Adapting Folktales for ELL Learning Activities

We content-based teachers often struggle with how to make students focus on the specific reading skills we want them to learn without being distracted or overwhelmed by the language. This gets more difficult when my activity focuses on fiction, especially elements such as character and setting, because it demands a more holistic style of analytical thinking—in other words, you want students to focus more on the structure than the meaning.

Most native English speakers learn these elements through the canon of literature, which acquaints students with everyone from O. Henry to F. Scott Fitzgerald. For ELL instruction, though, we have to acknowledge that some students didn’t get this cultural education, and many will know more about their own culture’s stories. This may sound like a problem, but it actually can work to your advantage in two ways: You can use folktales from an English-speaking culture, or you can use stories from the students’ original cultures so students are already familiar enough with the plot and characters to focus on other aspects.

I’ve had the opportunity to do both of these over my career and found folktales can make fiction lessons interesting, but there are some things to consider before you hand out the readings and questions. These include:

  1. Don’t assume the students heard it before. Just as not every American child has heard the stories of Paul Bunyan, many students may not know tales common in their own culture. For example, I tried using stories about the foolish but kind-hearted jíbaro Juan Bobo and his race against a three-legged pot with a predominantly Puerto Rican class. A small fraction of the class instantly recognized the character and the story, a few more only knew the character, and the rest (particularly the students from the Dominican Republic) heard this story for the first time. I’m glad I had enough information about the character in my warm-up activity to get those students up to speed quickly.
  2. Make vocabulary work for you. My usual trick for adapting vocabulary is to use the “blah” test—I read through the lesson’s text and make a blah sound for each word my students won’t understand, and if I sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher I have a lot of rewriting to do. But if you are using a folktale from the students’ native culture, you may want to leave in the proper nouns and other terms that won’t translate so the students can get in some practice reading in their native language. I recently did this with an activity for Spanish-speaking students based around La Llorana and was surprised to find some of my students struggling with Spanish words. This gave me more insight into what was a language issue and what I should discuss with the special education instructor.
  3. Tackle the idioms. Many fables and folktales are the direct inspiration for idioms, and I try to work at least one into each folktale activity. It’s not hard to find a story about why it’s wrong to “count your chickens before they hatch” or work in a few pictures of “the straw that broke the camel’s back” for students unfamiliar with camels and how much they can carry. And some expressions, such as “sour grapes,” literally have a whole story behind them that could create a great opportunity for guided analysis.
  4. Break it down and build it back up. A short folktale has all of the elements of a story—characters, plot, setting, and conflict. Ideally, they will also have a moral that everything supports or builds up. This means you can easily have students look at how those features present and work with them to interpret the (often rather obvious) themes of the work. Students are expected to analyze literature for reading comprehension questions on standardized tests, so don’t miss the chance to do it with something shorter and with less complicated vocabulary than what is found in secondary mainstream English classes.

About Nathan Hall

Nathan Hall
Nathan Hall, MA TESOL, MS Education, lives in Pottstown, PA with his wife and two daughters. He has been involved in ESL since he volunteered as a tutor in 2001, which inspired him to leave the field of journalism for education. He has since taught English language learners in a variety of settings ranging from community programs to colleges as well as in several different types of middle schools and high schools. He is currently an ELL specialist at Achievement House Cyber Charter School in Exton, PA.
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