Volume IV - 1997

Reading and Responding to Novels in the University ESL Classroom
   by Stephanie Vandrick

         Stephanie Vandrick is an associate professor in the ESL Department at the University of San Francisco, where she also teaches Women's Studies and literature courses. Her research interests are multicultural/international literature, feminist pedagogy, and sociopolitical issues in ESL. She has published in ESL, education, and women's studies journals. She is an associate editor of the journal Peace Review.


         One of the pleasures of teaching ESL is that of introducing students to the joys of reading fiction, of allowing them to recognize their own difficulties, ambitions, and challenges in the lives of characters from short stories and novels. This can easily become a truly dynamic experience of great meaning and relevance. Literature has always found a place in the university ESL classroom, but at times it has been less favored, eclipsed by other, perhaps more "pragmatic," types of readings and language learning. However, in recent years it has begun to regain its stature as an appropriate and enjoyable way of learning the English language (See, for example, Dupuy, Tse, & Cook, 1996; Gajdusek, 1988; Lazar, 1993; Martino & Block, 1992; Meloni, 1994; Willoquet- Maricondi, 1991/1992). The increased emphasis on literature is partly the result of the movement toward more meaningful forms of language learning, as well as the movement toward more "content" in the language classroom. There are numerous reasons for teaching literature in ESL classes; these include the following:

Practicing such skills as summarizing, analyzing, and reading and thinking critically

Increasing vocabulary

Increasing familiarity with the English language at its most expressive

Gaining a sense of style in writing Familiarizing students with U.S. culture and with the kinds of experiences and knowledge that US native speakers of English have

Allowing students to explore their feelings through experiencing those of others

         The purpose of language is connection; through fiction and the emotions it arouses, we connect with ourselves, with each other, and with humankind. In my advanced ESL reading and writing classes, I have always used short stories and other forms of literature. For many years now, I have also assigned students to read one novel each during the course of the semester. In surrounding students with literature, and particularly in facilitating their reading at least one complete novel in English, I feel that I am in a sense welcoming them to the world of books and especially of fiction. For those students who already feel at home in that world in their own languages, I want them to feel the same pleasure in reading fiction in English. Reading fiction is a process to which students need to be oriented. In class, we go through that process together, step by step, from choosing a novel to sharing responses with others. I view myself as a coach and cheerleader during the process. My hope is that my guidance, along with my encouragement, makes the process less intimidating, and thus allows students to open themselves to the pleasures and benefits of the world of fiction.

The Joys of Bookstore Browsing

         First, the class reads some short stories, and I introduce some basic literary terms to facilitate the discussion of literature_terms such as plot, theme, setting, character, conflict, resolution, style, and tone. Simultaneously, students learn that they will each be choosing, reading, and reporting on a novel and on their responses to that novel three times during the course of the semester. They receive a list of possible choices, and verbally annotate the list. I especially encourage their reading "coming of age" novels, novels about people who are about the age of most of these students, such as Rich in Love, or The Death of the Heart. (See Appendix for more titles.) Students can choose a novel not on the list, but should check with me about their choice. I tell them about my favorite local bookstores (addresses, types of books, atmosphere, and service in each), and urge them to browse there. They ask friends about their favorite novels. We talk about the process of browsing, looking at jacket covers and inside plot summaries and comments, leafing through the books, possibly finding some reviews of the books in the university library.

         About two weeks later, students tell the class the titles they have chosen, along with publishing information and brief statements of their reasons for choosing those particular books. As students tells us their choices, I_and sometimes other students_give feedback. Generally, students' choices are fine, but if they have chosen something which seems inappropriate, too long, too short, too difficult, or too "trashy," I gently steer them away from those titles, and offer alternatives (making sure not to embarrass them about their choices). Students are asked to start reading early, and continue reading regularly. This assignment helps students practice planning ahead, allotting time to a project which lasts all semester. I tell them to choose a book they will enjoy, and therefore will be likely to take with them on the bus, to the beach, or to bed! They learn that they don't have to understand every word, and therefore don't have to look up every unfamiliar word in the dictionary. Too much dictionary-consulting will destroy the flow and the joy of reading.

