This article originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of CONNECT.
Rachael Roberts (Ibaraki)
As reading is one of the most challenging of the four language skills—speaking, listening, reading, and writing, it goes without saying that reading in an unfamiliar language can be overwhelming. Even the most avid readers who are excited to read in their second language may find themselves struggling when they open a book to find many unfamiliar words in tiny print crammed onto the pages. The natural response to this would be to consider books that are easier to read, such as children’s books. Surprisingly, many adult English as a Foreign Language (EFL) learners don’t consider reading children’s books because they are “just for kids.” However, for an adult EFL learner, reading children’s books—particularly picture books—has many advantages that support reading development and overall language proficiency.
Often, the kinds of books that students interact with in the classroom are simple stories which align with the culture of native English speakers. While these kinds of texts might be easier to navigate for students, recent trends in English language education have encouraged the incorporation of authentic texts in EFL classrooms. (1)(3)(5) Using authentic texts, particularly ones targeted at adults, might be challenging for some students, so the obvious solution would be to use children’s literature.
Recent studies have found a great deal of potential in using children’s literature for adult EFL learners. Birketveit (2015) starts off her exploration of picture books by stating, “Despite the fact that picture books offer new and exciting reading for all competence levels, picture books seem to be a largely undiscovered treasure trove in English as a Foreign Language (EFL) today.” (2) She goes on to write that picture books skillfully incorporate pictures and texts in a way that is appealing to EFL learners of all levels. Many other studies also suggest that picture books can increase motivation for students learning English. (4)(6)(7)
Getting used to reading in a second language can be difficult. This is particularly true when the second language uses a completely different writing system from the reader’s native language. Yang (2019) found that student anxiety surrounding reading not only decreased when incorporating picture books, but that students spent more time reading in English for pleasure outside the classroom. (7) These results could be attributed to the overall nature of children’s books in terms of font size, illustrations, vocabulary, and grammar.
Constantly straining to get through even one page of text can take its toll. Quite frankly, it’s frustrating. To remedy this discombobulation, we must remember that the brain, the part doing most of the work in language learning, is a muscle. And just as it is when we are in the early stages of muscle development in any other part of the body, it is important to start off with weights that are skill-appropriate and take time to slowly increase the intensity. In layman’s terms, start with small tasks or as in the case of language development, start with books originally for small people—children. Children’s books tend to use larger fonts with less content on one page. This allows the EFL reader to practice reading in English without feeling overwhelmed as they might with an adult-level novel. Additionally, illustrations add to the enjoyment of the text as well as provide contexts for meaning-making as the EFL learner experiences the story through reading. Kochiyama found that using picture books increases positive attitudes toward learning English and the target culture. (5) At the same time, the reader tends to feel that the difficulty of the texts was appropriate for their level of understanding.
It is also important to consider the level of vocabulary and grammar that a book has. Reading provides great opportunities to pick up new words and phrases, but if a reader chooses a book that contains too many unfamiliar words on each page, they may end up reading the dictionary more than the book itself. A book targeted at a younger age level will contain easier vocabulary and simpler grammar, allowing the reader to learn through context without the burden of looking up too many unfamiliar words or phrases.
Relatable Themes and Cultural Experiences
While there are many types of stories such as sci-fi and fantasy, children’s books naturally revolve around one key component—the child as the audience. As a result, adult EFL learners can often relate to the common, simple themes. They are likely to have already faced the conflicts and learned the lessons children’s books often teach—from going to school for the first time to fighting with their best friend. Furthermore, these relatable experiences are often framed through the cultural lens of the author. Though all adults have their own experience of childhood, adult EFL learners can learn new cultural nuances of growing up in a variety of English-speaking countries through such books. The use of picture books also allows for an analysis of stereotypes prevalent in the various cultures. For instance, Kochiyama used the text The Paper Bag Princess in their study, which provides students with an opportunity to discuss gender stereotypes that often appear as tropes in traditional fairy tales such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. (5)
Another benefit in reading such texts is to “give students opportunities to learn not only language skills but also to be sensitive to different cultures.” (3) Children’s books are not limited to the kinds of stories mentioned here. Many children’s books are written by authors from diverse backgrounds, including authors who have migrated to other countries. A study conducted by Zhu (2022) analyzed the use of picture books as a means of support for international college students. (8) The findings concluded that picture books can serve as a way to present serious topics as pedagogical tools that promote discussion amongst adult students. This not only helps to support the academic needs of the students learning English, but also provides social support for students who share similar needs in second language learning.
In sum, children’s literature should not be overlooked when considering authentic materials to use in adult EFL classrooms. There are many benefits from reducing anxiety and increasing motivation to expanding cultural understanding and providing context for discussions about a variety of topics. With hard work and patience, adult EFL readers can improve their language skills by reading children’s books until they are ready to take on more challenging adult-leveled works.
Rachael is a graduate student with a background in linguistics and English education. She has taught English in Japan for over six years and enjoys incorporating culture and authenticity into her lessons.