Teaching Quotations Creates Lively ESL Classroom Discussions, Shares Insights

Why do you recommend using classic quotations in ESL classrooms?

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free…it expects what never was and never will be.” Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), U.S. President and principal author of the Declaration of Independence

Classic quotations, like proverbs, brings in many insights from religious leaders and philosophers that go back even more than 2,000 years such as Buddha, Confucius, Aristotle, and the Biblical prophets in a compelling, succinct manner. These quotations remind us that some conversations have spanned centuries and cultures.

Further, you can pair two, three, and more quotations to present a wide range of ideas, beliefs, and perspectives. Some quotations might make you laugh, some might make you sigh, and a few might even annoy you. Yet bringing “the wisdom of the ages” into your English language classroom elevates the discussion. It can also encourage students to feel safer in presenting their idea.

This effective teaching technique helps ESL students both join the conversation, and add their own ideas. Our classrooms should be a lively place where students can explore ideas and experience free speech.

Including classic quotations also helps preserve the insights and comments of well-known and significant cultural figures. This technique helps both teachers and younger ESL and EL/Civics students escape the too-common delusion that the world began when we were born and provides a larger perspective. Sometimes knowing the speaker and historical era invites another way of looking at our modern lives.

Finally, a stunning number of both adult education and college students need to be introduced to significant artists, writers, leaders, and philosophers from the past. Academic literacy requires some degree of cultural and historical awareness. I always include the dates and identify the occupation of various figures to both introduce and gently cajole students into seeking out more information on significant cultural and historical figures.

Is adding the birth and death dates of authors really necessary? Perhaps not, but it certainly adds context. Plus, given the actual state of common knowledge among ESL students, including dates helps share the national story. After all, something is profoundly wrong with American education when a majority of American high school seniors in public schools can not name the war that occurred when Abraham Lincoln was president. I believe including quotations, in context, provides a small counter to this shocking level of historic amnesia.

I remain confident that our ESL students, especially adult immigrants seeking naturalization as U.S. citizens, will develop a solid grasp of our nation’s history. Throwing in a few quotations from historical figures can only help.

“Liberty can not be preserved without a general knowledge among the people.” John Adams (1735-1826), U.S. President and contributor to the Declaration of Independence

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