March 1996 — Volume 2, Number 1
Towards an ESOL Literature
Dept. of Educational Theory and Practice
The Ohio State University
Dept. of English
Hostos Community College, City University of New York
This article explores the contradiction between communicative theory and practice in beginning and intermediate ESOL materials and compares this situation with that prevailing in early L1 literacy instruction. The basal textbooks that dominate much early-stage ESOL instruction are constructed to train students in specific language features and functions rather than communicate directly with them. Many first language elementary school teachers, on the other hand, primarily use children’s literature in reading instruction. Children’s literature consists of authentic texts designed to give children pleasure rather than teach them specific skills. These books, unlike ESOL basals, thus lend themselves to the learning-by-doing approach favored by emergent theories in both literacy and language learning. We propose that ESOL teachers create and use materials that are primarily designed to appeal to adult and adolescent ESOL students, much as children’s literature does for children. This new ESOL literature will be particularly helpful to ESOL students who are less well-versed in academic literacy.
Materials, Methods, and Theory
The ESOL publishing field constitutes a large and growing industry, consisting of over a dozen publishing houses, producing a great volume of new materials each year. These materials function as a source for language input and serve to stimulate and provide context for linguistic interactions. Over the years there has been an increase in the publication of ESOL materials described as “communicative,” thus claiming an affiliation with a pedagogical approach that emphasizes a particular orientation to language teaching. This approach is defined by Brown (1987) as having the following characteristics:[-1-]
- Classroom goals are focused on all of the components of communicative competence and not restricted to grammatical or linguistic competence.
- Form is not the primary framework for organizing and sequencing lessons. Function is the framework through which forms are taught.
- Accuracy is secondary to conveying a message. Fluency may take on more importance than accuracy. The ultimate criterion for communicative success is the actual transmission and receiving of intended meaning.
- In the communicative classroom, students have to use the language, productively and receptively, in unrehearsed contexts. (p. 213)
Brumfit (1984) adds to this list the need to have activities in the second language classroom that lead to developing language interactions as close as possible to those used by native speakers. Behind these specific points is a unifying concept that language is best learned predominantly through actual use. Training and/or direct instruction, if used at all, should be embedded in a overall communicative context.
Nevertheless, just as it is easier for teachers to follow a theory in their rhetoric and ignore it in their practice, so it is possible for materials writers and publishers to do the same. Therefore, it is an open question to what extent the materials designed for use in ‘communicative classrooms’ actually fit that approach. In fact, until fairly recently, it never occurred to us that ESOL materials could have as great a role in linguistic interaction as the activities we did in class and the authentic texts we found on our own. During our early teaching experiences in Europe with upper middle class students, we found these materials, while not always inspiring, at least adequate for our purposes. They offered texts that were understandable for our students and provided prompts for any number of activities including role-plays, pairwork, writing, and other expansions. However, after finding employment teaching working-class urban immigrants in the US, it immediately became apparent to us that these same materials were woefully inadequate for most of our new students. Many of these ESL learners seemed much more competent in English outside class than our previous EFL populations. Yet they often appeared unwilling or unable to even get past the instructions we relayed to them in the use of materials. While authentic texts extracted largely from periodicals appeared to function–though often with difficulty–for advanced levels, materials designed for earlier levels frequently just did not work. For these students, it was as if textbook and learner just passed one another by.[-2-]
In this article, we attempt to explicate the conclusions we have come to after pondering these issues over a number of years of teaching, research, and discussions with colleagues. First, we evaluate two representative texts of the type found in earlier ESOL basals and find them wanting, particularly in their communicative potential. Second, we suggest that the lack of realistic communication that characterizes these texts poses particular difficulties for students with little exposure to academic literacy. Finally, we propose the development of a truly communicative ESOL literature designed to reach all adult and adolescent ESOL students at the beginning and intermediate levels. This proposal finds its inspiration in the type of materials frequently used in emergent approaches in L1 elementary literacy instruction .
How Communicative are ESL Basal Textbooks?
