Nancy Hadaway’s article, “A Narrow Bridge to Academic Reading,” provides the reader with suggestions on how to teach intermediate level English language learners. One strategy Hadaway proposes is to present ELL students with children’s books with simple and concrete themes to allow for “narrow reading” (2009, p. 38). This approach is problematic, in my opinion, because even though the students may be at a reading level that is similar to a child’s, for the target language, their life experiences are not at all similar to a child’s, and therefore they may not relate very well to a book that is meant for a child.
I believe very strongly that it is important to create a bridge between what you are teaching and the students’ own experiences. In the past, I’ve implemented a poetry unit that was based on rap music and Tupac’s poetry. This created a relevancy in the lessons, even though the students did not initially have an interest in poetry. Even though this is an extreme example of providing relevancy to the classroom, I think that its success proved that students learn well when they actually care about what they are learning. In teaching a second language, then, I think that it is a very poor approach to diminish the students’ life experiences by suggesting they read children’s books.
I agree, though, that presenting those who are learning a second language with “a heavy language load” is not the best approach (p. 39). There are books that are designed for language learners that do not have to do with simple topics like “sharks” (p. 39). Authors of these books realize that you do not need to use complicated language to get across a deeper, more abstract concept. Language learners are fully capable of understanding abstractions in the target language, because if they can understand abstract concepts in their own language, they can understand them in a different language, as long as the word choice and the level of complexity are at their ability level. It’s like when you’re teaching a teenage boy or girl to play the guitar. You’re not going to begin by teaching them to play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” or they’ll just lose faith and interest in learning to play, thinking it will take forever to be able to play their favourite metal songs. You’re going to find a hip song that has two chords in it – a song that they’ll feel good playing at will want to practice. I think the same applies to finding literature for second language learners.
It all comes down to evaluating your students’ interests. If you’re teaching a Grade 5 ESL class, sure, you can definitely resort to some Grade 2 animal books if (and only if) they are interested in animals. However, if you’re teaching a Grade 9 ESL class, I’m pretty sure most students would lose some level of respect for their teacher if he or she were to say, “Okay, class, today we’re going to read about kittens!” The first thing I always do when I teach is find out who I am teaching by talking with my students, asking them to fill out Interest Surveys, giving them choices of topics, etc. For me, this has been a very successful approach to teaching and getting to know my students; it’s all about relevancy and my relationship with the students. I feel as though taking this approach would be especially effective within a second language classroom, or with a second language learner, because there is often already a barrier between the teacher and the student(s) due to the difference in language capability, and to widen that distance/barrier by implementing disengaging material would not make for a great learning environment.
Hadaway, Nancy (2009). “A Narrow Bridge to Academic Reading.” Educational Leadership. April 2009: 38-41. Web. 20 Jan. 2011.