Volume VI - 2001

The Magic of Folktales for Teaching English and Culture
by Planaria Price

Planaria Price, who has been teaching ESL for 27 years in Los Angeles, is the author of four textbooks: Competency in English: a Life Skills Approach (McGraw Hill, 1991), Open Sesame: Understanding American English and Culture through Folktales and Stories (University of Michigan Press, 1997), Eureka! Discovering American English and Culture through Proverbs, Fables, Myths and Legends (University of Michigan Press, 1999), and Realistically Speaking: A Practical Approach to American Pronunciation (University of Michigan, 2000). She is currently finishing a book on American history, and another on the dangerous ramifications of sanitizing folktales.

It all started with Humpty Dumpty.

     Nine years ago, I was experimenting with new ways to teach American intonation to my adult Advanced ESL pronunciation class. Traditionally, Fridays were song days, but I was frustrated with the same-old chants and songs. On a whim, I tried some children's rhymes. After surprisingly great success with the Five Little Monkeys, I introduced Humpty Dumpty. The students loved the rhythm; they loved the idea of a riddle. The lesson was great fun; and a wonderful way to end my teaching week. Relaxing on Saturday, I picked up the "L.A. Times" and on the front page saw the headline "Europe's Humpty Dumpty: In Yugoslavia. …people say they couldn't put the country back together even if they wanted which they don't." What an incredible coincidence! In surprise and delight at the allusion, I jumped up, and, disregarding the spilled cup of coffee dripping off the table, had one of those classic cartoon moments with the proverbial light bulb floating in a balloon above my head. "Yes! Yes!" A large missing piece to the puzzle of teaching ESL had just fallen into my hand. Not quite the alchemist's stone, but close; quite close. I realized that even my most advanced ESL students would have completely missed the sense of that article unless they knew the original Humpty Dumpty rhyme-the cultural hook so necessary to complete the schemata for comprehension. Like Alice, I had finally found the magic key to let me into Wonderland.

A Member of the Family

     That was May 11, 1991. As I write this article, nine years later, I have a collection of more than one hundred clipped newspaper and magazine articles, cartoons, and advertisements, plus notes from television, songs, movies and radio, alluding to Humpty Dumpty. Just by the weight and volume of evidence from the media, I have proven the urgent necessity that our ESL students be constantly exposed to the basic components of our cultural inheritance. Our students are like a visitor who moves into a tightly knit family. One member of the family will say a word, and everyone in the family will laugh except the visitor, on whom the "family joke" is lost. Not until the reference is explained, the experience shared, can the visitor become an integral, accepted, and comfortable member of that family. This discovery of the pressing need to introduce children's rhymes in the English language classroom led to my exploration of the use of children's stories, folk tales, fairy tales, fables and myths which finally led to my texts Open Sesame and Eureka!

Grammar through Cinderella

     I was timid at first. How would my adults accept Cinderella? Would they be offended that we were studying grammar and vocabulary by reading Little Red Riding Hood? What about showing them the classic videos of Charlotte's Web and the Wizard of Oz? Would they be too old? Are these stories only for the young? Was I wasting their time? With each experiment of a story, my students clamored for more, and I found more and more magic. First, the stories provide that elusive "cultural hook": the recognizable idiom, the core vocabulary, the allusions, the references used in common adult discourse. Besides comprehension, the students gained control of that magic wand called "empowerment":

"Teacher, teacher! At the store I heard a teen-ager say, 'My parents turned me into a pumpkin when I came home late last night' and I knew what she meant!"

"Teacher, teacher, the weather man said tomorrow it won't be too hot or too cold, but juuuust right!"

"Teacher, teacher, there's a Cinderella shoe store on Third Street. Now I understand what they sell."

"Teacher, teacher, the reporter said the President had an Achilles' Heel, but not in his heel. He said the scandal would open Pandora's Box and we would be sorry."

     I knew I had struck gold, and, Toto, I was no longer in Kansas. Now, overflowing from my file cabinets are myriad clippings from print and audio media; political cartoons, novels, ads, articles with allusions from The Itsy Bitsy Spider, Little Miss Muffitt, the Hokey Pokey, Peter Piper, Fuzzy Wuzzy, to the classic folktales, fairy tales, myths, legends, and proverbs. And there was more, so much more.

