Children's Literature in Adult EFL Classrooms: Benefits and Pitfalls
Hsiang-Ni Lee and Mark Mallinder, Taiwan
Hsiang-Ni Lee is a professor at National Taitung University. She is interested in children’s literature, family literacy, literature-based reading instruction and material development. In the future, she also wishes to explore the multiple possibilities of utilizing technology in language education.
Mark Mallinder is an English instructor at National Changhua University of Education. He has been teaching a variety of college-level courses to Taiwanese EFL learners. His research interests include reading instruction and using multimedia in language classrooms.
Benefits for Adult EFL Learners
Pitfalls for adult EFL learners
Children’s literature cited
Abstract: Despite the general recognition of its helpfulness in adult EFL instruction, children’s literature has not been best utilized (Mikulecky, 2007). This paper highlights again the three major strengths of implementing such alternative teaching material in the beginning-level adult EFL classrooms, including providing authentic materials, promoting overall language proficiency as well as gaining an appreciation for different cultures. For the two concerns being identified, i.e. availability of quality children’s literature in EFL setting and adult students’ possible resistance, a few solutions are offered.
Using children’s literature for adult learners is not a new idea. In fact, it has been widely used in family literacy programs in the U.S. for adults with reading difficulties and is found to be an effective teaching tool. However, very little research has focused on ESL/EFL (English as a second/foreign language) adult learners’ reading development (National Center for Family Literacy, 2004) and, to our knowledge, even fewer attempts to investigate the usefulness of children’s literature in adult EFL settings. Those that have been carried out, take Ho’s study (2000) for instance, do not seem to provide solid evidence for their arguments; in her study, Ho concludes that the participating adult EFL students are interested in learning words that are not often seen in textbooks without reporting the actual vocabulary gain. Applying Krashen’s second language learning framework (1989), we argue that children’s literature can benefit beginning-level adult EFL learners the same way as it does for children. First, children’s literature is written in natural language so it exposes adult students to authentic reading material which otherwise might not be accessible. Second, children’s literature has delightful illustrations and often contains rich cultural information so it can serve as a great motivator for students to read more. Third, due to simplified semantic and syntactical structures, children’s literature provides comprehensible input and thus can trigger more learning. Note that these three strengths are in effect interdependent and inseparable, i.e. modified input can reduce stress and thus motivates reluctant readers.
1. Provide authentic learning materials
“Real-life” materials (Lightbown & Spada, 1998) are the key to successful learning of a second/foreign language. Children’s literature, accordingly, is appropriate reading material to be included in adult EFL classrooms as it tells interesting and sometimes sophisticated stories that even mature learners can relate to. For instance, female students who read The Piggy Book are very likely to associate with the character who leaves her family because of the uneven workload in the family. As well, adult students probably will appreciate the powerful stories of Mississippi Morning about racism or Michael Rosen’s Sad Book about grief at a deceased family member, which issues might also be happening in their own lives.
2. Develop language proficiency
Just as for children, if introduced properly, children’s literature can facilitate adult EFL learners’ listening and speaking skills. For instance, while engaging in class discussions about story plots, students need to negotiate meanings among one another; i.e. ask or be asked for clarification, confirmation and repetition of certain statements. Such social interaction provides continuous language input as well as pushed output which otherwise will not be possible in traditional Grammar/Translation classrooms. Ultimately, students are likely to improve their listening and speaking skills.
With regard to vocabulary and reading comprehension, children’s literature can be an effective tool for enlarging EFL learners’ vocabulary as the short-length texts and repeated language patterns not only lower the anxiety level EFL readers might have, but they also enhance comprehension of the story lines and meanings of key vocabulary words (Smallwood, 1992). The amount of word knowledge, as Laufer (1997) has suggested, is essential for successful L2 reading comprehension because transfer of L1 reading strategies to English will not occur if students have not acquired adequate vocabulary words.
Finally, adult EFL learners can also improve their writing skills as children’s literature familiarizes them with English rhetorical structures. By reading children’s books, student can then get a better understanding of rhetoric discourse organizations expected in English writing, such as thesis development and proper transitions. Even wordless picture books can be great prompts to facilitate creative writing (Bloem & Padak, 1996).
3. Prevent cultural alienation
Children’s literature that provides rich cultural information can prevent cultural alienation, which in turn promotes the adult EFL students’ motivation to learn. Even books that deal with different cultures other than English-speaking countries might still be appealing as students can expand their world knowledge. For instance, when studying the history of World War II, The Faithful Elephants would be a great book if teachers wish to teach about the tragic impact of war on ordinary Japanese and innocent animals. Baseball Saves Us and The Bracelet, which portray Japanese Americans’ lives in internment camps would also be good choices.
