The Reading Matrix
Vol4, No.1, April 2004

Using Retelling to Scaffold English Language for Pacific Island Students
Catherine E. Stoicovy


This article explores factors that support second language learning and the role that retelling plays in scaffolding English learning for Pacific Island students. What is it about retelling that Pacific Island students find so appealing and nonthreatening and at the same time helps them to learn their new language? To answer this question it is important to first discuss retelling with regard to language learning on the whole. We will then consider factors that support second language learning and finally, examine how retelling scaffolds English learning for Pacific Island students in a classroom setting.


“Come to the rug, students, while I read the legend, Why the Iguana Has a Double Tongue ,” I beckon this fifth grade class of Pacific Islanders. The children sit wide-eyed in anticipation as I begin in my best storytelling voice: “Many, many years ago in a deep and dark cave of Guam there lived an iguana. This iguana’s mother was very proud of him. After all, he was a very strong and handsome iguana.” The children listen attentively, feasting their eyes on the illustrations with each turn of the page: The young iguana in a deep, dark cave in the dense jungle of the island of Guam. The iguana on his merry way, deeper into the jungle. The iguana splattering spots of paint on the Guam bird known as the rail. The rail striking the iguana’s tongue, causing it to split into two parts.

At the end of the reading, I distribute individual copies of the legend and ask the children to read and retell to one another in small groups: I tell the class:

Students, now I want you to practice reading and retelling the legend to one another in groups of four. Retelling is a good way to help you remember and understand what you read or what is read to you. Take turns reading and retelling the legend. The listeners give feedback by adding anything important that the reteller has left out.

Small squares of carpet scattered throughout the classroom provide cozy areas for the groups to engage in retelling. The room soon fills with the sweet sounds of children’s voices bringing life to the escapades of the iguana and the Guam rail. After each child has had a turn to retell to their group members, I ask for volunteers to retell to the class. Saichy from Chuuk is the first to volunteer. “Many, many years ago in a deep and dark cave in the dense jungle of Guam there lived an iguana,” he begins to the delight of his classmates. “Teacher, teacher, may I retell next?” the students call out as Saichy continues the story. Anticipation radiates from their faces as they vie to become the next reteller.

For English language learners like Saichy and his classmates from the Micronesian islands of Chuuk, Yap, Pohnpei, Kosrae, Marshalls, and Palau in the Western Pacific Ocean, who represent a growing segment of the student population on Guam, learning English can be an arduous and often intimidating process. Yet, these English language learners are eager to retell before an audience of their peers. What is it about retelling that this multicultural group of Pacific Islanders finds so appealing and nonthreatening and at the same time helps them to learn their new language?

In order to understand how retelling motivates and scaffolds language learning for these young learners it is important to first discuss retelling with regard to language learning on the whole. We will then consider factors that support second language learning and finally, discuss how retelling scaffolds English language learning for Pacific Island students in the classroom.

Retelling and Language Learning

Retelling is defined as postreading or postlistening recalls in which readers or listeners tell what they remember either orally or in writing or illustrations (Kalmback, 1986). With regard to language learning, the benefits of retelling are numerous. Research suggests that oral retelling of what has been listened to or read results in increased comprehension and recall of discourse (Gambrell, Koskinen, & Kapinas, 1991; Gambrell, Pfeiffer, & Wilson, 1985; Lipson & Wixson, 1997). As students reconstruct text, they develop language complexity through internalization of text features (Brown & Cambourne, 1987), and acquire a sense of story structure (Morrow, 1985), thereby providing the schema for comprehending, learning, and remembering the ideas in stories and texts ( Anderson, 1994). Retellings add considerablyto our understanding of students’ comprehension because they provide a view of the quantity, quality, and organization of information constructed during reading or listening. And because text recall through retelling is natural for children, it does not necessarily bias them to process text in a particular way, as questions do (Lipson & Wixson, 1997).

Scaffolding Second Language Learning

Of the many factors that influence a child’s language and literacy development in a second language, four will be discussed here: (1) schema theory, (2) linguistic spillover, (3) repeated reading, and (4) culturally responsive instruction.

Schema Theory

The discussion of second language learning is not complete without reference to schema theory, a largely new theory of reading already accepted by the majority of scholars in the field (Anderson, 1994; Bransford & Johnson, 1972; Bransford & McCarrell, 1974; Lipson, 1982; Lipson & Wixson, 1997; Weaver, 1994). According to a schema-theoretic perspective, a reader’s schema, or organized knowledge of the world, provides much of the basis for comprehending, learning, and remembering the ideas in stories and texts ( Anderson, 1994). What learners already know about the events, ideas, and objects described in a text influences meaning they construct from that text (Lipson, 1982). While schema theory impacts comprehension for all readers, it has significant implications for English language learners who often lack the background knowledge necessary to comprehend text in their new language. To the extent that readers have prior knowledge for a particular text, their comprehension task will be more or less difficult (Carrell & Eisterhold, 1988). Familiarity with the content and structure of a text can offset reading comprehension difficulties resulting from limited second language proficiency (Peregoy & Boyle, 1997).  

