How to Pronounce Knife: A reading choice for your adult English language learners and upgrading students

Rikki Tikki Tavi? Really? The instructors can’t find literature that’s more relevant to our students’ lives than that?”

The psychologist who worked with me at a college that specialized in adult language and literacy education shook her head. She was right. The Rudyard Kipling children’s story about a talking mongoose who fights a cobra to save an English boy in an Indian household was far removed from our students’ experiences. So why were the instructors using it?

Easy answers: It was available. It was readable. And it was safe.

At the time, the college had a lot of literature anthologies kicking around that were intended for upper elementary and junior high school kids. Why? Because the literature they contained was at the “correct” readability level for the students we taught, whose English language and literacy skills were still developing. Some instructors overlooked the obvious unsuitability of the content in favor of presenting their students with stories that contained words and sentences they could decode successfully.

Not only that, but stories like Rikki Tikki Tavi did not raise any issues from the students’ lives that might have made for “uncomfortable” conversations in the classroom: poverty, racism, relationship conflicts, addictions, isolation, and a whole host of other topics found in literature intended for adults. I recall one instructor who told me, “I’m not going anywhere near those kinds of topics. I don’t need that kind of trouble in my classroom.”

As a teacher of literature myself at the time, there was part of me that understood why my colleagues were using Kipling’s story and others like it. Materials that are both accessible to adults with reading challenges and respectful of their adult status and experience are hard to find. It can be difficult to facilitate conversations about the topics raised in literature intended for adults. But if you believe, as I do, that the point of reading literature is to help us reflect on our lives; understand the experiences of others; witness how they deal with conflict; and come to appreciate the universality of the human condition, you’ve likely gone the extra couple of miles to find reading that your adult students can read successfully and relate to.

Which brings me to How To Pronounce Knife, the 2020 Giller Prize winner by Souvankham Thammavongsa. When she was a year old, the author’s Laotian parents brought her to Canada from the Thai refugee camp where she was born. The family settled in Toronto where she learned English and eventually earned a B.A. at the University of Toronto.

The stories in How To Pronounce Knife reflect the experiences of Lao families trying to make a go of it in their new lives in Canada. A boxer ends up working in his sister’s aesthetics salon. A woman learns English by watching soap operas. A mother teaches her daughter how to harvest worms on a worm farm. A girl goes to her father for advice on how to pronounce knife.

The stories raise issues that go far beyond the Lao immigrant experience to address those with universal relevance, especially for adults whose circumstances may have marginalized them: exploitation in low paying jobs; family conflict brought on by poverty and generational differences; food insecurity; identity questions.

But the stories also show the spunk and humor and resilience of people under stress, and how they can pull together to overcome personal and community adversity.

Another piece of good news for teachers who might want to teach this book is its readability. I inputted excerpts into a site that uses seven scales to estimate grade level, based on number of syllables in the words, and sentence length and construction. As with all readability formulas, there was some variation in the results. But most indicated if your students can decode at approximately a grade six level, they should be able to handle How to Pronounce Knife.

I’d be interested to know what your students think of these short stories if you decide to use them. Also, I’d love to hear the titles of other novels, short stories, nonfiction, or poetry you’ve used successfully with adult English language learners or upgrading students, ones that respect their reading levels and their life experiences.

How to Pronounce Knife is available at an independent bookshop near you. In Edmonton, you can find it at The Glass Bookshop and Audreys.

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