     Folktales and myths are not enduring and timeless without reason. They are universal in their delight and appeal to the human mind and heart. The stories captivate the students. Students love hearing them, reading them, discussing them. They get so involved in the stories that they stop translating, learning how to discover vocabulary through the context clues. They enthusiastically share similar stories from their own cultures. Their new knowledge is constantly reinforced by their finding allusions to the tales and vocabulary outside class.

Elbow, Edge, Sunrise

     As the stories were originally meant to be oral, I read them aloud first and the students practice listening. In the beginning I was quite surprised by their trouble and confusion with the simplest words; elbow, edge, sunrise, sorrow. My adult students are considered advanced. They are at the highest ESL level (level 6 and 7) in my school. And I realized that because they were advanced foreign adult learners, they had never been taught the "baby words," the basic core vocabulary of English. No wonder there were gaping holes in their comprehension of everyday conversation! In the beginning, we talked about the surface level of the story. We compared similar stories in their cultures. And then the real magic happened. It had started with Humpty Dumpty, but it was really the Three Little Pigs that pushed me over the edge to becoming who I am today: a folktale proselytizer with an ever-ready scissors for instant clipping of allusions to add to my burgeoning files of realia.

Let me tell you a story.

     Once upon a time, there was a classroom of foreign adults. Their teacher was about to tell a story called The Three Little Pigs, but Samara made a terrible face. "Samara, are you OK?" asks the teacher. Samara answers, "Oh, teacher, we don't have stories about pigs in Syria. We do have a story about three little goats, but never pigs." Samara whispers with distaste on her lips. "Oh, we have a story about three little rabbits," says Trang shyly with a smile. It was the ninth week of the semester and neither woman had ever spoken in the class before. The teacher holds her breath. Something good is happening. She can't pin it down but there is some magic in the air. "Well, once there were three little pigs who lived with their mother," says the teacher. "Their mother?" asks Jose. "We have that story in Mexico, but there are just three brothers living alone." Natasha agrees as does Kyoko. The teacher is surprised that Kyoko has heard the story in Japan, but doesn't want to break the spell with a question.

     "One day the mother pig said to her three little pigs, "This house is too small for all of us to live here anymore. It is time for you piglets to go out into the world and make homes for yourselves." There is a palpable shock in the room. The face of each student is filled with a mixture of disbelief, dread and surprise. The teacher has often been described as having antenna, and her antenna are now pulsating, groping for clues. "What's the matter?" she asks.
"What kind of a mother would say that?" gasps Felipe.
"Say what?" asks the American teacher.
"Tell her children to leave home!"
"But they're old enough," says the teacher, thinking with a twinge of pain of her daughter's recent departure for college. All the students agree that there is something dysfunctional in this pig family. "Well, what would a mother in your story say?" questions the teacher. "Oh!" they all brighten up.
"Take care of each other," says Juan.
"Respect your older brother." says Ming.
"And listen to his advice," adds Maria.
"Don't open the door to strangers." Says Samara.
"Be polite" says Trang, shyly.