According to the principles of communicative teaching, language used in instruction should be laden with meaning accessible to learners and in some way important to them (Brown, 1987; Larsen-Freeman, 1986; Oller & Richard-Amato, 1983; Krashen, 1982; Johnson & Morrow, 1981; and Widdowson, 1978 among others). It must actually communicate with learners, or be what Rigg (1991) calls meaning-centered, rather than focused on linguistic forms and mechanisms, or as we call it, form-centered. Yet the primacy of meaning has, we would argue, been only superficially incorporated into many recent earlier-level ESOL basal textbooks. We will use as illustrations two texts extracted from recent books. One consists of a dialogue and related exercises used as a listening practice in a recent high-beginning textbook designed for students with high levels of L1 literacy; the other has as its nucleus a reading passage from mid-beginning book targeted for students without much native-language literacy. It is evident that these texts cannot serve as wholly adequate representatives of entire genres. However, space considerations impel us not to repeat the extensive analysis made here with more examples. We are sure, in any event, that readers will recognize certain features these texts as rather typical of their ilk. Thus, if the analyses we make are at all compelling, they should serve as case studies and be readily extendable to other similar texts. In our own observations the better texts contain, of course, fewer of the infelicities we point out, but it is hard to find any text in a basal that contains none.
“Who’s coming to dinner”: an Information Processing Puzzle
The first text is the listening comprehension:
"EXERCISE 8: Who's coming to Dinner"[-3-] Judy: Martha can come to dinner on Friday night. She doesn't know anyone in Smithville besides us. I really want to introduce her to someone who can be her friend. Let's invite someone who she'll like.
George: What about Susanna? I like Susanna.
Judy: Susanna? I don't think so. They don't have anything in common. Martha likes playing sports, but Susanna doesn't. And you know how Susanna hates eating in restaurants. Martha is always going to restaurants.
George: You're right. Well what about Junko then? She likes eating in restaurants, too.
Judy: Yes, but I don't think Martha will like her either. Junko hates playing sports, and Martha loves talking about tennis and baseball. She plays sports every weekend.
George: Well then, maybe we can invite Fred. He likes playing sports, too. You know how Fred loves football.
Judy: He also loves having parties. You know Martha doesn't really like parties.
George: Martha likes dancing and going to clubs, doesn't she?
Judy: Yes, I think she does.
George: Well, so does Fred.
Judy: But Junko does, too.
George: Yes, but Junko doesn't like sports.
Judy: So, what do you think? Who do we invite? (Lavie, Brigg, Raht, & Denman, 1991, p. 2A)
One way in which this dialogue typifies the genre is that it presents a surprisingly complex pattern of information exchange between authors and listeners hidden below a superficial simplicity. For example, it is illustrative to compare this dialogue with one not written with primarily pedagogical aims-such as in the theatre. In those cases, the author transparently attempts to engage the audience with facts, characters, events, ideas, and so on. By contrast, in “Who’s coming to dinner?” the point of the dialogue is hard to see. Little of interest takes place, and the characters are [-2-] generic and ephemeral, disappearing without further ado into textual oblivion upon the end of the dialogue. This lack of attention to normal narrative concerns is also evident in the construction of the plot. The opening seems to be oddly in media res because the upcoming dinner with Martha is treated as old information. In the usual instances of use of that dramatic device, there is a mystery as to what came before, but in this dialogue the matter is simply dropped. Instead, in the first line, Judy announces the new information that will be the focus of attention throughout the dialogue: There is a need to invite someone who can be a potential new friend to Martha, who for unexplained reasons, finds herself alone in their town. Yet it is not even clear what she and her interlocutor, George, mean by ‘friend.’ As the conversation unravels, it seems that they are looking for one particular person with “things in common” with Martha. That fact would make a knowledgeable listener suspect that the couple was engaged in matchmaking, but it soon becomes clear that this interpretation is just taking the listener down the garden path. There is no further mention of romantic possibilities or any of the many other personal characteristics that might be significant in such a situation apart from common interests. The definitive counterindication to a matchmaking script is, however, the mention of one male and two females as potential candidates; bisexuality is hardly an expected feature of characters in language textbooks. Yet the narrative still begs the question as to why, if Judy and George were simply interested in widening their friend’s social circle, they are so obsessed with finding a single ideal candidate. That mystery remains unresolved–and unremarked upon–when the dialogue ends even more abruptly than it began.
Of course, those familiar with such dialogues know that this narrative muddle need not lead to failure in handling such a text for a student well versed in academics. Listening in any sort of interpretive manner is besides the point because what is of interest here is not lonely Martha’s future social life–which in any case we’ll never see–but the language used by the protagonists to express that theme. Students are really only being asked to process isolated pieces of language.
