Thursday, April 2, 2009

Children's Literature
In the Adult Literacy and Language Classroom

Alphabet Books, Picture Books and More

If you've had
reason to peruse the children’s collection in your local library or bookstore lately, you know what a treasure trove of engaging writing and artwork it is. If you haven’t, you have a treat awaiting you. Among the collection of picture books, for example, you will find stories, some real and some imagined, that convey important truths about the way we live in a complex world. You will also find stories culled from the pages of history that need to be told and retold to succeeding generations. Or peruse the nonfiction section, where you will find books that explore and explain fascinating facts of science and nature, described and illustrated in ways that whet your desire to learn more. Works of poetry abound in the children's collection. Sometimes selected from the works of the great masters and sometimes presenting a range of contemporary voices, poems found in children’s books offer words and images that describe the familiar or explore the unknown, elicit howls of laughter or sighs of longing, evoke memories or inspire new perspectives. In short, exploring the world of children’s literature as adults, we find that “children’s” books offer the very same elements of literature that draw us to the books we love to read in our grown-up world, books that answer a need, indeed a hunger, for a satisfying reading experience, be it factual, emotional, spiritual, or just plain enjoyable.

Given this rich resource of literature, it is worth perusing this collection wearing our ABE and ESL hats, searching for books that might afford our adult literacy and language students the same opportunity to find that kind of rewarding and enjoyable reading experience.

Are they really appropriate?

Mention children’s literature in the context of materials for adult literacy and language students and the obvious question that arises is, “Won’t such books be demeaning to the students?” Certainly, many books intended for children, however well written or beautifully illustrated, will not be appropriate for adults. But many will be. Consider, for example, the many picture books that are in essence brief memoirs of the author’s own childhood, written with the perspective and wistfulness only an adult looking back can appreciate. Or consider these features of many nonfiction books: they explain their subject in clear and direct language, use appropriate vocabulary documented in a glossary, and provide pictures and graphic illustrations that add depth to the information as well as aesthetic appeal to the reading experience. What's more, many nonfiction books, although marketed to children, do not specifically address children in their text. Perusing poetry books on the children’s shelves, we find many poems originally written for adults that are simple in language but not simplistic in style or meaning. Even some alphabet books, a genre rarely thought of outside the realm of childhood literacy, offer possibilities for use within adult literacy and language classes.

Whether telling stories accompanied by beautiful illustrations, acquainting us with fascinating people and events of history, explaining our physical world in understandable but engaging language, or teaching the basics of language in clever wordplay, many “children’s” books are truly appropriate “for readers of all ages.”

In the next few entries in this blog, I would like to discuss some specific titles and suggest some possible language lessons, using various kinds of children's books. With this entry, I will begin, appropriately enough, with alphabet books!

Alphabet Books for Adult Literacy Students

Alphabet books – Really? Yes, really. While it is true enough that alphabet books are almost universally associated with teaching children to read, the genre has become quite sophisticated in recent years. In concept as well as in style and difficulty of language, recently published alphabet books range from the simple to the complex, and from the predictable to the amazing.

The concept of the alphabet book is simple: teach both the shape and the sound of a letter by associating it with a picture. A is for apple; B is for banana and so on. Variations on this basic theme are numerous; they are also clever, amusing, surprising, creative, sophisticated, complex, and appealing to a wide range of tastes, styles, and audiences.

I’ve listed a few of my favorite examples below, along with some ideas for lessons to use with these or similar books. I’ve ordered them according to the broad reading levels of beginning through advanced new readers , although many of them can be used with students of different skill levels.

Beginning Level Students

ABC NYC by Joanne Dugan. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2005.
Description: Traveling the streets and neighborhoods of New York City with her young son, photographer Dugan was inspired to create an alphabet book using objects familiar to children growing up in an urban environment. Subway stations, department stores, billboards, and even graffiti on walls provide the letters in a fascinating variety of fonts, locations, and writing styles. Like most alphabet books, ABC NYC conveys much more than the shapes and sounds of letters. In her photographs of New York, Dugan depicts scenes and objects that reflect the variety of cultural and personal life styles inherent in any large modern city, while at the same time conveying a certain geographic uniqueness. Anyone who has ever visited New York will appreciate how she has captured the flavor of that city with her use of tiled subway lettering and iconic objects such as “B is for Bagel. As a native New Yorker, I laughed out loud at the entry “M is for Manhole Cover.” Perfect!

