Youth, Popular Culture and the Wardrobe: Two Actions for International Language Schools with Tiny Libraries

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I work in an international language school for adult learners learning English as a second language (ESL). Although it is a well-resourced school technologically, the ‘library’ is so small that it all fits in a wardrobe. It is a tiny library. Loh and Sun (2019) recommend that schools choose contemporary books when stocking a library, but our books are mostly donations from teachers. What little budget exists for books is spent on a few sets of specially adapted texts for ESL learners. At a time when reading for enjoyment may be declining globally (Rutherford, Singleton, Derr, & Merga, 2018), this post explores the importance of choosing literature that connects with popular culture. It will suggest two achievable actions that schools with tiny libraries can follow to ensure students still have access to relevant and contemporary reading resources.

Reading is an important skill for ESL learners. It helps them to move beyond speaking and listening and to integrate with new cultures and vocabulary (Horwitz, 2013). Students often complete intensive reading in class, reading short passages designed to test comprehension or vocabulary. However, it is important that they also complete extensive reading, reading for gist and enjoyment (Horwitz, 2013). Practising extensive reading helps learners to increase their language ability and range of vocabulary faster than only doing intensive reading would (Suk, 2017).

Popular culture is important for young ESL learners because it can make course content relevant and reduce culture shock. The culture around us, including the things we do, say and interact with, has an impact on our identity formation (McGraw, 2017). Using popular culture in the curriculum can help decrease resistance to studying (Luk & Hui, 2017) because students feel the content is relevant to them. Additionally, international students sometimes feel isolated (Taliaferro, Muehlenkamp, & Jeevanba, 2019). Interacting with familiar popular culture and sharing interests with peers might reduce this culture shock. Popular culture helps people interact with new ideas and can change their thinking (Takacs, 2015). Having a range of texts in the library relevant to popular culture is therefore very important.

A problem with tiny libraries is their limited range of texts. Pop culture texts (which could include films, books, magazines, and social media) are an integral part of the way that young people understand the world, and integrating these texts into the curriculum can help students find relevance in more academic texts (Hall, 2011). As the selection available in the library is limited and outdated, integrating the texts would be problematic. A lack of class sets might also require teachers to break copyright law. By failing to have a functional library and by failing to promote reading for knowledge and pleasure, language schools can miss an integral part of higher education, but there are possible actions that can reduce this risk.

The first potential action is to utilise local council libraries. Libraries exist to help people improve their literacy (McShane, 2011), so discovering the huge range of books, resources and technology could be beneficial for ESL students. Groups such as book and conversation clubs provide opportunities for connecting and learning. To encourage this interaction, the school should find ways to introduce students to the library early in their course. Informing the library of the visit of many students would be both courteous and might also result in a guided tour being offered and some further opportunities being shared.

The second action is to use electronic books. Reading is no longer the simple practice of using a printed resource. Modern learners need to be able to interact with a range of online resources and applications (Leu et al., 2011). Students often prefer using electronic resources and are sometimes inclined to work harder when they are available (Coiro, 2012). This means that schools might receive less resistance when encouraging students to read if they have access to an electronic library. Loh and Sun (2019) state that schools should aim to have both electronic and physical resources. Schools could consider incorporating a subscription to Kindle Unlimited, Apple News+ or Audible into their school fees. By providing or encouraging access to these services, students would then have access to a huge range of contemporary texts.

Reading using applications such as Kindle also adds a range of functionality not possible with a printed book. According to (Evans, 2017), this can include notetaking, highlighting sections or finding definitions of unknown words. However, according to Rutherford et al. (2018), due to the relatively recent introduction of e-readers and tablets, more research is needed into young people’s reading preferences. Indeed, many readers still prefer traditional books (Evans, 2017). Still, having access to electronic versions might provide opportunities for reading when physical books are not available.

Having a tiny library need not hold students back from reading relevant and enjoyable texts that link to their perception of popular culture. If language schools can suggest the right resources and community partners, international students may still be encouraged to enjoy reading for pleasure and language development.


Coiro, J. (2012). Understanding dispositions toward reading on the Internet. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 55(7), 645–648.

Evans, E. (2017). Learning from high school students’ lived experiences of reading e‐books and printed books. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 61(3), 311–318.

Hall, L. (2011). How popular culture texts inform and shape students’ discussions of social studies texts. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 55(4), 296–305.

Horwitz, E. (2013). Becoming a language teacher : A practical guide to second language learning and teaching (2nd ed.). Boston: Pearson Education.

Leu, D., Mcverry, J., O’Byrne, W., Kiili, C., Zawilinski, L., Everett-Cacopardo, H., … Forzani, E. (2011). The new literacies of online reading comprehension: Expanding the literacy and learning curriculum. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 55(1), 5–14.

Loh, C., & Sun, B. (2019). “I’d still prefer to read the hard copy”: Adolescents’ print and digital reading habits. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 62(6), 663–672.

Luk, J., & Hui, D. (2017). Examining multiple readings of popular culture by ESL students in Hong Kong. Language, Culture and Curriculum, 30(2), 212–230.

McGraw, K. (2017). Identity formation: Consumerism and popular culture. In B. Gobby & R. Walker (Eds.), Powers of curriculum: Sociological perspectives on education (pp. 243-266). Retrieved from

McShane, I. (2011). Public libraries, digital literacy and participatory culture. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 32(3), 383–397.

Rutherford, L., Singleton, A., Derr, L., & Merga, M. (2018). Do digital devices enhance teenagers’ recreational reading engagement? Issues for library policy from a recent study in two Australian states. Public Library Quarterly, 37(3), 318–340.

Suk, N. (2017). The effects of extensive reading on reading comprehension, reading rate, and vocabulary acquisition. Reading Research Quarterly, 52(1), 73–89.

Takacs, S. (2015). Interrogating popular culture key questions. Retrieved from

Taliaferro, L., Muehlenkamp, J., & Jeevanba, S. (2019). Factors associated with emotional distress and suicide ideation among international college students. Journal of American College Health, 1–5.

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