Part 3 of 3 Part Series – ESL Boy Readers

Culture is important for second language readers. While learning to read in a new language is unfamiliar and awkward for them, reading will feel even more foreign to boys if there is no trace of the world that they know. To help boys who are reading in a second language feel more comfortable reading, we have to reach out to them within their comfort zone.

I have struggled with finding just the right books for my boys who are ESL readers. They disregarded many of the  books as too girly, too babyish, too boring, or just uninteresting. Many of the books that we did read had unfamiliar names, places, concepts or natural and cultural events; so the boys had to work even harder to make sense of their meaning in the texts.

Among the books that the boys browse through each session, there is one that shines above the rest. Most of the boys choose it because there is a little boy on the cover who looks like them and he’s holding a soccer ball! From the cover they may not realize it, but inside is a world similar to their own.

And the difference it makes in their reading experience is amazing.

Identify with the Characters

Little Lucky Lolo could have been one of my learners. He looks like them, enjoys similar foods, plays the same sports and even talks like them. Each reader paused a bit longer on the pages to take in the pictures and comment on the soccer players and cola can with which Lucky Lolo practiced. They were engaged with the character and his story, so reading this book was not something to “get through” as they had regarded other books.

Boys Become the Teachers

There is ample opportunity throughout the story for boys to share their culture. They loved explaining one of their favorite meals – pap and steak – and were excited to translate the words, “spaza” and “laduma” to English for me. They became the teachers! Boys gain confidence when they share their knowledge. When they are given the opportunity to express pride in their culture, they are empowered through ownership, an increased awareness of their identity and a sense of belonging.

Prior Knowledge of the Concepts

The importance of familiar concepts for ESL readers was not immediately apparent to me when I started working with my learners. There was one book in particular I had brought from the US that the boys were eager to read – likely because the pictures show a bear and a rocket ship.

I learned mid-book the importance of cultural relevance, when the bear hibernating for winter became an important plot point – in South Africa, there are no bears or cold snowy winters. I explained the natural phenomenon of hibernation, but since they had no reference for it, they were confused and the idea didn’t stick. The meaning and its significance in the plot got lost.

By comparison, a book like Little Lucky Lolo does not require boys to actively think about implied meanings. While, as second language readers, they may struggle with some of the English words, the engaging story, positive cultural references and clear pictures keep boys reading. There is no awkwardness in the language or confusion from the plot, only curiosity over whether or not Lucky Lolo will make the winning goal.


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