Volume VI - 2001

The Dress-Up Biography in ESL Reading
by  Denise Lagos and Susan Khodabakshi

Dr. Denise C. Lagos is Senior Professor of ESL, Reading and English; and Co-Coordinator of ESL at Union County College in Cranford, New Jersey. She recently received the Union County Woman of Excellence Award in Education. She holds advanced degrees in TESOL, Reading, Administration and Supervision.

Susan C. Khodabakshi is Professor of ESL, Reading and English; and CO-Coordinator of ESL at Union County College in Cranford, New Jersey. Her interests include the role of distance learning in higher education, and the uses of newspapers and digital imagery in ESL.


     For five to ten minutes, the students walk the walk and talk the talk of movie stars, famous politicians and other well known personalities. Dressed like their targets, the students also take on gestures, mannerisms and even try to master the tones of voice; and sometimes the singing styles of a Broadway performer or recording artist. Equally important is what they say and how they phrase it. The reward for a well-done performance is not a chocolate cake and the hooting of fellow party-goers, but a well-deserved "A" and the modulated but appreciative applause of classmates. There is careful method behind this seemingly carefree experience-weeks of preparation centered in reading, watching scenes from television and films, and the close listening to audiotapes and recordings. Students have responded enthusiastically over the years to this dress-up biography. On completion of the presentations, students have shared their positive feedback with the instructor. For example, a Haitian student, Meran-ncie Dorcely, portrayed Maya Angelou. This is what she had to say about the project:

Student Reactions

The dress-up biography was a very exciting and learning experience. The freedom is that you could be someone you consider a role model. On that day, I felt that I was Maya Angelou the Second. I learned something new from everyone's presentation. I loved this assignment.

A Turkish student, Betal Betty Korkmaz, portrayed Drew Barrymore the actress.

The book, Drew Barrymore, was the first English book I ever read. First, I read the book, and I started to watch Drew Barrymore's movies. I wanted to know what she looked like when she was a little girl. When I prepared my oral presentation, I dressed like her and acted like her. From the book, I learned a lot about alcohol and drugs. I felt so good because my last words were "Don't do drugs!" I felt that other students learned from my presentation.

It Works with Adults

     In addition to describing a general technique, this article is a detailed explanation of how an academic project associated with young children can be used successfully in an adult ESL classroom. The question to be considered here is how an educator can motivate students to read in their second language. The dress-up biography is certainly a positive motivator for reading with a purpose, while encouraging reading for pleasure. Assigning students to select an autobiography or biography of a famous person of their individual choice, whom they will portray, inspires meaningful independent reading. This improvisational activity, the dress-up biography, in which students assume a famous persona, enhances their ability to focus on the attitude and behavior of the eminent person, a skill seldom practiced in second language acquisition classes. This project is suitable, adaptable and appealing to all students in ESL reading content classes.


     One of the most crucial tasks in a reading class is the transformation of adult second language learners' attitudes toward reading from indifference or active dislike to avid reading. Significant gains in reading ability often result when the adult reader begins to read independently, aside from assigned class readings. The most carefully instructor-chosen material may bring disappointing results unless the educator is able to ignite a tiny spark of interest and nurture it carefully into a clear flamboyant enthusiasm for reading. Atwell (1987) supports the idea that ordinary pleasure reading is a large factor in reading fluency, and since pleasure reading is an individual student choice, then self-selected reading should be encouraged and supported.

     The significant role of the teacher is to develop a positive attitude toward reading, and an interest in it, by creating assignments and projects that consider the students' personal needs, interests, aspirations and attitudes. Student motivation to read occurs when the teacher focuses on the students' interests, matching the material to their levels of reading ability, while displaying a high regard for reading and making the students aware of their success. A reading class that nurtures an interest in reading is one in which (1) the teacher shows enthusiasm for books; (2) provides an opportunity and easy access for book selection (trip to a local bookstore); (3) schedules times for student browsing, previewing/perusing, selection and reading; (4) establishes an environment for comment and discussion of books; and (5) fosters an appreciation for reading which is developed through cumulative experiences (Hickman, 1983).

     The basic principles of successful work in developing reading interests have been summarized as consisting of "a lure and a ladder" approach (Betts, 1976). The lure may be considered a variety of ways of enticing students to begin pleasurable reading. The ladder involves providing suitable reading that will intensify the adult reader's interest in reading, and an opportunity to progress gradually to more challenging reading material. The first step in the ladder is an excursion to an off-campus bookstore, which is essential for the adult reader in providing a physical surrounding favorable to reading. A community college of commuters is an ideal situation for implementation of the lure and ladder approach.