Relating Personally to Fiction

         Well in advance, the students are given the dates for the three progress reports during the semester. Each report should cover approximately a third of the book. Reports are both oral (about three to five minutes) and written (about two pages). Reports should include a brief summary, but at least half of the time and space should be spent on students' own analyses and responses. Students often find it fairly easy to summarize plots, but more difficult to think critically, relate to the fiction personally, and express their reactions to other students' reports. In order to help them with this, I discuss areas that can be addressed, such as theme, style, tone, analysis of character, level of realism, and social problems addressed.

         I emphasize the importance of learning not only from one's own novel but also from classmates' reports. Students should listen attentively, and ask questions or give feedback afterwards. I point out that the job of being a good audience is an essential one; it is the complementary half of presenting a report or speech. To encourage careful listening, each student is asked to respond briefly in writing to one other student's report. After all the oral reports have been given, students pass their books around among themselves, in order to see and physically hold several novels. I believe that actually holding, touching, and leafing through a book is a tactile experience which encourages a connection to and an appreciation of books. At this time, students can further, informally, discuss their novels with their classmates. I suggest they make a note of classmates' titles which they may want to read in the future. Also, from time to time during the semester, I try to allude to various novels, including some of "theirs," when the novels' topics and themes connect with other topics and other readings we do in class.

Students Examine Their Own Emotions

         An important point throughout this process is that novels are about people, and feelings, and life itself. I encourage students to examine their own emotions and responses as they are reading. Which characters do they relate to, identify with, appreciate, disapprove of, or hate? Why? Which plot developments or conflicts have they themselves experienced, or witnessed, or imagined? Are the characters and stories realistic? How does the style and language make readers feel? In which ways is the novel similar to or different from other novels they have read, either in English or in their own languages?

         Because many of the students are reading "coming of age" novels, they are likely to relate to the characters, their situations, their dilemmas, their fears and hopes. If students feel connections to these characters, it is easier for them to respond to the novels, and to articulate those responses. Upon seeing their own lives and conflicts reflected in those of the characters, students have spoken about problems with family, school, or friends. They have been reminded of and have described rites of passage in their lives, or moments of decision or realization or loneliness or happiness. For example, one student, reporting on The Catcher in the Rye, told of his own painful difficulties adjusting to the demands of a high school which he thought was unreasonably strict and unresponsive to students' individual needs. The class listened intently and was very sympathetic. Another student, in her report on Married to a Stranger, spoke of relatives whose arranged marriages had also failed. This topic struck a real chord with students in their late teens and early twenties!

Vehicles for Transmitting One's Feelings

         We also talk about what makes a good report, one in which the reporter truly communicates his feelings about the novel to his listeners. Oral reports in particular provide the opportunity to share responses with classmates as well as with the instructor. Oral reports need the right balance of preparation, good posture, pace, volume, tone, eye contact and spontaneity. I advise students not to memorize or read from a prepared script, but to prepare and have an outline or notes. I encourage them to practice their reports at home with a friend or at least in front of the mirror. In particular, we talk about how all of the above components are vehicles for expressing and transmitting one's responses, one's feelings. If a speaker is enthusiastic about a character or event, her or his voice and gestures should show that. A few days before the first of the three reports, I usually do a little bit of "modeling," illustrating_and exaggerating for effect_the difference between a report given with a clear, strong, engaged voice and one which sounds unprepared, unenthusiastic, uncertain, or in some other way weak and ineffective.

