My Own

The Adventures of Pinocchio as an EFL Text

Beth Roberts

Beth Roberts teaches English-as-a-Foreign-Language (EFL) in the Alexandria City Public Schools at Minnie Howard Ninth Grade Center. Of the approximately 750 ninth graders in the school, about 120 receive EFL instruction. A typical EFL classroom has students from all over the world; usually more than 10 countries and at least 6 languages are represented within a given class. Forty-seven percent of the student population at the school receives free or reduced lunch; that figure is higher among EFL students.

"Why," you might ask, "would you choose Carlo Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio to teach to ninth grade advanced English-as-Foreign-Language students?" Though there are many education-based reasons, let me say that first and foremost Collodi's tale of a wooden puppet who becomes a real live boy is downright fun. Reading it is a romp through a fantasy world that stretches one's imagination, while at the same time instructing on behavior and Italian life. I discovered this six years ago, when as student in the Children's Literature Graduate Program at Hollins University, I re-encountered Collodi's novel. My mother had read it to me when I was a child, but Disney's film had taken over my perspective of the Pinocchio story. What a delight, then, in a class on children's translated literature, to encounter the many exotic and funny adventures of this puppet, and to experience the cultural flavor of this very Italian story. It occurred to me after that class that The Adventures of Pinocchio would be a wonderful selection for my most fluent EFL students to read. It is a lively story, familiar to many of my students, it serves as a perfect spring-board for literary study, and it allows reflection on different cultures, Italian and American, as well as those of all of my students. Let me state my reasons for teaching this novel and then give you some specifics on how I teach it.

My first reason for choosing Collodi's novel is that it is a familiar story but is able to challenge readers. Many students have seen or read Walt Disney's Pinocchio. They assume this is the only version and know nothing about the original novel, but the knowledge they have provides a skeleton for them. Initially, some students may have a negative reaction, thinking the story is for "kids", but they soon come to appreciate that the novel is very different from Disney's tale. They find that the reading level is challenging, with a sophisticated structure and rich vocabulary. A sentence from the first chapter illustrates this well, "This time Master Cherry was petrified, and he stood there with his eyes bulging out of his head with fright, his mouth wide open, and his tongue hanging down his chin, like a fountain gargoyle" (Perella, 85)

In addition to the story being familiar, and the reading of the novel challenging for my students, Collodi's tale is very compelling. Pinocchio's adventures begin on the very first page. The puppet/boy's spirit is present in the piece of wood long before Geppetto even touches the wood. Once carved into Pinocchio, this spirit immediately causes trouble for Geppetto. Pinocchio's adventures continue, one right after another, throughout the approximately one-hundred fifty pages of the novel. For readers in need of a high interest story, Pinocchio has action packed variety --- Pinocchio near death, Pinocchio in trouble with the law, Pinocchio fighting with friends. The length of the chapters in the novel contributes to the liveliness of the text as well. Most of the chapters are three to seven pages long with cliff-hanging endings; readers not only want to continue reading, they feel they are making fast progress.

Collodi's novel provides all of the ingredients necessary for teaching about literature. It allows one to teach the traditional elements (characterization, setting, plot, etc.) and structures (exposition, rising action, climax, etc.) of literature, along with many figurative language terms such as hyperbole, metaphor, foreshadowing, and simile. In addition, as a cautionary tale, The Adventures of Pinocchio is a wonderful example of a sub-genre of the novel. The lessons learned from the "cautionary aspect" of the novel are recognized by my students as lessons their parents teach them. Like Pinocchio, they are told to be appreciative, to work hard, to go to school, to choose friends wisely, and to respect and obey their elders. Finally, the themes of the novel are universal. Some of them deal with the cautionary lessons, but other, more sophisticated themes deal with religion, poverty, justice, and love. An example not only illustrates the theme of love, but some of the hyperbole found in the novel:

The poor Marionette was heartbroken at reading these words (on the Blue Fairy's tombstone). He fell to the ground and, covering the cold marble with kisses, burst into bitter tears. He cried all night, and dawn found him still there, though his tears had dried and only hard, dry sobs shook his wooden frame. But these were so loud that they could be heard by the faraway hills. ... Poor Pinocchio! He even tried to tear his hair, but as it was only painted on his wooden head, he couldn't even pull it.

