Volume IV - 1997

Children's Literature in Adult EFL Classes: Learning through Response
by Carl Tomlinson and Rhoda McGraw

         Carl Tomlinson is Professor of Language Arts and Children's Literature in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, IL. He is the co-author of Essentials of Children's Literature (Allyn & Bacon, 1996).
Rhoda McGraw teaches English as a Foreign Language at the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussees in Paris, France. She is also an instructor in the TEFL Certificate Program of WICE/Rutgers State University in Paris.

         The course description posted at class registration read:

The Children of War

         In this course, we will explore young people 's interpretations of their experience of war. As the basis of our reflection, we will use texts created for and about young people around the world. Each session will include listening practice in the language laboratory, as well as reading and writing activities and discussion.

         This course was the result of a two-year-long, trans-Atlantic collaboration between an EFL teacher in France and a children' s literature specialist in Illinois. It was designed as one of a number of 20-hour, 10-week courses in which learners study an interesting subject in English. We hoped to find out whether children's and young adult literature, carefully selected for quality and topic-relatedness, could be used successfully as learning materials in a university level EFL course. Would highly educated adults accept reading material that was obviously meant for children and young adults? Would they find it interesting and, therefore, read more in class and at home and respond enthusiastically to these stories in classroom activities?

Review of Related Literature

         In designing this course, the authors drew upon the tenets of whole language and content- based instruction. The principles of the whole language approach and its applicability to second language teaching, as presented by Edelsky (1993), Enright & McCloskey (1988), Gursky (1991), and Rigg (1991) assert the need for real language activities that are relevant to learners' interests and lives (meaning-centered curriculum), as well as respect for learners' intellect, culture, work, and choices (student-centered instruction). We believed that the universally compelling topic of war, when presented from the unusual perspective of children, would be manifestly interesting. In selecting thought-provoking stories of the highest literary quality and from many international sources to share with learners, we endeavored to be respectful of their intellect and cultures.

         Content-based instruction and its connections to second language teaching have been treated by Brinton, Snow, & Wesche (1989), Crandall (1993), Mohan (1986; 1990), Snow (1991), and Stoller & Grabe (1995), among others. The basic principles applied in "The Children of War" include organizing instruction around themes selected to appeal to learners' interests; providing rich and diverse materials from a variety of sources, including everything that learners produce; focusing on content rather than on language; providing information about the language as needed; allowing self-choice within a range determined by the instructor; and integrating all literacy skills through classroom activities. A hallmark of the English program where the course was offered is that no firm distinction is made between language courses on the one hand, and theme or content courses on the other. While all courses in the program are intended to help learners improve their English, students' goals in these courses vary from learning details of the language to studying something new or interesting in the world.

         The benefits of extensive free reading to overall language proficiency have been investigated by Elley (1991), Hafiz & Tudor (1989), and Krashen (1993). These studies showed free reading alone to be as effective as other forms of instruction, or even more effective. In "The Children of War" course, an extensive, topic-specific library and reading time were provided. Reports of research studies in which children's literature has been used in adult ESL classes are few, although a number of articles provide a rationale for the practice. For instance, Khodabakhshi and Lagos (1993) advocate reading aloud works of children's literature in college ESL classes as a way to improve learners' reading and listening skills. Advocates of this practice point to these materials' interest for learners as their primary advantage.

         The concept of interest and its effect on learner motivation was central to our investigation. Researchers providing insights into the nature of interest include Keller (1983) and Crookes & Schmidt (1991), who review the psychological foundations of motivation as it relates to second language learning, and Csikszentmihalyi (1991), who analyzes interest in terms of enjoyment and describes it as intrinsically rewarding. Anderson, Shirey, Wilson, & Fielding (1987) show the remarkably positive effect of "interestingness" of reading material on the reading comprehension of younger learners. We hypothesized that the compelling nature of the stories to be used as materials in this course would generate enough interest in learners to overcome any initial prejudices they might have against reading literature meant for children.

