses provide students the opportunity to engage with the community while using their linguistic and cultural skills in authentic contexts (Carracelas-Juncal 2013: 295). Research generated from these courses focuses primarily on the effects and outcomes of service learning/CE programs on undergraduate college students' language proficiency and cultural understanding (Barreneche 2001; Caldwell 2007; Ebacher 2013; Lear and Abbott 2009; Osa-Melero 2016; Petrov 2013).

Our evaluation of language development within authentic contexts and/or student positionality towards the Spanish-speaking community in RPPR shares commonalities with the aforementioned studies. For example, in her study on upper level students of Spanish, Caldwell (2007) found that community-engaged teaching was an effective tool to promote oral and written language in real contexts. These students planned, prepared and executed story time in Spanish at the public library during 15 weeks. Student reflections and questionnaires confirmed that CE promoted proficiency and self-confidence in the L2. Following the same line of inquiry, Falce-Robinson and Strother (2012) implemented service-learning projects throughout the Spanish major course sequence in which non-heritage and heritage speakers successfully participated. Their final reflections and poster presentations confirmed that the projects assisted students in their language development and increased their motivation to continue their study of Spanish and their collaboration with the community.

Service-learning is both an aptly suited and goal-oriented teaching and learning strategy for foreign language classes at all levels. Heritage and non-heritage learners alike will meet student learning outcomes, achieve greater communicative competence and meet linguistic and extra-linguistic goals.

Petrov's study (2013) with heritage learners provides additional evidence. The results in her study reveal how heritage speakers in an intermediate-high course improved their communication skills when engaging with agencies serving Chicago-area Latinos. While Petrov does not detail the collaboration with the community agency, she concludes that the end of the program narratives and surveys completed by students confirmed significant gains in communication skills: "Students recognized service learning as a pedagogy that helped their speaking and writing skills, as well as their cultural knowledge" (319).

Although the impact of CE on heritage speakers has been researched (Burgo 2017; Fairclough 2015; Tocaimaza-Hatch and Walls 2017) and is still an active subject of inquiry, most studies on CE and language learning still focus on white non-heritage students (Hellebrandt and Jorge 2013: 211). For instance, Osa-Melero's (2016) and Carney's (2013) studies, conducted at two different private Midwestern institutions, show that predominantly white student populations advance their speaking and vocabulary learning throughout engagement activities with members of the Latino community. Despite the linguistic development gain, non-heritage participants had the opportunity to gain an awareness of their positionality in society (Hellebrandt and Jorge 2013). [End Page 361]

As Bringle et al. (2004) put it, "service learning pedagogy can produce enriched forms of learning that transcend traditional content-based mastery and allow students to develop new ways of thinking and acting that are integrated with their personal values" (6). Falce-Robinson and Strother (2012) further underscore that service learning can be the journey of learning, critical thinking, and self-discovery that leads to linguistic and cultural achievement (73). The unique personal commitment involved in community-engaged programs that motivates students is definitely a favorable influence for language acquisition. Furthermore, CE pedagogy not only improves and strengthens university and community relationships, but it also increases student academic motivation and cognitive skills performance. Therefore, foreign language departments are in an exceptional position to lead community-engaged experiences that responsibly align with academic objectives (Caldwell 2007: 464).

The studies described in this section illustrate the positive connection between CE and L2 learning in undergraduate courses of Spanish and the impact of the participation on CE programs on student cultural understanding. However, these studies mostly rely on language courses for non-heritage or heritage speakers, or, in some cases Spanish for the professions courses. Our study is the first to add an upper level literature course into the equation. Combining our disciplines, literature and linguistics, to create RPPR adds a unique form of student collaboration absent in previous studies.

3. Current Study

College students, children and families in RPPR committed to participate for an hour and a half, two days a week, for three consecutive weeks during the 2015 spring semester. We created groups of 2–3 college students from both our courses. These groups of 2–3 college students were paired with 2–3 children each, rendering a ratio of one college student per child.

