Using Young Adult Literature with Adolescent Learners of English
by Elizabeth L. Watts
I am telling you this just the way it went with all the details I remember as they were, and including the parts I'm not sure about. You know, where something happened but you aren't convinced you understood it? Other people may tell it different but I was there.
(from Make Lemonade, by Virginia E. Wolff, 1993)
This past summer I spent two weeks in a middle school language arts classroom for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). A middle school class of English learners, students learning English as a second language, and I explored the young adult novel, Make Lemonade (Wolff, 1993). Make Lemonade features LaVaughn, a fourteen-year-old girl from a single parent home, and her experiences while babysitting two small children in a low-income neighborhood. Jolly, the children's mother, is an orphaned seventeen-year-old who works in a factory to support her children. I believed the thematic issues of self-discovery and family and peer relationships portrayed in Make Lemonade might be of particular interest to adolescent English learners; they are attempting to answer the questions of adolescence, "Who am I? Who am I in relation to others?" in a country and culture that may be different from their own.
The thirty-five English learners at a South Florida middle school and I spent two hours per day for two weeks reading and studying Make Lemonade. The class was made up of Hispanic speakers of Spanish, Haitian speakers of Creole, and Brazilian speakers of Portugese. Sixth-eighth graders were grouped together, and they demonstrated mixed levels of English proficiency. Three sixth grade students, new to the United States, had little to no knowledge of English; two spoke Spanish; one spoke Creole. The students' regular ESOL teacher was a Haitian male who taught middle school ESOL full-time because he could not obtain a position teaching ESOL to adults.
In the paragraphs that follow, I discuss (1) my rationale for using young adult literature with adolescent English learners; (2) my approach to teaching Make Lemonade; (3) activities in which students engaged and samples of their work; and (4) implications for teachers who explore young adult literature with adolescent English learners.
Why Present English Learners with Young Adult Literature?
Cultural and background knowledge play an important role in the English learner's understanding of reading selections (Vacca and Vacca, 1999; Peregoy and Boyle, 1997). Emerging as a serious problem for English learners is the fact that in language arts, they may deal with literary texts that do not reinforce their cultural norms and that portray experiences about which they are unfamiliar (Peregoy and Boyle, 1997). This mismatch of English learners' background knowledge and that implied in the literature they read may hamper their ability to make meaning of a text. Such knowledge may relate to idiomatic expressions used in a culture or different cultural emphasis upon individual and community welfare.
Part of English learners' experience with an unfamiliar text involves bridging "social distance" -- the distance between the world view of their home culture and the culture of the language they are learning. This world view involves how thought and emotion are defined by a given culture. For example, in Western society, thought may be relatively linear, with a story or persuasive argument in this culture relayed in a chronological and concise fashion. In a non-Western society, thought may be circular, with an issue examined from all sides. In literary works of English then, English learners must bridge the social distance, or gap in perception of thought and emotion between their home culture and that of the language they are learning. Faced with a new culture and language, adolescent learners of English may benefit from YA literature, because it often reflects their age and concerns.
Langer (1997) states that literature is an inviting context for students learning a second language and literacy "because it taps into what they know and who they are" (607). According to Krashen (1985), using one extended text, such as a novel, or several similar texts -- on the same subject, of the same genre, or by the same author -- gives English learners comprehensible input, language they understand, that builds schema and background knowledge. YA literature is particularly appropriate for use with adolescent English language learners for at least three reasons: (1) it has the potential to attract and hold the interest of adolescent English learners as they are developing their identities in relation to self and community (Watts, 1997); (2) it often provides readers with stories about characters from a variety of ethnic and cultural groups (Donelson and Nilsen, 1997; Ericson, 1995); (3) it allows teachers to use "content-based instruction," which refers to concurrent teaching of academic subject matter and second language skills (Brinton, Snow, and Wesche, 1989). When adolescents are reading and studying YA books, meaning-making can be the focus of instruction. Abundant opportunities to engage in meaningful use of the language in a relatively anxiety-free environment emerge in a natural way as adolescent English learners explore and reflect upon the characters, situations, settings, and actions they find in young adult literature.
