- Key Words: Writing, Reading, Whole Language
- Learner English Level: All
- Learner Maturity Level: All
- Preparation Time: About twenty minutes
- Activity Time: 10-20 minutes
Whole language learning is "student-centered and carried out for the sake of the students, encouraging their growth as learners" (Harp, 1991). The whole language philosophy counteracts traditional teaching methods requiring students to learn standardized sets of information such as grammar points or five paragraph essays. These typically teacher-generated topics allow students little chance to study things they are really interested in.
As an ESL writing teacher in Japan, I started out teaching writing through traditional methods. Although I tried to have students write on topics that interested them, the result was essays written only to meet the requirements of the class. The students proved that they could write a five paragraph essay, and even use grammatically correct English at times, but still there was something missing. The essays lacked passion. Students didn't seem to understand the real issues behind their essays. They weren't making connections between the essay topic and their own role in the world around them.
The questions foremost in my mind were: How can I teach my students to express themselves and to develop real opinions about topics? How can I get them to grow along with their writing, to enjoy writing, and to be proud of the things they write? I decided to incorporate a Whole Language learning philosophy and make my classroom more student-centered.
Incorporating "Read Alouds"
We were studying France's nuclear testing, a hot topic in the news. When I asked my college students their opinions about nuclear testing, most agreed that it was a bad thing, but few expressed much interest in the topic. Most students felt it didn't really concern them and their world. Besides, there was nothing they could do about it. It appeared that they didn't have any strong feelings about it at all.
The assignment for the next class was to write a letter to French President Chirac about their feelings about nuclear testing. Whether they decided to support nuclear testing or not was entirely up to the student. In the past, when writing letters to world leaders I had brought in current newspaper articles that introduced the topic and relevant issues to give students the background they needed. This time, however, I didn't bring in any newspaper articles. Instead, I brought in a children's book and read it in English to the class. The book is called Hiroshima no Pika (Hiroshima Flash) by Toshiki Muraki, and is a story about a girl named Mii and her family's experience when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. As I read the story aloud, the students were entranced by Muraki's powerful watercolor pictures and the students listened attentively to every word. As this is a powerful story, by the end, the students were full of emotion and one girl had tears in her eyes. After hearing this "read aloud," students had a worksheet to fill out. The first question they had to answer was if their own family was affected by the A-bomb. Surprisingly, even though many of my students are from Hiroshima Prefecture, most of their families had not been directly affected. The second question asked them to write a paragraph about what they could do to help prevent the A-bomb or a similar incident from happening again. The third question asked them if they thought there would ever be world peace.
Not only did this exercise serve as a pre-writing exercise for writing their letters to President Chirac, it helped students make a connection between nuclear testing and their own lives. Even though most students' families were not affected by the A-bomb, they still had very definite opinions about atomic bombs. They could easily transfer these feelings to thoughts on nuclear testing and the possible results of a nuclear bomb.
In the students' letters to Chirac, they displayed the best writing I have seen yet. They wrote with passion and interest. Most students wrote much more than the required amount. They were proud of their letters, too, and asked if they could make photocopies before sending them. The next class a student brought in a petition from a local group protesting nuclear weapons. The whole class signed it and we sent that to France, too. Another student collected signatures and donations for a local group that supports surviving victims of Hiroshima.
Why Children's Picture Books?
If you are one of those people who thinks children's picture books are degrading for adults to read, you probably haven't read the right children's books. Nowadays, picture book topics range from historical events to global issues and current problems and events. There are picture books written about AIDS, and there are at least ten titles on the Vietnam war.
Contrary to common belief, children's books do not compromise on quality of writing, vocabulary, or syntax. What makes children's books easy to understand is that they are short, have pictures to facilitate comprehension, and there is enough action to hold the listeners' attention. This is what makes children's books perfect for the language classroom. If possible, the books should be available to students outside of the classroom, such as in the school library or resource center where students can go back and read parts they particularly enjoyed or parts they didn't understand in class. Books based on historical events often include a page of background information in the back of the book which some students will read on their own if the book is made available to them.
How to Choose a Children's Book
The first thing to think about when choosing a children's book is selecting the topic you want to teach. After you decide on your topic, you will find various titles to choose from. You can't go wrong choosing a book that has won a prestigious award such as the Caldecott Medal or Newbury Award. However, consider your students' interests as well when making your selection. I often choose books with Japanese authors or illustrators so students can see the role Japanese people have taken in the international community. When looking at the illustrations in books, try to expose your students to various art styles and mediums.
Here are some recommended books to get you started:
Harp, B. (Ed.). 1991. Assessment and evaluation in whole language programs. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon.