Storybridge to Second Language Literacy. The Theory, Research and Practice of Teaching English with Children’s Literature
Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, Inc., 2013, 231 pp. ISBN 978-1-62396-277-7
Reviewer: Gail Ellis
As a strong advocate since the late 1980s for the use of children’s literature in the primary English language classroom as a rich and powerful teaching and learning resource, I was delighted to read Ghosn’s recent publication, Storybridge to Second Language Literacy. As I enthusiastically read from chapter to chapter, my inner voice was agreeing with everything I was reading. Ghosn makes a strong case for using authentic children’s literature as a medium of instruction in teaching English to children, particularly in contexts where children must access general curriculum subjects in English. She shares her 30 years of experience as a teacher, teacher trainer and researcher, and we are taken on a journey around the world as she presents research projects, including her own, from various countries and contexts to provide evidence for her case.
The book is aimed at MA students in TESOL, members of special interest groups related to primary education, EFL and bilingual education, teacher educators and pre-service and in-service teachers. Because of the book’s clear and accessible yet informative and authoritative style, it meets the needs of these diverse audiences.
The book brings together three perspectives: theoretical bases, empirical foundations and how teachers implement story-based instruction in their classrooms. It is structured into four parts. Each chapter opens with a quote from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, as the quotes reflect what the author believes about second language teaching and language teacher training: ‘it is a journey through a wonderland of surprises, a wonderland that can sometimes be confusing, even frustrating. But most of the time, the journey has been wondrous and pleasurable, filled with magic and discovery’. The reader senses this magic and discovery throughout the book. There [End of Page 54] are particularly useful Think about it or Exploring it questions or suggestions at the end of each chapter which encourage further reflection in relation to one’s own experience and teaching context. These make ideal discussion and reflection points for teacher education or for mini-research projects as part of ongoing professional development.
Part 1 presents the theoretical foundations for literature-based instruction as an alternative to the internationally marketed global coursebook. Ghosn discusses the significance of narrative in general and outlines the developmental benefits of literature to children and of literature as instructional material for the cognitive and language development of children. She compares the language of typical coursebooks with the rich language found in children’s literature to highlight the quality of the latter, and compares coursebook and storybook content. She concludes that storybooks provide socially more appropriate content and context for learning as they address themes and topics of immediate interest and concern to children. She also discusses how children’s literature can be used to make useful links to other subjects in the primary curriculum and how it can develop cognitive academic language proficiency and different levels of critical thinking skills. There is a useful table on page 35 which shows how literature can activate these academic language functions. Part 1 ends with a discussion on the motivational power of stories, how children’s literature impacts on children’s interest in learning and can stimulate emotional reactions from learners, thus contributing to their holistic development.
In Part 2, Ghosn presents research evidence to support story-based instruction and shows how it impacts on motivation, reading skills, vocabulary learning, grammar learning, writing skills and subject matter learning thus testifying to the power of literature in language learning.
In Part 3, classroom vignettes show practical applications of a story-based approach and examples of discourse around stories, including the types of questions teachers need to ask to generate meaningful student responses. The vignettes also demonstrate how a practical model for literature-based instruction emerges which is sufficiently general to be applicable in a variety of contexts. This is presented in diagrammatic form on page 120 as a cyclical process moving from preparation for the story to arouse curiosity and activate prior knowledge and set a purpose for listening or reading. This moves on to various [End of Page 54] forms of story reading such as interactive, dialogic reading, shared reading, read-aloud, storytelling with props or independent reading, to reflecting on the story through shared whole-class discussion, small literacy circles and answering teacher questions. Finally, children are invited to return to the story through a variety of activities such as retelling, making story maps, writing news reports, writing new stories with additions or changes. The class storytelling transcripts are particularly interesting and useful as they highlight how teachers skilfully validate children’s mother tongue contributions. This empowers and motivates children as it enables their active participation in classroom discourse. Children feel successful when their contributions are validated and the teacher can recast them in English to introduce new language that is personally meaningful to the children since it expresses their own ideas. Like Ghosn, I also believe that making strategic use of the mother tongue or shared classroom language is one of the keys to a successful story-based approach.