I selected Make Lemonade to explore with the middle school English learners because of its adolescent characters, point of view, and language. Another important feature is its easy-to-read yet poetic format. Make Lemonade lends itself to in-class reading because it is written in short chapters that can be read aloud and discussed with students in a short time period. It is written in the everyday, conversational English of adolescents that adolescent English learners may be starting to hear and understand, as opposed to more complex language found in traditional literary texts.
This young adult novel is about LaVaughn, a fourteen-year-old girl, who lives with her widowed mother in a low-income neighborhood. LaVaughn's mother tries to instill the importance of self-respect and education in her daughter. LaVaughn wants to go to college. Her mother has some money set aside, but LaVaughn must also save some money for college on her own. She accepts a job babysitting for Jolly, a seventeen-year-old single mother of two. Jolly lives in the projects and works at a factory to support her two children, Jeremy and Jilly.
LaVaughn narrates the novel. Thus, readers may explore her evolving identity and her inner questions and conflicts regarding the frustrations of babysitting and keeping up with her own school work, dealing with her mother, and attempting to help Jolly gain self-respect. LaVaughn's narration provides an adolescent perspective of plot events, one to which adolescent English learners may relate since they, like LaVaughn, are experiencing passage into adulthood.
Teaching and Learning Make Lemonade
In teaching Make Lemonade, I integrated reading, writing, speaking, and listening activities because I wanted students to use English as a whole system of communication (Freeman and Freeman, 1998). I used content-based instruction (Brinton, Snow, and Wesche, 1989), a young adult novel in the target language, English, and the teaching of English language skills. Custodio and Sutton (1998) state that content-based instruction serves as a link to mainstream classes:
Multilevel groups work together on a common topic, and the differences of culture and linguistic ability are decreased. Students can practice mainstream class discourse types in a non-threatening atmosphere by presenting oral reports and engaging in oral discussions, academic reading and writing, and outlining. (20)
The middle school English learners listened and followed along as I read the novel aloud; they also engaged in language study through reviewing unfamiliar vocabulary, small-group and all-class discussion, collaborative writing, and image-making based on their reading. Below are details related to the teaching and learning of the novel.
Book talks. On the Friday before I began the book, I completed a sixty-second book talk (Donelson and Nilsen, 1997) on the novel. I passed out copies of the novel so that students could look at the cover. I gave a brief plot summary and then read a short excerpt from the text. Afterwards, I asked students to predict what might happen in the novel. The book talk gave students a preview of the book; their responses indicated their interest in exploring Make Lemonade with me. They showed particular interest in learning about LaVaughn and Jolly's lives.
Vocabulary. Prior to teaching Make Lemonade, I leafed through it and circled every word I thought students would not know. My list of vocabulary words was too extensive to cover in two weeks. Instead, I chose up to five vocabulary words for each chapter that I believed that the class would be unable to define by using context clues. Before each day's reading, I presented the vocabulary words and definitions on an overhead transparency for students to copy. Then, we reviewed the spelling, pronunciation, and definition of each word aloud. Students repeated each vocabulary word after me in unison; they checked the spelling of the words on their own papers as I spelled each word aloud. We composed one to two sample sentences for each word, which I displayed on an overhead transparency, and discussed how each sentence illustrated the word's meaning. Students kept their vocabulary out to refer to it during reading.
I am not sure this was the best way to approach vocabulary with English learners. The traditional English teacher in me felt the need to provide more extensive vocabulary activities, such as vocabulary in context worksheets and quizzes. However, my new identity as a whole language teacher led me to believe that the students' immersion in language through reading young adult literature was more important than rote learning of vocabulary. During in-class reading, students had the opportunity to show comprehension of vocabulary in two ways: (1) by engaging in whole-class interpretation of passages with complex language; and (2) by answering literal comprehension questions on the text.
