Volume I - 1993

Reading Aloud: Children's Literature in College ESL Classes
Susan C. Khodabakhshi and Denise C. Lagos, Union County College Cranford, New Jersey

Susan C. Khodabakhshi is Professor of ESL and Developmental English at Union County College in Cranford, New Jersey. She holds an M.A. in TESOL from Columbia Teachers College and an MA in Reading from Kean College of New Jersey. Her research interests include the close procedure in cooperative learning, grammar in context, and the use of newspapers in developmental reading and ESL.

Dr. Denise C. Lagos is Associate Professor of ESL, Reading and English at Union County College in Cranford, New Jersey. In addition to a doctorate in Language Education, she holds an MA in Reading from Rutgers University and an M.A.T. in ESL from Montclair State College in New Jersey. Her research interests include ethnography and the use of children's literature in the college classroom.

      Teachers looking for a way to improve their ESL students' reading and listening skills as well as to stimulate their speaking and writing abilities should consider reading children's literature aloud to them. Such reading, particularly the sharing of children's literature with students at the college level, can increase students' motivation to speak, read and write. They acquire valuable background knowledge, learn to make predictions, hear correct pronunciation, and acquire vocabulary. At the same time the students reexamine their own experiences through the medium of powerful, meaningful stories, making connections to their own as well as their classmates' lives and to the human truths embodied in children's classics. Children's literature bridges the cultural and ethnic gaps in the backgrounds of ESL students by conveying universal themes to which these students can relate.

      Regardless of the primary focus of the lesson, reading aloud is productive because it interconnects the four language components: listening, speaking, reading and writing. However, when using children's literature with secondary and college ESL students dents, choice of material is an important consideration. A typical class often consists of students with varying cultural and educational backgrounds, prior knowledge, and levels of reading and writing proficiency. The right material can be appealing to and effective with ESL students because the simplified structures and universal themes are perceived differently at various age levels.

      Selection criteria should include:

Interest provoking titles
Simple structure with a strong, meaningful theme
Fresh and challenging vocabulary
Creative and vivid illustrations
Irreverent, rebellious stories with a twist

      One author whose stories meet these criteria is Shel Silverstein. Although he is known for his children's books, his work has great appeal for older readers. His unique writing style touches readers of all ages. Three of his stories, "The Missing Piece," "The Giving Tree," "Lafcadio the Lion Who Shot Back" are especially appropriate to read aloud to secondary and college ESL students. These students particularly enjoy such stories from which they are able to draw analogies and apply them to their own lives. We have used these stories in ESL classes and received much positive feedback from the students.

      In responding to "The Giving Tree," students usually interpret the tree as symbolic of a parent sacrificing for a child, of friendship, or of maturity versus immaturity. They invariably discuss personal experiences which they relate to this theme. An example of such a response is the following written by Santiago, a student from the Dominican Republic.

While listening to this story, "The Giving Tree", I began to wonder how it applies to my life. Several years back, I met someone who became a close friend. We spent much of our time together. We spent long hours talking and discussing our goals and future careers. As time passed, I realized that my friend was becoming dependent on me. He only came to me when he needed something from me. We no longer shared an equal partnership; I was now the giver, and he was the taker. Because of this situation, our friendship began to fall apart. From this experience, I've learned that in dealing with friends, one can't be too giving or too dependent. There should be enough space for each person to mature while remain- ing close to his friend.

      Santiago was able to identify with the theme of "The Giving Tree" and grasp the symbolism involved. His interpretation of the story prompted him to reflect on the concept of friendship, which he used as the subject of a short essay. This followed a class discussion of the story after it was read aloud.

      In a composition or reading class, "The Giving Tree" can be used to introduce more complicated material. For example, an instructor can have students compare the concept of friendship in "The Giving Tree" with essays from college level English textbooks, such as Judith Viorst's "Friends, Good Friends, Such Good Friends" or Margaret Mead and Rhoda Metraux's "On Friendship" (in Spack, 1990). In a reading class, a discussion of "The Giving Tree" can give students an opportunity to activate relevant background knowledge before reading more complex material.

      "The Mission Piece" is another story that is appropriate to use in preparation for more difficult material. It appeals to ESL students on various levels. Some see the theme as applicable to international affairs: the search for the missing piece represent- ing conflicts among countries. Others relate the story to the individual's search for the perfect mate, the perfect job, or the perfect country. The following journal entry by Luis, an Ecuadorean student, shows an adult ESL learner's associations with themes from "The Missing Piece."

In the beginning while I was analyzing "The Missing Piece" some ideas came into my mind. One of them was the relationship of the missing piece with the missing peace that exists between some countries in the world. Countries that are in conflict have to find that missing peace which some day will bring quiet, peace and freedom from anxiety.

      In a subsequent entry, Luis writes about his personal identification with the theme:

I'm always looking for peace and quiet in my life. However, it seems impossible to find this missing piece no matter where I go and who I live with. So here I go looking for my missing piece that I hope to find some day. I will be happy afterwards but not really happy because there will always exist that miss- ing piece. "Oh, I'm looking for my missing piece, I'm looking for my missing piece, hi dee ho, here I go, looking for my missing piece."

      In addition to clearly showing how he can relate to the theme of the story, Luis feels free enough to experiment with Silverstein's playful writing style. The simplicity and humor of such stories can be used to help students overcome preoccupation with grammatical correctness in their writing, which often hinders the development of content. Reluctant writers can be given assignments that ask them to write their own playful children's stories. Such assignments are most successful when done in groups that give students the opportunity to brainstorm and roleplay.

