Thematic Literature and Curriculum for English
Language Learners in Early Childhood Education. ERIC Digest.
by Smallwood, Betty Ansin
The incorporation of age- and language-appropriate thematic literature
into the early childhood curriculum can stimulate content-based academic
learning for English language learners (ELLs). This systematic approach
is particularly beneficial to young ELLs ages 3 through 8 because it provides
background knowledge and cultural information along with opportunities
to hear, speak, and interact with carefully crafted language in thematic
and story contexts. It also develops literacy in an engaging and playful
context (Ghosn, 2002). For example, a well-chosen picture book can provide
a meaningful focus for developing reading skills such as vocabulary and
comprehension, as well as an awareness of sounds and sound-letter relationships
(Smallwood, 1998). While this careful introduction to reading is important
for all children in Grades preK-3 (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998), it
is critical for the growing population of young ELLs. Almost half (47%)
of the K-12 ELL school population reported by grade (1999-2000) is enrolled
in Grades K-3, representing about 1.3 million children (Kindler, 2002).
Many of these children are interacting socially beyond the home and family
for the first time, hearing extensive English, being exposed to books and
read aloud to, and functioning as part of a learning community.
This digest provides early childhood educators with book selection criteria,
literature-based teaching strategies, curricular topics, and book lists
for representative topics appropriate for use with ELLs in early childhood
BOOK SELECTION CRITERIA
Book selection is critical because not all books are equally effective
with ELLs (Smallwood, 1991; Tabors, 1997). Most book lists do not carefully
weigh the particular learning needs of ELLs, and even fewer address young
ELLs. Teachers should consider the following questions when evaluating
a book's appropriateness for this population:
* Does the book help meet curricular objectives or enhance the thematic
units being studied? Dickson's (2001) research confirms that preschool
teachers often select stories that are connected to classroom themes. This
connection is especially important for ELLs, who benefit from reinforcement
of a topic.
* Is the book's content appropriate to the children's age and intellectual
level? Books should be developmentally and content appropriate for young
ELLs, many of whom have had limited exposure to books or to English.
* Does the book use language that is at or slightly above the level
of the learners? Both the amount of text and the level of complexity should
be considered, and the level of grammatical difficulty should increase
in alignment with the students' level of aural comprehension.
* Does the book contain repeated, predictable language patterns? Such
patterns include rhyming and repetition of sounds, words, refrains, or
* Are there clear illustrations that help tell the story? Teachers depend
on pictures to explain new vocabulary and to hold the attention of the
young learners. Photographs can capture hard-to-explain emotions, such
as curiosity and excitement. When the teacher and student do not share
a language, illustrations are often the most critical book selection criterion.
* Will the book add to the collection of bilingual and multicultural
books in the classroom that represent the diverse languages and cultures
of the children? Hearing their native language or about their home culture
boosts ELLs' self-esteem and provides opportunities for enhancing literacy
skills in both the native language and English.
Many effective strategies for reading aloud with young children apply
to ELLs (e.g., predicting from the book cover before reading, pointing
to illustrations during reading, checking for comprehension upon completion).
The strategies suggested below are especially useful for developing oral
language and beginning literacy with students learning English as an additional
language (Smallwood, 1998).
Prereading. Before reading a story aloud, preview the story, highlight
key vocabulary, and make a clear connection to the curriculum topic being
studied. Encourage students to express key words or concepts in their native
language, using a bilingual staff member, parent, or other student, if
available, to help interpret. Vocabulary can be introduced and later reinforced
through a picture dictionary organized by topics (e.g., The Oxford Picture
Dictionary for Kids, Keyes, 1998; Oxford University Press). If the students
are able, have them share related background experiences from their home
or culture, in either their native language or English. Pose a specific
listening objective to help the children focus, such as asking them to
think about three feelings described in the book Everybody Has Feelings
(Avery, 1992; Open Hand).
Reading Aloud. Read slowly and clearly with a lot of dramatic expression.
Plan fairly short read-aloud sessions; 10 minutes of listening is about
all that students new to a language can productively absorb. Allow young
children to hold and quietly play with something, such as a ball or doll,
to help focus their attention, if necessary. If there is an aide or other
adult available during book reading time, seat them near ELLs to help them
remain focused or to quietly reinforce the story. If a book is beyond the
students' language, content, or developmental level but meets other selection
criteria, edit the story as you read or retell it through the pictures.
For example, simplify I'm New Here (Howlett, 1993; Houghton Mifflin), which
describes in first-person narrative and photos the first school experiences
and emotions of a 9-year-old girl from El Salvador. Pause regularly to
do an informal check of students' comprehension and to allow them to discuss
the pictures or story, while not losing track of the reading focus.
Discussion, Review, and Extension Activities. Encourage ELLs to talk
about the story by having them point out their favorite parts, in English
or their home language (if an aide or parent is available to interpret).
After a comprehension check, follow with some literacy skill development.
For example, with Miss Mary Mack (Westcott, 1998; Little, Brown), children
repeat by chanting the three initial m sounds in the title and three rhyming
words--Mack, back, and black--that practice initial sounds and a difficult-to-pronounce
final blend. This is a natural, contextualized way to develop an awareness
of different speech sounds. ELLs also need follow up time to reinforce
the connection between the book and the curricular theme. For example,
after reading aloud Bread, Bread, Bread (Morris, 1989; Lothrop, Lee, &
Shepard), with its photographs of delicious bread from around the world,
bring in different kinds of bread for the children to experience and have
them draw, label, and write a description of their favorite. Other possible
reinforcement activities include making a graph that tallies students'
favorite breads, making a collage of bread pictures, or taking a class
field trip to a bakery.
