The Internet TESL Journal

Teaching the Short Story, "Flowers for Algernon," to College-Level ESL Students

Loretta Kasper
Drlfk [at]
Associate Professor of English
Kingsborough Community College / The City University of New York

ESL students now comprise a substantial proportion of the college population enrolled in developmental/remedial English programs (Crandall). In order to attain their academic goals, these students need to improve proficiency in the four basic language skills, (i.e., reading, writing, listening, and speaking) as quickly as possible. Teachers of college-level ESL students are faced daily with maximizing students' progress in these language skills, and at the same time, with keeping students motivated and interested in the lessons. In this paper, I will describe, step-by-step, a classroom-tested multimedia-based approach to teaching the short story, "Flowers for Algernon," by Daniel Keyes. The approach described may be used to teach "Flowers for Algernon" as a work of literature per se, or as part of a discipline-oriented ESL course using material drawn from the subject area, psychology, as the medium of English language instruction.1 I have used this approach with both intermediate and advanced ESL classes with very positive results. The multimedia-based approach incorporates a variety of learning activities that are meaning-driven, student-centered, and unintimidating. The activities used encourage students to take an active role in learning, to engage in self-monitoring, to make guesses in their search for meaning, and to communicate in the second language.

Types of Activities

The multimedia-based activities include prereading exercises such as advance organizers and analogies, reading and writing activities, and audiovisual activities. The advance organizers and analogies help to activate students' preexisting knowledge on the topic of the short story, thus bridging the gap between the knowledge the ESL student already has and the knowledge he/she needs to comprehend the reading. The reading and writing activities help ESL students first, to acquire information in a meaningful context and then, to expand on that information through various forms of writing. The audiovisual materials, i.e., cassette tapes and videos, help to consolidate learning by making the subject matter more concrete to the ESL reader, thereby facilitating comprehension. The lesson on "Flowers for Algernon" is developed over a period of several days.

Materials and Procedure

To develop listening skills, I use prerecorded audio and video tapes in the reading lesson. Reading, writing, and speaking skills are then developed through a variety of other activities. In this approach, production activities in speaking and writing grow naturally out of comprehension activities in listening and reading.

The short story, "Flowers for Algernon," is about a developmentally disabled man who is chosen for an experimental operation which results in his becoming a genius. The main character, Charlie Gordon, keeps a journal of his progress throughout the story. Like Charlie, my ESL students will also keep a journal in which they describe their thoughts and feelings, as well as their progress in English, as they read, listen, speak, and write throughout this lesson. Thus, by describing analogous experiences, students become more deeply involved not only with the characters in the story, but also with the English language itself.

Prereading activities

Each prereading activity is designed to tap into students' personal experience with and knowledge of psychology, in general, and the developmentally disabled, in particular. Before the story is read, I provide students with an advance organizer, a prereading worksheet, which can be done as a writing or a conversation exercise. This worksheet asks the students to describe a special person that they know who has the characteristics of warmth, understanding, an open nature, and little formal education. They are asked to discuss the simple, touching things that the person has done.

The second prereading exercise presents the students with a list of psychological references and terms which provides them not only with some of the new words they will encounter in this story, but also with some new ideas and concepts. They will be required to use these references and terms in subsequent reading comprehension, writing, and vocabulary development exercises over the course of the lesson.

A writing exercise asks students to edit the first entry of Charlie Gordon's journal. ESL students now have a chance to correct someone else's writing and to test their knowledge of spelling, punctuation, vocabulary, and grammar. This exercise also helps students to develop insights into finding and correcting errors in their own writing by prompting them to take an active role in learning and to monitor their own work. Finally, the correction exercise provides students with a general introduction to the story.

Reading and Writing Activities

In the second stage of the lesson, students are assigned to read the short story for homework. After students have read the story at home, they complete several different comprehension exercises in class. First, students are given a short, multiple-choice reading comprehension exercise which provides a quick indication of how well they have understood the story and the characters.

