Volume II - 1994
Reading for Pleasure: Short Novels in Academic University ESL Programs
by Christine F. Meloni
Dr. Christine F. Meloni is an associate professor of English as a Foreign Language at The George Washington University in Washington, DC. She is co-author of Say The Right Thing: A Functional Approach to Developing Speaking Skills (Addison-Wesley) and author of articles on second language teaching and learning. Her current areas of special interest are the use of literature and films in teaching reading and the use of electronic mail in developing writing skills.
"No Pain, No Gain."
We hear this slogan often today. We are persuaded that our bodies will not be fit unless we subject them to exercise that we really do not enjoy but know will have beneficial results. We hear over and over again that, in order to succeed at anything, we will need to engage in a lot of hard, unpleasant work. Too often this is the unspoken slogan in the foreign language classroom. In order to become better readers, students must take a piece of writing and work on it. They will be asked to skim the passage for the main idea, to scan it for specific information, to search it for topic sentences, to paraphrase it, to summarize it, to infer this, to analyze that. It is definitely not fun; it is work.
At the end of the course are the students better readers? According to experts like Steven Krashen, this method of teaching reading is not effective. Krashen (1994) contends that, strange as it may seem, the more students enjoy their reading assignments, the more they improve their language ability. He suggests, therefore, that we take into serious consideration "the pleasure hypothesis." Why don't we give students opportunities for extensive reading so that they will be able to find enjoyment in their assignments?
The evidence is beginning to accumulate that students who do extensive reading for pleasure improve their reading skills faster than those who focus on intensive reading. In their 1992 article in College ESL, "Let Them Read Books," Martino and Block cite studies in which students who are in courses where extensive reading is done perform better on reading tests than students who are in courses that focus on skill-building strategies.
For several years in my higher-intermediate EFL class (TOEFL scores ranging from 450-500), I used a reading text similar to many on the market which contained short readings of one to three pages on topics related to a variety of academic disciplines; each reading was followed by numerous pages of skill-building exercises. The students did a lot of skills practice and very little actual reading. In order to increase the amount of reading and to provide more interesting content, I decided to supplement the textbook with a work of literature, a short novel. I noticed immediately that the students were more motivated to do their reading assignments and that their reading habits began to change. They read their assignments more eagerly and were filled with anticipation about what was to follow. They also began to worry less about the meaning of each word as they focused on the overall meaning. Therefore, the following semester I eliminated the textbook; since then, novels and short stories have constituted the core of the course, supplemented with films and non-fiction materials (largely magazine and journal articles) relevant to the literary themes.
However, from conversations I have had with colleagues at universities throughout the United States, resistance to the use of literature is quite strong although it is obviously weakening as a perusal of presentation titles in recent TESOL convention programs will affirm. When the possibility of using literature is mentioned, the response is frequently something like:
"Oh, no! We must give the students 'academic' readings. Literature will be of no use. The language will be too literary, not practical or relevant to what the students are doing."
How can one respond to this criticism? Let's consider three basic reasons for introducing literature. Why Literature?
A. Linguistic Reasons :
Many writers point out that literature can serve as a linguistic model. Povey (1979) makes an observation of timeless relevance:
Literature gives evidence of the widest variety of syntax, the richest variations of vocabulary discrimination. It provides examples of the language employed at its most effective, subtle, and suggestive. (p. 162)
Sage (1987) comments on the use of communicative strategies in literature:
Through literature, sooner or later, the student encounters nearly every kind of communicative technique speakers use or think of using. Literature displays a broader range of such communication strategies than any other single ESL teaching component. (p. 6)
B. Cognitive Reasons :
In addition to helping the students learn more about the target language, literature can help students to develop critical thinking skills as they ponder the issues raised in the text and examine their own feelings in regard to them. Assignments can be given which require creative, original thinking. Students are required to relate their own thoughts and positions and cannot merely parrot back what the instructor has said.
C. Aesthetic Reasons:
In addition to the more practical reasons, McConochie (1982) points out that students deserve to know that English can be a beautiful language. They should be allowed to encounter the language at its best, to see how outstanding writers have made use of the words of English to describe places and events and to express human feelings. They should also hear the beauty of the sounds of English. Literature can be read aloud very effectively and can give the students a real sense of the powerful beauty of English.