Students in the literature course studied a unit on plays about Mexican culture and history. For instance, they learned about Pancho Villa reading Rodolfo Usigli's El gesticulador and encountered a feminist revision of La Malinche in Rosario Castellanos's El eterno femenino. Working with students in the language course, they wrote engaging scripts on Mexican history and culture for the children.3 Our students' collaboration brought characters such as La Malinche, Hernán Cortés, and Emiliano Zapata to life for the children. Language students helped literature students improve their grammar as they in turn gained insight into Mexican literature. The scripts developed were loosely related to the authentic literary materials they studied in class. For example, Rodolfo Usigli's Corona de sombra provided the context for a script on Maximilian and Carlota's short-lived 19th-century reign in Mexico entitled "El reinado y la caída de Maximiliano y Carlota." College students who wrote the text eliminated violent scenes and in turn depicted famous Mexican Benito Juárez's nationalism in a positive manner. At the same time, Carlota's character was strong and empathetic, thereby providing the children with a contemporary historical account. Similarly, another play, "El descubrimiento de México," on the conquest of Mexico, playfully portrayed the encounter between Hernán Cortés and the Aztecs. Finally, "Escuela de héroes jóvenes" portrayed historical figures, such as revolutionary leader Pancho Villa and Hernán Cortés's translator, La Malinche, as elementary school students, making them more relatable for the children. We evaluated each script to ensure that racial, historical, and gender representations were appropriate for the age group. Although children were from various Spanish-speaking countries, the majority was from Mexico and all identified with topics such as the conquest. When the skits were presented for parents, faculty, and community members, a program with descriptions of the historical figures on stage was provided.

Working together by teaching each other prepared students for working with the children. During each after school program session, college students gave the children mini lessons on content, helped them memorize lines, rehearsed, and designed decoration/costume making activities. The final product was to be presented in front of an audience (friends, family members, [End Page 362] students of Spanish, university faculty, and administrators) at our university. A small reception for participants and the audience was offered after the performance. Two research questions guided our study:

  1. 1. To what extent was students' comfort level affected while using Spanish oral and listening skills with Spanish-speaking children in RPPR?

  2. 2. How did participation in RPPR shape student personal and career aspirations in the immediate future?

4. Methodology

Given the concurrent nested mixed methods research design (Creswell 2015: 3), both qualitative and quantitative data from students were collected simultaneously as the project progressed. Likert scale surveys accounted for the primary quantitative data source whereas qualitative data sources consisted of reflective narratives written by students. Bearing in mind that Institutional Review Board approval for minors and vulnerable adults was not fully approved at the time of this pilot study, we did not collect data from community members. In addition, the Center for Community Engaged Teaching and Research advised us to collect data from children and families after establishing a solid relationship.

4.1 Participants

University students enrolled in two upper-level Spanish courses participated in this study (N = 16; Female = 14, Male = 2). All students were majoring or minoring in Spanish at the time of the study. They were predominantly sophomores and juniors, six of them enrolled in the Theater of the Avant-Garde class and ten enrolled in Spanish Conversation and Composition. All participants were full-time traditional students who self-identified as white Caucasian English native speakers. This demographic broadly reflects the university's student population, given that 86% of first-year students enroll as full-time traditional freshman and 81.3% of students self-identify as white. Participants were raised either in a Midwestern city or a neighboring town. Thus, similar to many studies on CE and language learning, the present study also focuses on white students (Hellebrandt and Jorge 2013). As a requirement, students were asked to obtain criminal record and child abuse clearances. Almost all students admitted to being unacquainted with the Spanish-speaking community in their hometown and/or their college city. However, except for one, all students in the Theatre of the Avant-Garde class had previously worked with the Latino children in the Casa San José after-school program.4 They had taken an upper level Latin American culture course with the same professor the previous semester, fall 2014. For this class, students were required to complete a "Latin America in our city" short service-learning project. They had to work with a Hispanic community organization and write a paper about the experience. This project was not as developed as a study and was not as structured as RPPR. With instructor guidance, each student developed their own project. Therefore, none of the RPPR participants had participated in a community-engaged project that involved close and prolonged interaction with community members in Spanish. Students in the Conversation and Composition class had not previously met the children.