Yet even at the linguistic level the text is hardly straightforward in its intent. The pedagogical aim clearly involves the expression of preferences using three basic-level verbs of affect, like, hate, and love. Nevertheless, the dialogue does not specify what listeners are supposed to do with the ideas these words represent or with the words themselves. As is typically the case with pedagogical texts such as this one, the purpose only becomes clear once the tasks associated with the dialogues are included. [-5-]
EXERCISE 8: Who’s Coming to Dinner
Listen to the descriptions of the people. Fill in the information you hear in the table. Write a plus sign (+) for like/love and a minus sign (-) for don’t like/hate. Which friend do you think Martha will like?
going to /having parties/ going to /playing sports restaurants clubs
Martha _______________/_____________/___________/____________ Susanna _______________/_____________/___________/____________ Junko _______________/_____________/___________/____________ Fred _______________/_____________/___________/____________
Unfortunately, these tasks continue the tension in the dialogue between a surface-level communicative framework and an underlying linguistically oriented aim. On the one hand, the instructions initially provide a form-centered comprehension check involving recycling surface-level information related to the verbs of affect. That function is realized through a highly abstract game-like format in which preferences are encoded in plusses and minuses placed in a grid. On the other hand, after solving that form-centered puzzle, students are abruptly pulled in a communicative direction. They are asked to give their freely considered opinions about the most appropriate match as if there were a real plot and realistic characters in the story after all. This would appear to be an interesting activity that might foster much student to student interaction. However, by this time students’ reactions are likely to be mediated through the filter of their responses to the first part of the task, i.e., the information encoded in the plusses and minuses in the grid they have before them. Furthermore, they cannot know the four characters involved other than as exponents of the likes and dislikes mentioned, and so the closer the discussion remains to these one-dimensional characters, the more superficial and uninteresting it is likely to be.
“Ramona and her family:” a teacher-directed language dance
Our second case,”Ramona and her family,” presents a number of the same issues as “Who’s coming for dinner?” in addition to some significant differences. For example, in terms of its macrostructure, this text, like “Who’s coming to dinner,” is divided into distinct sections; however, in this case, there [-6-]
are three rather than two. The first follows the question, “What can you say about Ramona and her family?” and it consists of a time line listing seminal events in Ramona’s life together with dates from left to right. It is unfortunately irreproducible in this format, although the information is repeated verbally in a passage composing the second section:
2. Read about Ramona and her family.
I was born on September 1, 1950, in Guatemala City, Guatemala. I lived there with my grandfather, parents, three sisters, and four brothers. I went to school for five years. My grandfather died in 1960. I got married on June 16, 1968. I had my first child in 1970, my second child in 1972, and my third child in 1974. We came to the United States ten years ago. I got my first job in 1983, and I worked there for six years. I got my next job in 1990. Last year I enrolled in the Westside Community Adult School. Now I'm in the ESL 2 class (Brod & Frankel, 1992, p. 42).
As in “Who’s coming to dinner,” this passage betrays an awkward tension between communicative and form-centered purposes. On the one hand, Ramona is generic and ephemeral–and consequently as lacking as the characters in “Who’s coming to dinner” in qualities that might engage the reader. On the other hand, the details of her life–birth in Central America, limited schooling, teenage marriage, etc.–all appear designed to provoke recognition in potential students, if not cause them to identify with Ramona. Whatever engagement results from the demographic similarity between reader and character is likely to be short lived, nevertheless, because the overall structure militates against interaction. People do not generally read or write out lists of personal data without comment in paragraph form, and for good reason. After all, any one of these events in the life of a real or fictional Ramona could serve as a springboard to information that is far more interesting than the next or previous item on the list. For example, looking at only at her marriage, a myriad of possibilities suggest themselves: an elopement, love-at-first-sight, family pressures to marry or just to leave home, all manner of jealousies, disillusionment, suspense, rapture, and so on. Maybe her husband was attractive, smart, and warmhearted; or maybe he was a philandering drunk who abused her. Yet readers will never know; “Ramona and her family” does not even give the man’s name before announcing the birth of her equally ghostly first child.
Even more anomalous is that most of this list of information is given twice, and this redundancy makes it hard [-7-] to understand even the intended pedagogical aims. It is only upon reading the instructor’s manual that it becomes clear that the time-line is intended as a prereading activity, rather than, say, as a source for practice with graphics. The need for recourse to the manual is a result of the fact that the time line is poorly suited to its intended function. Having most of the information–instead of just enough to activate relevant schemata–contained in a prereading activity is counterproductive because it makes the reading process itself pointless. As a final oddity, the diagrammatic format of the time-line is actually a more efficient display for the temporally connected facts than the verbal recounting in the passage. It should by rights be, then, the primary information source.
