08 April 2011


Tutor Tales, Volume 30

The great thing about having gone into teaching/tutoring immediately after graduating from uni is that I've always had summer holidays. The not-so-great thing is that it means I have to look elsewhere for income for two and a half months each year.

But not this year! Thanks to Star Shaker's mother, who is determined to make her children work at their English all year round, I have my first ever summer tutees: Star Shaker, who will be starting high school next year, and her little brother Skid Breaker. (Where do I get these names???)

And that's the good news! =P

As for the rest of it . . . Well, we all know that teaching means that your days always come in a mixed bag.

While Star Shaker and Skid Breaker have been content to work at home for the most part, they were also happy to take a "field trip" to the used bookstore last Friday. The objective was to find books that looked interesting to them and that were on their comprehension level, instead of depending on me to choose their reading material all by myself.

Where Star Shaker was concerned, it was a successful outing. She chose The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner and then took about a week to finish it. She found it much easier to identify with the Alden siblings than with the members of Ann M. Martin's Baby-sitters Club (which I had hoped would hook her last month).

Come to think of it, there is something more universal in the story of four children who must fend for themselves and stick together than in the story of four children who start a business and learn its ins and outs. The former scenario could happen any place in the world, you see, while the latter is limited to certain countries. (Hold that thought! I bring it up again at the end of this post . . .)

Yesterday, when Star Shaker told me that she had finished her book and wouldn't mind starting the second in the series, I was elated! Since she also likes to draw, I've challenged her to make her own cover art that depicts the Boxcar Children as she sees them in her mind. She seems happy at the chance to integrate art (which she loves) and English (which she's still on the fence about--LOL!).

It was a completely different story with Skid Breaker . . .

He seemed a bit overwhelmed in the store, so I thought I'd hold his hand through it, bringing him possible picks instead of waiting for him to find them himself. And that was when I found a Spanish-language edition of The Adventures of Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey.

Immediately, an impromptu April Fools joke took shape in my mind. (You do remember that last Friday was April Fools Day?) Wouldn't it be funny, I thought, to hand it to him and see how long it would take him to figure out that it wasn't in English?

Now, I wasn't trying to be cruel. We had chatted a little about the significance of the date when I had picked them up at their building earlier, and I was positive that it would take him ten seconds or less to see that the book was in another language.

As it turned out . . . oh, I don't know what happened! He read the front cover . . . he read the back cover . . . he opened it and read the first page . . . and by then, he was nearly in tears! I had no idea whether it was because he thought the book was in English and was distressed that he couldn't understand a thing or because he thought I was being deliberately mean to him. =(

Then there was little left to do but damage control before I steered him in the direction of some better possibilities.

I ended up helping him choose three picture books from Macmillan's I Am Reading series. By all indicators, they were the hardest ones in the store that he could handle on his own. And now that I've also had a chance to test his reading comprehension, I stand by my assessment.

Which is not at all a mark against him. I've met many children in ESL classes who are more advanced in listening and speaking than in reading and writing--and it's obvious that I'm the first person who has ever asked Skid Breaker to read anything outside of a textbook or to write anything as complicated as a persuasive paragraph. He just needs to catch up a little more than either of us originally thought he did.

What makes the problem even harder is that ESL is never just about learning English as a language, but also about learning "Anglo-American" as a culture. And the barrier between Skid Breaker's Korean culture and the Anglo-American culture of most authors who write in English is currently incredibly high! Star Shaker is better at surmounting the same barrier, but she's still quite challenged. Her lukewarm reaction to the BSC is due greatly to the fact that South Korean girls could never start such a club for themselves. It's completely alien to their culture.

So where does that leave me? Scrambling around for new strategies, mostly. For unless I stumble upon a cache of Middle Grade books in English with South Korean characters or settings, then all I can do is figure out how to teach not just English as a Second Language but also Anglo-American as a Second Culture.

Image Sources: a) The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner, b) Las Aventuras del Capitan Calzoncillos de Dav Pilkey, c) Kit's Castle written by Chris Powling and illustrated by Anthony Lewis


mrsdarwin said...

How old is Skid Breaker? I'm casting about in my mind, though I'm mostly familiar with easy reading books tailored toward girls. We're off to the library today, so I'll consult the shelves.

If Star Shaker likes ghost stories, my oldest just read and enjoyed The Doll in the Garden by Mary Downing Hahn. I don't think it involves too much specifically American culture, and it's more sad than frightening. It was written in 1990, so it might be available in used bookstores over there.

Enbrethiliel said...


Skid Breaker is eleven years old. We read A Prairie Dog for the President today and he both enjoyed it and learned something new. It's marketed as a reader for Grades 1 to 3, but most reviewers on Amazon seem to have bought it for students in K1 and Grade 1.

Some good news is that he picked up The Boxcar Children after Star Shaker was finished and was able to read a lot of it by himself. He could answer most of my comprehension questions. But I think this has a great deal to do with his being able to ask his sister, in private and in Korean, questions when he doesn't understand some passages. (Not that that's a bad thing. Reading can have great social aspects.)

As for Star Shaker, she prefers realistic stories with no supernatural or fantastic elements at all. What a shame, aye? ;-)

Shannon Young said...

This post rings true for me. Most of my EFL students are 6-9 years old, and the storybooks we use for them often have no connection to their own experience. Even stories where children have houses and backyards are foreign to kids who have lived in high-rise apartments for their entire lives. This is my first year at the school, and it has been interesting to adjust the resources we have to the realities of my students' lives.

Enbrethiliel said...


Hi, Shannon! Thanks for visiting. =)

Thinking about this whole issue reminds me of the time some friends and I took French classes over one summer. The first things we learned were how to introduce ourselves (of course!) and how to find our way around town. The latter lesson was based on the way most Frenchmen get around their towns: apparently, the metro is a raging success! Soon after starting this unit, I noticed that my friends, those classmates who also used our own city's train system to get to class, and I were pulling ahead of the others, who drove their own cars or took taxis. It was an unexpected way to live the lesson without actually going to France! =)

~Nicole Ducleroir~ said...

The great thing about summer jobs is they add organization to the otherwise loosey-goosey schedule of the season. I say that because I tend to spin in circles and then take a nap in the sun when I have no scheduled time worked into my summer months. I end up with a great tan and nothing accomplished! LOL

Thanks for visiting my blog today and commenting!

Enbrethiliel said...


Hi, Nicole! =) I'm finding that I actually like having some summer work--for exactly the reason you point out. Perhaps I'm getting too old for summer vacation? =P It is nice to have a few weeks of no pressure to do anything, but then I get bored and feel the pinch in my pocketbook.

Thanks for returning the visit!

iolanthe95 said...


Long time no talk. I really feel for you. I've never taught ESL, but the college students I deal with have a hard time with anything outside their own experience.

Enbrethiliel said...


It has been a while! How have you been? =)

I think I'd be more frustrated with the college students, because a lot of things outside their limited experience is still more accessible to them than it would be to children learning a second language. And now I'm vaguely reminded of the high school students I taught several centuries ago . . . they were equally clueless and some just couldn't care less. =(

Let's hope for better luck with both our sets of students!