      The simplicity of children's literature makes it easily understandable and accessible for adult ESL students. An example of a very simple yet beautifully crafted story that ESL students have enjoyed is "The Red Balloon" by Lamorisse (1956). A silent video version of the story is available and can be shown in addition to reading the book. We have experimented with the use of the video with different classes. Some sessions have seen the video first, while others have listened to the story before seeing the film. Those classes that view the film first have been more successful, probably because the initial viewing allows the students to use their creativity to imagine the plot, which they can then confirm or modify when they hear the story. Students ex- press enjoyment and interest in predicting the story before they hear it read aloud.

      In the following essay, Jose, a Portuguese student, uses "The Red Balloon" to introduce a personal narrative.

In the story "The Red Balloon," the little boy becomes friends with a red balloon. I believe that the balloon sym- bolizes something special. For example, everyone has something that is special to them, no matter how insignificant it may seem to others. The boy loves the red balloon but other people do not see how special it is to him.... When I was younger, I found a puppy on my way to school. The puppy was hurt and I took him home with me so that I could make him better. However, when I got home my mother was not very excited about having another dog in the house. It took a lot of begging and crying, but I finally convinced her to let me keep it. However, I had to give up the dog as soon as it was better.

Time passed and the dog was finally healed, and it was time to give him up. I knew it was going to be very difficult \ because I had become friends with him. Even though I had two other dogs, this one was special to me because I found him and made him better. However, I had promised my mother that I would let him go and I did. The next day at our doorstep was the dog again! My Mom finally gave in and let me keep him.

I guess I was pretty lucky because my mother realized how special the dog was to me and how special I was to the dog. Un- fortunately, most people do not understand how special something or someone can be to someone else. We all should realize that, if we can have something that means a lot to us, so can someone else.

      As his essay illustrates, Jose was interested in and identified with the story of The Red Balloon. His interpretation and personal reflection developed into a composition.

Teaching Techniques

      A typical lesson plan involves the following steps: First, the students are provided with a considerable amount of background information about the author and his self-expressed aim to appeal to all readers. The information on the book jacket and in the introduction or preface is read aloud. This is important to avoid giving the students any impression that the material is directed only to children. The writing style of the author is also discussed. The story is then read aloud to the entire class and the illustrations are shown to the students.

      Next, the class is divided into groups of four or five and instructed to brainstorm, to discuss feelings they have before and after hearing the story. The time allotted for this activity varies according to the involvement of the groups; generally no longer than fifteen minutes is required. Following the small- group discussions, all members of the class come back together and share ideas generated in the groups. The instructor also participates in the discussion and exchange of ideas.

      The final activity, a follow-up to the previous steps, is a writing assignment based on the story and discussions. For example, students might be asked to write a summary and reaction to the story, or to discuss their interpretation of the characters. We have used this format in many ESL classes and without fail, students have shown genuine interest and involvement.

      Some have related the identity crisis of the lion in "Lafcadio the Lion Who Shot Back" to their own lives. Lafcadio didn't know whether he was a lion or a hunter. ESL students have seen the lion's dilemma as similar to their own feelings about acculturation. Many experience confusion over their cultural identity after living in the United States for a period of time and then returning to the native country for a visit. They may feel that they don't truly belong in either culture, similar to Lafcadio.

      Another topic that ESL students have found interesting is cam- paring these children's books to children's literature from their native countries. Some students may have copies of children's books written in their native language which they can show to the class. They often find it enjoyable to give an oral presentation of the book, explaining the story in English and showing the illustrations.

      Not long ago, Daniel, a former ESL student, returned to borrow a copy of Super Doper Jezebel, which he had heard in a previous ESL class. He explained that he wanted to read it aloud to fulfill an oral presentation assignment in a credit-bearing communication class he was then taking. When he returned the book a couple of weeks later, he reported that his presentation had earned him an 'A'. He proudly described the enthusiastic reaction of his native English-speaking audience to the story about an insufferably perfect child who gets eaten by an alligator.

      Reading aloud carefully selected children's literature arouses interest and stimulates ESL students' oral and written expression. It can also be used to introduce more complex reading material. We have found reading such material aloud to be extremely useful and productive, and equally enjoyable for instructors and students. Our premise is supported by Gwendolyn Jones (1990), a professional storyteller and Professor of Children's Literature and Story--telling. She applauds the current recognition of the value of children's literature in reading instruction. According to Jones, children's literature " is ALIVE and WELL and is not only an integral part of reading instruction but a vital part of the total realm of language and personal development."


Jones, Gwendolyn. (1990). "Three cheers for children's literature" NJRA NEISLETTER, 15(1).

Spack, Ruth. (1990) Guidelines. New York: St. Ilartin's Press


      The following is a list of children's books that have proven successful in our community college ESL classes.

Dahl, Roald. (1986). Revolting Rhymes. New York: Bantam Sky- lark.

Herriot, James. (1984). Moses the kitten. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Herriot, James. (1975). Only one woof. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Lamorisse, Albert. (1956). The red balloon. New York: Doubleday.

Numeroff, Laura Joffe. (1985). If you give a mouse a cookie. New York: Harper and Row.

Paek, Min. (1988). Aekung Dream. San Francisco: Children's Book Press.

Parish, Peggy. "Amelia bedelia" (series of books). New York: Avon Camelot.

Ross, Tony. (1988). Super dooper jezebel. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux. 8

Silverstein, Shel. (1981). A Light in the attic. New York: Harper and Row.

---- (1964). The Giving tree. New York: Harper and Row.

---- (1963). Lafcadio, the lion Who Shot Back. New York: Harper and Row.

----(1976). The missing Piece. New York: Harper and Row.

---- (1981). The Missing Piece Meets Bio O. New York: Harper and Row.

---- (1974). Where the Sidewalk Ends. New York: Harper and Row.

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