There is also emphasis throughout the book on promoting intercultural awareness, empathy and tolerance for diversity of opinions, beliefs, values and ways of life through the use of quality stories which generate meaningful dialogue about issues that are important to children and worth talking about. There are references to many stories; well-known stories such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Carle, 1987) and other Eric Carle titles and tales such as Jim and the Beanstalk (Briggs, 1970) and Stone Soup, and lesser-known stories such as The Day of Ahmad’s Secret (Heide, 1990), The Giving Tree (Silverstein, 1963), The Great Kapok Tree (Cherry, 1990), and Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters (Steptoe, 1987). As teachers often ask which stories are suitable for a particular age, it is very helpful that Ghosn makes the point that different stories can be used with different ages as they can be interpreted at many levels.
In Part 4, Ghosn provides a summary of the evidence in favour of story-based second- language instruction, bringing together the theory and evidence from the previous chapters. Finally, selecting authentic children’s literature can present a real challenge, so the guidelines and list of criteria for selecting picturebooks are particularly useful for teachers as they will help ensure that the potential of a picturebook matches the needs and interests of a specific group of learners. The book ends with an extensive list of the [End of Page 56] references including the picturebooks cited, and useful subject, author and children’s book indices.
The motivational aspect of illustrations and their role in supporting children’s understanding is discussed, but I would have liked to have seen a little more on how book design and illustration often give children their first impressions of the world outside and introduce other cultures. A picturebook, as a work of art, (British Council/British Library, 2002) also plays an important role in developing children’s visual literacy as they respond to the illustrations which interact with the text as part of the meaning-making process. Given that the book is also aimed at pre- and in-service teachers, I would have liked to see a scheme of work around a storybook as an example in order to enable teachers to generate their own lesson planning around titles of their own choice.
That said this title makes a valuable contribution to the growing collection of books dealing with children’s literature. It is evidence-based and bridges theory and practice, by focussing on shared classroom experiences. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in using children’s literature as an alternative to a coursebook, and as a means of addressing universal themes which, to quote Ghosn (2002, p. 175), go beyond the ‘“utilitarian” level of basic dialogues about mundane daily activities’ so often found in ELT coursebooks.
Bibliography (as cited by Ghosn, 2013)
Briggs, R. (1970). Jim and the Beanstalk. Putnam & Grosset Group.
Carle, E. (1987). The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Philomel Books.
Cherry, L. (1990). The Great Kapok Tree. Gulliver Books.
Perry Heide, F. (19(1992). The Day of Ahmad’s Secret. Mulberry Books.
Silverstein, s. (1963). The Giving Tree. Harper & Row.
Steptoe, J. (1987). Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books. [End of Page 57]
British Council/British Library (2002). Magic Pencil. Children’s Book Illustration Today. British Council/British Library.
Ghosn, I.K. (2002). Four good reasons to use literature in primary school ELT. ELTJ, 56(2), 172-9. Retrieved from
Gail Ellis is Adviser Young Learners and Quality for the British Council, based in Paris. She is co-author with Jean Brewster of Tell It Again!, republished in its third edition in 2014 by the British Council. Teaching Children How to Learn (Delta Publishing, 2015), co-authored with Nayr Ibrahim, is her latest publication. Her main interests include children’s literature, young learner ELT management and inclusive education. [End of Page 58]
|Anna Birketveit and Gweno Williams (Eds.)
Literature for the English Classroom. Theory into Practice
Bergen: Farbokforlaget, 2013, 260 pp., ISBN: 978-82-450-1382-5
Reviewer: Susanne Reichl
This volume is a collaboration between researchers, teachers and teacher educators based in Norway and the UK, and brings together ten chapters on genres and skills relevant for the teaching of literature in Norwegian EFL classrooms. There are chapters on picturebooks, fairy tales (both by co-editor Anna Birketveit), creative approaches to drama, teenage novels (both by co-editor Gweno Williams), children’s poetry (Turid Husabø), graded readers and extensive reading (Tim Vicary), graphic novels (Hege Emma Rimmereide), film adaptations (Andrew Gordon), the interpretation of novels and short stories (Anniken Telnes Iversen) and academic writing (Barbara Blair).
