Academic Exchange Quarterly      Summer  2009    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  13, Issue  2

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Measuring the World in Content-Based ESL


Karin Lundberg, Hostos Community College (CUNY), NY

Zvi Ostrin, Natural Sciences Dept., Hostos Community College (CUNY), NY


Lundberg, Ph.D., is Asst. Professor in the Department of Language and Cognition, and Ostrin, Ph.D., is Asst. Professor in the Department of Natural Sciences




We designed a content-based ESL syllabus around a central text that links the ESL course with two other courses in a learning community. At the core of this design is an anchor novel, which is used to teach language and general education skills, and also helps to create synergy among the ESL, science, and mathematics components of the learning community. Assessment of the students’ performance indicates that this strategy improves language proficiency and general education skills.



Our college recently established a freshman learning community in an effort to help our students, predominantly minorities, bootstrap themselves to proficiency in basic academic competencies. In its current pilot project format, this “Freshman Academy” consists of a student cohort enrolled in three courses: language skills, science, and mathematics.[1]


An innovative feature of this learning community is an anchor novel, which serves as the core text in the language skills course and as a common text for the three courses in the learning community. The novel also promotes essential general education learning outcomes: integrative learning, knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world, intellectual and practical skills, and personal and social responsibility (LEAP, 2007).


This paper will focus on the rationale for using anchor novels in an interdisciplinary learning community, and on our experiences in implementing a specific novel, Measuring the World, in a content-based intermediate ESL course. The anchor novel enables the ESL class to do the “heavy lifting” of general education within the learning community, synergistically stimulating active learning and an intellectual enthusiasm for literature, science, and mathematics.


Anchor Novels in Learning Communities

It might appear to be counter-intuitive to use a work of fiction as the centerpiece of a learning community that links language skills to science and mathematics. We knew that we wanted a text that would do more than just functionally anchor the curriculum, we also wanted a text that would excite the students and faculty in the learning community. Fiction, we realized, would be a powerful aid to interdisciplinary learning and academic literacy for both native and non-native speakers of English. The fictional world is an intellectual playground that can hold students’ focus and attention, stimulate them to let their imaginations fly, encourage them to participate—and thereby engage them in active learning.


The novel is especially well-suited for an interdisciplinary mission because it simulates the real world, and its structure affords an opportunity for both broad and deep observation of people, places, and processes. The novel “cultivates ways of reading and correlative ways of thinking that are sufficiently complex for our increasingly intricate and dynamic world” (Irvine, 2007). The length of a novel counters the atomized aspects of modernity and a digital culture that tends to drive out deeper analysis and inquiry. Like movies, novels generate increased student interest in a subject (Zoccolillo, 2009) and enhance learning by stimulating multiple parts of the brain, as posited by “dual coding” theory (Halpern and Hakel, 2003). Unlike movies, however, novels have greater depth and leave more room for the reader’s own imagination and intellect.


Although our mission here is to use the novel for a broader purpose rather than just a literary end in itself, students’ appreciation of literature and of reading for its own sake is also enhanced. Teaching literature within a context does much to obviate students’ resistance, resentment, and questions of “why do we have to read this?” (Irvine, 2007). The collective in-class process of reading and analyzing a novel from a multi-disciplinary viewpoint enables students to see for themselves the practical benefits and aesthetic pleasures of literature.


If we are to achieve all of the goals described above, a novel must be chosen that will have sufficient merit to use as a core language skills text, while also possessing a rich interdisciplinary content. Unfortunately, novels that integrate sophisticated literary content with science and mathematics are as rare as hen’s teeth. Some useful exemplars of this genre include: Einstein's Dreams, by Alan Lightman; Cantor's Dilemma, by Carl Djerassi; Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist, by Russell McCormmach; and Galileo's Daughter, by Dava Sobel.


Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World

Ultimately, we picked Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World as the anchor novel in our learning community. The novel is about the lives of two towering personages, Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, and Carl Friedrich Gauss, the “Prince of Mathematicians,” as they explored the outer world and inner mind during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.


Far from being a dry historical account, Kehlmann’s semi-historical novel—which was an international best-seller, with sales of a million copies in the past three years—has multiple facets which make it highly suitable for interdisciplinary work. The storyline combines rollicking adventure with science, mathematics, and history, along with underlying literary themes of comedy, tragedy, and Borgesian surrealism. The novel subtly blends elements of fun and seriousness, and has the advantage of being fresh, with its meaning not yet “fixed by critics” (Van den Berg, 2007).


