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Do Simplified Texts Help English Language Learners?

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I came across a very interesting debate regarding texts used for English Language Learners on this Education Week blog.

Apparently, MacMillan has published a simplified version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. (The original is required reading in most high school English classes, usually at the junior level.) The new intermediate reader edition is about half the length of the original and written in much simpler prose.

The book’s release did not sit well with film critic Roger Ebert, who dashed off a blog post damning the new version as a “Gatsby without Great.”

“There is no purpose in ‘reading’ The Great Gatsby unless you actually read it. Fitzgerald’s novel is not about a story. It is about how the story is told,” wrote Ebert. Its poetry, its message, its evocation of Gatsby’s lost American dream, is expressed in Fitzgerald’s style–in the precise words he chose to write what some consider the great American novel. Unless you have read them, you have not read the book at all. You have been imprisoned in an educational system that cheats and insults you by inflicting a barbaric dumbing-down process.”

Even after being told that the new version is designed for students still trying to master English, Ebert responds: “For a learner of English, what’s the point? Begin with young adult novels, things like that. Why eviscerate Fitzgerald?”

The debate led me to wonder about the curriculum for students learning English and the texts used to teach reading and literature — especially for students at the intermediate or advanced levels who have a firmer grasp of academic English. As an English teacher, I was often asked by my ELL colleague about the texts my classes were reading–not to teach the same work, but so she could see if a simplified version was available.

It could be worthwhile to check with local schools, ELL programs and your state department of education to find out what texts are used in your districts and what ELL teachers and experts say about the use of any simplified texts. Do the simpler versions help students develop English skills or do they rob English Language Learners of the chance to experience fully great literature? If the simpler texts are used, how do teachers incorporate larger themes and analysis?

Even just the list of books used could lead to a good story. Are the materials reflective of the communities served? Is a wide spectrum of Latino authors represented, or do teachers fall back on a mostly European canon?

Another good resource may be teacher web pages, which most schools now require. Most teachers post syllabi, assignments and reading lists online, which can provide a good overview of the curriculum.