Teacher Tim's TEFL International Blog July 24th, 2010

Teaching ESL In Thailand Using Alice In Wonderland


ESL teachers are constantly in need of interesting material for their students, whether those students are first-graders, teenagers, or adults. There is a wide range of lesson planning material available for ESL lessons on the Internet, provided by experienced ESL professionals. But much of it lacks the vital spark needed to ignite a student’s interest and wonder. How many sentences would you want to diagram during a lesson, and how often would you want to review the vocative as compared to the nominative? Useful language tools that sparkle with easily-understood humor are abundantly available in one of the greatest children’s books of all time, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The book has been translated into nearly 200 languages world-wide and has been made into movies, cartoons, and comic books. It is known in some form or other from Valparaiso to Ulaanbataar. Another plus is that the book is now in the Public Domain; there are no pesky copyright issues to deal with. You can easily download an entire copy of the book at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/11/11.txt

To call this wonderful text a mere “children’s book” is a misnomer; it is an immemorial saga of mankind’s struggle to discern between dream and reality, comedy and tragedy, farce and force. It speaks directly to the heart of a child or wizened elder, bypassing the barrier of language as blithely as the Cheshire Cat bypasses Alice’s vision. The literary critic Leone Kathanthos described the book as “written beyond the comprehension of all, and thus accessible to all.”

For the hard-bitten ESL instructor, out there in the trenches, attempting to help his or her students learn a second language, I do not mean to speak in orotund riddles. I just want to emphasize that the book itself is a goldmine, loaded with nuggets that on the surface appear absurd, but which your students will intuit are filled with wisdom and good cheer – and a healthy dose of skepticism as well. Let’s take a brief example:

A large rose-tree stood near the entrance of the garden: the roses

growing on it were white, but there were three gardeners at it, busily

painting them red. Alice thought this a very curious thing, and she went

nearer to watch them, and just as she came up to them she heard one of

them say, 'Look out now, Five! Don't go splashing paint over me like

that!'

'I couldn't help it,' said Five, in a sulky tone; 'Seven jogged my

elbow.'

On which Seven looked up and said, 'That's right, Five! Always lay the

blame on others!'

'YOU'D better not talk!' said Five. 'I heard the Queen say only

yesterday you deserved to be beheaded!'

'What for?' said the one who had spoken first.

'That's none of YOUR business, Two!' said Seven.

'Yes, it IS his business!' said Five, 'and I'll tell him–it was for

bringing the cook tulip-roots instead of onions.'

Seven flung down his brush, and had just begun 'Well, of all the unjust

things–' when his eye chanced to fall upon Alice, as she stood watching

them, and he checked himself suddenly: the others looked round also, and

all of them bowed low.

'Would you tell me,' said Alice, a little timidly, 'why you are painting

those roses?'

Five and Seven said nothing, but looked at Two. Two began in a low

voice, 'Why the fact is, you see, Miss, this here ought to have been a

RED rose-tree, and we put a white one in by mistake; and if the Queen

was to find it out, we should all have our heads cut off, you know.

So you see, Miss, we're doing our best, afore she comes, to–' At this

moment Five, who had been anxiously looking across the garden, called

out 'The Queen! The Queen!' and the three gardeners instantly threw

themselves flat upon their faces. There was a sound of many footsteps,

and Alice looked round, eager to see the Queen.

This is the beginning of Chapter 8. Have your students read it in turns and then begin by asking them why the gardeners have numbers instead of names. No matter what answers your receive (and my experience has show you’ll get some very creative ones – from speculation they are prisoners to the certainty that these are their Social Security numbers) you’ll need to show them an illustration, which is easily obtainable on the Internet. These gardeners, you see, are playing cards! At this point you can take advantage of the universal passion for gambling and pull out a pack of playing cards. With these you can invent counting games, gender comparisons, you can go into the symbolism in English of hearts, clubs, spades, and diamonds . . . there are numberless ways and means you can use here just from reading the first few sentences, you see.

To continue. Why paint a white rose red? Now you’re delving into the meaning and symbols of color in the English language. You see red . . . you’re green with envy . . . you’re white with fright . . . and so on.

Finally there is the monstrous Queen. I purposely stopped short of introducing her in person, so as to create suspense and curiosity. Is she going to have Alice’s head off in the next lesson? Your students will be begging you to let them read more by the time the bell rings. But what I want to point out, briefly, here is that the Queen is a very useful and very discrete, symbol of the oppression and repression that so many ESL students have experienced first-hand under a variety of regimes world-wide. You can never, ever, get into political discussions with your ESL students – it’s the fastest way to a pink slip and perhaps a prolonged field trip to the nearest prison. But once again, trust your students to see beyond the nonsense and appreciate the satire and cynicism inherent in the Queen’s constant demands that heads roll. (In passing it’s fascinating to note that Mao tze Dung loved the book and had it translated into Chinese, and that Fidel Castro introduced it into schools as soon as he had seized power in Cuba.) A lesson plan with a hidden agenda beyond the grasp of government goons and stooges is delicious to contemplate, is it not? The Queen, of course, also represents the arbitrary power and authority that parents have over their children; again, this something you don’t want to emphasize in your lesson plan – but it will be an enchanting elephant in the room, so to speak. I defy you, as an ESL teacher, to bore your students by asking them why the Queen wants to behead people; why the rose bush must be painted; why the gardeners have numbers instead of names.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is great literature that translates into great lesson plans for the ESL teacher. Especially in Thailand, where a sense of wonder and the ridiculous is an absolute necessity!