December 2000 — Volume 4, Number 4
Distant Thunder: An Integrated Skills Approach to Learning Language through Literature
Janis Scalone (1999)
Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press
Pp. xvii + 141
US $17.95, UK Ј13.00
The integration of literature into the ESL reading classroom is not a new concept but rather a resurrected one, as more and more teachers and researchers in the field of ESL instruction have seen the value of literature in interdisciplinary studies. Traditional approaches to the use of literature, however, have been transformed from a focus on the literature as a product to the view that literary study is a communicative act engaged in by both student and teacher. Scalone, in the introduction to Distant Thunder, notes “the study of literature must be a social experience [in which] students [are] given numerous opportunities to share their written and spoken responses with the teacher and with each other” (p. 3). The text, then, is designed with this concept in mind.
Distant Thunder, the product of seven plus years of research, planning, and writing, combines a communicative approach to reading instruction with an emphasis on multicultural studies to help students identify with the structure of different genres of literature, and also with the cultural and individual factors that influenced each author’s writing. Teachers and students engage in this process of “discovery” together, which “frees the teacher to act as an enabler as opposed to the giver of answers or the interpreter” (p. 3). Indeed, as I read through the text, actually designing a few lesson plans based on one of the chapters, I found the activities and stories easily adaptable to either the reading or the writing classroom. Further, the readings addressed cultural issues that seemed consistent with those revealed in the “typical” intensive English classroom where the students are from multiple cultures rather than from one single culture.
Each of the nine units begins with a snippet about the author, followed by a pre-reading activity designed to engage both students and teacher(s) in a discussion about the concepts brought up in the reading and how these ideas might affect classroom communication and individual student interactions with others from different cultures. Students are then encouraged to read the selection both extensively and intensively, writing their responses to the reading in a journal and discussing post-reading questions with other students in both whole class and small group discussions. [-1-] Each unit closes with a section entitled “Focus on Language,” which is designed to change the student’s focus from the content of the reading to the tools used by the author to convey meaning and create a particular effect or induce a specific emotion. For example, at the end of the first chapter, based on the story “Doors” by Chitra Divakaruni, Scalone addresses imagery as an author’s tool, discussing how it is used in the reading and having students “write [their own] descriptions using [selected] images” from the text (p. 16). Other language topics discussed include: the characteristics of poetry; the use of action verbs and literal vs. figurative language; the use of proverbs to express meaning; the importance of transitions in narrative writing; the multiple meanings of idioms; the use of symbols to express abstract ideas; the differences between denotative and connotative meanings; and the shifting of verb tense to mark changes in “time and perspective.” Finally, at the end of the book, Scalone includes a list of additional resources and supplementary readings, hints for teachers as to how each unit could be used, and a glossary of some key terms that correspond to the “Focus on Language” sections.
The current trend towards developing a communicative atmosphere in the ESL classroom presents several challenges for both the teacher and student that this text seeks to address. First of all, language taught without the context of the target culture is not truly representative of the actual use of the language. This is certainly true in a reading class, where understanding an author’s intent upon writing a piece of literature involves an understanding of the culture from which the author is writing. Scalone addresses this need by providing background information on each author and by engaging students (and teachers) in a pre-reading dialogue regarding the cultural concepts they are about to read. She continues the process of guiding students through the meaning-making process by drawing their attention to specific aspects of the reading and by having them discuss differences between how the characters in the stories handled particular situations as opposed to how they themselves might handle the same situations, given their cultural backgrounds.
A second challenge for the language teacher is to eliminate student-to-student, student-to-teacher, and teacher-to-student communication barriers that might be harmful to the learning atmosphere. The activities in the intensive reading sections of each unit are designed with this in mind. Through “Sharing the Possibilities” and “Extending the Reading Experience” exercises, students are asked to discuss with each other how the cultural differences they have identified in previous activities might shape their understanding of what they are reading and how they respond to the reading. An integrated reading/writing class might use some of these exercises as prompts for future writing projects. For example, in “Extending the Reading” for unit 6 (based on “The Purchase” by Nick C. Vaca), students are given the choice of writing “a second chapter to the story, writing a description of a setting that creates a strong feeling, or describing how poor people . . . spend their lives in the United States” (p. 72). These prompts follow activities in which students have engaged in prewriting and discussion about the story, specifically how the author used the characters, the mood, and the setting to create meaning and effect. For ESL and composition teachers, this means less preparation time, as many of the class activities are already prepared. [-2-]
Distant Thunder is designed for high-intermediate or advanced students. One benefit to using it in this context is that much of the work involved in teaching the course is done for you, leaving more time to address individual student needs and concerns. First of all, teachers are given ample opportunities throughout the text to integrate active small group and whole class discussions and projects into the time allotted for each session. Another benefit, for innovative and creative instructors, is that they can easily adapt the materials for their students or use the readings and activities as a supplement to an existing course text. For high-intermediate students, Scalone suggests using the units in order, as the earlier readings are “thematically and linguistically less difficult” (p. xvi); however, more advanced students may feel more comfortable using the chapters in order of interest rather than difficulty.
However the text is used, it could well be an invaluable asset to instructors who want to integrate multicultural literature and a process approach to reading or writing instruction into their classrooms. Scalone has based her text on sound research, carefully choosing excerpts from 10 different authors writing from 9 different cultural perspectives to illustrate differences in how humans think and how these differences affect our ability to communicate, regardless of the language used. This focus on developing dialogue among all classroom participants is consistent with current trends in ESL reading instruction, and it also simply provides for a more interesting and fun environment for both students and teachers, in which true learning can take place.
University of Idaho
© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.
Editor’s Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page for purposes of citation.