     "Well, maybe this is a bad mother. You don't have enough information yet, do you?" The teacher is thinking that this is a golden opportunity for the students to exercise their critical thinking. She is often amazed at how few of her students ever question anything; how they seem clueless at information gathering. It sometimes drives her crazy how complacent they are at accepting what a person in authority says. She often has them chant "Why? Why? Why?" for practice but it has not seemed to help. "Let's figure out if Mrs. Pig is a good or bad mother. If a mother in your culture told her children to leave home, what would her children say to her?"
"Oh, Mommy please don't make us go." Oh! Mama, we will be good, please let us stay." "Mama, but who will stay and take care of you?" The students talk all at once. The teacher smiles and reads on. "So the three little pigs said good-bye to their mother and went out into the world to make homes for themselves. 'See they just say good-bye and go. Maybe in this story she is a good mother and, like good children, they obey her. After all, she did say it was time.'" The teacher lets that idea sink in and will get back to that concept later. The students look uncomfortable.
"So the three little pigs went to a crossroads where… (The teacher does not want to stop the momentum. On the second read, she'll go back and ask them for the symbolism of cross-roads: life as a journey, making the right choices. Maybe after the story is completely finished, she'll give them Robert Frost's "Two Roads." Maybe, if she's brave enough, she will give them the story of Oedipus). "The first little pig sat down with a sigh." (On the second read she'll ask them what happens when you just let things happen to you). "The second little pig took a path that led into the deep woods." (On the second read she will ask them to define the word path, and discuss its symbolism and elicit from them what a poor choice it is of the young, inexperienced pig to go where few have gone before, but it would be a shame to interrupt the story now). "And the third little pig took the road toward town."
"Along came a man with a load of straw. The first little pig thought. 'Oh, it would be easy to build a house of straw' and said 'Please sir, may I have some straw?" (On the second read the teacher will ask the students about the little pig…why was he punished? Was it because he was a bad son?…oh, no he obeyed his mother…was he rude? No, he is very polite, he says, please, sir). "The man gave the first little pig the straw and one, two, three, the first little pig built himself a flimsy house of straw. But just as the first little pig finished building his house of straw, along came a hungry wolf. 'Little pig, little pig, let me come in!' 'No by the hair of my chinny chin chin, I will not let you in,' said the little pig. 'Then I'll huff and I'll puff and blow your house in,' said the wolf. And the wolf huffed and he puffed and he blew in the flimsy little house of straw. (The teacher is really enjoying this story telling, now. She's on a roll. She can't believe the students' faces. She has made a knocking sound on the table when the wolf knocks at the door. She makes her voice very high when the piggy swears by his chin. She make her voice gruff when the wolf speaks. She huffs. She puffs. The students are actually rapt. She knows they aren't translating . She feels the magic and power of the English in the room. "And that, (she licks her lips) was the end (she pats her stomach) of the first little pig." There is an audible gasp. The faces of the whole class mirror shock. Even Mario, with his gang tattoos on his neck, looks anguished. "He ate him?" whispers Felipe. "The wolf ate the pig?" "Of course," says the teacher. "I bet you had bacon for breakfast this morning, so what's the problem?" The students are not amused. They are really, really upset.

The True Value of Folktales

     Now let's close the curtain on this tale and come back to the real world of pedagogy. Was there magic occurring in that room? The story I tell is 100% true. I swear on my chinny, chin, chin. That first telling of the Three Little Pigs was my ESL epiphany. I could actually see bright flashes of light blinking CULTURE! CULTURE! I could hear my brain screaming, cheering: "the students are actually absorbing culture and language. They are actually internalizing the complete experience." It took a few more tellings to get all the details in place; to understand the true value of using folktales in an ESL classroom. Kozo Yamato helped a lot. Kozo put the final doubts to rest. Kozo reinforced the pedagogical and pragmatic value of using folktales in adult second language acquisition.

Prof. Kozo: A Member of the Family

     Kozo was a professor of English Literature in Japan. He was in Los Angeles for vacation and often visited my class with his niece, my student. He didn't need the English, but he was curious about American culture. He often came in handy when I got stuck on explaining some tricky part of English grammar. Kozo was in my class the second time I taught The Three Little Pigs. As I finished with the huffing and puffing and the "No! by the hair of my chinny chin chin," the quiet and reserved Kozo shouted out, "That's it. I've got it." His vehemence startled me. His explanation, delighted. He'd seen the Jack Nicholson movie The Shining adapted from a book by Stephen King. It's quintessential King, a horror story of a family man possessed by Evil. In one scene the man (Nicholson) is chasing after his wife and son; he's carrying a hatchet. Terrified, the wife and child run into a bathroom to hide, locking the door. The possessed father knocks on the door and quietly, evilly says: "Little pigs, little pigs, let me come in!" For us, that says it all. The deep, subconscious childhood terror is evoked. The horror-a crazed father will kill (and eat?) his wife and child. For Kozo, a professor of English lacking the cultural hooks, it had meant nothing. Now, he finally understood, totally, intellectually and viscerally. He was now a member of the "family."

A Core Value System

     So what does it all mean? Can using folktales teach language faster and better than other methods? Yes, I believe it can. Fortunately, I no longer have to be tentative (as I was twenty years ago) when stating unequivocally that to truly acquire a language one must understand and embrace the culture. We humans say what we think; our thoughts and values come from our culture. We humans learned our first language and our core value system as children. We learned it easily, painlessly and with joy. We internalized and absorbed the sounds, the grammar, the meaning, the values before we were five years old. The Three Little Pigs is an excellent example. How did my daughter learn the correct order of adjectives and nouns: that it is number before color before object. By a rule? Or by hearing about the three little pigs and the big bad wolf and the five little monkeys and little red riding hood.

     To take this much deeper, when and how did she know that she would be moving out of the house when she was eighteen, that to leave was normal. That it was just the way it was done. Did I say to her when she was three,"Well, just fifteen more years, and out you go!" Of course not. Without being lectured, she learned and internalized basic mainstream American values; she accepted, unquestioningly, to value going out into the world, being independent, making her own life, working hard, not being lazy. At eighteen my daughter went away to college. I cried. She cried. But it was time. It was time to go.