Reading aloud to students. I chose to read Make Lemonade aloud to students since they might be hesitant to read aloud in front of their peers. In this language arts ESOL class, the regular teacher engaged students in silent reading activities before and after I taught each day; however, they did not have any opportunity to practice reading aloud. Therefore, I believed these English learners would be hesitant to do so with me, a newcomer. By listening to the novel read aloud, students could experience the flow of oral language (Custodio and Sutton, 1998) and possibly have more time to focus upon comprehension of an English text.
Whole-class discussion of text. Students' perceptions of reading indicated that they were looking for one right answer, one correct interpretation. They expected me to tell them what to think, especially when I asked them response-based questions, such as prediction questions ("What do you think will happen next?") or character motivation questions ("Why do you think LaVaughn continues to babysit, even though Jolly cannot pay her?").
Students were hesitant about expressing their opinions during the first few days of studying the novel. I continued to assure them there was no one right answer to response-based questions; however, their answers had to be supported with evidence from the text to answer the question, "What in the text makes you think this way?" I modeled ways to express an opinion, and discussed with them how I arrived at my opinions, drawing on evidence in the text, and thus maintaining Rosenblatt's criteria of validity (1978). Three days into teaching the novel, more students began sharing their thoughts and the reasons behind their opinions.
As a class, the students responded well to review questions that I posed at the beginning of each class, or after the day's reading. I stopped while we were reading and asked questions to check students' comprehension. At the end of each class, we focused on comprehension, either by creating an oral plot summary together, which I transcribed and displayed on overhead transparency, or by writing their answers to five literal and response-based questions I placed on the board. We reviewed summaries or answers to review questions at the beginning of the following day's class. After each day's reading, the three students with little to no knowledge of English discussed the text in English and/or their native language with an assigned native language partner, under the guidance of the regular ESOL teacher. They also worked with their native language partners throughout class activities on the novel. Due to time constraints and class size, this was the only way these new English learners could receive individualized instruction.
Focus on characters. After reading half of the novel, we stopped and made lists of adjectives that described Jolly, LaVaughn, and LaVaughn's mother. I asked students, "Give me a word that tells me what you think of (Jolly, LaVaughn, LaVaughn's mother)." Students had to justify their adjectives by answering the question: "Why do you think of her this way?" They had to cite specific behaviors of a character for their justifications to be valid; in doing so, they revealed their interpretations of character behavior and their evolving interpretations of the novel itself.
Imagemaking. After reading the first sixteen chapters of the novel, we discussed the reaction of LaVaughn's mother to Jolly's situation; LaVaughn's attitude about Jolly's situation; Jolly's neighborhood and home; and LaVaughn's determination to continue babysitting Jolly's children despite her mother's feelings.
In chapter fifteen, LaVaughn describes how Jolly comes home after a fight in the street: "Jolly came home bleeding and she doesn't have folks. 'Nobody doesn't have folks,' I said. I'm Nobody, then,' she said, ' 'cause I don't.' Her whole face was scraped like it had a grater taken to it, like it was cheese" (Wolff, 33). As much as she hates to, LaVaughn calls her mother for help. Her mother goes to Jolly's apartment for the first time and attends to Jolly's scraped face with a first-aid kit. Later on at home, LaVaughn's mother comments on Jolly's situation, saying Jolly has to lie in the bed she has made for herself.
Much of the novel takes place in Jolly's apartment. I wanted the students to provide their own interpretations of Jolly's apartment, to show me how it appeared to them. I also wished for them to step into the shoes of another character, such as LaVaughn's mother, seeing the apartment for the first time and opposing LaVaughn working there. As an individual assignment, students drew a picture of Jolly's apartment and then wrote a letter describing the apartment and their feelings about LaVaughn working there. They wrote their letters as LaVaughn's mother, or one of LaVaughn's friends.
