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THIS IS A PREPUBLICATION DRAFT OF
Kasper, L.F. (1995). Using multi-media integration in a thematic-based ESL reading course. Journal of College Reading, 2, 19-29.
PLEASE DO NOT CITE NOR QUOTE THIS DRAFT

 

 

Abstract

Studies have shown that using thematic content-based material in ESL reading classes helps students become better readers.  Designing an effective theme course is an instructional challenge. This paper offers a rationale and describes a procedure for using the literary work, Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat, as the foundation for a thematic content-based ESL reading course on "Ecology and Human Behavior."  The paper suggests using a variety of printed and audiovisual materials to motivate students, enhance their linguistic skills, and help them achieve higher pass rates on reading assessment examinations

 

      Studies have shown that when ESL reading courses are structured around a unifying content-based theme, both comprehension skills and student motivation are enhanced (Guyer & Peterson, 1988; Kasper, 1994a; 1994b; 1994c; Nelson & Schmid, 1989; Snow & Brinton, 1988).  In a content-based ESL theme course, all readings focus on one specific academic subject area, for example, psychology or environmental science.  The thematic content-based ESL reading course is often taught through nonfiction, informational articles on various topics within that academic subject area.  This paper will describe how a literary work may be used as the foundation for a thematic content-based ESL reading course.  It will specifically detail a procedure for using the work, Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat (1963), as the basis for a course on "Ecology and Human Behavior."

Rationale

      While there is empirical evidence (Kasper, 1994a) that readings of thematic content result in enhanced reading comprehension for ESL students, what exactly are the critical features of this content that produce better readers?  The enhancement of reading skills produced by thematic content-based readings appears to be the result of both cognitive and linguistic factors. 

      Cognitively, a thematic approach to reading facilitates the formation of schemata, or knowledge bases, for the various topics related to the theme (Andre & Phye, 1986; Royer, 1986).  Schema theory suggests that we understand what we read through a process of matching linguistic input to these schemata, which contain both linguistic and world knowledge.  The schemata are then used to predict and interpret subsequent incoming information.  Thus, the reader's prior knowledge and experience are part of the process by which meaning is actively created and overall reading comprehension enhanced.

      Linguistically, a thematic content-based ESL reading course exposes students to complex ideas in a specific academic subject area.  When students read academic material in the second language, they are forced to grapple with ideas expressed through varied vocabulary and language structures.  The course presents students with material in a meaningful, contextualized form, in which the primary focus is on the acquisition of information.  According to Brinton, Snow, & Wesche (1989), as ESL students acquire information through sophisticated linguistic input, they move to more advanced levels of language processing. 

      For ESL readers to benefit from this kind of instruction, the subject matter needs to be made accessible to them.  The theme course accomodates this need by using a variety of learning activities that are meaning-driven and student-centered.  These activities include prereading exercises such as advance organizers and analogies, reading and writing activities, and audiovisual activities.  The advance organizers and analogies help to activate the students' preexisting schemata, thus bridging the gap between the knowledge           the student already has and the knowledge he/she needs to comprehend the reading (Ausubel, Novak, & Hanieson, 1978).   The reading and writing activities help students first, to acquire information in a meaningful context and then, to expand on that information through various forms of writing, including summaries, answers to open-ended comprehension questions, and narrative or expository pieces based on the topics of the readings.  The audiovisual materials, i.e., cassette tapes and videos, help to make the subject matter more concrete to the ESL reader, thereby facilitating comprehension. 

      Therefore, the thematic content-based ESL reading course enhances English language proficiency through carefully designed activities that help students acquire background information in the academic subject area and that subsequently provide them with oral and written opportunities to discuss, analyze, extend, and apply the concepts introduced in the readings.  The variety of activities is important because research has shown that overall linguistic skill acquisition is facilitated when instructional activities involve as many of the senses as possible (Collie & Slater, 1987; Taylor, 1987). 

      An additional benefit resulting from thematic contentbased instruction is that students' improved comprehension extends beyond the specific topics covered in the reading course.  Nelson and Schmid (1989) found that when ESL students develop comprehension skills through thematic content-based readings, these skills transfer to other themes and topics, thereby improving overall English language reading comprehension.  This effect occurs because the thematic content-based reading course teaches students to identify and extract information critical to comprehension. 

      The activities in the thematic content-based ESL reading course encourage students to take an active role in learning, to engage in self-monitoring, and to make guesses in their search for meaning.  In the process, students learn to construct meaning from information stored in memory, to extract relevant information from the larger text context, and to filter out redundant or irrelevant information.  As students do each of these things, they practice using efficient reading comprehension strategies, and increase their metacognitive awareness of the overall reading process (Nist & Simpson, 1987; Weinstein, 1987).  Students become active participants in their own comprehension, and so their reading performance is enhanced (Crowder & Wagner, 1992).