     Without moralizing or hitting one on the head, the Three Little Pigs clearly teaches that when it's time to leave home and be independent, you go. It also stresses that those who are lazy fail. Those who work hard succeed. Very simply, with no frills, the story says of the third little pig, "He got some bricks, and he set to work. It was not easy but he kept at it and soon he had built a sturdy house of brick." "Who ever told you that life is easy?" I ask my students. Yes, America is the land of freedom. But freedom isn't free. You work hard, and you succeed, but you must keep at it. There's no free lunch. As for independence; what stronger value is there in America than the value of individualism and independence, of going out into the world to make a life for yourself?This is not a value in the cultures of my students; my students who come from Asia and Africa and the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Mexico, Central and South America.

     We Americans tell our children that the squeaky wheel gets the oil. My students learned that the nail that stands up gets hammered down first. In their cultures, they tell me, the family must always stay together. To break up the family, to strike out on your own, is anathema. And so, in their stories, the three little pigs, or goats, or rabbits, or camels, are living happily together when they decide to go against the values of the culture; to break apart the family and go off to live independently and alone. For that sin, they almost die. But in most folktales, there are always three chances. The first brother escapes the wolf and runs to the house of the second and the unity of two gives them strength. Finally reunited again, as the family unit of three, they are once again safe to withstand the wolf. They, and the child who hears the story, has learned the moral. Together you will survive, separate and independent you will die. And what of the wolf. "Who kills the wolf?" I ask. "The third little pig, " they say. "Really? Do you think the wolf had the right to go down the pig's chimney. Aren't chimneys for fire? Who killed the wolf." "Ah!" the light dawns. "The wolf killed himself". Yes, in America we must accept the consequences of our own actions. To be truly free, we must accept full responsibility for our choices.

     It's been nine years since Humpty Dumpty showed me the way. From the Three Little Pigs I went to Pinnocchio for a discussion of truth which led to George Washington and the Cherry Tree, "Oh teacher, is that why McDonald's has cherry pie on Presidents Day?" which led to Abe Lincoln and the Change, "Teacher there's a used car dealer called Honest Abe's'," to Chicken Little and John Henry and the Wizard of Oz. "Ay, teacher, there really is no place like Home." Now I have three files filled to the brim with pasted and un-pasted clippings. My students have become addicted as well, and fill their own scrapbooks with found allusions. Yes, I am living happily ever after using classic folktales and myths to teach my adult foreign students American English and culture. They are now happy members in the American language family. Try it. It's magic.

Appendix A. Notes on Allusions in the Text of the Above Article:
Humpty Dumpty:
     This very old English nursery rhyme, "to be measured in thousands of years," was first printed in
Mother Gooses's Melody in 1803.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall;
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king's horses and all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again.

The rhyme is also a riddle, and the answer to the riddle is that Humpty is an egg, so of course, he cannot be put together again.

The Three Little Pigs:
     This French folktale is about three little pigs who set out into the world to make homes for themselves. The first builds a house of straw and the second a house of twigs. For their laziness, they are eaten by a hungry wolf who blows the houses down. The third pig works hard, builds a house of bricks, cleverly fools the wolf and lives happily ever after.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz:
     This story is about a young Kansas girl, Dorothy, and her dog Toto, who are blown by a cyclone over the rainbow and into the magical land of Oz. It is America's most beloved fantasy. Written in 1900 by L. Frank Baum, it was made into the first major Technicolor movie in 1939 by MGM. The Wizard of Oz has been viewed by more Americans than another other film.

George Washington and Abraham Lincoln:
     George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are the two most beloved presidents in the United States. They are both famous for their truthfulness, and children are told illustrative stories of their honesty to this day: A few years after the death of Washington, Reverend Weems wrote that little George Washington chopped down his father's cherry tree and then admitted the deed to his father with "Father, I cannot tell a lie: I chopped down the cherry tree." When young Abe Lincoln was a clerk in a store, it is said that he gave a woman the wrong change and after work walked many miles in the snow to return the money. Oddly, these two stories of honesty, so trustingly believed by Americans are both fiction-they never truly happened.