College Demographics of the ESL Program

     Union County College's ESL program enrolls approximately 1,500 students each semester who represent over 75 foreign countries, Puerto Rico and St. Croix. Since the program's inception in 1975, the Institute for Intensive English (IIE) program has drawn a significant number of students from Central and South America. The tradition continues with 64% of the current population originating from the Americas and the Caribbean. The IIE program consists of six levels of instruction. After placement testing, students enter one of the six levels of instruction commensurate with their abilities. In the first through fourth levels, all instruction is covered in self-contained courses. In the fifth and sixth levels, students are required to register for four concomitant courses; two core courses covering structure, listening, conversation and study skills; a reading course; and an academic writing course. The dress-up biography project is implemented at the fifth level of instruction with the advanced student in the content area reading course.

The Assignment

     The dress-up biography project is introduced to the students at the beginning of each semester as the professor discusses the reading course syllabus. It is emphasized to the students that this is a semester long project which weighs heavily on their final course grade. The students are alerted to their scheduled excursion to an off-campus bookstore where they will purchase a biography or autobiography of their choice.

Step 1: Excursion to Off-Campus Bookstore

     Early on in the semester, students are asked by the professor to meet on a scheduled class time at Barnes and Noble Bookstore, which is located in close proximity to the college. The purpose of going to the bookstore is to have the students purchase an autobiography or biography of their choice for their dress-up biography. Additionally, the objective of this excursion is to acquaint the second language learner to an environment of books. Oftentimes, the students admit that they have never visited a bookstore, other than the college bookstore where they are compelled to go to purchase their required textbooks. Before going to Barnes and Noble, the professor explains in detail the dress-up biography project. A handout (See Appendix A) is given to the students that identifies which areas of the well-known person's life should be included in their presentation. The handout also helps to alert the students to focus on these points during the reading.

     Students are asked to have one or two famous people in mind whom they would like to read about, perhaps someone they have considered an idol, a role model, or hero, someone who they admire, respect and hold in high esteem, someone whose life they simply would like to find out more about, or someone from their own native countries. Before the actual purchase of the book, students are asked to sit in a quiet place of the bookstore and begin reading five to ten pages of their prospective biographies. While reading, if the students encounter many unfamiliar vocabulary words, then this is an indication that the reading level of the book they have selected is above their own reading level. Therefore, it is critical that the instructor oversee the book selection in order to avoid student independent reading on a frustration level. Ultimately, the professor must approve the selection of the students' biographies before their purchases. The comfortableness of the reading level is extremely important because the students are reading their biographies independently. Oftentimes, visiting the bookstore, for many of our ESL students, is a first time experience, and, therefore, has proven to be worthwhile, productive, as well as pleasurable.

Step 2: Student Preparation/Objectives

     The professor discusses in detail the objectives of the dress-up biography and their importance to language learning. The following educational objectives are explained:

A. To encourage reading, especially for pleasure
B. To practice aural (listening) and oral (speaking) skills
C. To improve self-awareness, self-confidence, and self-esteem
D. To practice correct pronunciation
E. To become knowledgeable of prominent people - sharing factual information
F. To encourage creativity, uniqueness, and innovativeness
G. To promote literal, interpretive , applied, and critical thinking

     After class discussion of the objectives, further specific guidelines of preparing for the presentation are discussed at length: attire (costuming), assuming the role of the famous persona; projecting the voice, while imitating indicative gestures and mannerisms, and role playing talents (singing and dancing) where applicable. The instructor specifies the importance of authenticity of students' portrayals of the characters, stressing that the students need to make their audience believe that "they actually are seeing the person before them."

     Further class explanation is given to the students of the components of the presentation: introduction, body and conclusion, which include factual information of the well-known character's entire life. (See Appendix A) If the students' biographies do not have current information on the person's life, then it is the student's responsibility to further investigate in other sources, seeking more updated information. If the famous person has recently passed away, then once again the student needs further inquiry in other sources. Tapping students' schema and furnishing them with background knowledge early on is extremely essential in aiding the students to carry through and successfully complete the project.

Step 3: Presentation Requirements/Evaluation Criteria

     The dress-up biography presentation is expected to be five to ten minutes or more in length, followed by a class question and answer session. At the conclusion of each presentation, the audience is given the opportunity of posing questions regarding additional information of the person's life or clarification of points presented.

     Students are given the dress-up biography presentation student evaluation form (See Appendix B) which the instructor will use to assess the student's performance. The teacher emphasizes not only the importance of the content of the presentation, but also the delivery of the speech. The instructor's criteria for evaluating the presentations are as follows:


     Organization: Is there a clear introduction which draws the listeners into the speech? Is the body clearly organized with supporting information? Is the development of ideas logical and easy to follow? Does the conclusion draw the ideas together and give clear emphasis to the thesis of the speech?

Language: Did the speaker use appropriate, descriptive and convincing language?

Support of Ideas: Has the speaker analyzed the topic effectively? Was the content supported by research, personal experience and examples?

Presentation of Topic: Did the speaker use an interesting approach?