The structure of the teachers’ notes makes us hypothesize as to why the authors created such an infelicitous text structure. These guidelines contain “step by step” (as the authors put it) instructions for each stage of the students’ interaction with the text. During the timeline phase these instructions emphasize eliciting information, writing it on the blackboard, and having students repeat it. During the passage phase, students are to read along as they listen to a tape or a teacher reading the passage, followed by choral repetitions. The use of the expression “step by step” seems unintentionally apt: The instructions resemble nothing so much as a choreograph; the teacher and students are placed into well-defined roles in what can only be described as a dance of linguistic stimuli and responses. The teacher, like the leader at a square dance, calls out different moves. The students respond, sometimes in unison, sometimes with partners, sometimes in solo, repeating or transforming the language presented to them in a tightly organized pattern of linguistic movements. The experience is utterly unlike the reading process for factual or fictional texts, as described for example in Langer (1990b).
The third part consists of comprehension questions. At first glance this section appears to be a simpler version of the type of activity found in the exercise in “Who’s coming to dinner” since it calls for the recycling of surface-level information in straightforward question/answer format:
3. Answer the questions on a separate piece of paper.
a. When was Ramona born? ____Ramona was born on September 1, 1950____ b. How long did she go to school in Guatemala? c. When did Ramona's grandfather die? d. When did she get married? e. When did she have her children?[-8-]
f. How long did she work in her first job? g. When did she enroll in the adult school? h. How old is Ramona?
However, the instructions make clear that the authors intended a more complex lesson structure in which the dance continues and actually develops new more elaborate forms:
1. Write the question "When was Ramona born?" on the board or OHP. Elicit the answer "Ramona was born on September 1, 1950" and write it next to the question.
2. Have students work in pairs to answer the questions.
3. Write the questions on the board as volunteers read them. Have volunteers write the answers on the board next to each question. Have the class correct the sentences on the board if necessary. Have students check their work.
A closer analysis reveals, however, that these instructions entail an intricate set of movements consisting of eight, not three, separate steps:
- T writes question “a.” on the chalkboard,
- T elicits the answer from the students,
- T writes the answer next to the question,
- Ss answer questions “b.” through “h.” in pairs,
- Ss write these questions on the blackboard,
- Ss write answers on the blackboard,
- Ss correct these answers,
- Ss check their own work.
Taken as a whole, information that is of interest to no one is found in different places over and over again and is transferred, at teacher command, into different formats. It is put on the board and then erased, information is repeated chorally, in pairs, and put back on the board, and so on. The problem is, then, not just that the passage is dull and uninspiring and that the questions are superficial. It is, instead, that the text entails, from the point of view of the student, a bizarre, unintuitive, and hopelessly complex encounter with foreign words. Is it any wonder that, after experiences such as this, students with limited experience with written language respond awkwardly in class and skeptically to our suggestions that reading English can be both fun and useful?[-9-]
Evaluation: the Autonomous and Pragmatic Models of Literacy
Without denying that we find much to object to in these two texts, it is important to emphasize that our analyses are by no means attempts to single out these authors for criticism. The tension between meaning and form that permeates “Who’s coming to dinner?” and the parody of the reading process found in “Ramona and her family” are manifestations of a more general contradiction that faces any author who attempts to put together a communicative basal. It involves the simultaneous adoption of two irreconcilable understandings of text, what Hill and Parry (1988, 1992) call the “autonomous” and “pragmatic” models of literacy. The notion of “autonomous model” (adopted from Street, 1985) is characterized by a view of text, particularly written text, as a self-sufficient bearer of meaning, which is to be found statically encoded therein. Pedagogically, it assumes the reader’s and listener’s task is to dig out the information embedded in a text, and that appears to be, indeed, the task assigned to learners in the exercises shown here. There is no room for individual response, interpretation, negotiation of meaning, or any of the myriad ways in which humans interact with text. The pragmatic model assumes, on the other hand, that meaning is not contained in the text but is created dynamically as individuals interact with text and context. Clearly, the feeble contextualization and the open-ended question in “Who’s coming to dinner?” as well as the use of a character such as Ramona, who demographically resembles the target audience, are efforts to create communication. However, as this text analysis shows, these attempts are just too little too late.