Appendix B. Examples of Allusions to Folktales:
1. Commercial for Static Guard Hair Spray-shows Rapunzel in the tower and she can't comb her hair without it.
2. On May 26, 1998 in an episode of Gilligan's Island, they put on the play Cinderella. Mrs. Howell was Cinderella, and the Skipper was the ugly stepmother. Gilligan was the Fairy Godmother.
3. April 1, 1998 in an episode of Family Matters, Erkell calls Laura, Laura Van Winkle because she slept so much and missed the school bus.
4. On May 15, 1998, CBS weather news, Steve Rambo, said "What's up with these tornadoes: we're not in Kansas." And he later said "Dorothy, grab Toto and let's get out of here."
5. In a Dial Soap commercial, they used "Somewhere over the Rainbow" music and there was a dog that looked like Toto.
6. In a Bubble Yum Gum commercial, there was a duck with spiked feathers and an earring in his nose chewing Bubble Yum. He is no longer the Ugly Duckling but the envy of the others.
7. On a Charming Toilet Tissue Commercial, Humpty Dumpty falls off the wall but onto the Charming: he doesn't break because it is so soft.
From many books, there are often multiple allusions. Here are just two examples:
8. Dead Men Do Tell Tales by William R. Maples Ph.D., a non-fiction book about forensic anthropology:

"By now the reader will perhaps share some of my frustration over these dismemberment cases. Over and over again I have acted the part of all the king's men in the old Mother Goose rhyme, trying to reassemble some poor Humpty-Dumpty of a murder victim who didn't fall off a wall, but who was most likely shot or stabbed to death, then laboriously sawed to pieces by his killer" (page 69).

"From what I have seen, the impulse to evil is something deep within an individual from his very earliest years, if not from birth. At the center of the labyrinth of certain human personalities there lurks a Minotaur that feeds on human flesh and we have not yet found the thread to help us map this maze and slay the beast" (page 118).

"The male rib from the fire belonged to Glyde Earl Meek, I did not fling up my arms and shout Eureka but I will confess to experiencing a keen, silent elation while gazing at this eloquent bit of bone" (page 181).

"The officer loudly protested our findings. We had opened a Pandora's box of endless mischief" ( page 202).

9. From Obasan by Joy Kogawa (1994) by Anchor Publishers, an autobiography about the author's childhood experiences as a first generation Japanese-Canadian during the Japanese internment in Canada during World War II:

"[The brother, Stephen, has broken his leg and is in a cast] Stephen is scowling as Obasan returns and offers him a rice ball. "Not that kind of food," he says. Stephen, half in and half out of his shell, is Humpty Dumpty -cracked and surly and unable to move" (page 136).

"The ceiling is so low it reminds me of the house of the seven dwarfs. …The room is crowded with the three adults, the suitcases, the boxes, Stephen and me" (page 143).

"In one of Stephen's books there is a story of a child with long golden ringlets called Goldilocks who comes to a quaint house in the woods lived in by a family of bears. Clearly we are that bear family in this strange house in the middle of the woods. I am Baby Bear whose chair Goldilocks breaks, whose porridge Goldilocks eats, whose bed Goldilocks sleep in. Or perhaps this is not true and I am really Goldilocks after all. No matter how I wish it, we do not go home" page 149).

"On the Friday following Uncle's return, Stephen must go to the hospital to have his cast removed. In the morning he is out in the back shed, pounding the ice off the runners of his homemade sled with the split log. Humpty Dumpty, I am thinking, will fall out of his shell and what will he be then?" (page 161).


Bennett, Milton J.: Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication, Intercultural Press 1998.
Bessmertnyi, Alexander: Teaching Cultural Literacy to Foreign Language Students; English Teaching Forum, January 1994.
Bettleheim, Bruno, The Uses of Enchantment, Vintage, 1989.
Brown, H. Douglas: Breaking the Language Barrier, Intercultural Press, 1991.
Faul, Stephanie: The Xenophobe's Guide to the Americans, Ravette Books, 1994.
Hall, Edward T: Beyond Culture, Intercultural Press, 1976. Hirsch, E.D.: Cultural Literacy, Vintage Books, 1988.
Price, Planaria: Eureka! University of Michigan Press, 1999.
Price, Planaria: Open Sesame, University of Michigan Press, 1997.
Price, Planaria: Realistically Speaking, University of Michigan Press, 2000.
Stewart, Edward C. and Bennett, Milton J: American Cultural Patterns Intercultural Press, 1991.
Storti, Craig: Cross Cultural Dialogues Intercultural Press, 1994.


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