During this activity, students participated in what King (1993) calls "imagemaking." They created a picture, using finger paints and markers, to show their interpretation of Jolly's apartment. Next, they used writing to explain their visual interpretations from a character's viewpoint. To model imagemaking, I shared my own picture of Jolly's apartment and a corresponding letter from her mother with students first to show them that artistic talent was not necessary. I sought to create a safe environment for English learners to risk communicating their interpretations in English.
Maria, an Hispanic eighth grader of near native oral English proficiency, wrote as LaVaughn's friend Annie. Her work appears as she wrote it:Dear LaVaughn:Caline, an Hispanic seventh grader of intermediate oral English proficiency, wrote as Annie too. Her work appears as she wrote it:
I went to Jolly's house, and I saw the conditions that she lives in. I think that you can't go any more because the place is so dirty. you can't find anything. Oh my God, I can't be there. You can get sick with everything dirty the bathroom is dirty, dirty, smell so bad, bad. insects in all the house. The garbage in the living room in the kitchen, the kitchen when is the food. Mosquitos, hand prints in the windows
Sincerely, AnnieI don't think you should continue working for Jolly When I went their the other day there were cracks on the walls there was roaches crawling every were When I looked in the corner their was this big gicgantic roach their may be it was the father of all the little roaches I am telling you have to stop working for herOnce students completed their pictures and letters, their ESOL teacher placed them into small groups of mixed English proficiency and cultural background to share their drawings and letters. Previously, the classroom had been marked by racial tension; the ESOL teacher wanted students in small groups to communicate across cultural lines. Freeman and Freeman (1998) state that such multicultural group interaction makes students "aware of the importance of developing forms of oral and written language that will allow them to communicate with other social groups besides their own" (153). When sharing in small groups, the native language partners of new English learners translated the learner's letter into English for the group; later in the school day, the three new English learners collaborated with their native language partners to translate their original letters into English.
Students eagerly shared what they thought about Jolly's surroundings in small group and whole class discussion. As a class, we discussed what we learned from the activity and small group sharing. Several students said that they saw how other people thought Jolly's apartment was just as dirty as they did. Some students pointed out how the pictures helped them visualize Jolly's surroundings more clearly. Next, we talked about Jolly's surroundings in the context of her life as an adolescent mother. A few students stated that Jolly's experience as a single, impoverished parent could possibly happen to adolescents, regardless of ethnic background, if they did not have parental support like LaVaughn and if they made the wrong life choices like Jolly. Our discussion of visual and verbal interpretations about Jolly's life and surroundings may have helped this class of culturally diverse English learners find common ground as young adults.
Collaborative writing. After we finished the novel, the ESOL teacher placed students in small groups of mixed English proficiency. Each group was to write a diary entry that one of the characters [Jolly, LaVaughn, LaVaughn's mother] might have written, and that the entry be written as if the time is one year after the book ends. The students were able to use the diary format to express their understanding of the impact of events and attitudes on one of the bookÕs characters. By writing the diary entry collaboratively, students were in a position to probe their initial ideas about the chosen character, question their own and othersÕ assumptions about the character, and justify them orally. Students completed their diary entries with markers on large drawing paper.
Each of the small groups included a mix of girls and boys who spoke Creole or Spanish; some groups also included students who spoke Portuguese. Although pairs of students who spoke the same native language used that language to discuss their thoughts initially, the groups were inclined to use English to communicate what they wanted to write A group of Hispanic and Haitian students wrote as if they were Jolly:Dear Diary,Another group of Hispanic and Haitian students wrote as LaVaughn:
Today I graduated, and LaVaughn is proud of me. I got enough money to keep my life going. LaVaughn comes to visit me sometimes. She sees that I have enough responsabilaty to keep my house clean, and to take care of my kids. LaVaughn is not the only one.Dear Diary,One small group of six Spanish girls astounded me by discussing their interpretations of the novel and the content of the diary entry in Spanish. Then they switched to English when writing the actual diary entry. They wrote as LaVaughn:
Today I went to Jolly's apartment to visit Jilly and Jeremy. Actually I went to visit Jilly because I wanted to see how she was doing. Something surprised me. I saw Jolly's apartment really clean. I saw no roaches except for the one I saw in the corner. I saw Jilly still playing with that spider that got stuck in her throat. It was goowi and wet. Jeremy was still the same. He still sticks his hands in the peanut butter jar. I was glad to visit Jolly Wait until I tell my mother about how clean her house was.