Arrange for ELLs to listen to the book again, ideally in a smaller group,
and provide them with additional opportunities to interact with and learn
the vocabulary, structures, and information. Encourage them to retell the
story to others and to take the book home, if permitted. If there is a
bilingual edition of the book, invite a bilingual staff member or parent
to read it and make it available for the families. Another way to provide
repeated exposure to a book is for the teacher or parent volunteer to record
it on tape and put it in the listening center along with the book.
Traditional curricular topics for early childhood education and also
for ESL have emphasized basic interpersonal communicative skills, such
as the ability to talk about food, family, and holidays. Increasingly,
however, topics are also focused on developing more cognitively demanding
academic language in the content areas. For example, in science, early
childhood units may be developed on the food pyramid, dinosaurs, insects,
or simple machines. In social studies, countries and cultures represented
by students in the class can be introduced, "coming to America" stories
can be discussed, and cultural diversity of the neighborhood can be celebrated.
Most early childhood education curricula focus on both basic communication
skills and the more complex language needed for academic contexts. This
dual focus is very helpful for ELLs, who need to become proficient in both
social and academic language.
There are resources available to help teachers develop thematic units
in elementary (Meinbach, Rothlein, & Fredericks, 1995) and early childhood
settings (Carroll & Kear, 1993) with guidelines, sample topics, and
activities, but neither of these addresses the specific needs of ELLs.
"Everything ESL" (www.everythingesl.net), a Web site devoted to K-12 ESL,
offers lesson plans on content-based themes for the elementary grades.
The multicultural literature recommendations for early childhood curricular
topics listed below also meet our selection criteria for ELLs in these
grades. These suggestions are derived from annotated book lists compiled
for monthly themes of the pre-K curriculum in Prince George's County Public
Schools, MD (Smallwood, 2000).
LEARNING ABOUT SCHOOL
Ashley, B. (1995). "Cleversticks." New York: Random House.
Baer, E. (1990). "This is the way we go to school. A book about children
around the world." New York: Scholastic.
Mitchell, D. (1997). "Schools around the world." Austin, TX: Steck-Vaughn.
Morris, A. (1999). "Teamwork." New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard.
ALL ABOUT ME AND YOU!
Fox, M. (1997). "Whoever you are." New York: Harcourt Brace.
Gordon, G. (1993). "My two worlds." New York: Clarion.
Raschha, C. (1993). "Yo! Yes?" New York: Orchard.
Roe, E. (1991). "Con my hermano/With my brother." New York: Bradbury.
GETTING TO KNOW MEXICO AND SPANISH
Grejniec, M. (1993). "Buenos dias. Buenos noches." New York: North-South.
Orozco, J-L. (1997). "Diez deditos. Ten little fingers and other play
rhymes and action songs from Latin America." New York: Dutton.
Soto, G. (1993)." Too many tamales." New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.
Van Laan, N. (1996). "La boda. A Mexican wedding celebration." Boston:
ENJOYING SNOW AROUND THE WORLD
Chapman, C. (1994). "Snow on snow on snow." New York: Dial Books for
Good, M. (1995). "Reuben and the blizzard." Intercourse, PA: Good Books.
Lee, H. V. (1995). "In the snow." New York: Holt.
Shulevitz, U. (1998). "Snow." New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.
Siddals, M. K. (1998). "Millions of snowflakes." New York: Clarion.
CELEBRATING CHINESE NEW YEAR
Chinn, K. (1995). "Sam and the lucky money." New York: Lee & Low.
Demi. (1997). "Happy New Year. Kung-His Fa-Ts'ai." New York: Crown.
Low, W. (1997). "Chinatown." New York: Holt.
Waters, K., & Slovenz-Low, M. (1990). "Lion dancer. Ernie Wan's
Chinese" New Year. New York: Scholastic.
Literature-based, thematic, and content-based approaches have a strong
research base and have been used widely in elementary and middle school
mainstream, ESL, and foreign language programs (Haas, 2000). These approaches
are now becoming equally important for early childhood education to prepare
students for the demands of academics and testing. With authentic literature,
teachers are helping to build emotional, social, and intellectual responses
to the natural language of engaging stories linked with attractive illustrations.
Carroll, J. A., & Kear, D. (1993). "A multicultural guide to thematic
units for young children." Chicago: Good Apple.
Dickson, D. (2001). Book reading in preschool classrooms. In D. K. Dickson
& P. O. Tabors (Eds.), "Beginning literacy with language" (pp. 175-204).
Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
Ghosn, I. K. (2002). Four good reasons to use literature in the primary
school ELT. "English Language Teaching Journal, 56," 172-79.
Haas, M. (2000). "Thematic, communicative language teaching in the K-8
classroom" (ERIC Digest). Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages
Kindler, A. L. (2002). "Survey of the states' limited English proficient
students and available educational programs and services." 1999-2000 Summary
Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Clearinghouse
for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs.
Meinbach, A. M., Rothlein, L., & Fredericks, A. D. (1995). "The
complete guide to thematic units: Creating the integrated curriculum."
Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon.
Smallwood, B. A. (1991). "The literature connection: A read-aloud guide
for multicultural classrooms." Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Smallwood, B. A. (1998). Using multicultural children's literature in
adult ESL classes (ERIC Digest). Washington, DC: National Center for ESL
Smallwood, B. A. (2000). "Booklists for pre-K curriculum topics." Unpublished
project documents. Adelphi, MD: Prince George's County Public Schools.
Snow, C. E., Burns, M. S., & Griffin, P. (Eds.) (1998). "Preventing
reading difficulties in young children." Washington, DC: National Academy
Tabors, P. O. (1997). "One child, two languages. A guide for preschool
educators of children learning English as a second language." Baltimore,
MD: Paul H. Brookes.