Both courses prepared college students for their CE experience. As noted above, a unit dedicated to Mexican culture and theatre was designed to offer literature students the background they needed for the project. They read Parece mentira by Xavier Villaurrutia, El Gesticulador and Corona de sombra by Rodolfo Usigli, and El eterno femenino by Rosario Castellanos. They became familiar with important events in Mexican history such as the Spanish Conquest by Hernán Cortés, Carlota and Maximilian's brief reign, and the Mexican Revolution. Students also learned how to conduct independent research in this course, visiting a neighboring university's [End Page 363] renowned Latin American library collection. Oral presentations and written reading responses helped students develop their reading and critical thinking ability, and their written and oral proficiency. These assessments were designed to teach students to effectively summarize and explain material, a skill they would need to teach both their peers and the children.

The Conversation and Composition class prepared for their CE experience by engaging the required Spanish textbook En comunidad: Comunicación y conexión (Nichols et al.). One of the cultural objectives of this textbook is to help students appreciate the Spanish-speaking communities abroad, as well as the communities in the United States. Contextualized readings and videos offered testimonies from community members and leaders who devoted their lives to create a tighter and tolerant community. Activities promoted written and oral discussions about the sociocultural complexities encountered in the Spanish-speaking communities and the different ethical ways to engage with the community. Additionally, these students had been part of the community-engaged project, Niños y niñas bilingües during the previous semester. In this project students delivered lessons on basic vocabulary, geography, and cultural features of Spanish-speaking countries to English-speaking preschool children at the University YMCAChild Development Center.

Participants enrolled in both courses received direct training from the community partner. Both classes attended an hour-long presentation by the afterschool program director. She detailed Casa San José's mission as a community center that advocates for Latinos by promoting integration and self-sufficiency. Additionally, she presented a detailed description of participating children, including country of origin, interests, school related strengths and weaknesses, academic and language skills, and significant personality traits. Finally, she provided a tour of the organization's headquarters.

4.2 Data Collection and Analyses

College students enrolled in both courses completed the same assignments in Spanish: 1) three written 150-word reflections, one after each meeting with the children; 2) five Likertscale surveys, one before the project initiated and one after each meeting with the children; and 3) a 450-word final reflective essay.

Data collection tools included Likert-scale surveys and reflective written narratives. L2 acquisition studies have long employed student diaries and written reflections on their language learning to obtain information about language learning strategies and learners' own perceptions of language learning (Allison 1998: 25). While the first survey included three questions geared at understanding preliminary expectations, remaining surveys were identical in form and content. A set of five-point (1–5) ascending Likert-scale items, ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree, followed the survey questions. Respondents were asked about the program and their learning process as a language learner. Survey data was collected at five strategic points: prior to the introductory meeting with children; prior to the first session; after the first session; after the second session; and after the final performance. Each survey was divided into three sections, 1) language; 2) culture; and 3) personal. Two questions in the language section targeted comfort level in contexts where oral and listening skills were practiced. Question B asked learners to specifically rate their comfort level while using their oral skills with the children and question D asked them to rate their comfort level while listening to children's speech.

Qualitative data sources were analyzed in multiple phases. In the first phase, we conducted an initial "open coding" of two of the written narratives. We each read the narratives and coded using a line-by-line method that was grounded in the data sources rather than having a preset list of codes. After this, we conducted a detailed code comparison, discussing 1) codes we agreed upon and 2) codes that differed. Together, we raised questions about the analytical process, and examined multiple perspectives. Then, we independently coded a third narrative to establish an inter-coder agreement of 91%. Moreover, each researcher wrote analytical memos throughout [End Page 364] the process. These memos provided interpretive data points that were discussed during our data meetings.

In the second phase of analysis, we moved from over one hundred accumulated codes to clusters of similar codes and the development of fifteen larger categories. This focused coding placed codes into categories. Then we identified significant patterns and repeated evidence of predominant themes. The results section in this article focuses on two of the four themes.