The Students, The Course, and a Typical Class Session

         The course, "The Children of War," was taught in a highly selective type of French engineering school called a Grande Ecole. Students at this school, though academically advanced, often view their years at the Grande Ecole as a break before entering the world of work, and sometimes feel indifferent about many of their courses, and negative, or at least ambivalent, about language instruction in general and the English language in particular. Motivation of these students is a real challenge to instructors.

         The seven classes that took the course were adult, mixed-level groups of 12-14 participants. The course was divided into 10 weekly, two-hour sessions. In each session, both learners and instructor were responsible for providing material. Outside class, in preparation for a session, different learners did different things. Some read texts of their own choosing pertinent to the course theme and wrote short response papers. Most chose from the materials selected by the authors and made available to the class. In class, learners listened to 5-20 minutes of taped excerpts from selected works of children's literature, and did activities related to the listening. These included writing transcripts of the tape; repeating after the tape; and recording their own reading of the literary selection or their own stories or ideas. The learners also presented the papers that they had prepared at home, and read silently during a "library" period (Howells & McGraw, 1990).

         After listening to the taped excerpts, learners were engaged in activities intended to facilitate group communication. These activities were done in small groups or with the whole class and typically ran for half an hour. Learners retold stories, asked each other questions, commented on quotations from the listening text, or told each other their reactions to what they had heard. They often were given a few minutes to prepare their comments or questions in written form. Learners usually divided into small groups to talk about the papers they had written at home. One activity that proved particularly effective in ensuring that learners listened to one another was to have them write questions about one or more of the papers as they listened, and then to interview the authors in turn after the presentations.

         Central to this course was the collection of children's and young adult literature related to the course theme. The topic of children and war was chosen because of its inherent issues, its relevance to the contemporary world, and the abundance of high quality children's and young adult books from many countries available in English on this topic. In all, some forty works of excellent contemporary and classic children's and young adult literature set in Europe, Asia, theMiddle East, Africa, Central America, and North America were made available to students. (See Appendix for a complete list of library materials.) During the half-hour "library" time, learners read any text they chose from the collection of reading materials supplied by the instructor. They read as many different texts as they wished, either in whole or in part. While learners were encouraged to take these texts home, they were not required to do so. Throughout each session, information about the English language was provided as needed. Dictionaries and grammar books were available for consultation at any time. The instructor answered questions about problems as they arose, and noted mistakes to discuss during a 5-10 minute segment of the 2-hour session. One of the ten sessions was devoted to two formal debates that served as culminating activities for the unit. After several weeks of preparation, learners debated topics that they themselves had proposed and selected. A sampling of the proposed debate topics is given below:

Violence in films is bad for children
War is inevitable
Pilots who drop bombs during a war should feel remorseful
History has not taught us how to avoid war
Violence and war are ways to resolve conflicts
Myths or ideals of heroism are closely linked to war
We must have strong armies if we want peace
Capitalism causes war and poverty
Violence on television must be censored
The French nuclear tests must go on
Children should be taught about war in school

         Evaluation in this course was holistic, and so the more traditional measures of isolated language skills were not used. Rather, evaluation was based on students' writing, their speaking in class, their participation in classroom activities, and their engagement with the literature. In general, the learners demonstrated a high degree of involvement, and they showed the same gains which they show in other content-based modules in the program. (Preliminary data from pre-post cloze tests even seem to suggest that the gains were greater, but the nature of the program makes it difficult to draw conclusions about a single module.) While some students expressed dissatisfaction about working on such a disturbing theme, their writing and discussion revealed that the experience had pushed them to think hard about the issues raised.


         Learners' Writing. Students wrote regularly in response to the literature they read. Their responses included literary criticism, original stories and poems, letters, plot summaries, and personal statements. The following examples demonstrate the depth of thought and feeling and the range of language elicited through response to such stories as AK (Dickinson, 1990), an account of a "boy- soldier" caught up in the civil warfare of his African homeland.