Which Literary Form?
If one decides to include literature in the curriculum, what literary form should one choose? I personally like to use short novels, short stories, and an occasional poem. When I first began to use literature in order to engage the students in longer readings, I began with novels. My first choice was Orwell's Animal Farm which I have since used several times. When I taught a technical reading course, I used Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. I have also used Steinbeck's The Pearl, Tan's The Joy Luck Club, and Christy's And Then There Were None which are all approximately 100 pages, which I consider an ideal length. (See the Appendix for a list of additional novels that colleagues have used with success.)
Why Short Novels?
Why did I decide to use a short novel? I had three basic reasons: content continuity, motivation, and vocabulary development.
A. Content Continuity :
One of my principal objections to the readings in the standard reading texts was their extreme brevity. A short novel, on the other hand, has from 100 to 200 pages. Animal Farm, for example, is divided into ten chapters and has a total of 128 pages in the Signet Classic edition. A work of this length can provide many lessons over several weeks and offer valuable continuity of content. In any academic courses that our students will take--whether history, anthropology, literature, or chemistry--there will be continuity of content. In ESL/EFL reading texts, however, there are often artificial and frustrating leaps from one subject to another.
When I tell students at the beginning of the semester that they will be reading entire books, they can hardly believe their ears. Most of them have never read a book in English and consider it an exciting challenge. The fact that these books are not texts adapted and prepared for learners of English but rather written for native speakers is highly motivating.
Students particularly enjoy books that native speakers are currently reading. Animal Farm is a popular classic which is found in virtually any bookstore in the United States. It is frequently used in English literature and political science courses, and the sentence "All animals are equal but some are more equal than others" is widely quoted. Books currently on best seller lists are very motivating. I now include at least one current best seller in my course syllabus. This past semester, my students read The Joy Luck Club and the nonfiction book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, both best-sellers and the former also very popular in its recently released film version.
C. Vocabulary Development:
It is a well-known fact that there is a strong correlation between the amount of reading individuals do and the size of their vocabulary. Students should, therefore, be given a great deal of material to read. No matter how many words an instructor teaches (or attempts to teach) in the classroom, the number learned will never equal what a student can learn by reading extensively.
When I ask my students to evaluate their experience reading novels, they all inevitably mention the great increase in the size of their vocabulary as one of the major advantages. Because of their need to create images in the reader's mind, authors of works of fiction generally use a much greater variety of words than writers of nonfiction
Students also note that, while reading novels, they learn how to use their dictionaries much more effectively. Because they are focusing on the overall meaning of what they are reading, they stop looking up every unknown word that they encounter. A Japanese student wrote the following comment in her reading journal in regard to her dictionary habits:
I was a dictionary person until Chapter 5 [of Animal Farm]. Whenever I found unknown words, I used to look them up in a dictionary, and write them in my vocabulary notebook. ...But I gradually came not to care which words I didn't know. I learned very well how to read English book from reading Animal Farm. (K. Adachi)
How to Choose Novels for the Classroom?
I have a checklist of criteria that I use when I am looking for an appropriate novel to include in my course syllabus.
1.Length of novel:
I personally think that 100-150 pages is an ideal length, particularly at the higher-intermediate level. I have found that my students feel comfortable reading 10-15 pages per night (although at first they find it truly overwhelming). At this rate a book can be covered in approximately 7-10 lessons. If more than ten lessons are spent on a single book, students' attention often begins to waver. If a book, however, contains a lot of dialogue, the students can read more rapidly and, therefore, a book of 200-250 pages might not be too long to cover in ten lessons.
Finding a novel written for native speakers that higher-intermediate ESL/EFL students can read with relative ease is not easy. The language should be a bit challenging, of course, in order for the students to progress to another level of reading comprehension, but it should not be anywhere near the frustration level. Although "scientific" tests of reading difficulty can be applied to a text, experienced teachers should be able to gauge what their students can and cannot read.
3. Available film or video:
I like to select novels that have films based on them. I recommend that students read the novel first. I have found that, if they view the film prior to reading the book, they are unable to interact creatively with the text because their imagination is severely hampered. They may loose all interest in the book after the possibility to create and the element of anticipation are destroyed.