Sincerely, LaVaughnDear Diary,Collaborative writing of a character diary entry for Make Lemonade enabled English learners to communicate their interpretations of characters, plot events, and the novel as a whole.
Yesterday, I graduated from High school, and I decided to go to college. I got certificate, and my mom told me that I have to keep my grades high. Everybody had to choose one way to study, and I chose to be a doctor.
I'm proud of Jolly because at first when I knew her she didn't respect herself. Now she keeps the house clean, and she respect her life. Also she takes good care of her kids.
What I Learned: Implications for Teachers of English/Language Arts
1. Promote reader responses by sharing your own reading.
I encouraged students to share their own ideas about the text by modeling how I developed my interpretations. I tried to demonstrate how my meaning-making evolved, by going back to the text to reveal my "path to interpretation." When something in the novel puzzled me, I would ask the students for help and model returning to the text to try to understand a situation that troubled me or character behavior that confused me.
2. Allow for collaborative writing.
Krashen (1982) claims that social interactions help language learners handle conversations better and refine their ideas while providing comprehensible input needed for language development. I noticed that when students wrote collaboratively, their writing was "cleaner"; it had more clarity than when they wrote individually. Students also had an opportunity to test and defend interpretations in a small, peer group, where they might have been more likely to take risks. For example, when writing the diary entry, the group of Hispanic girls discussed what they wanted to say in Spanish. In English, they focused on how they would phrase a sentence, paying attention to correct verb tense and English word order.
3. Use students' experiences to connect them with the literature.
I modeled the ways that I connected my personal life experiences to the literary text. For example, I discussed my relationship with my mother, which is similar to the one LaVaughn has with hers. I went back to the text and cited particular similarities in our relationships, such as the stern mother figure and mother-daughter conversations, and explained why those passages reminded me of my own life. Students then began to reflect on their personal relationships with their parents, guardians, or adult relatives and they brought those reflections to bear on their reading of the text. . When considering JollyÕs and LaVaughn's friendship, students were able to connect with the text by answering the question, "Do you know anyone like Jolly or LaVaughn?"
4. Go BEYOND the literal.
Over time, my students learned that meaning did not reside in the text, but that it lived in their transaction with the text and the personal experiences called up by it (Rosenblatt, 1978). These adolescent English learners enjoyed interpreting character behavior in a particular plot situation and in the context of the young adult novel as a whole. They learned to return to the text to support their interpretations; I know this because I saw them do it to justify their claims about the text when writing the diary entries after we finished the book.
Carrell and Eisterhold (1987) state that in teaching literature to English learners, teachers should not respond to what readers do right or wrong but to what readers are trying to do. Since English learners are attempting to make sense of an English text, "a teacher who listens carefully and responds to a student's efforts will become aware of both the background knowledge and the cultural problems that students themselves bring to the text" (554). They contend that teachers gain this kind of awareness through asking students open-ended questions about a selection, probing for inferences from the text, and asking students to justify their opinions. Summaries or connecting responses also help teachers achieve awareness of student background knowledge and cultural problems relative to text comprehension.
5. Allow new English learners or limited English proficient students to write in their native language.
Working with thirty-five adolescent English learners with varied levels of English proficiency may seem like a daunting task. The regular ESOL teacher and I decided to allow new English learners to work with a native speaker of their language, who had intermediate to near-native proficiency in English. New English learners wrote in their native languages; then, they translated their writing into English with the help of their partners.