      By concentrating on one academic subject area throughout the course, students continually process not only the material, but also related language structures and vocabulary.  They acquire information in a meaningful context, and they expand on this information through the activities of the course.  The variety of activities provides ESL students with multiple reinforcement of both language and content, and focusing on one academic subject area establishes rich schemata that are continually activated and reactivated by each of the activities in the course (Kasper, 1994a).  Students are thereby encouraged to process the readings at a deep level, which reinforces and enhances overall comprehension (Perkins, 1983; Weinstein, 1987).

      In addition to their cognitive and linguistic benefits, thematic content-based ESL reading courses keep students motivated (Kasper, 1994a; 1994b).  The motivational factor is extremely important in improving reading performance (Westphal Irwin, 1986).  When asked to provide feedback on the thematic content-based reading course, ESL students report that as they acquire relevant vocabulary and identify important issues surrounding the topic, they can more easily comprehend, speak, and write about that topic.  The result is that students say they feel more confident about their overall English language skills (Kasper, 1994a).  As functioning in the second language requires less effort and delivers more rewards, students become more comfortable using English.  Westphal Irwin (1986) believes that this combination of factors not only yields the greatest amount of motivation, but also leads to enhanced reading performance.

Materials and Procedure

      The reading course described in this paper is taught over a semester consisting of 72 class hours.  It has been offered to a high intermediate level ESL class meeting six hours per week over a twelve week semester.  In this theme course, students use two major source texts, one literary, one informational.  The literary text is Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat (1963); the informational text is Earth in the Balance by Al Gore (1993).  Additional readings and audiovisual activities supplement the information provided by the two core texts.

      Never Cry Wolf was chosen for two reasons.  First, it is a well-told story with interest and readability levels appropriate for high intermediate ESL students (IL age 12 and up; RL 7).  Second, it addresses a variety of ecological issues, among them the environment, endangered species, human and animal communication patterns, and cultural influences on behavior.  Earth in the Balance was chosen because it is a readable and thought-provoking informational source text on the topic of ecology and human behavior. 

      Students begin the course by reading Never Cry Wolf, which is the story of Mowat's work on the Canadian government's Lupine Project.  Mowat was commissioned to study the behavior and feeding patterns of the Arctic wolf to obtain proof that the wolves were responsible for killing vast numbers of caribou.  This proof would provide the government with license to destroy the Arctic wolves.  As Mowat observes the wolves, he discovers that it is the hunters, not the wolves, that are responsible for slaughtering the caribou.  Thus Mowat is torn between the responsibilities of his governmental commission and his desire to save the Arctic wolves from destruction.

      Because the major conflict of Never Cry Wolf involves the struggle to preserve the integrity of the environment, it is an excellent starting point for a theme course on "Ecology and Human Behavior".  The instructor might wish to devote three or four weeks to the reading and discussion of this book.  During the remaining weeks of the semester, the environmental topics introduced in Never Cry Wolf are explored further through Earth in the Balance. 

      Because the diverse spectrum of activity used in this course is designed to enhance not only reading but also other linguistic skills, several different audiovisual aids are used.  As students are reading sections of Never Cry Wolf, they listen to a tape of Farley Mowat (1988) reading his own work.  Then they are asked to predict what might happen next in the story.  Students become actively engaged in the text as they offer their ideas for how the story might continue.  The plausibility of their responses provides the instructor with a way to check students' comprehension of the reading.  After students have finished reading Never Cry Wolf, they see the movie (Allen, Coutter, & Strick, 1983).  Also used are several additional videos to be described later in this paper.  These videos aid students' understanding of specific ecological problems such as endangered species and global warming.  The variety of ecological issues introduced in this book also supplies a multitude of class discussion and writing topics.  Students can engage in debates on the ecological problems covered, or they can write pieces in various modes, ranging from descriptive or narrative to expository or persuasive. 

      The thematic content-based reading course also provides the instructor with a forum in which to teach ESL students how to use library sources to write a research paper.  Students choose one aspect of the theme course that they would like to study in greater detail.  They then write a research paper requiring them to use the library.  The instructor can arrange for a library lesson to show students how to locate available sources.  Since students will be required to write academic research papers for their other college courses, this activity provides them with a useful learning experience.

Topics

      Two ecological concerns most critical to the message of Never Cry Wolf are those of endangered species and the relationship between human beings and nature.  After these topics are introduced in Never Cry Wolf, the class explores them further through other linguistic and audiovisual sources.

      Students can read about several different endangered species in the books, Earth in the Balance (Gore, 1993) and Fight for Survival (DiSilvestro, 1990).  Both provide information regarding disruptions in global ecosystems leading to the overall problem of endangered species, as well as to the dilemma facing humanity and nature as we fight to preserve our planet. 