Pedagogical Intent of Materials and the Difficulties of Immigrant Students
The relatively recent arrival of characters such as Ramona is clearly an attempt to adapt the basal format to third-world immigrants without much educational background. Yet the problems these students have with ESL textbooks may be considerably more profound than the lack of identification with characters and scenes. Research on native-language literacy instruction suggests that the actual organization of discourse typically found in these textbooks may be inherently more problematic for these students than for their more educationally experienced counterparts.
Cazden (1988) and Heath (1982, 1983) have pointed out how traditional American classrooms tend to be characterized by patterns of discourse that are different from those of everyday life. Cazden, for example, describes the most common of these [-10-] patterns as Initiation-Response-Evaluation (IRE), and shows how it contrasts to canonical conversational patterns:
Conversation Classroom Talk
What time is it Sarah? What time is it Sarah? Half-past two Half-past two Thanks Right (Cazden, 1988, p. 30)
If we follow Halliday & Hasan’s (1985/1989) argument that conversation provides the basic pattern of language use, this type of discourse must be recognized as a special case at best. What is significant in these findings is that similar patterns can be found in the texts examined above. For example, the tasks associated with “Who’s coming to dinner?” and “Ramona and her family,” resemble “classroom talk,” in that the questioner is in the position of already have the information being requested. The real information of interest in all these cases is whether the answerer is capable of answering this sort of question, but nowhere in the text is this function stated. For those of us immersed in educational discourse, this observation may seem to be begging the obvious, but there is no reason to believe that it is evident to students who do not know the ways of school.
The opacity of traditional classroom discourse structures is not the only potential pitfall for students unprepared to confront them. A traditional class is typically divided into discrete chunks of discourse that are often unrelated thematically to each other, a pattern Cazden, following earlier work by Bud Mehan, calls “Topically-Related Sets.” This arbitrary division of time and discourse by instructional goal is also present in the sorts of texts–reading or listening segments followed by practices found in many, if not most, ESOL basals. For example, at one point students may be listening to comparisons between restaurants; then one minute later they are directed to discuss whether they prefer cities or countries, and ten seconds later to whether they like cars or motorcycles. Each shift does not occur as it would in conversation as a topic runs out of steam or a new one presents itself but by teacher directive. Thus, the typical pattern in a classroom that relies heavily on basals consists of the teacher orchestrating discrete activities involving different functions or structures. Each topically-related set is unconnected with the ones around it and is even internally cohesive only in a linguistic, not informational way.
The issue of potential cultural bias comes about in this way. Heath (1982, 1983) reveals how middle-class American preschoolers are systematically prepared for the I-R-E pattern [-11-] and sudden arbitrary topic shifts by their parents. In these families, parents–anticipating their children’s future teachers–repeatedly ask them questions to which the parent already knows the answer, about, for instance, images in books and objects in the environment. They also tend to organize time into discrete non-thematically related chunks, each used for a specific purpose. Thus, these children are already acculturated to classroom discourse structures before they start school. On the other hand, students who are not exposed to these patterns–generally members of lower socioeconomic groups–easily become confused; they cannot predict what will come next, and do not see the point in what the teacher is doing (see also Labov, 1982; McDermott, 1977).
It is certainly plausible that “mainstream” communities in many other nations, particularly in Europe, also tend to prepare their children in similar ways, while those who do not come from that tradition do not usually do so (see Parry, 1993, for an account of culturally-constructed reading patterns). If these suspicions are borne out, this type of textbook format could be seen as contributing to the already considerable learning disadvantages faced by those large groups of ESL students with low levels of academic literacy. The relative success of middle-class students would be, on this view, simply another phase of their comfort with and ability to adapt school based textual forms to their own purposes. Their success would be analogous to that of many American “mainstream” children’s experience in learning to read (and to take reading tests) whatever the instructional philosophy employed by the teacher.
In pointing out these facts about classroom discourse, it is not our intent to enter a theoretical debate over which discourse patterns qualify as “natural communication” or to argue for elimination of IRE or any other pedagogical discourse structures. We merely want to emphasize that attention needs to be drawn to those discourse structures that may not be familiar large groups of students. It is all too easy for teachers and material writers to assume that the patterns they are familiar with are universal.
