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“A word is dead when it is said, some say.
I say it just begins to live that day.”
―Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), American poet
What are the benefits of intensive reading for ESL students? How can reading for pleasure spark teachable moments in the English classroom?
Reading can be a great – and overlooked – pleasure. It allows us to imagine life in distant lands and times – and better understand our own lives and climates. It broadens our imagination, highlights absurd situations, and shows shows new possibilities.
Reading also builds empathy, shares information and helps us understand other human beings. In classrooms where several cultures and nationalities are represented, it serves as a passport, allowing for a better understanding of our ever-changing world. Yet too few American adults – including college and adult education students – allow themselves the pleasure of reading books and newspapers in English. We often see and hear how the inability to read causes real problems on school campuses. Many studies document the links between illiteracy, poverty, and criminal activity.
A global interest
In my adult and university ESL classes, we often read short stories, memorized proverbs, and wrote about living in the Greater Los Angeles Area. Many English language learners also demonstrated a passion for literature. A Polish student sought help translating romantic poems, a Mexican immigrant constantly recited lines from Cervantes, and an Iranian woman journalist discussed her fear of reading banned books – even while in the United States. Reading matters and transcends borders.
Let me give another example from a former adult ESL class with a dozen or so different best languages. Each evening we would have a “brave volunteer” give a short oral presentation at 8:30 as a closing activity. I wanted everyone to be a volunteer, but I left the choice of presenting to the class. Some students introduced their hometowns, a few gave product reviews, and many recommended movies. Topics and styles varied.
One night, an older Korean woman gave an eloquent, moving book review of To Kill A Mockingbird that combined both personal biography and literary criticism. She began by smiling; she had just finished rereading her favorite book in its original language – English. Though joking about how long it took, the woman expressed that she had patience. As the review continued, she confessed that she often had racist feelings like some ugly characters in the novel. Her daughter was going to marry a non-Korean – something once unthinkable. However, since living in Santa Monica and studying English she had learned to overcome racism, stating that she “learned from the noble character too.” She concluded with a quote from her favorite character, Scout Finch: “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” Her daughter, who visited our class that night, was moved to tears. She was not alone. Powerful. Poignant. Unforgettable.
Reading remains a great pleasure and a helpful guide. Literature can also enliven our ESL classrooms, and discussing our favorite books opens up new possibilities. The humanities should be for everyone – including English language learners. Let us, as Emily Dickinson advised, “dwell in possibility” and bring more literature into our English classrooms.
How often do you read? Do you encourage your ESL students to read beyond the course-mandated texts? Do you have any recommendations? Share with us!
For fluency-focused classroom conversation activities on this topic, check out the Reading Pleasures and Tastes chapter from Compelling Conversations via Teachers Pay Teachers. Designed for both adult education students and university English language learners, these fluency-focused exercises and prompts will help create memorable conversations in your English classroom!