A few years ago a fellow mom I knew told me that she volunteered with adult literacy programs, that she was frustrated with the lack of good material for her students, and that she was planning on writing her own beginning reader for adults. I thought that was a great idea and told her to let me know when it happened. It did.
City Stories: A Book for Adult Beginning Readers by Larissa Phillips is a much needed and fascinating book of short stories about a group of fictional people that live on four blocks in a busy city. All are familiar stories of parenting, jobs, education, ambitions and dreams. Many are immigrants with tales that opened my eyes to a group of people who work hard and love strong. When I told my teen son about the story about Isad, a woman who spends her entire life trying to get an education for herself and her daughters, I started to cry, making him cry too. And when I regaled him with lines from the story of Ying, “who cannot be stopped!” we laughed.
You might be confused here. Isn’t this a book for beginners? It is. The level of vocabulary begins on Level 1: short vowels and three sounds in them, then progresses through Level 4: adding, consonant blends, multi-syllable words, and long vowels. It is meant to be accompanied by an Orton-Gillingham phonics program. There is an Instructor’s Manual available and a companion workbook.
Larissa’s purpose was to write a book that would engage adult learnings, to keep working on their skills, and eventually finish the book being able to move freely about in our society filled with signs, directions and instructions. Think about learning a new language and only being able to read our traditional books given to children. Here is what City Stories gives them:
“This is Beth.
Beth is not a mom.
When Beth was a kid, Beth was the big kid.
Beth was the big kid, of six kids.
Beth got sick of the mess.
Beth got sick of the fuss.
Beth got sick of kids!
Now Beth is big.
Beth has no kids.
She has no mess to pick up.
Beth’s mom tells Beth this is not OK.
“You cannot be happy with no kids.”
Beth says, “Mom, I am VERY happy with no kids!”
Beth has a lot of cash.
Beth has a lot of men.
Beth has a lot of fun!”
(And in a later story, the vocabulary is more complex.)
“This is Brad.
Brad is from Guatemala.
In Guatemala, Brad had a job.
His job was to weld.
His job was in a shop that could weld and press metal rods.
It was a good job.
The cash was good, and Brad was proud of his job.
But in Guatemala there were drug wars.
Guatemala was in the drug path, of drugs on their way to the US.
The men who sold the drugs did not want the cash from the drugs to go to anyone else.
They had a war to hold on to all the cash and all the drugs.
Brad did not want to be in the drug wars…”
As you can see, this is not Dick and Jane and a dog called Spot. Instead of making up random characters and situations, Larissa wrote the stories of her students’ lives. “I started thinking I could write something about adults in a ‘cat in the hat’ format. And then I started thinking I could tell some of my students’ amazing stories about immigration, and parenting in a new country, and just all these beautiful hard compelling stories I hear, and I think they are just the best stories ever.” She changed the details, but the heart of her students’ shines through.
I’m not a beginner reader and planned to skim the book, but to be honest, I couldn’t put it down. I wish I could put City Stories in every ESL class and immigration office, both for the students and the teachers. Larissa has created a window in the lives of a population not in traditional media. I was glad to meet them, and I’m sure her students will be too.
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