The possibilities of developing a literature for ESOL students
Our third issue concerns what can be done to make more meaning-centered texts for beginning and intermediate levels of ESOL. However, before exploring this question, it is worth asking why so many current beginning and intermediate ESOL textbooks are form centered. The authors and publishers may subscribe to communicative philosophy, but they seem incapable of producing meaning-centered texts. One assumption may be that any books produced for the consumption of readers with limited English proficiency have to be artificial and stilted [-12-] for the language to be simple enough to be comprehensible. From that perspective, the expectations regarding quality at beginning and intermediate levels will not be very high; indeed Terdal (1993) automatically denies the status of ‘authentic’ to any materials written for ESOL purposes.
Nevertheless, other forms of language education for learners with limited proficiency have not been so pessimistic. Whole-language approaches used in literacy education emphasize the importance of using texts that communicate directly with new readers (Goodman, 1986, 1987, 1989; Grundin, 1994). Even some educators who object to aspects of the whole-language philosophy (e.g., Gaskins, 1994) have recognized the pedagogical value of “literature-based approaches to reading instruction” in Harris’s (1993) terminology. Since children’s literature has developed into the centerpiece of so much first-language literacy instruction (Trabasso, 1994; Langer, 1990a; Huck, 1977, 1992; Meek, 1982), what is to prevent an analogous form of literature from being developed for ESOL students? Why can’t we write materials for our students that give them meaningful content and pleasure?
In our discussions and presentations we have found, however, that our comparison with children’s literature is frequently misunderstood. In particular, some colleagues have expressed alarm at the idea because they feel that using children’s literature as a model for writing directed at ESOL students would lead to a juvenile form of ESOL textbook. We believe that our colleagues are right to criticize any materials which condescend to students of whatever age, but their worries are misplaced. We do not advocate the use of children’s literature for adolescent or adult ESOL students or the writing of books for any students with age-inappropriate story lines or themes. Instead we believe that beginning and intermediate level texts should do for adult and adolescent ESOL learners what children’s literature does so admirably for children. Just as children’s literature is literature specifically designed for children, an ESOL literature should be a literature written for more mature ESOL students, written first of all for their enjoyment.
Similarly, our mistrust of basals and our encouragement of a prominent role for actual communication in language teaching has also been occasionally misunderstood. They are seen as a sign that we see no useful role for form-centered language or direct instruction. If this position were true, then our proposal for an ESOL literature might be seen as a variation on the Natural Approach of Krashen and Terrell (1983). This impression would be unfortunate. We are not, in this proposal, arguing that an ESOL literature should be the only component of a curriculum, only that it would be useful for many students if [-13-] it were ONE, preferably important, component. Thus, we would like our proposal to be seen as attempting to bring written materials in line with the general consensus in the field that sees authentic communication as a central element in language instruction. We leave to others the debate over such issues as whether or not there is also a place for explicit instruction in form or the active correction of students.
Description of children’s literature
Pedagogically, children’s literature functions as a path by which children move from oral language to written language. It consists of a large and varied corpus of narratives created by talented professional writers and illustrators who convey their stories, ideas, and descriptions in a way that is accessible to children. The focus in children’s literature is not, as in basal readers, on the language or letters used, but on the meaning being communicated. In other words, children’s literature is decidedly meaning-centered. Nevertheless, authors of children’s literature face a challenge that, while not identical, is quite similar to the one facing ESOL materials writers: Their possibilities of conveying meaning are inhibited by their readers’ incomplete control over the written code and relatively limited vocabulary. Children’s authors use three methods to help overcome this problem: (1) familiar linguistic forms, (2) predictable rhetorical structures, and (3) rich visual imagery.
- By familiar linguistic forms, we mean that the syntax and vocabulary used in children’s books tend to be common. Common words are, by definition, frequently repeated, allowing children to develop senses of their written forms relatively quickly. Unfamiliar words and structures are, of course, used, but there are rarely more than a few present in a given book, and they are often repeated several times. Unusual syntax typically comes in the form of poetry, in which normal rules are suspended. As children increase what reading teachers call their ‘sight vocabulary,’ they read more quickly, more fluently, and gain confidence.
