Reluctant Readers Become Enthusiastic Participants


Teacher: Sarah Small

Students: Grade 11 English, ages 16-17

Audio Content: “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Location: Springfield Township High School, Erdenheim, PA



English teacher Sarah Small, an 11th-grade teacher from Springfield Township High School in Pennsylvania, had been teaching Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton’s 1911 novel about a troubled marriage. Ms. Small logged on to and downloaded the short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman to immerse her students in turn-of-the-century gender relationships and to allow her more freedom to engage with students’ reading process.

Classroom Observation

As a complement to Ethan Frome, Ms. Small chose Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” about a sickly woman trapped in her marriage and descending into madness. To help students make connections between the short story and the novel, she handed out a copy of the story, a story grid to help students take notes while listening, and a set of discussion questions about the short story and its relationship to the novel.

Ms. Small paused the story every few pages and asked the students questions about the development of the main character and her relationship with her husband. “I knew they weren’t going to be able to just sit through a 26- minute story. I wanted to make sure they picked up on key elements and built on them,” Ms. Small said.

As the students listened, Ms. Small walked around the class and noted her students’ engagement and note-taking process. “I felt freed up in the classroom to do things I would normally not have the attention to do,” she said. When asked, students volunteered answers and traced the shifting relationships of the main character’s growing madness throughout the story. They noticed how the author shaped her characters and their relationships, and detected key moments foreshadowing the main character’s madness before they were exposed to the story’s shocking final scene. By discussing the story as the class listened to it, they could follow the story at the same pace and share their reactions as the tale developed. “It helps everyone stay on task and participate,” said Jimmy Barraclaugh, one of the students. When they listened to the final shocking scene, the room was filled with exclamations of surprise, from “wow!” to “weird!” It took the students a few minutes to adjust to the narration; the narrator had a lisp. As the story progressed, though, the narrator’s voice became an integral part of the character. Listening to the story also helped students with vocabulary words and reading comprehension. One of the students said, “I could almost hear the story playing in my head, which helped me answer some of the questions.”


Ms. Small noticed that her special needs students responded actively and eagerly to the story. They raised their hands more often and were engaged in listening to the story and following the text. The common experience invited everyone into the discussion. Reluctant readers became enthusiastic participants, as one of the barriers to accessing the literature was removed. One student, Anna Haines, told her parents about the experience and said, “My parents thought this was a wonderful aid to help teenagers like me, who may not enjoy reading so much, learn to like it.” As another complementary exercise for Ethan Frome, she showed her students the film version of the book. They immediately were caught up in the actors on screen, what other movies they played in, and other distractions. “They were able to stay more focused with the audio than when watching the movie,” Ms. Small observed. Listening to an audio book in the classroom freed Ms. Small to attend to her students and make sure they were paying attention and taking notes. It allowed her to think on her feet and jot down notes and questions about the story to share with her students. “It gave me the liberty to do more in the classroom,” she said. Ms. Small is continuing to use Audible for her English classes. She hooked students on The Great Gatsby by playing the first chapter in class; now they’re excited to go home and read the rest.

Teacher Quote

“I felt freed up in the classroom to do things I would normally not have the attention to do.”

Student Quote

“My parents thought this was a wonderful aid to help teenagers like me, who may not enjoy reading so much, learn to like it.”

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