One of my students confessed that she had viewed the Animal Farm film after reading only a few chapters of the book. She found the book less interesting because she was robbed of the opportunity of creating images of the animals in her mind.
Watching a film after reading a book is usually a very satisfying and enjoyable experience. When reading the novel before seeing the film, most of my students say that they prefer the book version.
I also like to show my students films on related themes. These films may be educational films or feature films. It helps develop the students critical thinking skills to find commonalties among the readings and the films and to synthesize the knowledge. After reading The Joy Luck Club, for example, my students viewed two films, the film version of the book and a feature film entitled "A China Wall." The theme of both is the clashing of Chinese and American cultures.
4. Action versus Description:
Ideally, there should be more action than description in the novel. Novels with a considerable amount of description usually tend to bore the students. One notable exception that I have found is Steinbeck's The Pearl which contains a great deal of description; most students, however, find the description extremely beautiful and enjoy the novel.
5 . Appeal to students' taste:
Instructors must, of course, consider the students' tastes. What are the ages of the students? C.S. Lewis' wonderful classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe might be appreciated by undergraduates but not by graduate students. What are their majors? If the students are majoring in engineering or computer science, they would most likely find 2001: A Space Odyssey fascinating. What are their nationalities? If they are Asians, The Joy Luck Club would probably be read with keen interest. It is, of course, to be expected that, whatever novel is chosen, not all of the students will find it to their liking.
6. Appeal to instructor's taste:
The instructor must feel comfortable with the novel to be taught. As all instructors know, it is very difficult to teach a course with materials not compatible with one's teaching philosophy or with one's personality. Recently, I was strongly encouraged by several colleagues to adopt Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Although it is definitely a great novel and has been enjoyed by many students and instructors, I was too disturbed by the tragic ending to consider adding it to my syllabus.
7. Size of print:
It is frustrating to read a foreign language in small print, especially if the alphabet is different from one's own. I prefer to remove any obstacles to reading enjoyment that I can, and I, therefore, insist on normal print. (I also always steer clear of paperback dictionaries that have many words but tiny print.)
8. Price of book:
The cost of the book should not be excessive. One usual advantage of a popular novel is its price. Paperback novels are usually considerably less expensive than the average textbook.
Krashen has argued that plenty of comprehensible input may be the most important factor in second language acquisition. We, therefore, need to provide as much input as we can. Novels that are well chosen offer an excellent source of "plenty of comprehensible input."
While reading novels, students focus on content and develop fluency. They begin to enjoy reading; most of them up until this point have found reading in English a difficult chore, definitely not enjoyable. By reading and understanding longer readings, they increase their self-confidence. Literature should have a very important place in the ESL/EFL curriculum. Students can make great strides in acquiring a language through extensive reading of literature.
Krashen, S. (1994, February 23). Teleconference "From Theory to Practice" sponsored by McGraw-Hill.
McConochie, J. (1982). "All This Fiddle: Enhancing Language Awareness through Poetry." On Tesol '81. M. Hines and W. Rutherford, Ed. Washington, DC: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.
Martino, M. and Block, E. (1992, December). "Let Them Read Books." College ESL. v.2, 12-20.
Povey, J.F. (1979). "The Teaching of Literature in Advanced ESL Classes." In L. McIntosh & M. Celce-Murcia (Eds.), Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language (pp. 162-186). Rowley, MA: Newbury Houge.
Sage, H. (1987). Incorporating Literature in ESL Literature. Language in Education: Theory and Practice series. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.
May We Suggest.....?*
2001: A Space Odyssey
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
The Accidental Tourist
Of Mice and Men
Old Man and the Sea
John Oliver Lafarge
The Pearl Bridge to Terebithia
Restaurant at the End of the Universe
Death of Jim
A River Runs through It
Diary of Anne Frank
Room with a View
Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Flowers for Algernon
Single White Female
Fried Green Tomatoes
To Kill a Mockingbird
I am One of You
Way to Rainy Mountain
Island of the Dolphins
Winter in the Blood
Wrinkle in Time
A Zoo in My Luggage
Iacocca Plays by Ray Bradbury
Iron and Silk
* Many of the titles listed above were suggested by my colleagues on the TESL-L List. I gratefully acknowledge their suggestions. Note that a few of the titles are not short novels but nonfiction
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