(Chiesa, 168-169)

The Adventures of Pinocchio makes allusions and references to contemporary life as well. Certain idiomatic expressions spring straight from the pages of the story. "You wooden head!" and "Your nose is growing!" are two. Furthermore, the novel may have inspired other expressions. For example, the first year I taught Pinocchio, a student picked up on a reference Elton John may have used for his song "A Candle in the Wind". In the story, Pinocchio has been chased by two assassins for many miles. Finally, he climbs a tree, which the assassins then set on fire. The text reads, "In no time at all the tree took fire and began to blaze like a candle in the wind" (Pirella, 179). Likewise, when Pinocchio mourns the Blue Fairy, he attempts to tear and pull at his hair. This allusion has led my students and me to the ancient Sumerian story of Gilgamesh mourning his friend Enkidu, or to a discussion about different ways in which cultures mourn their dead. We discuss, too, the many Biblical allusions in the story and how the beliefs of a culture are very often reflected in literature. When read as an Italian story in the context of a Catholic faith, the Blue Fairy takes on the role of the Madonna, and Geppetto, who Pinocchio refers to most often simply as Father, the omnipresent God. Obviously, these connections to literature, as well as to contemporary life lead to stimulating discussions.

But there are cultural subjects that find a foothold for discussion in the text as well. We discuss what the novel says it is to "be Italian" in the late nineteenth century. We discuss the social millieu, setting, and context the novel reveals; the characters in this story are very poor and we talk about the importance of food and clothing to them, how they are treated by the justice and medical systems, and how they view religion and education. We talk about similarities and differences we can observe between Italian, American, and their own cultures. And, of course, we talk about the lessons taught in the novel and how they may compare or differ from the lessons the students are currently taught in their homes and in school.

I have stated my reasons for choosing The Adventures of Pinocchio to teach my students. Next, I will relate some of the activities I use during the unit to enrich students' learning. First, using the rich vocabulary in the text, students study and try to make many of these words a part of their personal vocabulary. Second, in order to increase reading comprehension, students reread and answer questions at home on each chapter read in class. Those written responses help me to focus grammar instruction where I see specific weaknesses. Third, we break into discussion groups to talk about the questions mentioned earlier: what does the novel tell us about Italian life, what do we learn about Italian social structures in the late nineteenth century, and what are the lessons being taught in this cautionary tale? Fourth, there are many writing opportunities that arise from studying The Adventures of Pinocchio. For instance, I assign students to write about one of the literary elements; characterization, theme, setting, conflict, mood, or plot. They especially have fun writing about plot as a newspaper story, reporting on different events in the story. Another way in which students write about plot is by comparing a scene from the novel with the same scene from Disney's Pinocchio and the live-action film The Adventures of Pinocchio. Fifth, when exploring the structure of the novel, we talk and, sometimes, write about what makes the novel a cautionary tale, and we graph Pinocchio's behavior in each chapter of the novel, based on how good or bad his behavior is. This exercise visually instructs on the movement of the novel from event to event. Finally, we close the unit with a Jeopardy style review and a test.

In conclusion, why do I teach Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio? I do it because it offers familiarity, excitement, humor, fun, challenging vocabulary and an advanced reading level, figurative language, literary elements and structure, allusions and references to contemporary life, and opportunities for exploring cultural connections. It begins as a familiar story, for some students a "kid's story", but they go away from the study of Collodi's classic text with an appreciation for something they thought they knew all about. Along the way they have laughed a lot, used analytic thinking to talk and write about the novel, explored some cultural similarities and differences, and recognize themselves at times in this very lively puppet. And at the end of the year, when asked what they liked reading most during the year, The Adventures of Pinocchio is most often at the top of the list.


Works Cited

Collodi, Carlo. The Adventures of Pinocchio. Trans. Nicolas J. Perella. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Collodi, Carlo. The Adventures of Pinocchio. Trans. Carol Della Chiesa. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1969.

"The Adventures of Pinocchio as an EFL Text" © Beth Roberts, 2003.


Beth Roberts

Volume 7, Issue 3, The Looking Glass, September, 2003

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"The Adventures of Pinocchio as an EFL Text" © Beth Roberts, 2003.
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