I teach ESL to adults and have often used children’s books as educational tools with these students who are trying to master English. I’ve read picture books to lower level classes, but the year I taught Advanced Conversation, I knew I needed something different.
Having taught lower level classes, I can say that in comparison these students truly did have a good grasp of English but they needed help to get to the next level. While they certainly weren’t shy about talking, I realized that this group still needed listening practice. The books chosen for the class were good — providing conversation prompts and vocabulary exercises — but they were ordered without their audio components.
Despite signing up for the class and despite their very real need to practice listening to English, my students seemed to regard listening practice as a form of torture and would groan whenever that part of class began. I wanted to increase their vocabulary and get them into a focused conversation about a story. I thought Charlotte’s Web would work and borrowed the audiobook from the library.
The characters, the plot, everything is masterfully done. And of course as a child I didn’t realize how many words were being defined within the story, sometimes by a character and sometimes through context.
I introduced the story and we did pre-reading exercises with some of the more challenging vocabulary before listening to each chapter, but the idea was for them to listen to and discuss the story. They were not thrilled.
After one or two audio-only sessions, I won a copy of the 60th anniversary edition of book, so the compromise was that they could pass the book around and they’d spend a little time reading along and some time just listening. They were surprisingly fair about it. The stronger students let the weaker students read along longer. After a few weeks one student had her husband get her a copy at the library so she could read along the entire time.
Once, during a pre-reading exercise, I told the students the chapter they’d hear was called “Explosion” and asked what they thought might explode. One of the younger students, a man in medical school whom I suspect was looking for a more action-packed story replied hopefully, “The pig?”
While there are no exploding pigs, life and death are major themes of the book. This book also depicts a slower, more agrarian lifestyle that fostered discussion because it is a way of life some of my students found familiar.
At the end of the book, the two male students had eyes shining with tears they held back. The women, on the other hand, were quiet and thoughtful but their eyes were dry.
One man affirmed that animals really do communicate with each other, even if we don’t understand them. The student who’d hope for Wilbur to explode said, “At first, I hated it…but it turned out to be a good story.”