Engaging Reads for Teen ESL Learners
by Evren Celik, Library Assistant 2
In seventh grade, I tested out of my school’s English as a Second Language (ESL) program. By that point, I could sound out words and understand most grammar rules, but I struggled to read anything quickly or, worse, out loud. Most stories I could easily get through were written for younger children, but novels with an intriguing plot often proved too difficult to actually enjoy.
No two readers are alike, and some ESL students easily transition to grade-level work; however, many readers who can understand the technical aspects of language still need practice to fully integrate with their peers. Especially in the case of later middle to early high school, reader interest is key for encouraging consistent reading practice. Texts that are too easy or aimed at much younger audiences can be boring or embarrassing, but stories that take hours of re-reading to comprehend are discouraging. When looking for books to empower and engage older ESL readers, try:
Anthologies and short story collections, which introduce a wide variety of narratives and writing styles in bite-size pieces that are less overwhelming than a full-length novel. “The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic,” by Leigh Bardugo includes elements of classic fairy tales worked into six original short stories set in the world of the Ravka Trilogy, but which require no prior knowledge of the series. Reminiscent of Grimm’s fairy tales, “Language of Thorns” introduces readers to more poetic styles of writing while avoiding extremely flowery language. The haunting descriptions, rejection of simple notions of good and evil, and tales that examine fundamental aspects of what it means to be human will appeal to teens who enjoy horror, suspense, and mystery.
The visual aspect of graphic novels can help keep reluctant readers engaged in the action, while providing context for understanding if the text becomes challenging. “The Lightning Thief: The Graphic Novel” is an illustrated adaptation of the first book in Rick Riordan’s popular “Percy Jackson and The Olympians” series, which follows Percy and his friends as they discover godly powers, fight monsters, and try to stop the deities of ancient Greece from destroying New York City. Told from the perspective of a dyslexic twelve-year-old and his friends, this brightly-illustrated story of finding one’s way in a new and unexpected world is relatable and fun for readers navigating a new language.
Struggling through completely made-up words and speaking styles can feel redundant and discouraging for teens trying to gain real-world language skills as they read. While fantasy as a whole isn’t off the table, books that are fantastical should stick to useful vocabulary and language that can be practiced aloud; rather than high fantasy or sci-fi, try dystopian fiction and magical realism.
“East” by Edith Pattou narrates the world through the wide, observant eyes of a young girl traveling far from home for the first time, as she follows a magical white bear across a snowy northern landscape. In this unique reinterpretation of the Norwegian fairy tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” Rose describes every detail of her quest, from the texture of a new fur coat to the exact shades of colors on a tapestry. Her story of defying traditional expectations to gain independence is relevant to new teens just entering high school, while the highly-descriptive narration provides in-text definitions for new vocabulary and clearly indicates the use of metaphors.
“The Abyss Surrounds Us” by Emily Skrutskie is a thrilling cross between “Pacific Rim” and “Treasure Planet,” for anyone who had childhood dreams of adopting the kraken. In a world where pirates fill the treacherous Neo-Pacific, Cassandra Leung’s family runs a business breeding and training genetically-engineered sea monsters, dubbed “Reckoners,” to help defend crossing ships. When a vengeful pirate queen charges into Cass’s first solo mission and kidnaps her, Cass isn’t sure what to expect, until she’s ordered to raise a stolen Reckoner hatchling aboard the ship, to turn it into a weapon for the pirates. With a fast-paced plot and witty narration, Skrutskie builds a fantastical world using terms readers will encounter in real life.
These are all just guidelines, and it is interest, more than anything, that will encourage someone to practice reading. However, suggesting books that are relevant and appropriately challenging without being overwhelming can help English learning practice be an enjoyable, as well as useful, endeavor.