Vol. 3. No. 1 R-7 November 1997
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Open Sesame: Understanding American English and Culture through Folktales and Stories

Planaria J. Price (1997)
Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press
Pp. xiv + 231
ISBN 0-472-08388-0 (paper)
US $16.95; UK 13.95

Open Sesame, an intermediate reading textbook for ESL students, employs a literature-based approach to teaching reading skills and vocabulary. The selected texts are accompanied by a good deal of scaffolded interaction such as guessing vocabulary from context, story retelling, writing, and discussing cultural aspects of American folktales.

The underlying principle of this book is the assumption that two of the main difficulties of learning English as a foreign language are the lack of understanding of common core vocabulary, and subtle differences between the students' native cultures and American culture. Thus, Open Sesame aims to expose language learners to unknown vocabulary and American culture through famous American folktales. The folktales in Open Sesame are designed to stimulate conversation among students and teacher and also to help students understand the culture and values of America.

Open Sesame is divided into two parts. The first part contains two uniquely illustrated puzzle boards. One shows several categorized clues about how to guess the meaning of the vocabulary according to the nature of the given context. The other is a brief description of American cultural characteristics. Some of these are used constantly as references in the discussion activities involving cultural differences. Visual aids such as these puzzle boards contribute to making it easy for the learner to grasp cultural concepts while reading folktales.

The second part of the book consists of 26 folktales. These stories are well-known among children, and their values and themes can be shared in all cultures. Thus, all the stories in Open Sesame are simple, useful, and fun, even for adult language learners.

The reading selections are supported by many interactive activities involving reading readiness, checking comprehension, vocabulary, speaking, and writing. Prereading aides such as illustrations and background notes about the content of each story are included to get the reader ready to read. Schema-building is introduced in the form of talking about the illustrations and sharing ideas based on the illustrations and background notes so [-1-] that the learner can build the necessary schemata for understanding the story.

Vocabulary activities are designed to use contextual information such as synonyms, antonyms, definitions, and contrast (along with categorization of the assigned clues according to the part of speech). The vocabulary activity in the first reading selection is done for the students as a demonstration of how to use guessing skills in understanding unknown vocabulary in context. The vocabulary is then reinforced in other activities such as Double-checking the Vocabulary.

Other follow-up activities include story retelling, story modeling (where the students write a story of their own based on a similar story from their own countries), and questions for comprehension and discussion. These features make Open Sesame useful for developing speaking skills as well as reading skills.

There remain, however, questions regarding training students to guess vocabulary from context. Other reading skills such as scanning and skimming should also be considered. Reading is multifaceted, with various processes going on simultaneously. For example, the strategy of using context clues includes a number of factors to be generalized to a variety of reading materials. Such a guessing strategy does not necessarily entail the comprehension of cohesion and the organization of ideas in a passage. This means that students are likely to end up relying more on within-sentence clues than across-sentence ones (McDonough, 1995). In addition, the comprehension of reading based on a guessing strategy can be subject to the proportion of known to unknown words in a text. There is no guarantee that a guessing strategy that works in a certain context will work in another context. For these reasons, I believe that vocabulary activities using guessing strategies are too dominant throughout this book, as compared to other activities.

Another criticism I have is that for tasks involving cultural conceptions, the lack of cultural similarity between folktales in the students' countries and those in America can make it hard for them to proceed further with other relevant tasks such as rewriting and speaking.

What makes Open Sesame distinct, however, is that it sets the stage for the learner to use guessing strategies according to a suggested categorization of patterns of clues derived from the context of the folktales with visual aids and examples. Thus, although massive amounts of reading may be essential for language learners to master vocabulary, Open Sesame is a very useful ESL textbook, engaging students to improve their reading skills by using guessing strategies for vocabulary and grasping the cultural conception of America through folktales. [-2-]


Mcdonough, S. H. (1995). Strategy and Skill in Learning a Foreign Language. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Cheol-Houn Lee
Michigan State University

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Editor's Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page in the paginated ASCII version of this article, which is the definitive edition. Please use these page numbers when citing this work. [-3-]

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