Creating a Storybook in an English as a Second Language Class for Parents
This article reports on a storybook project implemented in an adult ESL (English as a second language) class as an activity that led to student success. The project took place after school hours in partnership with Ojeda Junior High School in central Texas. This was an ESL class for parents of children enrolled at the school. A group of 35 parents enrolled in class; however, only fifteen of them attended regularly (50-100% rate). They were from Mexico, Colombia, and Panama and were between the ages of 33 and 48. They were housewives, worked in housekeeping and construction, or were looking for a job. Their level of schooling was a variation of elementary to some high school and one year of college. We met once a week for two hours during ten weeks in fall 2009. Storytelling and dialogue were central to curriculum planning and implementation. These were project-based lessons, and class activities included building a personal glossary, creating a storybook, and using mini-lessons on grammar topics, language functions, vocabulary, and pronunciation. There was a wide range of English proficiency among the participants and all of them were able to read and write in Spanish, their native language.
The process of creating the storybook took eight weeks. The first step was to read short stories selected by the instructor and have discussions that motivated students to tell other related stories. These stories illustrated different levels of language difficulty and the purpose was to cater to the different language proficiencies among class members. We also discussed the elements in a story (beginning, middle and end). Next, students selected a topic and used disposable cameras (provided by the school) to take pictures to accompany the stories. There was a limit of ten pictures to keep focused on the self-selected topic. Once students were done taking the pictures, we brainstormed for ideas to start writing. We used class time for drafting and obtaining individualized feedback. The students selected topics related to their neighborhoods, homes, families, pets, and children. By the fourth class meeting, the students became very excited about writing the stories and started to work outside of class writing portions of the story. They received help in class to polish their English and to improve the stories in terms of content and coherence. They wrote at least three drafts (skipping lines) in a bluebook and in class they received grammar explanations focusing on their writing mistakes. Next, we used the school computer lab and students typed the stories. Then, the school developed the pictures and put them onto CDs for us to be able to manipulate them. We put pictures and text together using Microsoft Power Point and the school provided the means to print them in color and put them in binders. During the last day of class the students received the final version of their books and manifested feeling pride and excitement about having accomplished a final product from being enrolled in the ESL class. They took turns reading their books out loud and we had a last chance to do a mini-lesson in pronunciation for verbs in past tense since that was the main issue that emerged while the students were reading the books.
As a result, during individual interviews with them, students reported having developed a personal connection with writing and telling stories. They learned about word choice, sentence structure, and the writing process (drafting, revising, and publishing). The following names are pseudonyms and the excerpts illustrate typical comments about the storybook activity shared by the students.
—I like the storybook [activity] because I am telling [stories] about my family and can practice writing. It helps me to think [in] English and practice writing [skills] (Moni).
—I like the storybook because it’s about my children and I really enjoy telling [stories] about them. Sharing the storybook with my classmates made me feel good (Yesenia).
—Writing the storybook I realized that I miss my old neighborhood in New York and that I am starting to like my new life in Texas. I also learned that writing is more complex that speaking (Neftali).
—Writing the storybook was hard for me, but it was rewarding to see the final product. I was proud of my storybook. I read it to the school teachers in a meeting. I felt nervous but proud (Maria).
As Clark & Rossiter (2008) remind us: “Stories are powerful precisely because they engage learners at a deeply human level. Stories draw us into an experience at more than a cognitive level; they engage our spirit, our imagination, our heart, and this engagement is complex and holistic” (p. 65). In telling stories we establish connections and recall other related experiences and as a result new learning happens. These students learned English and learned about themselves as people and as learners. This writing exercise helped them to understand more about the mechanics of writing in English and the writing process. More important, this class activity instilled pride in the students and helped them realize their capabilities as learners.
Clark, C. M., & Rossiter, M. (2008). Narrative learning in adulthood. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 119, 61-70.
Clarena Larrotta is Assistant Professor of Adult Education at Texas State University-San Marcos.