Children’s literature can also be a great tool for adult EFL learners to reflect on the notion of culture as the implicit power to privilege certain value systems and marginalize others in a society. For instance, if teachers wish to explore the issue of homosexuality, King & King and King & King & Family can be appropriate reading materials for students to start rethinking some critical questions about same-sex marriage and adoption. Similarly, by examining the stories Tea with Milk and Mississippi Morning, L2 students are likely to gain insight into their self-positioning as foreign language learners and thus function more efficiently in cross-cultural communication. Lewison and Leland (2002) further suggest how teachers can facilitate students’ critical reflection by means of several inquiry approaches; they are 1. Interrogating the commonplace: to ask questions about issues or phenomena that are taken for granted. 2. Questioning power relationships: to make students aware of the fact that language possesses power that serves only certain social-cultural groups. 3. Appreciating multiple realities and viewpoints: to have students live through someone else’s experience through reading and develop new understanding and appreciation for other socio-cultural communities.
ll, as suggested, children’s literature can be suitable reading material for students of all ages ( Bishop & Hickman, 1992). For beginning adult EFL learners, not only can their overall language and literacy proficiency benefit, but they can also become more motivated learners and more efficient in cross-cultural communication.
Quality books are only effective if they are introduced properly to students for the right purpose. Teachers should be as sensitive to the issues of cultural authenticity and balanced gender images when choosing books for their adult students as for young children because reading materials that portray incorrect or biased images of any particular social-cultural communities can be misleading or offensive. Attention should also be directed to teacher preparation so that teachers can be equipped with recent and sufficient knowledge for implementing a literature-based approach.
Two concerns, however, must be taken into account if educators want to best utilize children’s literature to teach adult EFL learners. First, adults might be resistant to reading children’s books due to an association of children’s books with immature materials. Second, access to quality and updated children’s literature can be a potential problem for both the teachers and the students in EFL settings.
Bloem and Padak (1996) suggest that adults will not take offense if books have proper titles and are presented carefully. However, EFL adult students have varied L1 literacy proficiency; some might be illiterate in their native language but some others might be well-educated and thus have fairly high L1 literacy knowledge. The latter, as a result, being skilled readers that can actually enjoy reading lengthy novels or advanced academic reports, might be resistant to the thought of reading materials categorized as children’s books.
Another reason for causing resistance among students could be that those whose native countries do not have or value literacy might not appreciate literacy activities. Finally, some adult students can be so accustomed to the Grammar/Translation Method that they reject any other materials and instructions that do not focus on teaching explicit grammatical rules.
To resolve students’ resistance, teachers should choose books that are appropriate for students’ linguistic development as well as their age. Bishop and Hickman (1992) suggest teachers look for books that are longer and presume certain amount of life experience and world knowledge. The reading material should also contain issues that adults can relate to (Eskey, 1997). Finally, Ho (2000) and Smallwood (1992) state that students will be more likely to enjoy stories that have some adult protagonists.
In terms of instruction, teachers should provide clear and explicit explanation about why and how children’s literature can and will be included as part of the curriculum, i.e. the interdependent relation between literacy development and overall language skills. Teachers can even consider bringing in comic-format books for adult L2 students to read so they can realize that the picture book format is not only for children.
For students who have children, teachers might also want to stress the usefulness of learning about children’s literature for both the parents’ and the children’s sake. Enemy Pie dealing with making new friends can be a book that both parents and children find interesting.
Due to geographic constraint, quality children’s literature may not be accessed with ease. Very likely, only award-winning books are selected for publication so many other good quality children’s books are left out. Even if books can be ordered from overseas, the cost of international shipping might be discouraging for teachers who wish to try out such materials in their classrooms or students who start to develop an interest in children’s literature.
Accessibility is the most problematic should we wish to create a literature-based reading classroom rich with quality children’s books. One solution could be to start a classroom library where each adult student donates one book for everyone to share. Another possible solution could be collaborating with local libraries to purchase more quality children’s literature that students can access for class or for personal delight. Still another possibility could be that, upon proper copyright authorization, companies consider publishing electronic children’s books for students to view on online.
EFL adult students often seem to be trapped in the “cycle of frustration” Nuttall (1996) described. That is, due to the traditional exam-driven curricula, adult learners often limit their reading to grammar books, textbooks, and English learning magazines. Subsequently, as they deny themselves access to interesting and authentic materials and the opportunity to read for the sole purpose of pleasure, those students become more reluctant to devote time and energy to reading. As a result of lacking substantial amount of reading, they eventually seem unable to demonstrate noticeable and continuous language development (Chen, 1998). To break this vicious circle and hope for students’ better improvement in English, it seems urgent that EFL language teachers utilize alternative materials, especially children’s literature, to foster favorable learning attitudes among students.
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Please check the Literature course at Pilgrims website.