         Certain moments, sometimes surprising ones, testify to the connection that is made during these oral reports. One humorous but telling instance was that of a student who began his first report by saying that his novel had sounded interesting when he chose it, but_here he paused meaningfully, as if hesitating to tell us the sad truth, and then spoke up, deadpan but heartfelt and with the hint of a smile_"It was really boring and I really wish I hadn't chosen it!" The class erupted into laughter, in a bonding moment of surprise, recognition, sympathy, and connection. The student looked a little sheepish, and other students looked at me, wondering how I would respond. I laughed too, and said, "Great! That was an honest response!...Now tell us why!" He did, with great feeling. The point is that the student shared his genuine human reaction, and it struck a chord with his listeners. It made the report process seem "real" to them; real feelings were expressed; the report was not just an academic exercise to be gotten through, an assignment in which students say what they think the teacher wants to hear.

Reader and Story : Parts of an Organic Process

         Most of all, I want students to understand that a novel doesn't exist in a vacuum. It's a living, breathing entity, one with which the reader interacts, one which comes to life when read by a particular reader. Each individual reader brings her or his experience, knowledge, and feelings to the novel, and creates a unique relationship, a unique reality, as she or he reads and responds to it. And when readers talk and write about "their" books, they further the conversation, they continue the act of creation. The novel and its reader, and the reader and the audience are part of an organic relationship and an ongoing process. If class members listening to students' report are intrigued by, or angered by, or moved by, the readers' responses, these listeners may speak out, and/or read the book themselves, with the original readers' comments in mind,thus continuing the ongoing "conversation" and process.

         At first, students often have some concerns and anxiety about this assignment. They think it will be hard to read a whole novel in English. They are nervous about doing the reports, especially the oral reports. But as they go through the process, they become less intimidated, and many of them truly enjoy it. Students improve their reading and comprehension skills, their critical reading skills, their oral skills, their confidence and "stage presence." They explore moral and social issues, and learn about various aspects of life. They learn about each other from classmates' presentations and responses. Literature seems less overwhelming to them. They feel more confident in their ability to read and understand literature, and to engage in literary criticism. They are pleased that they have shared an experience that their American fellow students at the university will have already had. Finally, students feel extremely proud of their achievement in reading a whole novel in English, a "first" for many of them. And so they should!


Dupuy, B., Tse, L., & Cook, T. (1996). "Bringing Books into the Classroom: First Steps in Turning College-level ESL Students into Readers." TESOL Journal, 5 (4), 10-15.

Gajdusek, L. (1988). "Toward Wider Use of Literature in ESL: Why and How." TESOL Quarterly, 22, 227-57.

Lazar, G. (1993). Literature and Language Teaching: A Guide for Teachers and Trainers. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Martino, M. & Block, E. (1992). "Let Them Read Books." College ESL, 2 (2), 12- 20.

Meloni, C. F. (1994). "Reading for Pleasure: Short Novels in Academic University ESL Programs." Journal of the Imagination in Language Learning, 2, 50-54.

Willoquet-Maricondi, P. (1991/1992). "Integrating ESOL Skills through Literature." TESOL Journal, 1 (2), 11-14.


Recommended Coming-of-Age Novels

Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Bowen, Elizabeth. The Death of the Heart Burns,
Olive Ann. Cold Sassy Tree
Cather, Willa. My Antonia
Cheong, Fiona. The Scent of the Gods.
Cisneros, Sandra. The House On Mango Street.
Dangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous Conditions.
Godden, Rumer. The River.
Golding, William. Lord of the Flies.
Guest, Judith. Ordinary People.
Humphries, Josephine. Rich in Love.
Jen, Gish. Typical American.
Kincaid, Jamaica. Lucy.
Knowles, John. A Separate Peace.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird.
Mason, Bobbi Ann. In Country.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved.
Mukherjee, Bharati. Jasmine.
Ng, Fae Myenne. Bone.
Otto, Whitney. How to Make An American Quilt.
Rachlin, Nahid. Married to a Stranger.
Salinger, J. D. Catcher in the Rye.
Smith, Bette. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club.
Walker, Alice. The Color Purple.
Wharton, Edith. Summer.

back to content page