Vol. 3. No. 2 R-1 March 1998
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The ESL Reader's Companion to Of Mice and Men
The ESL Reader's Companion to The Light in the Forest
The ESL Reader's Companion to The House on Mango Street

Linda Butler (1996)
New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
pp. viii + 200; viii + 168; ix + 150
ISBN 0-07-009427-6; 0-07-009428-4; 0-07-009429-2 (paper)
US $12.38; $11.68; $12.38


A Novel Approach: Being There

Elisabeth Gareis, Martine S. Allard, Susan Gill, and Jacqueline J. Saindon (1997)
Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press
Pp. vii + 110
ISBN 0-472-08411-9 (paper); teacher's manual ISBN 0-472-08417-8 (paper)
US $16.95; UK £13.95 (student book or teacher's manual)

Second-language students often remember with fondness and excitement the first novel they read in the language they are learning. They feel that they have overcome an important challenge in tackling--and completing--a text which was written for a native-speaking audience. Indeed, in many college and university programs, the teaching of language is often geared toward preparing the student for the study of literature. At the Université de Montréal, where I teach in the English Studies Department, we are committed to using literature as one way of permitting our (largely francophone) clientele to improve their knowledge of English. Thus, books such as these from the series The ESL Reader's Companion and A Novel Approach are welcome additions to the teacher's repertoire of materials.


The ESL Reader's Companion series advertises itself as a guide to novels, offering support for non-native speakers of English who have not read extensively in English or their native language, or who are making the transition to authentic materials. Each book in this series provides a large number of different kinds of activities which are designed to draw the student into the novel and to examine it from many different points of view. The language exercises include pre- and post-reading assignments, vocabulary, writing, and discussion topics.

A Novel Approach: Being There is the first in a series that selects works of literature and their film versions and provides activities to help make them accessible to ESL students. Similar to The ESL Reader's Companion, this series also includes a variety of language and comprehension exercises, as well as an interesting and [-1-] useful section on film techniques. This particular textbook takes as its subject Jerzy Kosinski's 1971 novel Being There, as well as Hal Ashby's acclaimed 1979 film starring Peter Sellers in the title role.

Content and Organization

The ESL Reader's Companion is a workbook which guides students through the reading of authentic novels in English. Each of the three textbooks reviewed follows the same basic pattern, beginning with background information to set the stage for the student's entry into the novels. The Companion to John Steinbeck's novel Of Mice and Men, for example, begins with important information concerning the language of the novel studied. The author cautions the readers that much of the language used, such as ain't, is non-standard, and that other vocabulary words, such as the swear words used, are considered inappropriate for the students' own use in certain situations. The Companion to The Light in the Forest by Conrad Richter provides the student with historical background to the conflict between Native Americans and European settlers in the 1700s. As regionalism is an important aspect of both these novels, maps are provided which help the reader to locate the setting of the novels.

The Companions are usefully divided to follow the chapter or section divisions of the novels, giving the students the opportunity to read and discuss the novels in manageable units. Each section contains a pre-reading exercise called Before You Read, containing historical and cultural information, and explanations of words or expressions that may be uncommon or obsolete. Questions of various types follow: comprehension questions, those which ask the reader's personal opinion, and an opportunity for students to write their own questions. In some cases, a scene from the novel is included in a script form for the students to read aloud. Discussion sections provide more challenging ways to approach the work, and suggestions for writing are included. Vocabulary exercises are included in the section Words to Know, explanations about quoting (based on Modern Language Association guidelines) are included, and vocabulary self- tests (with answers) are provided.

As an example of chapter organization, Part 3 of the Companion to The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros opens by explaining unfamiliar pronunciation and cultural references (such as a particular nursery rhyme). A Closer Look asks specific comprehension questions as well as questions that elicit a personal response from the reader: "Are there places that you are scared to go to? Describe them and give your reasons for being scared" (p. 43). Discussion questions ask the student to explain and support the answers given, and suggestions for writing include ideas for summarizing. Points of Departure includes poems composed by borrowing phrases from the book, and invites the reader to do the same. The chapter ends with a [-2-] variety of vocabulary activities such as definitions and exercises based on them.

Like the Companion series, A Novel Approach relies on "a smorgasbord of pedagogically sound and tried-out activities that are sure to involve students and facilitate active participation" (p. v). The authors are sensitive to diverse learning styles, and attempt to include activities from which various types of learners can benefit. A Novel Approach clearly explains to students how to practice the extensive reading techniques necessary for the enjoyable and successful reading of literature: how to read without stopping to look up every unfamiliar word, and how to guess meaning of vocabulary from the context.

As mentioned, the activities are designed "to offer something for every taste" (p. 4). There are games, including free-association and vocabulary games (such as Password), comprehension quizzes with true/false questions, guidelines for student-led class discussions, and other activities using writing and vocabulary journals. In short, the range of exercises and their variety ensure that every user of this textbook will find suitable and exciting material.

For those schools where the technology is available, A Novel Approach suggests a video project, complete with lengthy and detailed guidelines. A list of production tasks (e.g., "Select a striking passage from the novel you just read. Create a brief outline of your video version" (p. 12).) is included. Roles (production manager, screenplay writers, director, etc.) are suggested. Basic film techniques, such as descriptions of various types of camera shots and narrative techniques (flashback, sequence) provide the students with an understanding of how film works to create the story in the viewer's mind. Even if the students do not actually complete and tape their "screenplay," the series of tasks and cooperative group work exercises permits them to develop an important understanding of film literacy.

The one area in which the textbook falls short is, in this reviewer's opinion at least, that the number and variety of questions based on the film are limited in comparison with those provided for the study of the novel. There are only seven postviewing questions which ask the student to respond in a very subjective manner. A possible learning activity could include watching a particular segment of the film and answering comprehension questions, or work on a scene or dialogue to elicit vocabulary.

The textbook's reading sections and activities roughly follow the divisions of Kosinski's novel. Each section contains vocabulary development, a quiz (contained in the teacher's manual), many discussion questions, a whole language activity (such as reading journal entries), and topics for essays. For example, in the last [-3-] section, corresponding to the novel's final chapter, students are asked to discuss American presidential campaigning in light of what they have read in the novel Being There. They are asked to interpret quotes from the novel and to discuss its ambiguous ending. Finally, students can write a critical review of the novel, outlining its strengths and weaknesses.


Both The ESL Reader's Companion series and A Novel Approach are welcome additions to the vast array of material available to the ESL teacher. Not only do they provide intensive language practice, incorporating all reading, writing, speaking and listening skills, but they also serve to open up the world of the literary text to the second-language student. For those learners who are not yet active readers of literature in their own languages, these textbooks can help to introduce the concepts of response to literature for enjoyment and enlightenment. This is an important bonus, in my opinion; anything that can get today's students to spend more time with a work of literature is valuable in our multi-media world.

I look forward to other titles in the series of A Novel Approach. Judging from the success of the guide to the books and film Being There, the series could serve as fertile ground for study of other novels and films. Some that come to mind are Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five and some of the films based on Michael Crichton's novels, such as The Andromeda Strain. Any teacher who enjoys film and who wants to introduce a class of students to works of literature should consider any one of these textbooks.

Sorel Friedman
Université de Montréal

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