5 ESL Literature Lesson Plans Based on Great American Books

If you love teaching English, you probably love literature!

And as a teacher, there’s no greater pleasure than sharing your favorite books with your students.

But how should you go about teaching ESL literature to your intermediate and advanced students? What’s the best way to take the plunge to ensure their—and your—success in reading comprehension with literary classics?

Be prepared.

How to Approach Teaching ESL Literature

When teaching ESL literature, the first thing to do is make sure you know your audience.

As tempting as it can be to teach some great books or stories to your beginner or intermediate students, hold off when it comes to the following literature classics.

Wait until students have the reading skill level they need to appreciate these books before trying to introduce them. This is usually going to be an upper intermediate or advanced level, but you can be the judge—consider the amount of vocabulary and grammar students have under their belts. What kind of English texts have they read so far? Even with more advanced students, you might want to ease them in with short stories and slightly more challenging texts.

It’s better to give them time to achieve the required level than to leave them struggling to understand. Remember that abridged, simplified and modernized versions are available for many classics, so these might be a better option to help younger and less advanced students to get their feet wet.

Once you’ve decided your students have the requisite level to approach an ESL literature text, arm yourself with the appropriate resources. Some of these may seem obvious, but it’s better to be over-prepared rather than under-prepared!

  • First, ensure that all of your students purchase the same edition of the text. This way, you can easily refer to page numbers when assigning home reading.
  • Secondly, be sure that you allocate enough time to teaching the book. An ESL book will take far longer to teach than a mother tongue book, and you may never delve quite as deeply into it as you would if you were teaching the text to EMT (English as a Mother Tongue) readers. Adjust your expectations. Assign about half as much reading for home as you would for EMT students, and format your lesson plans in accordance with this rhythm.
  • Next, make sure that when you assign reading at home, you’ve given the students the skills and tools they need to succeed. Of course, this will vary with each individual book—and we’ll look at some specific cases momentarily—but on the whole, you’ll want to ensure that new vocabulary is addressed and that students have some idea of what to expect from the text before delving in.

Remember, if you read this book as a high school student, you were reading it as an EMT reader. ESL readers will read it differently—not only from a linguistic standpoint, but from a cultural standpoint as well. Be sure to address relevant topics to the text before assigning the reading, otherwise homework will end up being a waste of time.

And above all, prepare your class discussion topics in advance.

Of course, if a student has an interesting element of the text that he or she wants to discuss, let the discussion take its course! But if your students show up with nothing to say, you’ll need to prompt them even more than a traditional literature teacher would. Be prepared with worksheets, discussion questions and essay topics should the need for them arise.

Some great general ESL literature questions can be found here, but you’ll also want to find questions that are more specific to the book you’re studying…which brings us to the next part of the program.

5 Classic ESL Literature Texts to Teach

With these general rules in mind, here are a few of our favorite ESL literature texts to teach. Pick one off your local library shelf and get reading—even if it’s the second, seventh or seventieth time you’ve read the text—to get ready to address it with your ESL students!

“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Teaching Point: ESL Literature for Learning Dialect

“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” by Mark Twain is often billed as a children’s book, but while the classic of the 19th century is indeed about children, it’s far from designed for young readers. With its local color and slang but relatively straightforward storyline, this book is ideal for upper intermediate to advanced readers.

When teaching “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” be sure to highlight dialect words and go over them with the class. Encourage students to search for words in the text that they don’t recognize, and try to decide as a group what the words mean.

It may be interesting to use “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” as an introduction or pathway into discussing Southern American culture via web resources, films and other literature.

  • These discussion questions are ideal for more advanced students. They’ll require quite a bit of preparation so that students can understand the questions themselves perfectly before attempting to answer them. To best take advantage of these discussion questions, pick one and use it to launch a class discussion, following with a debate. Finish the unit by assigning the same question as an essay.
  • This list of lesson plans is actually intended for 5th grade EMT students, but it can work just as well for intermediate to advanced ESL students, particularly if the activities are assigned as pair work and completed, at least partially, in class. These plans are particularly useful for including hands-on activities in class and are ideal for changing up the tedium of day-to-day classroom formats.