         All activities and materials were designed and selected to focus on content rather than language, to enable learners to develop and present their own ideas, to promote their involvement with the material and with each other, and to provide practice in reading, writing, listening, and speaking (Howells & McGraw, 1990).

The war, yes, the war.
I was a soldier,
The cowardest [cowardliest] and the bravest .
We went into the house and we shoot the curtains;
We soiled the drawing room of [with] mud.
The kitchen was flooded,
But the water couldn't put on [out] the fear.

         The following commentary is also in response to A.K:

         These boys are experiencing war and their life is war, so they have no future, they have no idea about a normal life. But, what did [would] happen if, on one day, the war stop? Can they survive without war?
- Benoit

         In response to the novel, Grace in the Wilderness: After the Liberation, 1945-1948 (Siegel, 1985), one learner parallels the children's work and several adult works:

         Despite its being, generally speaking, a dramatic question, the problem of the Children of War lets appear a few good points in [about] human behavior. As a matter of fact, I would like to speak about fabulous acts which have been enlightened [have happened] in such circumstances. I am reading "Grace in the Wilderness" by Aranka Siegel. Here is a short summary of the first half: In the aftermath of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, Piri and her sister, two Hungarian girls, are taken in by the Swedish Red Cross. So, they are welcomed by a lot of Swedish people, who are very nice to them.
Through this example, or other[s] like the wonderful film by Spielberg "The Schindler's List," I would like to underline something we should never forget: even if some people are awfully crazy and dangerous (Hitler, Hess...), a lot of persons are often unknown because kindness is always linked to modesty. So, it is easy to have a bad opinion about general human behavior by taking into account only a human monster's cruel acts. It is surprising that the book "Grace in the Wilderness " should have a positive effect on me. If I did not convice [convince] you (but it was not the goal, I understand different points of views), you can also read "La Force du Bien " by Markek Halter because, if I can trust friends of mine would [who] told me about this book, his ideas are near mine. I would like to conclude with this sentence: In life, believing in human nobleness of mind is at the root of motivation.

         The following original character study reveals the impact of the reading materials on learners:

         Everything had changed for him. White became black, but black was still black. When he was still in the hospital, he heard a doctor talking to a well-dressed man: "He must go to your orphan's home! " The feeling of loneliness was so hard for him that he didn't stop crying almost all days. In this orphan's home he realized that he wasn't the only orphan in the world, so this calmed him a little, and day by day he became [began] to fit on [into] his new life. Ten years passed and he seemed to forget what happened, but when he saw some little boys with their mother, his face became dark, and he felt sick. In this home, he was educated and after[wards] he had a job in a factory. He was married. All his friends were there to congratulate him, but his happiness wasn't great, especially when he saw his wife kissing her mother.
- Khalid

         The following letter to the French President was in response to two picture books, Hiroshima No Pika (Maruki, 1980), a Japanese family's experience of living through the atomic blast in Hiroshima, and The Bomb and the General (Eco & Carmi, 1989), an allegory about the politics of war.

Mr. Chirac,
This is not a provocative letter, as you must have received a lot, but an interrogative one. Indeed, I would like to ask you about a few points dealing with the French nuclear tests, with all due deference to the President of my country. You can't be reproached the facts by a simple citizen like me, but this simple citizen suffers from the very tactlesness of his president.

         Learners' Speaking in Class. When speaking activities led to spontaneous exchanges among the students, there was often a surprising amount of emotional involvement, sometimes based on the learners' own life experiences. For example, in one group there was a person born in Palestine who had never heard of the Holocaust, along with a German student who was struggling to understand it. The two learners first began talking in response to a nonfiction account of the holocaust, Smoke and Ashes (Rogasky, 1988), and their encounter ultimately led to a formal class debate about how and when children should be taught about war in school. Interestingly, one group refused to continue the course after three lessons as a result of having a series of intense discussions. The participants said that they felt that such a degree of intensity was inappropriate for a classroom language-learning activity.