The novel takes Humboldt and Gauss out from the textbook and breathes life into them, enabling students to view them face-to-face as fascinating giants of science and mathematics. And giants they were. Gauss was a child prodigy whose work in mathematics, electricity, magnetism, and astronomy made him famous in his own day—and today. Humboldt’s five-year long scientific exploration of Latin America turned him into a superstar as luminous as Napoleon, stimulated Charles Darwin to set sail on the Beagle and develop the theory of evolution, and inspired literary and political figures as diverse as Goethe, Schiller, Edgar Allen Poe, Thomas Jefferson, and Simon Bolivar.


Thus Measuring the World is a uniquely suitable vehicle for interdisciplinary inquiry, combining concepts and content from across the curriculum, and packaging it all in a way that entices students to enter that historical world. Once the imaginative process begins, students will be eager to become learners, develop their general education skills, and start an inquiry that will powerfully expand their knowledge of language and interdisciplinary content.


Teaching Measuring the World in Content-Based ESL

Because the ESL course has the primary integrative responsibility in our learning community, we carefully structured its syllabus to incorporate the major interdisciplinary themes and content of Measuring the World. We were also mindful of the latest ESL pedagogy, which has moved away from a traditional skill-based format, and towards real-world content- and task-based curricula better suited for academic literacy.


We designed purpose-oriented assignments, based on different subject areas of the novel, to stimulate learner-driven language acquisition and learner motivation (Spada, 2007). The assignments were also designed to reinforce long-term retention of general education skills, in order to prepare our students for the complex and “unpredictable real-world ‘tests’” beyond and after their academic education (Halpern and Hakel, 2003).


Influenced by the concept of cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP), the syllabus links the students’ cultural and educational backgrounds with their acquisition of language, knowledge and academic skills (Cummins, 1996). Drawing from students’ own background knowledge and experiences, the assignments motivate them to reflect on the relationship between the novel and science, and on their role as learners and social individuals. Because learners can acquire reading techniques by writing, and writing techniques by reading (Widdowson, 1978), we incorporated many assignments on the novel’s content and themes which alternate between reading and writing tasks.


The syllabus is focused on the concept that learning evolves in interaction with the environment, and emphasizes the educational experiences of Humboldt and Gauss within the storyline of the novel. Students follow the development of these men from childhood to accomplished scientist and mathematician. What enables Gauss and Humboldt to become outstanding “learners” in their time?  Observation and analysis of Humboldt’s and Gauss’s upbringing are designed to put a human face on science and mathematics. The students develop meta-cognitive skills by tracing the different methods of learning that can be observed in the novel: exploration of the physical environment, observation, evidence, prediction, inference-making, measuring and classifying.  Students are expected to observe in the story how knowledge is recorded, preserved and communicated.


As the plot proceeds, the students become engaged in syllabus subtopics that address language, content and multiple academic skills. What are the social backgrounds of the two men? How do they interact with their surroundings? How do they develop socially and emotionally? How do they cope with authority and control? Is there a relationship between freedom and learning? Next, the students make fact-based interpretations that connect with the novel’s subject areas. In moving from personal narrative towards a more factual and expository form of writing, the students are able to build bridges between their “own stories” and the stories they absorb in the novel, and to apply increasingly more sophisticated critical thinking skills as they go along.


The following two writing assignments illustrate how we linked the Humboldt and Gauss stories to the learning experiences of the students:


The first writing assignment explores Gauss’s childhood, which was dominated by discouragement and lack of inspiration. His mother was illiterate, he attended a school not designated for higher education, and his teacher sadistically used corporal punishment on him. Nevertheless, Gauss successfully gained entry to higher education. In light of Gauss’s story, students were asked to write a composition describing and reflecting on their own experiences of intimidation. This narrative composition was designed to encourage students to describe a personal event, reflect on their personal development as learners and social individuals, and establish a connection between themselves and the novel.


The second writing assignment moves from personal narrative to a fact-based composition organized around Humboldt’s experience and the students’ general knowledge of the world.  In the novel, Humboldt sets out to explore a cave in Venezuela called “The Cave of the Dead” by the local people, who refuse to accompany him into its unexplored recesses. Humboldt responds to their fear with the phrase light is knowledge, and continues further into the cave. Eventually, he experiences an apparition of his dead mother and decides to give up his investigation. The students were asked to support the standpoint of either Humboldt or the local people in their response to the unknown dangers within the cave. In contrasting science with superstition, the students were asked to develop reasons to support their opinion, and to include convincing examples to illustrate their thinking. They were encouraged to use their own general knowledge and Humboldt’s scientific approach to support either position.


Assessment of Student Learning

It was apparent that the students’ writing improved significantly as the course progressed. In particular, improvement was seen in their skill at reflecting on and organizing their ideas, paragraphing, use of language structure, and critical thinking.


