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Promising Pactices

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57 Douglass Street
Portland, ME 04102


in collaboration with


New Books, New Readers
Maine Humanities Council
674 Brighton Ave., Portland, ME  04102
207-773-5051; toll free 1-866-MEreader (637-3233)
fax: 207-773-2416 – click on “Programs”


Julia R. Walkling, Program Director

“There’s never been a book discussion from which I haven’t learned something about my students, that has not provided an opportunity to share and talk about them later, and where students have not learned about and from each other.
You can endlessly exploit these books. It’s fun. It’s like dessert.”
~ Joy Ahrens, ESOL teacher, Portland Adult Education


The mission of Portland Adult Education is to inspire lifelong learning in a multicultural environment.


Located in Portland on the coast of southern Maine, Portland Adult Education (PAE) is the state’s oldest and largest adult education provider.  Founded in 1848 and operating as part of Portland Public Schools, Portland Adult Education serves more than 1,700 academic students annually of whom 1,166 were immigrants from 59 countries in academic year 2005-2006.  The largest immigrant student population comes from Somalia, followed by Sudan, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The dramatic growth in PAE’s immigrant population since the mid-1990’s is reflected in the rapidly increasing size of its ESOL program that currently includes seven levels of ESOL classes offered in two tracks. Given the limited – or non-existent - formal education of many of the new arrivals, Portland Adult Education found it best to set up two separate tracks of ESOL classes: one for ESOL students who are literate in their own language and one for ESOL Reading for students who arrive with no education or literacy skills in any language. The expectation is that people stay in the same track for a year (38 weeks) and move up together as a class. The retention has been about 70% over a semester and 50% over a year.  At any one time, at least 100 adults are on a waiting list for ESOL classes.

Rationale and Background of the Practice

Good story books convey the universality of many human experiences. Many children's story books have themes that are appropriate for discussion across the age span. Typically, they also have beautiful illustrations that tell the story, making abstract concepts accessible to beginning level ESOL students. Students don't always have to be able to read the whole story to engage with its meaning. Each illustration can generate a lot of discussion which engages adults in learning English. The discussions also build intercultural awareness and solidarity when, for example, Somalis, Cambodians and Haitians discuss concepts such as fairness or friendship. Students develop a sense of agency from these discussions that enhances their self-efficacy (i.e. belief in their ability to learn English).

Learning English takes a long time and can be stressful, especially for adults with limited or no formal education. If the stories include humor this can be a welcome release from the daily tedium of trying to master a foreign language. Laughter (when not directed at anyone) builds community and contributes to engagement with learning.

Description of the Practice

Prompted by the success of the New Books New Readers program of the Maine Humanities Council with native English–speaking Adult Basic and Secondary level students, PAE decided to experiment with using carefully selected children’s story books with beginning ESOL students.  They selected books with thought-provoking themes, not much text, and appealing illustrations.  Some of the books that the ESOL teachers at PAE have used to a good effect are:

Book Name Theme
A Chair for My Mother Friendship
Letting Swift River Go Losing and finding; dislocation
Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters Love and marriage
Now One Foot, Now the Other Friendship
The Giving Tree Giving and receiving
The Little Red Hen Fairness and communal living

The teachers have found the following classroom activities useful.  They are listed roughly in the order it makes sense to carry them out but each teacher varies the order and activities somewhat according to the language skills and dynamics of each group of students.

  1. Start by having students look at the cover, asking them what they see.
  2. Ask students about their experiences that might relate to the book.
  3. Have students look at illustrations, talk about them, and guess what the story is about.
  4. Read the book aloud to students so they can hear the original language in the book even if they cannot read at that level.
  5. Talk to students about accepting that it’s OK to not understand all words.
  6. Use a lot of props. For example, for The Little Red Hen, Carolyn Sloan brought in a broom, a dish rag, seeds, cake, and a spade.
  7. Act out the story or parts of it with students.
  8. If necessary, rewrite the text at a simpler level on strips of paper. Paste the strips on the appropriate page but do not cover the original text with the strips. (Students may be able to return to the book at a later time and read the original!)
  9. Have students read aloud the simplified text as a group or individually.
  10. Teach students about discussion norms, how to participate, turn-taking, respecting other people’s opinion, how to disagree politely.
  11. Ask comprehension questions about the story.
  12. Develop discussion questions and facilitate large or small group discussions.
  13. Have students develop vocabulary lists with new words from the book. You can also ask them to illustrate the words with drawings or images cut out from magazines.
  14. Develop grammar exercises that correspond to the students’ English level and the overall course objectives.
  15. Ask students to write about one of the themes from the book.

“Students love to look at the illustrations... No matter what the language skills are they can really, really connect with the themes.”  ~ Joy Ahrens, PAE ESOL Teacher

“Having multiple copies of books is rare for us and our students. These are the first books they ever owned in their lives. It’s a wonderful addition to ESOL instruction. Being a part of the book discussions models for the adults what expectations and support to set for their children who are also reading books in school.”  ~ Alison Perkins, PAE ESOL Teacher

“The students were thrilled to be able to keep the books. Some read it to their children, some had their children read it to them.”  ~ Tobin Hagelin


  • Finding enough good stories with appealing illustrations that don’t have too much text and have adult themes can be a challenge.
  • Teachers need to be aware of images that may be offensive to people from certain cultures, for example, not using books with pigs with Muslim students. Also, the APE teachers have found that students come from a strong Koranic tradition and limited formal education, they tend to think if it’s in the book, it is true.
  • Some students have never seen storybooks and do not have mental models for things like animals being portrayed with human qualities and attire.
  • Some students may find children’s books juvenile, but these students also tend to be forthright about what they like and don’t like.

Evidence of Impact and Effectiveness

The evidence of effectiveness of this practice is based on observations of students by the three PAE teachers who have used story books in their beginning ESOL classes. These teachers report improved retention and spelling of vocabulary words, and increased reading comprehension. They state emphatically that the retention of vocabulary is higher because it’s attached to a story. Joy Ahrens’ ESOL literacy students progressed from only being able to read the simplified sentences which Joy had added near the original text to being able to read the original text. Her pre and post-reading dictation of vocabulary from the story showed a marked improvement in the students’ writing and spelling.

While the overall ESOL retention rate of about 70% over a semester and 50% over a year cannot be attributed solely to the storybooks, the teachers have observed that appealing illustrations and themes to which students can relate increase students’ engagement with learning. The three teachers report that many students keep the books in their back bags for years and read them over and over.

Cost & Staffing

The cost of the books averages $55/individual for a set of 9 books depending on the number of participants. Portland Adult Education received the books free of charge from the Maine Humanities Council’s New Books, New Readers program. Portland Adult Education pays teachers for 1-2 hours of planning time per class per week. The initial effort to modify the storybooks required more time than what the paid prep time covered.

Implications for Practice, Policy and Research

To replicate this practice, programs need to support teachers’ planning time in reviewing and selecting the books; planning the lessons, and they need to secure funds to purchase storybooks for each student. To fully understand the outcomes and impact of teaching ESOL through children’s story books, a study that tracks and compares quantitative (e.g. persistence, learning gains) and qualitative (e.g. changes in students’ ESOL learning self-efficacy and literacy practices with their children) outcomes for two sets of same level ESOL classes one of which used story books for a part of the instructional time and one that didn’t would be instructive.

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