      Students can then focus on the wolf as an endangered species through several audiovisual sources.  First, they listen to the audiotape, "The Language and Music of the Wolves", narrated by Robert Redford (1986).  This tape explains the present plight of the wolf as an endangered species and provides a detailed description of the wolf, its habitat, its social structure and its "language".  In so doing it dispels the myth of the wolf as a savage, indiscriminate killer, and provides students with a different, and much more realistic view of the wolf.  They learn more about the wolf as an endangered species through the videos, "Wolves" (Camenzind, 1989) and "Wolf: Return of a Legend" (Dutcher, 1993).  These videos describe the crisis facing the wolf in North America and the efforts now being undertaken to reintroduce the species and thus save the wolf from extinction.

      Each of these sources provides students with background information on endangered species and the legislation enacted to protect them.  Students can further develop and discuss this topic through class debates and/or written pieces in which they first detail the pros and cons of legislation such as the Endangered Species Act and then present possible compromises.    Thus, the activities used appeal to several different senses, as suggested by Collie and Slater (1987) and Taylor (1987), and they motivate students to take an active role in their own learning.

      The relationship between human beings and nature is the second ecological concern critical to the message of Never Cry Wolf.  Never Cry Wolf explores two aspects of this relationship: human/animal communication patterns and environmentalism and culture.  As the topic of human/animal communication patterns is introduced in Never Cry Wolf, this primary course reading is supplemented with the essays, "Canids" (Davis, 1987) and "At Home with the Arctic Wolf" (Mech, 1987).  "Canids" provides an in-depth description of the body language and vocalizations that wolves, dogs, and other canids use.  It also discusses similarities between canids and humans in their use of body language.  "At Home with the Arctic Wolf" tells the story of how a pack of wolves allowed two men to gain their trust and meet the "family". 

      To promote active student participation, students are asked to draw analogies between experiences they have had and those described in these two readings.  They may talk about how they use body language to communicate, or what they do when they want to gain someone's trust.  Analogies help students to connect events in the reading to their personal experiences, and thus can help to increase comprehension.  In fact, Royer and Cable (1975) report that by drawing analogies to their life experiences, students can increase their own reading comprehension by at least 40%.

      The second aspect of the relationship between human beings and nature, environmentalism and culture, is presented in Never Cry Wolf through an Inuit legend.  This legend is central to the major message of the book, that is, that the wolf is a critical member of the ecosystem and so should be protected.  The Inuit legend states that the caribou feeds the wolf, but it is the wolf that keeps the caribou strong.  By eliminating weak members of the herd, the wolf maintains the balance of nature.  The wolf holds a place of respect in the Inuit culture. 

      Students learn more about the relationship between environmentalism and culture in Earth in the Balance.  Environmental concerns play a key role in many cultures other than the Inuit.  After reading about these cross-cultural differences in behavior, students expand their knowledge by writing essays comparing and contrasting culturally-based attitudes toward the environment.  This writing exercise once again requires them to think about and then apply the information presented in the readings.

      In addition to the specific ecological problems treated

in Never Cry Wolf, the thematic content-based reading course on "Ecology and Human Behavior" may branch out to include the more general ecological concern of global warming and the greenhouse effect.  Earth in the Balance provides an excellent source of information on this topic.  Students may gather additional information on global warming by reading current newspaper and magazine articles.  The National Geographic publication, Research and Exploration: Global Warming Debate (de Souza, 1993), contains recent information on climactic changes, governmental policies, and the influence of the greenhouse effect on agriculture.  There are also several excellent videos on the topic of global warming.  The Infinite Voyage film, "Crisis in the Atmosphere" (Friedberg, 1989), offers an in-depth analysis of the problem from both the scientific and the personal perspective.  In addition the PBS video, "After the Warming" (Burke, 1990), provides a provocative look at its historical implications. 

Conclusion

      Thematic content-based ESL reading courses have been used successfully with ESL students at several different levels (Kasper, 1994c).  When students are asked to provide feedback on these courses, their responses are extremely positive.  Students express increased self-confidence in their English language reading skills and say that these skills improved because they were challenged by the complexity of the materials in the thematic reading course. 

      Their positive feedback is supported by increased pass rates on reading assessment examinations such as the City University of New York Reading Assessment Test (CUNY RAT) and the KCC English Departmental Final (Kasper, 1994a).  The CUNY RAT is a 45-minute multiple-choice reading test.  The KCC English Departmental Final is two hours and requires students to read a two page passage and then produce written answers to one three-part multiple choice vocabulary question, seven open-ended comprehension questions, and one summary question.  A comparison of the scores of ESL students enrolled in a thematic reading course and the scores of those enrolled in a nonthematic course reveal that thematic students achieve significantly higher average scores on both examinations (CUNY RAT: thematic, 27.3/nonthematic, 22.5; KCC English Departmental Final: thematic, 80.4%/nonthematic 47.8%).

      In summary, thematic content-based reading courses enable ESL students to acquire efficient reading comprehension strategies in a highly motivating context.  Designing and teaching thematic content-based ESL reading courses requires a commitment from the instructor to gather instructional materials and to prepare exercises and assignments.  Nevertheless, the results are well-worth the effort, as evidenced by increased pass rates and positive student feedback.
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