- Predictable rhetorical structures are those that readers can anticipate in upcoming portions of the narrative (Peterson, 1991). When children do run into words or structures they are not sure of, they can make informed guesses on the basis of their background knowledge of how narratives work. Writers of children’s literature often make use of prototypical plot features and formulaic expressions (e.g., “Once upon a time”) to help young readers.[-14-]
- Visual imagery consists of copious use of pictures supporting the informational content of the narrative. Children rely on pictures as a way of facilitating their understanding of the story. A pictorial component of high aesthetic quality is, in fact, deemed crucial to the success of a book. Going beyond informational support, an attractive layout communicates directly to readers through what children’s author Janet Hickman (personal communication) calls “the rich human connections that have expressive power” achieved by high-quality art. It serves as a magnet to draw children to try to find meaning in the initially unfamiliar printed forms on the page.
Besides easing the informational exchange through these methods, children’s literature uses the inherent interest in the reading experience, particularly story-telling, to motivate the child to keep searching for meaning in spite of the difficulties. Writers in the field of early literacy point out the universality of story telling (Huck, 1977, 1992; Meek, 1982; Trabasso, 1994; Wells, 1986). As Huck (1992, p. 521) puts it, “Narrative is a universal way of thinking. We all tell ourselves stories about ourselves and the way the world works.” Similarly, in Wells’s (1986, p. 195) words, literature is:
…only the most highly developed and polished instances of a form of human behavior that is both universal and ubiquitous. Whenever people come together socially, they begin to exchange stories- personal narratives, anecdotes, or just snippets of gossip.
Real literature in children’s classes provokes something we also value very much in ESOL, “discussion and response” (Huck, 1992, p. 527). After all, literature facilitates different interpretations of text and is more propitious than expository writing for encouraging the development and expression of different points of view (Langer, 1990a). Furthermore, discussions around children’s literature, like those concerning adult literature, typically involve the use of critical thinking skills. Langer (1990a, p. 812) argues that “readers move through discussions of text as they explore, explain, defend, and refine their ideas.” Thus, it is not surprising that, as Huck (1992) claims, these discussions also transfer to improving students’ writing.
Proponents of the use of children’s literature also cite the traditional ways that reading is understood to be of pedagogical value in language learning: improving [-15-] comprehension, increasing vocabulary development, and serving as a model for writing (Harris, 1994; Wells, 1986). Finally, Langer (1990a) and Harris (1994) feel that young readers’ experiences with children’s literature can encourage the development of a broader vision of themselves and society. Through books, children can reflect on their own experiences and explore those of others who have different ways of life and of knowing the world.
In the end, the ultimate attraction of children’s literature as a pedagogical instrument is related, ironically, to its lack of pedagogical design. Huck (1977) points out how children take ownership of an experience they relate to on a personal level, much as they draw away from being manipulated for pedagogical purposes, a lesson that we in ESOL should take seriously:
One group of primary children rearranged the books in their classroom library into two groups which they labeled “Real Books” and “Readers.” Evidently even very young children know the difference between those books which sustain and excite their imaginations by telling real stories and those basic texts which are primarily designed for instruction in reading. And yet what is there to prevent a child from learning to read from a real story, or a teacher from using that story to teach reading? I believe that the motivation for learning to read comes from the desire to read “real books” and that imaginative literature must be the content of the reading program. (p. 363)
An ESOL Literature
What then is to prevent us from writing works designed to give pleasure to ESOL readers by focusing primarily on their concerns and interests? Nothing we can see. After all, children’s literature serves as a living breathing counterexample to the notion that linguistically simple texts must be inauthentic. Certainly, there is plenty to write about. Potential topics include, but are not limited to, crosscultural exploration and tension, ethnic versus individual identity, urban problems, isolation, homesickness, and so on, in addition to those universal themes of love and loss and success and failure. Just as children’s books do for young readers, ESOL books that explore these themes must begin from the students’ own perspective and life experience. They may radiate outward into new and more academic procedures and concepts, yes, but they must start from familiar ground.
In addition to this general philosophy, however, the same three guidelines that are used for children’s literature–(1)[-16-] familiar linguistic forms, (2) predictable rhetorical structure, and (3) use of visual imagery–are equally valid for ESOL. Specifically:
- Linguistic constraints form perhaps the greatest challenge for writers of creative narrative fiction for ESOL students. We must look to the language our students use to express themselves and find the ways that they deal with this same problem every time they try to communicate in class or their daily lives. We all read copious amounts of ESOL writing and listen to students’ conversations in class, providing us with rich sources of language to use as a base upon which to build narratives that students can understand.