5. Results

5.1 Qualitative Findings

Theme 1: Gains in comfort level during oral and listening interactions with native speakers

Data from written narratives suggests that both language and literature students felt that having the opportunity to interact with native Spanish-speaking children helped them gain confidence, not only in applying their content knowledge, but also in practicing and developing speaking and listening skills in Spanish. On the one hand, participants used words such as divertido, satisfactorio, and útil to describe interactions with children. On the other hand, most students labeled the interactions with children and family members as difíciles, auténticas, and reales. Nearly all students acknowledged that manipulation of the language to make it accessible for children was necessary to accomplish the project's goal. The children had little to no formal education in their L1 and college students had also written scripts using language that was too sophisticated for the age group. Learning how to make their writing more accessible was beneficial for college students as it developed their writing skills. Additionally, college students learned quickly that practicing the script for the play was more about "memorizing lines" than learning the content or improvising. They noted that getting children to memorize the lines entailed constant repetition, which benefitted both students and children alike in developing verbal skills in Spanish. Code A stands for Conversation and Composition class and code B stands for Theater of the Avant-Garde class.

Estoy aprendiendo español como los niños. No es fácil. Ahora tengo la experiencia de aprendiendo una lengua nueva en común con ellos. [sic]

(Student B6)

This student acknowledges his/her ability to connect with children using the L2 as a personal strength. In the second quote, the student recognizes the simultaneity in language learning experiences for both the children and the college students. Below, we see how two students gain insights about the language learning process, particularly oral and listening interactions within the act of reading the script, practicing the lines, and dramatizing a play for a real audience.

La actividad de las obritas ayudaron a practicar leyendo y hablando en español a los niños y a los estudiantes. [sic]

(Student A2)

Podemos hablar en español con ellos y tratar de conversar en vez de enseñar palabras básicas.

(Student A4)

Several students in the Conversation and Composition course noted in their narratives that their script's content was dense and hard to teach to young children. Such challenges forced students to be creative and adaptable when working with children, a situation that is impossible to recreate in the classroom.

Me gustaría cambiar la dificultad de la obra. Memorizar la obra fue mucho trabajo.

(Student A1)

El tema es duro para enseñar. Yo añadiría más sesiones y cambiaría el tema. [sic]

(Student A3) [End Page 365]

As language educators, we agree that the dense historical-cultural content and the language used for the plays was a challenge to both college students and children. However, it pushed our students out of their comfort zone in ways that are hard to recreate in the university classroom. Language students were forced to articulate questions on the material and literature students needed to find strategies to make it clear for their counterparts. Learning to improvise in an L2 can create a productive tension invaluable to the L2 learning process. Considering our geographical location, we can confirm that the authentic context in which college students worked is the closest immersion environment they could experience without leaving the country.

Theme 2: Future career plans geared toward Spanish-speaking population

Students commented on the different ways in which RPPR geared their professional plans towards contexts in which they could use their Spanish language and cultural skills. Many expressed a newfound desire to contribute positively to Latino populations in their community. In the student quote below, we see how the student appreciated the CE process because it afforded him/her the opportunity to work with children in a way that improves L2 learning. Since this student developed an interest in working in an international school setting, we could claim that RPPR was fruitful in shaping personal and career goals.

Todavía me gusta trabajar con niños y me gustaría usar mi español con niños en el futuro. Este proyecto . . . Me dio la oportunidad de trabajar con niños y el uso de otro idioma para hacerlo . . . Me gustaría trabajar en una escuela internacional. [sic]

(Student A1)

In a second quote, the student noted that he/she feels a deeper sense of belonging to the Latino community. Moreover, the student shares his/her will to use the L2 when working with children with psychological needs.

Soy más parte de la comunidad. Ahora soy un ejemplo para esta comunidad. Quiero usar español para ayudar niños en futuro con problemas psicológicos. [sic]

(Student A2)

Another student felt that this project contributed to a more "complete" sense of self. He/she noted having increased tolerance for children, to the point that he/she would not mind if his/ her future involved working with children. Additionally, the student is now motivated to make a difference in his/her community since he/she will be working with Spanish speaking children in a bilingual immersion school over the summer. This student expressed a strong desire to maintain his/her Spanish language skills as he/she continues to prepare for a future profession.