         Learners' Participation in Classroom Activities. Throughout the process of organizing the formal debates, the learners gave evidence of their involvement with the materials and with each other. Most of their ideas for debate topics grew out of other activities, both written and spoken. In the debates, the learners' responses to the literature led them into some areas of reflection that could not easily have been imposed, such as "Capitalism causes war and poverty." Such topics created great excitement and interest when they came from the students. In conclusion to the debate on "History has not taught us how to avoid war," one student eloquently stated that history has indeed taught us how to avoid war, but we have been bad students. There was one slight problem with the debates: some of the students became so involved in their speeches that they became angry when the timekeepers called time.

         Learners' Engagement with the Materials. Although most classes responded favorably to the materials in the course, some found the subject depressing. When learners were unhappy with the materials, it was almost always the ideas or content that bothered them, not the fact that the books were intended for younger people. As mentioned above, one group demanded that the instructor change the content of the course after three lessons. So much for the widely held notion that all children's books are "cute." All other classes and the majority of learners in them, on the other hand, experienced, through the course, a newfound appreciation for the quality, complexity, and depth of children's and young adult books, as the following responses indicate:

         The use of such documents [children's books] was interesting for 3 reasons. The first one is that children['s] material is quite easy to understand. Indeed, in the different stories that we studied there were no understanding difficulties, what [which] allowed us to speak clearly about the problems raised in the stories. Another point is that children documents are often peasants. First of all, these are short stories which allow rapid reading and study. Also, books for children are illustrated with pictures, which makes the reading easier and nicer. Finally, the subjects are original ones like in the "Bomb and the General" or in "Faithful Elephants." Then, the third advantage in using children's materials was that it was close to the subject of the course. It could have been possible to deal with "Children of war" using only grown-up documents, but it would have been more boring. The fact that the way children live wars was presented by children themselves or through documents for children is a good point. For example, thanks to them, we have been able to deal with the important problem of what can be shown to children about violence and war.
- David

         More often than not, the students [in this class] have not much time for reading English books, and could be easily discouraged in trying to read too complicated books. That's why I think that the literature for young adults is really efficient because it enables us to read books very quickly and to improve easily our level in English. In the texts that we studied, there was often a main idea linked to a message that the author wanted to give to the children. On the one hand, this main idea was a good starting-point for our debates. On the other hand, we sometimes didn't succeed in going beyond this idea and having more elaborated thoughts.
- Jerome

         It seems very difficult to be joyous and full of life when you listen to the story of a poor child trying to get through a terrible war. And I must admit I usually speak of the misery of the world with half a heart. Nevertheless is the support [materials] of this course (pieces of children's literature) very interesting. First it is a way to stop and look back at a part of our past. Until now, I knew this type of literature only as a child, which is not surprising. It is a way to compare our remembrance and memory with our feelings of [as] adults. We can think about what children are seeking for and what adults are proposing as response: not always to tell nice stories.
         Indeed a story written for children has its own interest (I mean read by an adult, not only by a child). By definition, it cannot be chaotic nor obscure: the child would fall asleep after the first sentence, or at least get bored after the first one. Such a story is necessarily deeply careful and considered. The narrator must be clear and precise. The narrator must have thought about it, have found the right words. Nothing can be casual. The words which are used have been chosen in conscience. You cannot hide yourself behind a story for children.
         That's why it is very interesting to see how a subject or an event is treated in such a story. Because you can see very easily what the author wanted the child to understand and to remember. And this is considerable. What we want our children to remember is often the most fundamental certainties of our societies. All is education in the life of a child, even when he goes to bed. To be able to reach these certainties of a time is very precius if you want to know this time. In the same idea, school books [textbooks] can be very interesting. If there is a try [attempt] of manipulation, it appears immediately in children literature or in a school book.
         But school books don't have a quality that have most of the stories in children's literature.. They are nice (when not speaking of dirty wars) and well-told. The illustrations are often beautiful. They always look like innocent, almost frivolous, while most of the time they are not. That 's why they are so fascinating.