In response to the first writing assignment, the students presented lengthy and detailed accounts that described, and reflected on, their own experiences of being intimidated.  For the most part, they used a variety of vocabulary, avoided repetition, and offered convincing reflections on how their personal development had been affected. The students made a wide variety of connections between intimidation and personal development, including: (a) Abuse by a nanny, resulting in fear and low self-esteem. (b) Intimidation by a father, resulting in fear and perception of the world as unjust. (c) Loss of a parent, resulting in permanent worry and fear of social responsibilities. (d) Immigration to the U.S. and losing one’s only relative, which led to strength and self-confidence.


In response to the second writing assignment—which required a fact-based response using each student’s own general knowledge combined with Humboldt’s scientific approach–most of the students seemed to identify with Humboldt’s view, and expressed the following opinions: science makes one free and brings about progress in the world; lack of knowledge inhibits our thinking and the way we advance as individuals, and forms obstacles in our development; science enables us to look for solutions to problems in medicine and the environment.


In addition to the writing assignments, an anonymous questionnaire was administered to the class in the fifth week of the term in order to measure the students’ improvement in academic literacy skills. The results of this questionnaire confirmed the value of our strategy to link the novel to language skills development and overall academic literacy.


The first part of the questionnaire asked the students to assess the strength of their agreement with several statements. Overwhelmingly, they agreed that: (a) The novel made history more interesting; (b) The characters motivated them to keep reading the novel; (c) The writing assignments offer a deeper understanding of the novel; (d) Reading a narrative made their own writing more interesting; (e) Writing about the novel led them to a clearer understanding of the relationship between writing, reading, and science.


The second part of the questionnaire asked the students to describe their thinking in more detail. The questions were: (a) Do you think the novel about Humboldt and Gauss makes you more interested in science? (b) Do the writing assignments lead to a better understanding of the novel?

The students’ responses here were positive, revealing admiration of the two scientists, fascination with the scientific process, and an aroused curiosity which motivated them to investigate the subject outside the classroom: “[Humboldt and Gauss] made a difference in the world…. The novel shows passion for discovery and measuring of the world…. It is interesting to see how Humboldt investigated every single thing that he found…. It motivates me to find out about the cave. I look up the mountains and the trees to see if scientists measure them and they really do…. I want to know how the instruments Humboldt use in the novel really work.”


The students were equally positive about the writing assignments: “I learn more about the novel by writing and thinking about it…. Sometimes I think I am in the novel, telling the novel….

I have to go back to the novel to find examples and when I do, I catch things I didn’t understand before…. Writing demonstrates to me if I really understand what I am reading. This novel is very interesting.”


It is clear from these results that the strategy used in the ESL syllabus for Measuring the World opened up our students to language and content, and inspired learner-driven study and critical thinking on multiple levels. Reading and writing about the novel improved the students’ mastery of these skills, while engagement with the novel’s themes helped them develop a positive attitude toward literature, history, science, and mathematics. It was especially gratifying to see that, despite two centuries separating the novel’s timeframe from today, the students strongly identified with the commitment, discipline, and sacrifice of Humboldt and Gauss. One of the students insightfully observed that she now understood that  “the limit to your abilities is where you place it.”



There are many advantages to be gained from using a novel as the core text in a content-based ESL course. The novel format stimulates self-motivated learning, playful and creative thinking, language and general education skills. Novels with sufficient depth and interdisciplinary content can serve as complex analogues to the real world. In these novels, students can explore a world of fact and imagination that stimulates learner-centered inquiry, critical reflection, and an appreciation for the language arts.


We selected Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World because it dramatizes a physically arduous adventure in the jungles and mountains of Latin America, and an equally arduous intellectual adventure within the minds of its two scientists. Within the ESL course itself, the novel created synergies among the reading, writing, and interdisciplinary content areas, and stimulated interest in history, science, and mathematics. The text’s rich interdisciplinary content also made it an ideal anchor novel to integrate the ESL course with the science and mathematics components in a freshman learning community.


Current efforts to improve the academic skills of American college students are commonly based on an interdisciplinary, communal, and learner-centered paradigm. The strategy that we have described in this paper uses an anchor novel to facilitate that paradigm. When positioned at the core of a language skills course in a learning community, the novel acts as a potent catalyst to boost language proficiency and general education skills.




[1] The Freshman Academy’s format is designed for students who are deficient in general academic literacy and mathematics. The courses that currently comprise the learning community include Intermediate ESL (English as a Second Language), Environmental Science, and Basic Mathematical Skills.



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