Ahora, déspues del projecto, yo pienso que yo soy un persona más completo. Yo tengo más tolerancia para los niños y no voy a estar molestaba si yo necesito trabajar con los niños en el futuro. También, tengo motivación hacer una diferencia en mi comunidad. Este verano yo quiero trabajar los niños y ayudarlos con su habilidades de español en una escuela de inmersión de mi pueblo. Yo nunca quiero perder mis habilidades de español y yo sé que necesito siempre practicar. Ahora, español es más importante en mi vida. [sic]

(Student A3)

Finally, in the last two quotes, students from both courses highlight the significance of being bilingual for their future endeavors. Both students noted how engaging with local children as part of this community-engaged project was crucial, not only to increase their oral fluency in Spanish, but also to instill a motivation to work with immigrant children and providing hands-on experience that can set them apart in the future job search process.

Saber dos idiomas es algo sin precio que será muy beneficioso en el futuro. Estoy tratando de aprender lo más posible sobre español para poder hablarlo con fluidez. Esta experiencia me influyó para solicitar un trabajo en una escuela de inmersión para niños. [sic]

(Student A4) [End Page 366]

Este projecto me animó más a querer trabajar con las poblaciones inmigrantes con culturas diferentes que suelen ser marginados en nuestra sociedad. [sic]

(Student B1)

Qualitative analysis of these responses established that RPPR had positively impacted college students' future career aspirations, engaging them with Spanish-speaking communities, especially with young community members. Students' comments underscored the influential ways in which community-engaged pedagogy can promote inclusion and diversity in a globalized world.

5.2 Quantitative Results

Survey data reveal that students' comfort level for both linguistic skills, speaking and listening, increased gradually as the project progressed. Table 1 presents the mean score for the two survey questions targeting students' comfort level while using their Spanish oral skills first and Spanish listening skills second.

Table 1. Mean scores for questions B and D in survey's language section
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Table 1.

Mean scores for questions B and D in survey's language section

Students' comfort level when speaking to Spanish-speaking children increased notably throughout the duration of the community-engaged program. The level of comfort while listening and trying to understand children also increased but not as noticeably as when students used their speaking skills.

6. Discussion of Integrated Mixed Methods Findings

End of the semester reflective essays in this study revealed some of the same positive language learning findings presented in prior studies about CE and language learning, such as Barreneche (2001), Caldwell (2007), Carney (2013), Moreno-López et al. (2017), Petrov (2013). Student reflections revealed 1) perceived continuous improvement of speaking and listening skills, paralleling research on other immersion programs, such as Segalowitz et al. (2004); and, 2) change in future career plans that included the Spanish-speaking community.

6.1 Comfort Level with Speaking and Listening Skills

In order to expose children and college students to as much Spanish as possible, both faculty and community partners encouraged them to use Spanish as the main communication tool during the sessions. Results in this study confirm that there is a correlation between the community-engaged experience and a self-perceived comfort level increase for L2 learners. Written comments about verbal exchanges with children and families are consistent with results obtained from the surveys. Given that interacting with children and families was an implied requirement for a successful play, students realized that using their verbal and listening abilities was the best way to accomplish the task. Several students highlighted the pressure surrounding the final performance as a positive factor that helped increase the number and length of L2 verbal exchanges. Moreover, in these interactions, the children's ability to naturally code-switch [End Page 367] made an impression on students. Some L2 learners expressed concerns about children's habit of code-switching between English and Spanish. But, overall, college students valued the effortless way in which children code-switched languages. Data suggests that RPPR supported the development of students' Spanish speaking and listening abilities. Additionally, the qualitative findings suggest that face-to-face relevant interactions with native speakers, children and families, helped students gain confidence, use conversational skills, and realize that they were able to understand and produce more language than they initially thought possible.