At the risk of sounding shallow, the first thing to note is that, in a world of rather bland academic books, this is an exceptionally beautiful volume, with an appealing cover, an attractive layout and well-chosen colour reproductions from picturebooks and graphic novels. This might well go some way towards what the editors state as their motivation to publish this book, ‘to inspire present and future teachers’ (p. 7) and to provide for ‘teacher and learner choice’ (p. 9), and indeed, the book presents the reader with plenty of recommendations for engaging material for various age and proficiency groups. The book addresses practicing and student teachers, teacher educators and librarians, in the expressed hope that in the future, school libraries in Norway will be more adequately stocked with literature for young readers in English.
In their introduction, the editors clarify the Norwegian context by pointing to the significance of literature for children and teenagers and ‘English child culture’ (p. 8) in general at various key stages of the curriculum and, consequently, in Norwegian teacher education. The main aim of the book is to be an accompanying text in Norwegian teacher education and to serve as an invitation, and a motivation, to teachers to supplement the short texts found in coursebooks with longer and more motivating ones. In an afterthought [End of Page 59] to the introduction, the editors express their hope that the suggestions put forward in this volume will be appealing for professionals and students working within a Swedish and Danish educational framework as well. There is no claim made for a possible relevance to teacher education beyond Scandinavia, and indeed all the articles are strongly contextualised within a Norwegian curriculum. However, the principles of using picturebooks, graphic novels and children’s poetry at school do transgress national or regional boundaries and some of the suggestions put forward in the volume would also apply to German-speaking countries, even though the curricula and systems might differ.
The volume is divided into two sections: Section 1 is a longer section and consists of eight chapters on various genres for young readers and their role in the secondary classroom. Section 2 has only two contributions and focuses on student teachers’ own academic skills and the role that literature can assume in this. Formally, the chapters follow a similar structure in that they first explain why the genre they advocate is so useful for the language classroom; secondly, they provide a wealth of material representative of this genre; thirdly, they bring in some ‘theory’ (for a comment on this see below), and finally they sketch the didactic implications and suggestions or case studies. As with any collection of essays, there is a great deal of variety as far as the quality and the realisation of aims in each of these contributions is concerned.
All the chapters in Section 1 are convincing in their presentation of their respective genres as perfect teaching material for the EFL classroom: picturebooks, graphic novels, film and drama are all promoted for their multimodality and their promotion of multiliteracies; poetry is praised for encouraging active meaning-making and collaborative interpretation; graded readers are recommended for their motivational potential; drama is endorsed for the powerful context it creates for language production; fairy tales build on learners’ schematic knowledge of the structures and characters of fairy tales, and teenage novels have the power to create lifelong readers of fiction.
While all this is convincingly put forward, the greatest strength of the volume is its abundance of recommendations of teaching material and the rationale that the contributors offer for their choice of material, as such, it is one of those books that prompts you to go out and buy many of the recommendations. Especially inspiring in that respect is Gweno Williams’s chapter on novels for teenage readers, which provides a wonderful selection of [End of Page 60] recent novels by writers such as Malorie Blackman, Louis Sachar, Jacqueline Wilson and Benjamin Zephaniah. Another source of inspiration are the chapters on picturebooks (Anna Birketveit) and on graphic novels (Hege Emma Rimmereide): their selection and presentation of the books is extremely well done. Tim Vicary makes a convincing case for the use of graded readers in an extensive reading environment, but it is a shame that his chapter ends with more than three pages of references of exclusively his own publications and the Oxford Bookworms range.
