Friday, July 08, 2011

Roger Ebert confuses ESL materials for native speaker materials

In Roger Ebert's blog at the Chicago Sun-Times, he's completely trashed the Macmillan Readers version of The Great Gatsby (Retold by Margaret Tarner). He can't believe that this is for typical American high school students. In fact, it isn't. The book clearly says in the front matter that it's "for learners of English," but Ebert seems to have missed that part.

There are some very good arguments against badly written graded readers, but they are pretty much the same arguments against any badly written or translated book. Ebert's position seems to be something along the lines of `write all the crap you want, but don't mess with the classics.'

When it was pointed out to him that the book is for English language learners, his response was: let them read young adult fiction. This is indeed a good solution for some learners at certain ages with certain interests, and with a pretty good level of English. Contrary to what you might think, the correlation between the age of the intended audience and the range of vocabulary used is actually much weaker than you'd imagine.

(Thanks to Clarissa C.S. Ryan (who writes Talk to the Clouds) for pointing this out via the Extensive Reading Group.)


Circeus said...

FWIW, I read Gatsby as a learner of a good enough level to understand it, and I thought it was an awful piece of literature too.

Ran said...

Whenever I've come across one of Roger Ebert's blog posts, I've disagreed with it, and this one was no exception; but you know what? I do understand where he was coming from. On that reader's cover, the title is "The Great Gatsby" and the author is "F. Scott Fitzgerald"; and it's a tragedy, because the reader contains none of what makes The Great Gatsby worth reading. Plenty of classics have plots that could be enjoyed while sacrificing the diction, but The Great Gatsby is not one of them.

But obviously he should have done his research before writing his post; the sentence "Any high school student who cannot read The Great Gatsby in the original cannot read", in particular, makes the bizarre assumption that this version is intended for high school students. I can understand his missing the phrase "learners of English", or missing its significance, but a more natural assumption would be that this version is intended for much younger readers. He must surely realize that many classics are published in much-abridged versions for small children.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I really think his main objection was that instead of the famous ending - "Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter--tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning----

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

readers of this would get

"Gatsby had believed in his dream. He had followed it and nearly made it come true.

Everybody has a dream. And, like Gatsby, we must all follow our dream wherever it takes us.

Some unpleasant people became part of Gatsby's dream. But he cannot be blamed for that. Gatsby was a success, in the end, wasn't he?"

which isn't an ESL version of The Great Gatsby, but rather some other book altogether.