Planned but not targeted: The Arrival by Shaun Tan

I’ve been using the graphic novel The Arrival for quite a few years now. I don’t remember who introduced the book to me, but the charm worked immediately. Shaun Tan’s book is a true graphic novel. It’s a novel without words, a story told uniquely through the artist’s drawings. So it can be used to teach any language to anyone.

In one on one lessons I use my well worn book, but I also project scanned pages in order to use it with groups. The pdf version was available on Scribd but has been deleted. I made my own by scanning pages, which takes some time.

Whenever I meet a new student for the first time, I begin by showing them the book. We discuss the drawing on the cover, then I open the book and we look at the pictures on the flyleaves. I ask them to find someone who is old, young, from Asia, from Africa, from Europe, etc. I point at a picture and ask where they think the person is from. Then we look at the title page and I ask if they can read it. We turn another page and see the picture of a man with a hat who is looking away. I ask them what they think he is looking at.

Then I turn the page and we begin “reading” Chapter One, which means looking at each picture and discussing it. There is a paper bird. Do they know the expression “origami”? There is a clock. Is it old or new? Is it a wooden clock or a plastic clock? What time is it? There is a hat. A man’s hat. It is on the wall. What is beside the hat? Etc., etc. Is the teapot old or new? Is it cracked? Is it empty or full? Is the tea hot? What is beside the chipped teacup? Some students guess that it’s a boat ticket and some money, but many think that it’s a post card. I let them suppose whatever seems logical to them. Is the family poor or rich? Why do you think they are poor?

Then I slip a blank piece of paper into the book so that when I turn the page, they see the images on the left, but not the one on the right. We discuss each picture as above, and when I get to the last picture, I ask if the two hands are the same or different. Most students then realize that the hand on top is smaller than the hand on the bottom, so when I remove the paper hiding the picture on the right, they understand why.

On this third page, the first full page illustration, there are a lot of things to talk about. We find all the objects that were on the first page and say where they are. Do the people look happy or sad? What or who is missing? Is it ten in the morning or ten at night? Where is the little girl?

When we turn the page we see her in her bed, waking up, having a bowl of something, looking at the suitcase. We try to imagine what she’s eating and what she’s thinking.
She lifts the heavy suitcase, but her father carries it. The family goes outside and we see the shadow of a monster’s tail on the wall. The next full page shows us the entire city infested with dragon-like tails.

Some students see this development as heightening the suspense. Others frown and are wary. Is this a science-fiction story? If I see that they are uncomfortable with the idea of fantasy and monsters, I ask what the monsters could represent. Most are able to accept the sinister tails as symbols of a danger. We continue narrating the pictures, one by one, until we reach the last page, showing the mother and daughter returning home alone in the shadow of the threatening tails.

It usually takes about an hour to “read” the first chapter of the story. By this time, I have a very good idea of how well my new student is able to communicate in English, and of how extensive his vocabulary is.

If he is weak, I give him a text written by a former student that is a summary of what we have just seen. I insist on the fact that it was written by a student, not by me or by an author. The structures are simple and the vocabulary familiar because we have just been talking about the same things. If the student is A1 I may read it with them. If they are able to read it without assistance, I’ll ask them to do it at home as a revision.

With stronger students, I open up a document and go through the chapter once again, asking questions about the characters and their story and writing the students’ answers as we go, so that together we produce our own summary of the first chapter. The purpose, of course, is to get repetitive input of the words that may be new or unfamiliar. Many of the objects that appear on the first page turn up again and again as the story goes on, sometimes in different, unexpected forms.

After the first lesson using The Arrival, I decide whether or not to continue “reading” the novel, based on the student’s interest and level. Usually they are curious to know where the father is going and we continue in the same manner. If I sense that they are not engaged, I try something else, perhaps a film that is suited to their abilities.

Many students have been so enchanted by the book and its drawings that they have bought their own copy. The Arrival is a good example of a non-targeted curriculum. I plan to narrate the story with my students, and we use the language that comes up. High frequency verbs and nouns are present because … they are high frequency. So my lessons are planned but the language is not targeted.

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