Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Turning the Page: Short Fiction for English Language Learners

Getting to grips with stories in the EFL environment is more than simply dealing with problematic vocabulary. It's all to do with context, and how words work together to form a greater whole. Finding the right trigger means students being able to exceed the "normal" lexical load.

However, I was recently reminded of what a conundrum it can be to choose an appropriate short story for language learners in Tunisia. In particular, choosing suitable material for those adolescent teens who seem to have a built-in aversion to reading anything longer than a text of 180 characters was causing much angst and pulling of hair.

The environment in which the teachers who reminded me of the conundrum were working was quite exacting. Their young charges were learning English as a fourth language in school (classical Arabic and French being rated higher in the pecking order) and were doing this in a culture where book reading has never flourished. Indeed, few books had ever been published in the mother tongue of Tunisian, so a habit of reading was unlikely to flourish. What is more, some of the language teachers I was talking to boasted that they had never, ever voluntarily read a book and that the concept of reading for pleasure was as alien a concept to them as walking on the moon.

What advice to give against such a background? I was well aware that unless the teachers were enthusiastic about the prospect of reading then there was little chance of the students lighting up when opening a book, even one of short stories. Even in the most ideal circumstances — where reading is an accepted part of the culture, where books may be encountered at home and where teachers of English might voluntarily pick up a book from time to time — choosing suitable reading material for young teenage language learners is a tricky problem. Usually the biggest difficulty is in matching the language level with the interest level, which has to be carefully sorted using an appropriate cultural filter.

The complaints of most teachers who have delved a little into this area is that books written for native speakers with an appropriate language level for their students are invariably books for much younger children. Using such texts would insult the emotional intelligence of their students as well as bore them. There seemed to be a reluctance to use simplified, or adapted, graded readers by many teachers, something which appears to derive from a rejection of them as "not being authentic." The existence of original graded readers did not seem to register much, something which might seem extraordinary to those who have been well aware of the enormous strides made in this field by most of the top ELT publishers.

Perhaps I detected another hint of "not authentic" in the sniffy looks of disapproval I got when I pointed along this path. This might have had something to do with the central place of the standard class textbook, an object of pure artificiality if ever there was one. The reasoning seemed to be that if one is going to make the effort to introduce materials additional to those in the course book then they ought to be as authentic as possible. "Why else would I bother?" seemed to be the tacit question.

There was less cold shouldering when I mentioned material written for reluctant readers who were also native speakers, and I leave you to work out the psychology behind that reaction. In particular I was referring to publications such as those produced by Barrington Stoke, whose titles include those by some well established names in writing for teenagers, or those recommended by Wordpool.

However, even here, where acceptance was given a feeble green light, the length of the pieces often caused mild panic. Anything that exceeded a thousand words seemed to be too long. Even when the number of words was reduced through the judicious use of pictures (for example, in the Oxford Bookworms starter levels) there was great suspicion. "It's not proper reading" was the response.

There were numerous conflicts in the messages I was hearing. The texts shouldn't be too difficult or too long, but at the same time there seemed to be a fear of anything that might appear too enjoyable or where an obvious effort had been made to consider the circumstances of the reader. It seemed to be a case of being damned if you did and damned if you didn't.

I did a brief survey among some three hundred teachers about their reading habits, and one of the results was that less than 20 percent regarded reading as even a remotely enjoyable activity. It seemed, then, that the majority assumed that their discomfort zone with reading would be shared with their students. It appeared to be an extension of the old adage about medicine that is good for you needing to taste bad: enjoyment does not equal learning.

The task at hand, then, was not to show teachers what a plethora of resources exist for them — there has never been a time when more diverse resources exist for the teacher who wants to encourage effective reading practices — but to show teachers themselves that not only can reading be a highly enjoyable and rewarding activity, but that it can lead to real gains in learning. Once the teachers were enthused, then getting the students on board would be relatively easy. That was the theory.

There was another theory. In this, "ownership" of the language is achieved through a creative engagement with the concept of narrative, and much of this is done as pre-reading activities. What I have found is that if students (and teachers) become engaged with the meaning of words through context and in a way that puts them in charge, then stories cease to become simply a series of tricky lexical items but a dynamic flow in which individual words work together to achieve a greater whole. This works for students, so perhaps it would work for teachers too.

I organized some activities where the aim was to ensure that the teachers became absorbed in what they were doing and began to equate having fun with learning something. Some of the materials I used were developed especially for this group of teachers; some were plundered from the BritLit treasure troves on the British Council Teaching English website and the WordPowered website. Much of the activity grew around the teacher's ability to create their own narratives built upon the skeletons of other people's stories (perhaps just individual words shorn of their context), to throw in unexpected elements, to assume the role of a rebellious teenager.

I took care to use only texts that could be transferred easily to classrooms and I tried to reduce the fear that some teachers feel when they realize that some students become more engaged in the activity than they. It began tentatively at first, then, with gathering strength, smiles and grins started to appear, turning to laughter and eventually enthusiastic voices were bubbling to volunteer their contribution. Naturally there remained one or two glum faces — there are always some who will never be convinced by anything other than a continuous diet of grammar tables and dictionary work — but after numerous sessions in different parts of the country over a period of two weeks I had converted around three hundred skeptics into potential aficionados.

The next stage, turning this enthusiasm into practical tools to use in the classroom is currently underway – and it's looking good!  It could be that the liberating aspects of the recent Tunisian Revolution are blowing fresh air into the Ministry of Education and into schools. Who knows? As a result it might be that thousands of Tunisian kids discover the delights of reading.

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Fitch O'Connell has been a teacher for longer than he cares to remember. He works as a materials writer and teacher trainer. In 2003 he set up the acclaimed BritLit project for the British Council in Portugal, and has worked since then to help establish a new place for literature in English language teaching. He also contributes to the WordPowered website, which brings together teachers of English by using short stories, poetry and film. He now works as a freelance consultant and is based in Europe. Click here to read more articles by Fitch O'Connell.