- The more predictable the plot, the less the need for linguistic simplicity because predictability aids comprehension. Any ESOL literature will already be more coherent and familiar in its text structure than traditional form-centered books, so the linguistic resources can be richer than in textbooks at the same level. However, although narrative is universal, the specific pattern by which it is realized varies by culture. The stories that will (we hope) compose ESOL literature must stem from the types of narratives that our students are already familiar with. This familiarity is essential if students are to become engaged in the narrative, to even recognize it as a story, let alone predict what might happen next. Thus, in order to be successful, authors must be familiar with the type of storying that goes on among members of the target audience. What do our students read in their own languages? What do they watch on TV? What kinds of stories do they tell each other over lunch or before class, and how do they tell them? What kinds of stories were they told as children, and do they tell their children? Not every ESOL teacher will be willing or able to achieve the level of understanding necessary to create good ESOL literature, and those who want to do so, will need to learn a lot from their students.
- A rich visual component also allows for the use of more complex language because it provides context that eases the comprehension process. Graphics are already a part of most ESOL materials, but because of their usually limited aesthetic appeal, they are inadequate for the purposes of an ESOL literature. Pictures communicate much like words, and ugly utilitarian illustrations send the wrong message to a reader. Authors have to be careful to find illustrators who are talented and creative artists, who can draw, photograph, or generate images on a computer [-17-] that make readers want to open their books and explore. However, talent alone is not enough. To successfully communicate visually with readers, they have to understand and empathize with them. Fortunately, potential ESOL writers are in a far better position than their colleagues in children’s literature; we need to look no farther than our own students to find the talented knowledgeable artists we need. Similarly, in making artistic decisions we should let their aesthetic not ours determine the end result.
One important issue concerning the growth of an ESOL literature is the fact that we are dealing with a diverse audience. So no one book will be adequate for all readers, perhaps even in a single class. But no work of literature ever is right for everyone, and this fact is yet one more reason for interested teachers and others to begin the task of writing. At present there are thousands of trade books for children on the market (Harris, 1993). It is hard to imagine that such a quantity of ESOL books will ever be published. Yet the audience is already sufficient–and it still keeps growing-to support a good number of works. In fact, this genre already exists in embryonic form. A number of ESOL novels are already published, though none have all the qualities we envision in such works. Penny Cameron’s (1992) On Track: Readers for Adult Students have, however, proven to be engaging for beginning ESOL classes, and they are the best we have seen so far. These works consist of stories about adult immigrants and their difficulties in coping with life in a new country. (see Pujol’s, 1995 review). Also, Sandra Cisneros’s (1989) well-known novel, The House on Mango Street, deals with themes of direct relevance to many immigrant ESOL students. Although it was not written for ESOL students specifically, it is constructed in a language that is simple enough for more advanced learners. In that way it is not unlike the “chapter books” used by more advanced readers in elementary school. The purchase and use of these books demonstrate the existence of a market for future writers.
We do not underestimate the obstacles facing potential authors and users of an ESOL literature. There is likely to be a good deal of resistance from those who believe that language learning is primarily a question of mastering specific skills and learning discrete structures and functions. However, although many teachers may be doubtful of exclusively communicative curriculums, it is not necessary to accept the method in its entirety to see the value of some meaning-centered texts. As Higgs and Clifford (1982, p. 77)–two such skeptics–put it, “No reasoned interpretation of the data suggests to return to grammar translation or classical mim-mem audiolingual methodologies.” The value of using real language as at least a considerable part of adult or adolescent second language [-18-]
learning seems incontrovertible. In any case, our students deserve the pleasure and personal growth, as well as the natural language learning, that comes from reading real stories.
 Thus, following Halliday and Hasan’s (1985) definition of text as a functional unit of language, we treat the dialogue plus the associated exercises as ‘the text’ rather than the dialogue alone.
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We would like to thank Rosemary Benedetto, Linda Hirsch, Eileen Prince, Keiko Samimy, and Mary Williams for their suggestions in response to earlier drafts, We would also like to thank Janet Hickman for giving us a better idea about both the beauty and pedagogical practicality of children’s literature.
Merce Pujol is Assistant Professor in the English Department in Hostos Community College/CUNY where she teaches ESL courses. Her interests include integrating multimedia technology and computer assisted language instruction into the ESOL curriculum.
Michael Newman has a term appointment at the rank of Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice of the Ohio State University where he teaches applied linguistics and literacy for teachers. His research concerns on academic literacy and information in discourse. Together with Professor Pujol and art educator Lisa Jakobson, he is attempting to put this theory into action by writing a novel for ESOL students based on urban life.
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