The subtitle of the volume, ‘Theory into Practice’ is not specifically addressed in the introduction, and the theoretical rationale that the editors provide here is rather light-weight as well. The contributors have obviously taken care to include some theory, but the kind of theory and the bridge to practice is not always as clear as it could be. On the one hand, the genres dealt with in the chapters are often theorised in great detail, which makes for very interesting readings on fairy tales, film adaptations and the genre of graphic novels, for example. On the other hand, there are chapters that include no theory at all (such as the one on extensive reading and graded readers). Some contributors make perfunctory references to figures in literature didactics such as Louise Rosenblatt, but fail to go into any detail. What is blatantly missing, especially in a book that is subtitled ‘Theory into Practice’, is the reference to didactics in literature. The field is vast – there has been an impressive amount written about how to teach novels, film, and extensive reading in the classroom, from the UK, the USA and the German-speaking countries, which are frequently published in English. It seems that ‘theory’ is understood by most of the contributors as ‘literary theory’, rather than didactic or pedagogical theory. I would suggest that both need to be brought into such a book. Teacher educators and student teachers alike deserve and need theory to be able to construct their own teaching principles, to be able to select an appropriate method for their materials, and to be able to develop a sense of professionalism for what they are doing.
Finally, the didactic recommendations, suggestions for teaching and case studies also vary in their scope and their ability to convince didactically and pedagogically. Birketveit’s use of a picturebook version of George and the Dragon (Wormell, 2003/2002) is detailed and convincing (p. 49-50), as is Williams’s example of a performance of Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat (p. 199–121) and Rimmereide’s suggestion of having learners [End of Page 61] create their own superhero and use apps and online graphic novels (155-158). The ‘didactic reflections’ in other chapters are simply more recommendations of teaching material.
The two chapters in Section 2 are somewhat puzzling. The editors point out that they are concerned with the skills that student teachers need to develop during as well as for their studies, but such a skills profile should go well beyond the two sections assembled here and would need a proper rationale. The first (Iversen) reads like an encapsulation of an introductory course in literary analysis, while the second (Blair) focuses on academic writing skills. If the editors wanted to discuss the academic skills that successful student teachers need for their studies, then they might have expanded on the issue, rather than seemingly appending two chapters that are only loosely related to the overall topic.
While a new publication on the teaching of literature, even one with such a clear national focus, is certainly welcome, one would wish for a more academic and more principled book. The suggestions and recommendations are wonderfully motivating and very well presented, but the way that some of the contributions deal with the theory available – some by simply ignoring it – does not give the field of teacher education and literature didactics its due as a discipline. Omissions of well-known contributors to the field such as Jane Spiro, Christine Hélot and Sandie Mourão, to mention just a few, is regrettable. In addition, despite its attractive exterior, the book has several editorial slips: it contains formatting mistakes, careless bibliographies (especially in the chapter on picturebooks, where the illustrators are simply not referenced in the bibliography), and unprofessional references – Genette is misspelt (page 27) and his seminal publication, Paratexts, is quoted via a Norwegian publication. Nevertheless, used in combination with a range of books and articles on the pedagogical and didactic theory of teaching literature in the classroom (such as McRae, 1991: Parkinson & Thomas, 2000; Thaler, 2008), this volume, with its remarkable wealth of recommendations, is sure to contribute to providing a bridge between the theory and the practice of teaching literature in the EFL classroom. [End of Page 62]
McRae, J. (1991). Literature with a Small L. London: Macmillan.
Parkinson, B. and Thomas, H.R. (2000). Teaching Literature in a Second Language. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Thaler, E. (2008). Teaching English Literature. Paderborn: Schöningh.
Susanne Reichl is Associate Professor at the Department of English and American Studies at the University of Vienna, Austria. Her research interests include Black British and postcolonial studies, British cultural studies, humour, time travel, children’s literature, picture books, literature didactics and teacher education. Recent publications include Cognitive Principles, Critical Practice: Reading Literature at University (2009) and the co-edited collection Theory and Practice in Teacher Education. Bridging the Gap (2012). [End of Page 63]