Several years ago, Kyung-Sook Cho* taught an ESL class for a group of Korean women in the U.S. They were all in their thirties, they had lived in the U.S. for a number of years, and before coming to the U.S., they had studied English for many years in Korea. Unfortunately, they had made little progress.
Success at Sweet Valley High
Cho had an idea. She suggested that her students read books from the Sweet Valley High (SVH) series, by Francine Pascal, about twin sisters: good-girl Elizabeth and bad-girl Jessica.
Cho soon discovered that the SVH series, which were written for girls 12 and older, were too difficult for her students. They couldn’t read them without spending a lot of time looking words up in the dictionary. So she asked them to read Sweet Valley Twins books with the same characters when they 8-12 years old.
Once again, the books were too difficult. And once again, Cho had another suggestion: the Sweet Valley Kids series with the same characters at about 5-8 years old. Her students, all adults, became enthusiastic readers of the Sweet Valley Kids!
The ladies didn’t attend any ESL classes. They concentrated only on reading. Their vocabularies began to grow. Their friends began to notice how much their English had improved. And one of the ladies, who had never read for pleasure in English, read all 34 Sweet Valley Kidsbooks, many Sweet Valley Twins and Sweet Valley High books, and had moved on to romances by Danielle Steele and adventure novels by Sidney Sheldon, which are significantly more difficult! All in one year!
What can we learn from this story?
This story has several important lessons for English learners:
- Reading – and listening – have significant power to improve language skills.
- Begin with things that are interesting and easy to understand; slowly move up to more difficult things as your language ability improves.
- Practice narrow reading – reading books by the same author, books about the same subject.
- Don’t be afraid to begin with books that were written for youth or even younger readers. They can be an excellent place to begin: most of them are very interesting, and they are usually easier to understand. One of my students, who is a teaching assistant at a university, is enjoying The Hardy Boys series, popular books written for boys.
More about the Sweet Valley books
For more information about the complete Sweet Valley series, look here. Coming in 2011: a new book, Sweet Valley Confidential, the story of Jessica and Elizabeth as adults. Francine Pascal, the author, says, “I can guarantee they [readers of the other books in the series] will be very surprised. Actually, more like shocked.”
*Kyung-Sook Cho currently teaches at Busan National University of Education, Busan, Korea.
Reference: Krashen, Stephen D. (2004) The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research