Quantitative findings obtained from surveys regarding comfort level while speaking and listening to L2 native-speakers also depict a positive outcome. Table 1 shows the gradual progression from a less comfortable mindset towards a more comfortable one. Students increasingly felt more at ease when they engaged in verbal interactions with children as the project evolved. Specifically, the comfort level during oral exchanges increased 28% (1.4 points out of 5) while listening skills recorded an increase of 10% (0.5 points out of 5). Although the listening skills comfort level improved, it did not increase as much as students' comfort level in speaking skills. The control students have when they are speakers instead of listeners could explain the discrepancy when comparing speaking versus listening. When students produce the language, they are in full control of their verbal statements, however the control decreases when they become receptive listeners concentrating on understanding the speaker's message. When activating L2 listening skills, several external conditions come into play, ranging from the speaker's language variety, intonation, speed, jargon, and register, to contextual background noise. Children came from different regions in Mexico and some from Central America and the Caribbean, offering a wide range of accents and intonations and incorporating a broad range of regionalisms. Considering that prior to this experience, students had not engaged with different language varieties, their oral interactions were mostly effective and productive. The richness in the assortment of language varieties offered by the children was highly valued by professors. Yet the regional variations might have challenged students' ability to understand messages from children, simultaneously affecting their comfort level.

Inherent anxiety commonly found in interactions with native speakers decreased throughout the project. Data about comfort level while speaking and listening during the RPPR sessions proves that community-engaged experiences with young L2 native speakers assists students in decreasing nervousness and feelings of inadequacy during conversations. Decreasing the level of nervousness will hopefully translate into a higher number of oral exchanges with L2 natives. As learners practice speaking and listening, their proficiency level increases. In 1982, Krashen hypothesized that less anxiety contributed positively to the "affective filter," which made the learner more interested and responsive to language input. Similarly, Horwitz et al. (1986) hypothesized that performance difficulty in a foreign language may be due to the individual anxiety, which suggests that low anxiety levels could be linked to relaxed language performance and more motivation to actively perform in the L2 (28). The role of motivation to use the foreign language has been long acknowledged by foreign language instructors as a determinant to improve language skills. For instance, Falce-Robinson and Strother (2012) stated that "motivation is a factor that many researchers, language instructors, and learners have addressed and attempted to correlate to linguistic gains and achievement" (74). Additionally, Richards and Schmidt's (2002) maintain that "[m]otivation is generally considered to be one of the primary causes of success and failure in L2" (34). And finally, as Dörnyei (1998) emphasizes, "[m]ost teachers and researchers would agree that motivation has a very important role in determining success or failure in any learning situation" (117).

According to data in our student narratives, the plays spearheaded students' both integrative and instrumental motivation to interact with children and families in order to successfully accomplish the task. Data confirms that RPPR decreased student levels of stress and anxiety while motivating students to explore venues to practice language skills. Following Masgoret and Gardner's (2003) [End Page 368] statement "motivation is responsible for achievement in L2" (170), we could state that RPPR is responsible for kindling motivation and lessening anxiety to achieve meaningful and authentic conversational exchanges.

6.2 Future Career Plans

Despite challenges, such as disciplinary issues with children, time consuming assignments, and play content complexity, most students positively indicated their appreciation for the Latino community and their intent to engage with its members in the future. Many students expressed a strong willingness to continue participating in community-engaged projects. They also asserted that after participating in RPPR they planned to stay connected to the Spanish-speaking families. The inclination to expand their engagement with the Spanish-speaking community might be directly connected to the self-perceived improvement when interacting with Spanish native speakers. We thus find that students' growing awareness about an otherwise "invisible" population is a significant outcome of RPPR. Additionally, the fact that students reported a willingness to work with the Spanish-speaking community in future endeavors speaks to the potential impact that goes beyond the "one-time" CE course experience. Future longitudinal research is needed to further explore this finding. Finally, we find that CE offers an added benefit as a successful means of including the often-elusive fifth C (Communities) in the ACTFL National Standards in Foreign Language Education. As Hellebrandt and Jorge (2013) point out, the C for Communities is almost universally agreed upon as the most difficult to address. Its first objective (5.1) states that "students should use language both within and beyond the school setting," and the second says that "they should show evidence of becoming life-long learners by using the language for personal enjoyment an enrichment" (204). RPPR student narratives demonstrate that the project provided them the opportunity to use their L2 for longer than an academic semester beyond the school setting.

