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Peter Pan Pedagogy

In her Div III on cognitive linguistics, Xuemeng Zhao makes the case for teaching ESL to kids through children’s literature

The epigraph of Xuemeng Zhao’s Div III — a quote from Indian poet and artist Rabindranath Tagore — both inspires and sums up her work: “In learning a language, when from mere words we reach the laws of words, we have gained a great deal . . . [but] grammar is not literature. . . . When we come to literature, we find that, though it conforms to the rules of grammar, it is yet a thing of job; it is freedom itself.”

Xuemeng Zhao 15F

Zhao’s thesis, titled “ESL Cognitive Linguistics Meets Children’s Literature,” argues that primary-school children learning English are served better by age-appropriate literature than by grammar books. Her work brings together her interests in education, psychology, and the humanities: all disciplines she studied at Hampshire. Melisa Burch, associate professor of cognitive development, is her Div III chair. Lise Sanders, professor of English literature and cultural studies, also served on her committee.

“I want to analyze ESL [English as a second language] curricula for students in elementary school by building a bridge between the lab, where we study how people learn language, and the classroom,” says Zhao.

During the last winter break, fieldwork brought her close to home. A native of Taiyuan, the capital and largest city of China’s Shanxi province, Zhao observed ESL classes in a private school, Datang Bilingual School (her mother teaches first grade there). Located in the nearby city of Jinzhong, the school has an innovative ESL curriculum for its elementary-level students: It uses children’s literature to foster language acquisition rather than employing the traditional and widespread methods of grammar and vocabulary memorization.

“I paid close attention to how three genres of children’s literature are used in the ESL classrooms at Datang,” says Zhao. “Teachers employ picture books in the first grade, children’s fiction in the second, and poetry in the fifth grade.”

Literature promotes children’s mastery of English, Zhao says, because the students absorb language in a more organic way. “The youngest children are able to produce words by hearing patterns in speech such as rhymes,” she says. (In the argot of academe, the ability to hear rhymes and other patterns in language is known as “phonological awareness.”)

Zhao explains that after building a foundation in ESL the third-graders are “aided by longer narratives, such as children’s tales and novels,” in learning irregular past tense forms of verbs and other linguistic hurdles. Fifth-graders, the oldest age group she observed, could better grasp the denotations of words by reading poetry and decode new vocabulary based on context rather than on a dictionary definition.

By contrast, she says, children who learn English through grammar drills and memorization often have an uncertain hold on the language. Students can pass tests but often can’t use words accurately, not to say idiomatically, or in context.

“I could never have done this thesis anyplace but Hampshire,” Zhao says. “I had interdisciplinary classes and also a chance to take a graduate-level seminar on the psychological background to linguistics theory at UMass. I was the only one in the class who wasn’t a PhD student.”

In September, Zhao will start a master’s program in language and literacy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. After that, she hopes to get a job in the United States for a few years, but her ultimate goal is to return to China, where a number of universities are working on language acquisition, education, and psycholinguistics, she says.

“Xuemeng’s Division III project was impressive because of its interdisciplinarity and depth,” says her Div III chair, Melissa Burch, associate professor of cognitive development. “She bridged her strong foundations in education, linguistics, and language instruction with her interest in the humanities and literature to inform approaches to ESL instruction. She has done a wonderful job at Hampshire.”

She’ll spend the summer in a metacognitive fashion, hitting the books for an advanced proficiency test in her third language, Japanese, which she studied at Amherst College. She’ll also serve as an adviser at Veritas Collegiate Academy, in Beijing, where she’s taught two courses in linguistics and developmental psychology for high schoolers and college freshmen/sophomores.

“I look forward to exploring languages and ideas at the places I’ll go,” says Zhao.

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