It is no secret that I love using children’s literature, especially picture books, in my teaching. My students all love them too. It doesn’t matter if I’m teaching children, teens, or adults, they all enjoy being read to. If much time passes between my bringing a book to class, my older students will come up and ask me when we’re going to have “story time” again. This blog is more evidence of my obsession, with posts about The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash, The Giving Tree, Miss Nelson Is Missing, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, How I Became a Pirate, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, to name a few. Some day I’ll write a complete post on why I use so many picture books in class, but not today.
One of the most frequently featured authors in my class is Dr. Seuss. On the one hand, as an ESL teacher, his books drive me (and my students) a little crazy because of how many made-up words they contain. On the other hand, his tendency to write primarily with high frequency words makes the books very accessible for language learners. Dr. Seuss’ books have also been translated into 30 languages, which means most of my students are familiar with at least one of them in their first language. Being familiar with the characters and story allows them to more easily access the English content. For those few students who haven’t heard of Dr. Seuss, or those books they haven’t already read, reading them provides the opportunity for them to create common ground with their English-speaking peers, most of whom grew up reading Dr. Seuss.
As a teacher it seems I’m contractually obligated to, as one student put it, “ruin books” with work. While I love to read, and I do believe there is a need for more pleasure reading in education, I rarely have the luxury of just enjoying a book with my older students. Sadly, story time is not an accepted practice in most secondary and higher educational institutes, so there needs to be some objectifiable learning that takes place along with the enjoyment of a good story, and our times with Dr. Seuss are no exception.
When I’m working with beginning language learners, bringing in educational objectives is fairly easy. All I have to do is continue to teach the same things teachers have been using Dr. Seuss books to teach for decades. Green Eggs and Ham is one of our favorites, and we have three different sorting activities that we do. In the first we match picture word cards to form rhyming pairs (also a great way to reinforce vocabulary). The second has various words from the book on green eggs and hams that students sort into alphabetical order. The third requires students to match the contraction green hams to the green eggs that have the original two words. All three activities are available as a discounted bundle, or as a digital drag and drop set.
My more proficient students like Dr. Seuss as well, but it’s a little harder to fit him into their educational objectives. One year my students were really struggling with classifying sentences as either active or passive voice, and especially with rewriting them as the opposite voice. (Side question: why do we even require them to learn that? They can write in the passive voice, they can write in the active voice, they know when to use each. Why do they need to be able to convert between the two?) I had already run through all of my various teaching tools, practice activities, and games when they asked me for one more chance to practice. Not having any idea how I’d deliver, I promised to bring something to our next class. I decided to make a task card set and, to add a little bit of fun to a not-so-fun lesson, to write the sentences about famous Dr. Seuss characters and books. My students loved it! They not only received one more opportunity to practice with active and passive voice (and the conversion between the two), but they started talking, reminiscing about their favorite Dr. Seuss books and characters, introducing classmates to new-to-them books, and learning about books they’d missed out on themselves. It turned out to be one of those lessons that was full of authentic student talk, the kind we ESL teachers dream about. The trend continued the next semester with another group of students, and hasn’t stopped yet. Each time I use this activity the result is the same: happy students, good practice with the objective, and lots of authentic speaking practice as well.
When we went digital last year, I didn’t want to give up the activity and created a digital version of the task cards. In the digital version students move the X to indicate if a sentence is active or passive. They then use the adjacent text box to rewrite the sentence in the opposite voice. While still very effective for practicing active and passive voice, the digital version isn’t nearly as much fun because the spontaneous talk and interactive nature of being around a table, or set of desks, together is missing. A small portion of this activity is included in the writing section English Skillology, level 3, if you want to take a look at it.
While on the surface it may seem that picture books, and especially the silly picture books authors such as Dr. Seuss are famous for, are too “babyish” for older learners, my experience tells me differently. My older learners love them just as much as the younger ones, and sometimes even more so because of the memories associated with them, or the chance to create new memories with their own children. Happy teaching, everyone!