Conclusion: Did the presentation conclude with current information on the person's life?


Vocal Skills: Was the speaker's voice expressive, easily understood and heard? Did the speaker's voice effectively express the mood and feeling of the subject's character?

Expressiveness: Did the speaker communicate the character's feelings and thoughts? Were pauses and phrasing effective?

Physical Movements: Did the speaker assume the role via posture, eye contact, facial expression? Was there effective use of movements, gestures? Did these emphasize significant points?

Effective Use of Notes: The speech should not be read. If notes are used, did the speaker use them discreetly without relying on them throughout or having them become a distraction to the audience?

Communication: Did the speaker effectively communicate the persona with the audience by making contact with them in a conversational style?

Photographs and Student Reactions

     These areas of content and delivery are discussed at length in class throughout the semester. Finally, students are informed that their photographs will be taken on their presentation day, and that these photos will appear in the college's literary publication, The Foreign Student Voice. Students are shown photographs of former presentations in previous issues. Responses to this activity follow:

A Haitian male, Adler Daniel, portrayed Michael Jordan:

Before I started doing it, I thought it was going to be hard, but later on it was fun. After I presented my book, I felt free as a bird. Mentally, this assignment made me feel that I could do much better in school, and it also helped me fight against shyness. I think I also learned about the character I chose. What I liked the most about it was the organization, and the freedom to choose my own book.

A student from Trinidad, Angie Paramnath, portrayed the late Latin singer Selena:

It was really cool to dress up and pretend to be someone else. The freedom of choosing our own book was really important because in this way we could pick someone we like and are comfortable impersonating. I saw a movie about Selena and listened to interviews on a tape that my friend had. While I presented, I felt good; everyone was paying attention to what I was saying. I learned about the life of Selena, and it gave me more courage to go on in front of a large group of people, and that's something I don't usually do. I really liked having the freedom to choose the book of my choice!

Florence Min from China portrayed Hillary Clinton:

In general, I love this assignment very much because it gave us a chance to read a biography and took seriously to prepare it. I had a chance to give a presentation in public. I could choose a book I really liked. I read the book and then wrote a summary. I practiced a few times at home in front of the mirror. After presenting, it gave me a lot of confidence and it gave me some ideas about how to do a presentation. From this assignment, I improved my reading, writing, and speaking skills.


     Each semester, the dress-up biography project yields successful results. One of the assignment's many benefits is that it gives students control of their reading, as they form their own questions, monitor their comprehension and take notes. The sustained reading of an entire book of their choice promotes appreciation and enjoyment of reading. Freedom of choice, in addition, makes the assignment beneficial and motivational for all students. This is especially important in a typically heterogeneous ESL class such as those at Union County College's Institute for Intensive English. Students come from over 75 native countries, speak a variety of native languages, and have different academic backgrounds. One class may contain a mixture of recent graduates of US high schools, longtime US residents returning to school, and newly arrived experienced and degreed professionals. This wide range in student backgrounds, interests, and abilities makes it difficult for the ESL instructor to find one text for everyone in the class. It is a particular challenge to motivate the increasing number of students who are fluent speakers, with a near native command of informal spoken English but whose written and academic English skills are weak. These students are frequently reluctant readers and academically low achievers who may never have previously read a complete book. Finally, to underscore the importance of the context in which reading to learn occurs, an emphasis must be placed on the three-way relationship among instructor-student-text, which is exemplified in the dress-up biography project.

Appendix A. Dress-Up Biography Presentation

1. Summary of Person's Life should include:

o     Early Years
o     Full name
o     Date and place of birth
o     Name parents, brothers, sisters, friends, or people who influenced you
o     Education: Where and how long?
o     Plans for the future
o     Interesting experiences
o     Later Years
o     Married? Single? Children?
o     Occupation
o     Major accomplishments - Why are you famous?
o     Conclusion: If alive, what are you presently doing? If deceased,what were the circumstances of death?

2. Points to Remember

1.      Be certain to creatively dress-up exactly like your famous figure.
2.      Try to imitate and mimic characteristics of your prominent person.
3.      Try to include in an organized fashion major significant points of the well-known person's life. Include details as well.
4.      Try to have an innovative, creative and unique presentation.
5.      Your presentation should be 10-15 minutes in length.
6.      Speak clearly so you are readily heard by your audience.
7.      Eye contact is important. Do not read from a paper; only note cards may be referred to.
8.      Posture is important. Stand up straight, do not sit or slouch. Do not hold anything in your hands. You should never be chewing on gum or candy


Atwell, N. 1987. In the Middle. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Betts, E. 1976. "Capture Reading Motivation." Reading Improvement, 13, 41-46.

Hickman, J. 1983. "Classrooms that Help Children Like Books." In N. Roser & M. Frith (Eds.) Children's choices: Teaching with Books Children Like. Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 1-11.



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