Being married to an English teacher, I’ve had many conversations about the value of literature in education. My wife talks about the beauty of classic stories and the need for students to reflect on the ideas while the beauty of the prose enhances their own writing. When she does, I think, “How are students going to understand those old-fashioned words? And if they can’t do that, what chance do they have to understand past generations’ ideas?” There have been cases where she had ELLs who couldn’t grasp why The Crucible was a metaphor for the Red Scare or the moral of a Nathaniel Hawthorne story and called me in for help.
That being said, secondary school ELL teachers are expected to give students the cultural and academic background they need to succeed in the mainstream. ELLs need to have a degree of knowledge about the classics to pass the state English tests as well as the ability to decipher the ideas and sometimes archaic words they’ll find in passages and short stories.
We can make this happen by being careful about how we select, implement, and assess our students’ literary lessons. Here are a few questions to ask to guide your decisions.
1. Why read about stuff that never happened?
My wife may go on about the beauty of her favorite author’s prose, but a language learner’s anxiety can keep the experience from being too enjoyable. We need to let the students know why they are reading and what for by setting clear objectives at the start of the lesson (Aebersold & Field, 1997). Do we want them to identify the parts of a story? Will we ask them if they can relate to it? Or should we just focus on vocabulary words and sentence structure (which is a perfectly valid goal for lower-level learners)?
Students who are interested in reading something will also be more motivated (Day, 1994). Letting students choose the sorts of stories they would like to read gives them more power over the process. You can also use this opportunity to generate interest, such as by asking about the questions the piece will raise or the themes you want them to analyze.
2. Can we draw on their cultures or at least minimize the clash?
I recently helped one of my ELLs make her way through another teacher’s assignment of “The Cask of Amontillado.” Being Puerto Rican, she had no frame of reference for catacombs, family crests, or many other elements important to that story. With the help of Google Images, I cleared these up and showed her the rather unpleasant ending. She was surprised, but also had much less trouble describing the narrator in the activity’s lessons.
In my own class, I had her review the parts of a story by using a Puerto Rican folk tale about Juan Bobo. Even though some of her classmates didn’t know of these (the ones who did were enthusiastic about this lesson), they easily grasped the main character’s jibaro characterization and had no trouble following his goofy adventure. With that distraction removed, I reinforced my colleague’s lesson about character development.
So when it comes to culture, it might be best to pick something more relatable if you’re going to go over the more fundamental parts of fiction reading. But if you want to explore culture clashes and different ideas, then make sure the students can easily discuss the basic ideas. For instance, I once had my students read a Sandra Cisneros story—“My Tocaya”—and found they were shocked at the narrator’s frank honesty and harsh language compared to the politeness they assumed about a Catholic school girl. That made for some interesting discussions.
3. Is it readable?
You probably have a good idea of what sort of vocabulary your students can understand. The real question is, will they be able to make sense of the story itself? An O. Henry story may be as readable as a newspaper article, but the allusions may be too confusing for the students to understand. Huck Finn’s written dialect and implicit themes could frustrate anyone not familiar with phonetic writing (Aebersold & Field, 1997). This may disqualify much of the literary canon, but it will save you lots of headaches and class time spent explaining.
One solution my wife has to this problem is to consider alternate works by the same author and then give a summary of that author’s classics. For example, you can use one of Poe’s shorter and less famous stories for your assignment as long as you mention some of his masterpieces. The goal here is to make students feel like they could read one of those monumental tomes someday at their leisure instead of forcing them through a turbulent sea of words.
Aebersold, J. A., & Field, M. L. (1997). From reader to reading teacher. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Day, R. R. (1994). Selecting a passage for the EFL reading class. Forum, 32(1).