There are alphabet books available for every state in the U.S. and for some countries as well. Some will be more appropriate for adults than others, but even those that are childlike in appearance can be examples for the two lesson ideas discussed below.

Ideas for Lessons
1. Develop a class project to create a geographical alphabet book. It may be based on a location as large as a country or as small as a neighborhood. In a class of students from several countries, it could become an exercise in helping them discover their new environment. For English speaking adult literacy students learning to read their native language, it offers an opportunity for students to incorporate their oral language skills and knowledge of their surroundings into a reading lesson.
2. Reverse the alphabet book concept by having students create lists of things from their environment: street names, favorite foods, articles of clothing, objects related to sports and games, etc. These word lists can then be used to reinforce a variety of skills, such as practicing alphabetical order, learning initial consonants, breaking words into syllables, and recognizing common letter clusters such as consonants blends.

Beginning to Intermediate Level Students

T is for Touchdown: A Football Alphabet by Brad Herzog. Illustrated by Mark Braught. Chelsea, MI: Sleeping Bear Press, 2005.
Description: As each letter introduces a term related to football, it offers a brief explanation, in rhyme, of some aspect of the game. Thus, the basic entry for the letter “B” tells us:
Leather stitched together,
the brown ball is our B
A perfectly thrown spiral
is quite a thing to see.

In addition to this simple verse, a more descriptive sidebar offers additional information, explaining, for example, that the ball is oval and made of pigskin, and that as the ball changed shape from its early rounder version to the current oval ball, the forward pass became a more important part of the game. The sidebar then goes on to explain how to throw a spiral, which it describes as a perfectly thrown pass. Thus, on one page, this book has given beginning level readers a simple poem to read associating the letter “b” with the brown ball, while more advanced students have learned a bit of history and some basic facts about the ball and the game. In an international class, this book could also lead to conversation practice about sports in general or about the differences between American football and the game that the rest of the world knows as football but we call soccer. That’s a lot of information for an alphabet book! Even better, this publisher has produced a number of books using the same format. Some focus on sports as in J is for Jump Shot: A Basketball Alphabet (2005, written by Mike Ulmer and illustrated by Mark Braught); others discuss a wide range of topics such as D is for Democracy: A Citizen’s Alphabet (2004, written by Elissa Grodin and illustrated by Victor Juhasz).

Ideas for Lessons
1. Sports is a topic that offers many opportunities for conversation practice. At a beginning level, have students as a class create a demonstration language experience story in the form of a dialogue, with the two speakers in the dialogue talking about their favorite sport, the team they root for, and a few particulars about that sport or team. Student pairs first practice reading the dialogue the class has composed. Then, with additional help,the student pairs can create their own version of the dialogue, talking about their own experiences with sports.
2. At the intermediate level, use sports as a context to talk about verbs. For example, find some newspaper articles about sporting events that are close to the students' reading level, or, if necessary, rewrite the articles in a simpler form, but keeping the verbs used in the original. Read the articles with the students, and help students identify all the words that describe the specific actions of the game. Create a list of all the words that are verbs. As an ongoing project, it would be interesting to start a list of all the verbs that are used to say one team "won" over another, and have students add to that list anytime they come across another such verb they find in a newspaper or even hear on TV or radio.
3. In a class with international students, create a class chart, listing all the countries represented in the class, and the sports played in each of those countries. Lead a class discussion about the different sports. What is common among them? What is different? Keep a running vocabulary list on the board. For a subsequent lesson, find books in the local library that discuss each of the sports on the list and bring them to class. Ask each student to choose a book about a sport that is not played, or not very popular, in his or her home country, then write a brief report about that sport, including a sentence or two about how it is different from a sport the student is more familiar with.

