Updated: Sep 1, 2021
Often times we're so focused on making students read that we don't really consider the quality of the content given to them. When novels are selected for students we look primarily at vocabulary, length, and social message. Is it easy enough with a few new or colourful words? Is it short enough to finish, but long enough to read over a week? Is the overall message of the book positive? It sounds good on paper, but if we were to really read these books ourselves, we would realize it's not enough.
I used to teach a high school ESL class with a pre-selected novel in the curriculum. The novel was "Stuffed" by Eric Walters. "Stuffed" checked all the usual boxes. At 108 pages with a large typeface, it was a very simple week-long read with some good vocabulary words. The social message wasn't bad either; a student watches a documentary about an unhealthy fast food chain and launches a boycott of the restaurant in protest. So why was it such an awful book to teach with?
First of all, the book is boring. I could barely get through skimming it to write the chapter questions without losing interest, so of course my students also didn't want to read it. We should be finding works that we can be passionate about, so that our students can also enjoy them, or at least be able to have an enriched discussion about the books themes and why they do or do not like it. Because the theme of "Stuffed" was so basic and singular, it was impossible to have an enjoyable discussion about the book. Should fast food restaurants also include healthier options? It would be hard to find someone that says "no", and nowadays most companies are already making the effort to include diverse dietary foods. Effectively, the book had a positive social message, but it was too simple and irrelevant to be of any interest.
The oversimplification of themes and ideas in ESL literature is a big concern because ESL is a learning journey for all ages. As the reading level of beginner-intermediate ESL learners is similar to that of children or young adults they seem to be mixed up quite often, but the thinking of teenage and adult students is a lot more complex. One of the best things about ESL is the diversity of the classroom and that the students' experiences of different cultures will give them unique perspectives and opinions; they are the very opposite of simple. Yet books like "Stuffed" focus on the singular perspective of a lazy, rich, white teenage boy. Reliance on fast food is a socio-economic problem, and a better book would also explore why people continue to eat fast food despite it being unhealthy, and also how having more options on the menu would make it more inclusive to other cultures and to people with different dietary needs. A good classroom book will always include multiple themes, and different perspectives.
ESL versions of classic literature are likely the best option to promote discussion and complex issues, but even those have their own failings. The classics are taken from old European literature and are predominately British, so it isn't always relatable; the lifestyles and systems of the era can be hard to understand, there's a lack of diversity, and the representation of other cultures, if there is any, is often unfavourable. On this point, it is important to understand that not all countries are as diverse as Canada, and that your students may have negative views of some people simply because there is no, or overwhelmingly negative, representation in their countries. In these situations, it is important to not choose books where students might identify with dangerous values such as sexism, racism, or homophobia, as it can create a lot of problems in classroom discussions. Ideally, the selected literature should have some modern themes and be relatively relatable to the students in a positive way.
If we want our students to be truly engaged in their readings, we have to start expanding our criteria and our expectations of ESL literature. We need to start seeing more diversity, more complex messages, and more material aimed at older age groups. Just because a book fits the basic ministry criteria does not mean it fits our students' needs, and student engagement reflects this.