7. Limitations

The primary limitation of this study is related to the overall logistics of the program. Combining students from two classes that met at two separate times, and requiring students to work with children at a different time slot was definitely challenging. In order to allow enough time for the commute to the elementary school during teaching session days, several students were asked to leave their previous class 15 minutes early and/or be 15 minutes late for their following class. The traveling element limited some students' time with the children, resulting in shorter interactions and less preparation for the plays. RPPR continues to this day and we have made adjustments. We accommodated our course schedules so that class time and program sessions with the children are at the same time. Additionally, to avoid traffic and reduce travel time, our Dean's Office purchased train tickets for the students. Furthermore, professors in other departments teaching classes affected by RPPR scheduling were formally notified.

Given that findings reported here are from the first-year pilot project, the participant sample size is small and generalizing results is not possible. However, the goal for this first year was not to make generalizations, but to gain an initial understanding of student learning experiences. Following this year, the project has continued and expanded. Due to circumstances unrelated to RPPR, we were not able to combine a literature and a language course in subsequent editions. Subsequent editions focused on health awareness and illness prevention. However, the basic structure of the project has remained the same. It continues to be a collaborative effort between professors in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures and the community. In order to increase project benefits, we increased the time students spent with children from three to four weeks during the second and third RPPR editions. Increasing the length of the project [End Page 369] provides participants with a more realistic amount of time to prepare higher quality scripts for their plays. Each year the project gains participants, both college students and children. As a result, despite its limitations, RPPR has rendered positive results, proving the benefits of employing community-engaged pedagogy in language learning. Program goals, including bridging linguistics and literary studies and increasing enrollment, were successfully achieved. Moreover, RPPR has received several awards since its inception, including the 2016 ACTFL Globally-Engaged Program Award.

8. Closing Thoughts

In closing, we return to the partnership between linguistics and literary studies as a way to build bridges across university departments of languages and literatures and Spanish-speaking communities. Our study demonstrates that CE successfully connected literature and language curricula while offering students the opportunity to develop a broader understanding of their community that, as Boyer (1987) would have it, extends beyond their personal interests. Such engagement efforts yielded numerous benefits ranging from linguistic gains to changes in how students perceive their future career plans. Students discovered, engaged, and dedicated themselves to a community that supported their Spanish proficiency development. Our first edition's success incentivized following editions (2016, 2017, and 2018), allowing us to build a long-term relationship with the children and their families. This now well-established relationship has enabled us to collect qualitative data from children through controlled interviews that will be published in the upcoming years. Creating a community-engaged program that reconciles two different but related fields of studies with civic objectives while emphasizing language immersion is a time and labor-intensive task. Yet, it can be cognitively and personally rewarding for students, faculty, and community members. We therefore invite you to take on the challenge of building disciplinary bridges and developing civic pathways for language students, within and across spaces, through community-engaged experiences. [End Page 370]

Lucía Osa-Melero
Duquesne University
Vanessa Fernández
San José State University
Sandra Quiñones
Duquesne University


We are extremely grateful to the students, children, families, and community members for their invaluable commitment to Reading to Play Playing to Read. We would also like to thank the Wimmer Family Foundation, the Duquesne McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts, and the Duquesne Center for Community-engaged Teaching and Research for their continuous support throughout the many stages of this project.


1. A 2016 report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences points to college students' ability to "attain advanced levels of proficiency in a foreign language by the time they graduate . . . by enrolling in standards based language courses."

2. Although several authors use the terms "service learning" and "community engagement" interchangeably, we acknowledge that they have slightly different connotations. Community engagement involves reciprocity as a foundational principle.

3. For sample scripts and complete student survey, please contact authors.

4. Throughout the article we use the terms Latino and Hispanic to be consistent with the lexicon used by our community partner Casa San José. However, we are aware that the term Latinx is more racial and gender inclusive.


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