“Slaughterhouse Five”

Teaching Point: ESL Literature for Uncovering Hidden Themes

“Slaughterhouse Five” is an intriguing book to teach to ESL readers. While the language itself is relatively simple, the themes of Kurt Vonnegut’s book are quite complex and involve a great deal of research into the politics and events of the time period. For this reason, “Slaughterhouse Five” is a great book to tackle with older students who are at least upper intermediate or advanced learners.

  • The rhythm of the prose in “Slaughterhouse Five” is quite intriguing, for ESL and EMT readers alike. Try using sections of this audiobook version during listening activities to help students grasp the rhythmic nature of the book.
  • This complete “Slaughterhouse Five” lesson plan is a great way to get students thinking about how the author and the book are intertwined. It also helps them associate the book with their own lives. Because it’s designed for EMT readers, you may want to split the planned 1 hour lesson into 2 or 3 lessons to allow more time for students to get a handle on ESL portions of the learning process.
  • A quick intro to a lesson on “Slaughterhouse Five,” either before presenting the work or after, could involve asking students to explain, translate or analyze the phrase, “so it goes,” offering equivalents or substitute expressions that could work, either in their native tongue or in English.

“To Kill a Mockingbird”

To Kill a Mockingbird

Teaching Point: ESL Literature and Morality Discussion

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is a longer book. As such, you may wish to devote an entire semester to studying it. Because the protagonist is young, it can be used to teach younger students, particularly in middle school and high school. The additional availability of a film version of the book offers a welcome reward and also allows you to study certain passages in-depth without having students necessarily read the entirety of the book, since time may not permit such an activity.

The ideal way to use “To Kill a Mockingbird” in a classroom setting is to allow it to spur discussions of morality and making the right decisions. This can be achieved when a teacher selects passages from the book to work with and shows the film in class. The film can be subtitled or not, depending on your students’ skill level. This guide to themes in “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a great place to start. You can also integrate multimedia in the form of songs with this lesson plan.

“Animal Farm”

Teaching Point: Understanding Allegory in ESL Literature

The dystopian farm universe of “Animal Farm” is clearly representative of real world events—it’s imperative, then, that students be capable of understanding figurative language and allegory in their native language before attempting to teach this book in an ESL setting.

Fortunately, there are a lot of great resources to help teachers explore and explain the nuances of the allegory in this text to ESL students. As the teacher, you’ll need to be prepared not only to explore the world of “Animal Farm” but also the historical facts of the Russian revolution it represents. These photos can be a good way to begin to present the latter.

  • A quick flashcard exercise is a useful way to test whether students have understood the nuances involved in the allegory.
  • Use this audiobook as a listening exercise. Squealer’s speech is a great section to tackle in this case. In fact, you can turn the listening comprehension exercise into a written and oral production exercise by asking students to use the tools employed by Squealer to write and deliver their own persuasive speeches to the class.

“Catcher in the Rye”

The Catcher in the Rye

Teaching Point: “ESL Literature and Oral vs. Written Language”

“Catcher in the Rye” is a must-read for any teenager, but for ESL students, it has an added benefit: thanks to Holden Caulfield’s conversational narration style, the book is a fantastic way to introduce the differences between spoken English and written English—something that many ESL students struggle with, particularly ones that watch their favorite American television shows in their original, undubbed versions.

  • You’ll definitely want to work with an audio version of the book along with the text, but also take the time to let students try their hand at reading the text aloud.
  • This exercise allows students to take a logical, critical approach to Salinger’s use of the vernacular.

Once you’ve taught a few classic books to ESL students, the world is your oyster. Teaching ESL literature may require a bit more planning, but it’s definitely worth it to open the world of literature to your students.

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