         Several aspects of the learners' behavior further demonstrated their engagement with the materials. The "library" was quite active during the course, with much lending and recommending among learners, as well as between learners and their instructor. During the months following their experience with the course, some former participants mentioned it in their work for other modules, showing that their frame of reference in thinking about global issues had expanded to include children. One learner even appeared, a few months after finishing "Children of War," with a dog-eared copy of The Diary of Anne Frank (Frank, 1952) which he was offering to replace because he had worn it out. After explaining that he had become fascinated with this story and was eager to know more, he left with Smoke and Ashes (Rogasky, 1988), Beyond the Diary (van der Rol & Verhoeven, 1993), and a new copy of the diary itself.


         Through this project, we hoped to find whether children's and young adult literature, carefully selected for quality and topic-relatedness, could be used successfully as learning material in a university level EFL course. Would highly educated adults find this material interesting and, therefore, read more in class and at home and respond enthusiastically to these stories in classroom activities? Based on the learners' written and verbal comments in response to this literature, as well as on their nonverbal behaviors that indicated a high level of engagement with the reading material, we believe that this material can be used successfully with adult EFL learners. Essential to this success are the availability of a wide range of excellent works of literature, free choice of the materials to be read, and regular opportunities to read and respond to the literature.

         Anyone interested in using children's and young adult books as they were used in this project must be prepared to confront initial prejudices that learners might have against reading literature meant for children. Our experience was that, almost despite themselves, learners were intrigued by these books, coming back to them again and again, requesting to take them home to read and reread, and buying copies of the entire book where only excerpts were provided. These behaviors applied even to learners who stated in writing that children's literature was not for them.

         This project also served to confirm to the authors the great value of collaboration across fields. In investigating research relevant to our project, we noted, on the one hand, the fundamental similarity of pedagogy across fields and, on the other, the lack of recognition by researchers in one field of related work existing in other fields. We began with a shared belief in the whole language approach to teaching and the power of good literature to capture learners' interest. As a result of our collaboration, we read across fields to discover even deeper connections and shared pedagogical beliefs. Each field has much to offer the other.


Anderson, R. C., L. Shirey, P. Wilson, & L. Fielding, (1987). "Interestingness of Children's Reading Material." In Snow, R. E., & M. J. Farr, eds., Aptitude, Learning, and Instruction, Vol. 3. Conative & Affective Process Analysis (pp. 287-299). Hillsdale, N.J.: Earlbaum.

Brinton, D., M. A. Snow , & M. Wesche, (1989). Content-Based Second Language Instruction. New York: Newbury House.

Crandell, J. A. (1993). "Content-Based Instruction." In W. Grabe et al. eds., Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 13, Issues in Second Language Teaching and Learning (pp. 111-126). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Crookes, G. & R. Schmidt, (1989). "Motivation: Reopening the Research Agenda." University of Hawaii Working Papers in ESL, 8, 217- 256.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991)." Literacy and Intrinsic Motivation." In S. Graubard, ed., Literacy: An Overview by 14 Experts (pp. 115-140). New York: Noonday Press.

Edelsky, C. (1993). "Whole Language in Perspective." TESOL Ouarterly, 27 (3), 548-550.

Elley, W. (1991). "Acquiring Literacy in a Second Language: The Effect of Book- Based Programs." Language Learning, 41 (3), 375-410.

Enright, D. S. & M. L. McCloskey. (1988). Integrating English: Developing English Language and Literacy in the Multilingual Classroom. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Gursky, D. (1991). "After the Reign of Dick and Jane." Teacher Magazine (Whole Language: A Special Report), 2 (9), 22-29.

Hafiz, F. M. & I. Tudor. (1989). "Extensive Reading and the Development of Language Skills." ELT Journal, 43 (1), 4-13.

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Khodabakhshi, S. C. and D. C. Lagos. (1993) "Reading Aloud: Children's Literature in College ESL Classes." Journal of the Imagination in Language Learning, 1, 52-55.