Cummins (1996) suggests that students acquire concepts most readily in their first, or native, language and then understand them in their second language. He argues that the concepts a bilingual person builds form a Common Underlying Proficiency (CUP), which is available for articulation in any language the person speaks or writes. For example, once students know how to write in one language, they can transfer their knowledge about the writing process to another language.
6. Give students an opportunity to identify with characters.
Use of the young adult novel with adolescent English learners provided readers with characters to whom they could relate. The adolescent English learners held on to key elements of the plot by focusing on LaVaughn and Jolly, the protagonists in Make Lemonade, and their interactions with other characters. Students remembered that LaVaughn's primary motivation for babysitting was to earn money for college. They also remembered the novel's theme of self-respect as it was apparent in (1) the strong outlook on life of LaVaughn's mother; (2) LaVaughn's teaching Jeremy and Jilly to be clean; (3) LaVaughn's attendance at a self-esteem class; (4) LaVaughn's encouragement of Jolly to stand up for herself; and (5) Jolly's development of self-respect in attending school and saving Jilly from choking.
7. Use teacher reflection to focus lessons.
Schon (1983) suggests that professional teachers engage in reflection in action by continuously analyzing experiences to improve practice. While teaching, I sometimes noticed that I needed to revise an approach or a question. I would reflect on student reactions and survey my repertoire of approaches to implement another method that addressed student misunderstanding or my inability to express a thought clearly for student comprehension (Raines and Shadiow, 1995).
I also wrote a reflection on each lesson as soon as possible after teaching. I used my written reflections to gain further knowledge about the classroom, my methods, student reactions, and my reactions (Sparks-Langer and Colton, 1991). This practice allowed me to collect my thoughts about the following: (1) my failure to get through to students at times; (2) methods for dealing with students who had little to no English proficiency; (3) my own insecurities in an ESOL environment; (4) evidence of lesson and strategy effectiveness; (5) getting students to become more responsive, more willing to risk being wrong or falling short of correct answers or valid text interpretations; (6) classroom management; (7) student reactions to activities, questions, working in groups, me as a guest teacher; (8) activities, questions, and methodological approaches to future lessons.
8. Use imagemaking to promote discussion.
Imagemaking (King, 1993) gave my adolescent English learners the opportunity to reveal their interpretations of Jolly and her situation. Then, they used writing to explain their interpretations in English. They could get their thoughts down on paper using artistic materials without the pressure of communicating their initial interpretations in English, having to deal with not knowing vocabulary and possible embarrassment for incorrectness. With their visual creation, they could take the time to view their interpretations and through writing ponder their meaning, with time to think of how to express these interpretations with English words. When writing the letter to LaVaughn, they could name their interpretations as those of a character, exploring point of view. Then, we used their visuals and letters to LaVaughn to discuss interpretations of Jolly's situation, LaVaughn's conviction to babysit for Jolly despite others' opinions, and predictions about subsequent plot events.
I am a former teacher of high school English, and a long-time proponent of YA literature in the classroom. In the past few years, I earned the state of Florida's ESOL Endorsement, the state- mandated teacher education in linguistic and cultural issues related to teaching non-native English speakers. My journey to accepting my role as a teacher of literacy, not necessarily native English speakers, has been one fraught with disappointments, frustrations, and helplessness. In the teaching and learning situation described above, I had to deal with myself as a classroom teacher again, this time with the necessary education to address the needs of the English learners I taught. Before, I had English learners in my mainstream English classes and no education in teaching English to non-native speakers. This experience has helped me begin to know myself as a new literacy educator. I am determined to continue to learn how best to apply my new knowledge and ability in an English learner classroom, and to rely on YA literature to help me meet the challenges I will find there.
Ericson, Bonnie. "At Home With Multicultural Adolescent Literature. The ALAN Review 23 (1995): 44-46.
Elizabeth L. Watts is an Assistant Professor of English Education at the University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida.
Copyright 1999. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale in any form.
Reference Citation: Watts, Elizabeth L. (1999) "Using Young Adult Literature with Adolescent Learners of English." The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 3, pp 25-30.