Next, they are given a writing assignment that asks them to connect Charlie's experiences with their own. Several times in the story, Charlie must take a number of tests which cause him great anxiety. The writing assignment asks students to relate their own experiences with test taking and to compare them with Charlie Gordon's. This writing exercise encourages students to tap into the emotions they feel when they have to take an important test. The exercise also helps students to identify and "to bond" with Charlie's character.

The next series of exercises focus on vocabulary development. A vocabulary building exercise requires students to complete sentences by choosing words taken from the story. Students then work together in small groups to complete a crossword puzzle using the words from the vocabulary building exercise. Students remain in these small groups for the final vocabulary exercise, which consists of a letter written by Charlie Gordon to Dr. Strauss. Students are provided with prefixes, suffixes, and roots, which when correctly combined, make up the words in the letter. Students do this exercise without the aid of the story. After they have completed the sentences in this exercise, students use the syllables provided to form and define additional, new words used in the story, but not in the exercise. ESL students find these vocabulary building exercises, especially the crossword puzzle, to be a great deal of fun. They enjoy having the opportunity to practice vocabulary in the context of the story and to share their knowledge with their classmates.

Finally, students do a character analysis of Charlie Gordon, focusing on how he changes throughout the story. They list the individual factors which led to each of the changes in Charlie's character. This character analysis also asks students to describe what they have learned about the developmentally disabled from this story. They then use this information to write an essay on the topic, "How did Charlie fit into society before and after his operation?"

Consolidating Activities

The consolidating activities extend the ideas and concepts presented in the story. By letting students see what they have been reading about, these activities help to concretize these ideas and concepts, thereby reinforcing and consolidating learning.

As a follow-up to the reading of "Flowers for Algernon", students view the movie, "Bill" (Stuart and Page), a true story about a developmentally disabled man who spent 47 years in a mental institution. They also watch an episode of the ABC television series, "Life Goes On" (Wylly and Jameson), which describes the attitudes toward and handling of developmentally disabled children in two different families.

The short story, "Flowers for Algernon," and the films, "Bill" and "Life Goes On," present three different attitudes toward the developmentally disabled. In the final writing assignment for this lesson, the students compare and contrast how people feel about and deal with the developmentally disabled characters in each of the three stories.

Student Feedback on the Multimedia-Based Lesson

I have taught the lesson described with very positive results. My ESL students said that they enjoyed the variety of activities and maintained a high level of interest in the topic. Students reported that as they acquired relevant vocabulary and identified important issues surrounding the topic, they were able to comprehend, speak, and write about that topic more easily. Students felt that they had a lot to say in their essays. They identified with the problems Charlie had as someone who did not fit into the community.

Overall, they said that this lesson not only had helped them to improve their English language skills, but had also taught them something about an important issue in society and education. For many of them, the issue of the developmentally disabled was a new one, but for some it was one with which they had personal experience. The topic always encouraged class discussion because each of the students was moved by some aspect of the story. Moreover, their discussion of the problems of the developmentally disabled led them to a more general discussion of the issue of discrimination against any people who are different.


Teaching a short story like "Flowers for Algernon" through multimedia-based activities provides ESL students with a variety of opportunities to use the English language to express their thoughts and feelings as well as to expand upon newly-acquired knowledge. Students are motivated not only to write, but also to speak in class because they have practiced the vocabulary they need to express their ideas. Viewing the videos helps to strengthen learning further by enabling students to see what they have read about. Teaching a lesson like this requires several days of class time, but the results are well worth the time and the effort.



1. For a detailed discussion of discipline-oriented ESL courses, the reader is directed to the following reference: Kasper, Loretta F. "Discipline-Oriented ESL Reading Instruction." Teaching English in the Two-Year College 22 (1995): 45-53.

Works Cited

Biographical Information:

Loretta Frances Kasper, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of English at Kingsborough Community College/CUNY. She regularly teaches discipline-based courses to college-level ESL students, using a multi-media approach that integrates texts on a related topic.

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. III, No. 8, August 1997

Daniel Keye's Link updated March 7, 2000