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Mohan, B. (1986). Language and Content. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

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Stoller, F. & W. Grabe. (1995). "New Directions in Content-Based Instruction: A Six-Ts Approach." Paper presented at TESOL Conference, Long Beach, CA.


Library Materials for "The Children of War"

War in Asia

Year of Impossible Good-Byes, Sook Nyul Choi. Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
In the Eye of War, Margaret and Rayrnond Chang. McElderry, 1990.
Journey to Tapaz, Yoshiko Uchida. Creative Arts, 1971.
Hiroshima No Pika, Toshi Maruki. Lothrop, 1980.
Faithfful Elephants, Yukio Tsuchiya. Illustrated by Ted Lewin. Houghton Mifflin, 1988.
House of Sixty Fathers, Meindert Dejong. Harper & Row, 1956.
In the Tunnels, William Sleator. In Marion Dane Bauer, ed., Am I Blue? HarperCollins, 1994.
The Clay Marble, Minfong Ho. Farrar Straus Giroux. 1991.

War in Eastern Europe

Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo. Zlata Filipovic. Viking, 1994.

War in the Middle East

Golden Windows/Dreams of Fire, 1950, Adele Geras. Harper Collins, 1993.
Sami and the Time of Troubles, Florence Parry Heide. Illustrated by Ted Lewin. Clarion, 1992.
A Hand Full of Stars, Rafik Schami. Translated by Rika Lesser. Puffn, 1990.
War In Africa A.K.. Peter Dickinson. Gollancz, 1990.
Journey to Jo'Burg, Beverly Naidoo. Lippincott. 1985.
Chain of Fire, Beverly Naidoo. HarperCollins, 1990.
Paper Bird, Maretha Maartens. Translated by Madeleine van Biljon. Clarion, 1989.
Somehow Tenderness Survives, Hazel Rochman, ed. HarperCollins, 1982.

War in Central America

Journey of the Sparrows,
Fran L. Buss and Daisy Cubias. Dutton, 1991.

War in North America:
The Civil War

The Boys' War, Jim Murphy. Clarion, 1990.
Bull Run, Paul Fleischman. HarperCollins, 1993.

U.S. Revolutionary War

My Brother Sam Is Dead, James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier. Four Winds, 1974.
Arabus Family Saga, James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier. Delacorte, 1981-83.

War in Europe:

No Hero for the Kaiser. Rudolf Frank. Translated by Patricia Crampton. Lothrop, 1986.


I Never Saw Another Butterfly, McGraw Hill, 1964.
Maus I & II, Art Spiegleman. Pantheon, 1973, 1986.
The Island on Bird Street, Uri Orlev. Translated by Hillel Halkin. Houghton Mifflin, 1983.
Friedrich, Hans Peter Richter. Translated by Edite Kroll. Holt, 1970.
I Was There, Hans Peter Richter. Translated by Edite Kroll. Holt, 1972.
Smoke and Ashes, Barbara Rogasky. Holiday House, 1988.
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank. Doubleday, 1952.
Anne Frank: Beyond the Diary, Ruud van der Rol and Rian Verhoeven. Viking, 1993.
Summer of My German Soldier, Bette Greene. Dial, 1973.
Upon the Head of the Goat, Aranka Siegal. Farrar Straus Giroux, 1981.
Grace in the Wilderness: After the Liberation, 1945-48, Aranka Siegal, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1985.
Rose Blanche, Roberto Innocenti and Christophe Gallaz. Creative Education, 1985.
War Boy, Michael Foreman. Arcade, 1990.


Some Reasons for War, Sue Mansf;eld. Crowell, 1988.
The Bomb and the General, Umberto Eco and Eugenio Carmi. Translated by William Weaver. Harcourt, 1989.
The Wall, Eve Bunting. Illustrated by Ronald Himler. Clarion, 1990.
Children of War, R. Rosenblatt. Doubleday, 1983.

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