TESOL Video News, 4(5), 7, 9, (1994).

Using Cartoons to Spice Up Holiday Lessons

Johanna E. Katchen


Have you ever thought about using cartoons in class?  I use them in Taiwan in my fall semester freshman conversation class for university English majors to introduce some of he more colorful aspects of American culture and to supplement my holiday units.

For Halloween, we have The Legend of Sleepy Hollow adapted from the Washington Irving story and narrated by Glenn Close (1988, Rabbit Ears Productions Inc., 25 minutes).  Unlike a typical cartoon, here all the speaking comes from the narrator, who modifies her voice as she takes the roles of the various characters.  A disadvantage of using cartoons, though, is that the facial movements of the characters give no clue to pronunciation.  Furthermore, the child-like and charicatured voices of most cartoon characters may be unfamiliar to EFL students and therefore render them harder to comprehend.  However, the clear enunciation of the narrator in this video seems to pose no major problems for my students.

We don't have time to read the story ahead of time, but I do tell them it's basically a love triangle, with two man after the same girl.  I spend time explaining the setting, which fits in with our previous discussion of the origin of Halloween.  Before we view, students are given five questions whose answers can be found on the video.  These call for descriptions of the three main characters and of the party, and I ask students to speculate--What really happened to Ichabod?  After viewing we check our answers.  A copy of the videotape is then placed in the student lab for individual review (as with the other videos mentioned).

Our Thanksgiving unit covers two two-hour classes.  In addition to other activities, in the first class we prepare for A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973, United Features Syndicate, 25 minutes) with a handout about the story of Miles Standish made famous by Longfellow (referred to on the video), and I ask students, in groups of fours, to make up role plays about it.  We also sing Over the River and through the Woods (it's sung at the end of the video).  In the second hour, I give students a transcript of the video.  For each scene, different students read the roles; I explain vocabulary and cultural terms (e.g., I'll take a drumstick) and solicit questions.  Finally, we view without looking at the text.

For Christmas, I don't have Charlie Brown, but variety is more savory.  I use Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus (1974, Wolper Productions, 24 minutes).  The advantage to this cartoon is that the newspaper editorial (The New York Sun, September 21, 1897) on which the story is based can be read previously for homework.  Points to bring out are the axiom "You can't believe everything you read in the newspapers" (or can you?) and losing one's belief in Santa Claus is a sign of growing up . . . of putting the world of fantasy and dreams behind.  The newspaper's reply to Virginia's letter both saves face for Virginia and tells us that beliefs and dreams are also an important part of life, points we can discuss in class.

The last class of the semester falls right before the new year--just in time to sing Auld Lang Syne and to talk about teachers who give heavy assignments over long holidays--both of which we have in Happy New Year, Charlie Brown! (1985, United Features Syndicate, 25 minutes).

Advantages of using cartoons are that they are relatively short (20 - 25 minutes), and most contain a wealth of cultural material which you can exploit with little preparation.  They also make the class more lively.  Taiwan's university freshmen are just leaving childhood and they love cartoons in English.

Useful References for Holiday Readings

Klebanow, V. & Fischer, S. (1986).  American holidays: Exploring traditions, customs, and backgrounds.  Brattleboro, VT: ProLingua Associates.

Tiersky, E. & Tiersky, M. (1990).  The USA: Customs and institutions. Third edition.  New York: Regents Publishing Company, Inc.

Back to Articles Available On-line