Intermediate Level Students

Winter: An Alphabet Acrostic by Stephen Schnur. Illustrated by Leslie Evans. New York: Clarion Books, 2002.
Description: In this alphabet book, the word for each letter is presented in a simple but descriptive acrostic. For example, this is the entry for E :

E is for Ears:
Even under caps, they
Ache and turn
Red in the
Stinging cold.

More than just an alphabet book, these clever acrostics introduce many words associated with the theme of the book. And, of course, the simple but creative word play will challenge students to use their developing language skills in playful but instructive ways. This author has produced similar books for all seasons.

Ideas for Lessons:
1. Have students try to build acrostic poems by first creating a list of words or ideas related to a chosen theme and then selecting words from their list to create the poem. Sample themes might include items in a classroom, favorite foods, or articles of clothing. The words needn’t represent all the letters of the alphabet.
2. Introduce students to other kinds of word puzzles such as crosswords, word finders, and jumbles. Books containing various kinds of puzzles at all levels of difficulty can be found in many bookstores and even on the Internet. Local newspapers also offer daily examples. Once the students become familiar with these activities, have them try to create some puzzles of their own.

Gathering the Sun: An Alphabet in Spanish and English by Alma Flor Ada. Illustrated by Simon Silva. English translation by Rosa Zubizarreta. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1997.
Description: In simple poems celebrating migrant farm workers and the bounty of the fields they pick, Ada reviews not only the twenty-eight letters of the Spanish alphabet but also the lives and long struggles of those families who make their living putting food on the tables of the countries in which they find seasonal work. Each verse is then translated into English. The poems range from the descriptive to the metaphoric to the philosophical; their meanings are deepened by and echoed in the vibrant illustrations. Here is the English version of “carrots.”


The carrot hides
beneath the earth.
After all, she knows
the sun’s fiery color
by heart.

Ideas for Lessons
1. Simple as they are in their language, the poems in this book beautifully illustrate the very nature of poetry as an attempt to express the essence of something, be it a physical object such as a carrot, a concept such as honor, or a way of life such as that of the migrant workers. With these poems as examples, have your students choose something from their immediate environment – a piece of furniture, an article of clothing, a holiday, an event in the community – and then have them brainstorm words, phrases, ideas, people or experiences that come to mind when they think about the chosen topic. Encourage a range of contributions and list them all. Then ask the students to choose just a few of those words or ideas from the list to write a brief poem that condenses, indeed crystallizes, that object, idea, or event for them.
2. In a class with students who speak Spanish as well as English, ask the Spanish-speaking students to translate literally the Spanish version of the poem, and then discuss with the whole group how the differences in language do or do not create differences, however slight, in meaning.

Advanced level students

Jazz ABZ: An A to Z Collection of Jazz Portraits by Wynton Marsalis. Illustrated by Paul Rogers. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2005.
Description: With entries from A to Z, this title qualifies as an alphabet book, but it is really an introduction, in words and stunning portraits, to the great jazz artists of the twentieth century. For each letter, Marsalis has written a poem in praise of a jazz musician, from Louie Armstrong to Count Basie all the way to DiZZy Gillespie. The poems fit the artist they describe: a beat poem, a blues poem, a limerick, a haiku, and so on. Some are easy to read, others quite difficult. Explanations of the forms appear at the end of the book, as do biographical summaries of each musician that will help readers decipher some of the more obscure meanings or references in the poems.

Ideas for Lessons:
1. This book is, in essence, a documentary on the greats of jazz. Discuss the idea of creating a documentary history with your students. What are some topics that they would like to explore? List some of their ideas, and then have them form groups to write about a select few of the topics. Encourage them to gather artifacts such as photographs, maps, family heirlooms, or real objects related to their topic. Suggest that they visit the library to find books on their topic or search the Internet for information, and that they interview several relevant people if possible. Discuss with each group the best format for their documentary.
2. Have students create a “how-to” book. Examples might be a cookbook in which they list ingredients and give detailed instructions about how to follow a particular recipe, a step-by-step explanation of their favorite game or sport, or a list of things to do to become acquainted with a new neighborhood or a new country.

These are but a few of the many fascinating alphabet books you will find at your local library that may be used with adult literacy and language students. If you have any titles to recommend, I would love to hear them.

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