Linguistic Spillover

Primary English speakers and English language learners alike naturally turn to literary patterns and conventions they encounter in their reading or listening to tell or write stories of their own (Krashen, 1982; Smith, 1988). Coined linguistic spillover by Brown and Cambourne (1987), these text features find their way into children’s speech and writing providing clear evidence of internalization. For students new to English, linguistic spillover is of particular importance for acquiring the language complexity necessary for speaking, reading and writing in their new language. Literary patterns and other text features acquired as a result of linguistic spillover help English learners overcome limitations in expressive abilities in terms of vocabulary, syntax, and idiomatic expressions (Peregoy & Boyle, 1997).

Repeated Reading

Repeated reading draws from Laberge and Samuel’s (1976) theory of automatic information processing. According to the theory, a fluent reader decodes text automatically, leaving attention free to be used for comprehension. As less attention is required for decoding, more attention becomes available for comprehension. Repeated hearing and reading of the same story is essential for second language learners to acquire their new language (Krashen, 1982) in that they reinforce language patterns (Cambourne, 1988), build fluency and enhance comprehension (Samuels, 1979). Repetition helps children to grasp the rhythm, pitch, volume, and tone of English (Petty, Petty, & Becking, 1985), all of which contribute to an expressive and effortless rendering of a text (Allington, 1983; Schreiber, 1980, 1991), improving both fluency and comprehension (Samuels, 1979).

Culturally Responsive Instruction

Most educators would agree with Au (1993) that for educational experiences to be relevant, they must reflect and connect with the students’ particular life experiences and perspectives. The more a teacher understands the cultures and other aspects of diversity in a classroom, the more likely the teacher can provide a classroom context that is culturally responsive and that will result in successful, high-quality education for culturally and linguistically diverse students (Au, 1993; Gay, 1988; Gilbert & Gay, 1985; Ladson-Billings, 1992, 1995; Smith, 1991; Vogt, Jordan, & Tharp, 1987).

Instruction can be created that is culturally responsive where aspects of children’s culture are incorporated into classroom activities to improve learning (Au & Jordan, 1981; Au, 1993; Philips, 1993; Ladson-Billings, 1995; Smith, 1991). All too often, however, the dominant culture of the school assumes that academic achievement for all students can be realized through common learning experiences (Smith, 1991) when in fact, differences in patterns of thought, communication styles, and learning styles call for culturally responsive pedagogy. A good example of differences in communication styles is the fact that some Pacific Island children from Micronesia may not speak out or openly challenge their teacher with questions (Guam Department of Education, 1981b). They will remain quiet if a question is directed to them, even if they know the answer. Teachers instructed in the Anglo-European style of extensive

questioning techniques in their classrooms often conclude that these students are shy or do not understand the question.

How Does Retelling Promote English Language Learning for Pacific Island Students?

Micronesians come from an oral culture. Emphasis is on the spoken or sung word wherein stories are told to living audiences and remembered through their retellings rather than through reading and writing as in a literate culture (Fugelsang and Chandler, 1986). While a major feature of Pacific Island cultures is their orality (Topping, 1992), there may be people at all stages between orality and literacy (Dunn, 2001). Cohen and Somerville’s 1990 study (as cited in Dunn, 2001) of Aboriginal students in Australia sheds more light on the subject:

In any Aboriginal community there are people at all stages between orality and literacy, and the importance they confer on these different forms of knowledge varies. The older Aboriginal students in T.A.F.E. (technical college) had always insisted that Aboriginal culture was “what the elders told us,” while younger students were able to accept the growing body of Aboriginal writing as additional evidence of Aboriginal culture. However, their cultural roots were still in the experiences and traditions of orally-held knowledge and as such their thinking was characterized by primary orality, the orality of a culture that had not been deeply influenced by the patterns of literate thought. (Cohen and Somerville, 1990, p.xv)

As Dunn (2001) explains, “patterns of literate thought include reliance on the printed knowledge enshrined in books and authority as found in legislation, for example, and abstract concepts of status rather than people or individuals such as tribal elders,” (p. 680), whereas in Aboriginal cultures of which orality is a feature, authority comes from people, not the written word (Cohen & Somerville, 1990).

Although Cohen and Somerville’s study focuses on Aboriginal students, their findings may be applicable to the Pacific Island cultures of Micronesia. As with Aboriginal communities, Pacific islanders in Guam and other Micronesian islands are at various stages between orality and literacy. And like the Aboriginals, while the degree to which they are influenced by patterns of literate thought will vary, their cultural roots remain grounded in the traditions of orally held knowledge. Supporting this notion is Sachuo’s (1992) argument that, “Oral discourse constitutes the sociolinguistic frame of island societies and is always an inherent characteristic of Micronesian languages even in written form” (Sachuo, 1992, p. 406).

Since a key element of Pacific Island cultures is their orality, building on the oral tradition through the retelling strategy might be one way to optimize literacy instruction in the classroom. Retelling is easy to implement and a natural way of learning for many Pacific Island children. Morevoer, when retelling familiar text, new learning builds on prior knowledge (Moll & Greenburg, 1990) to connect with their particular life experiences, perspectives and cultural backgrounds. The meaningful content helps the children construct relationships between existing schema and the information in the text (Weaver, 1994) thereby offsetting reading and listening comprehension difficulties stemming from limited second language proficiency (Peregoy & Boyle, 1997).

In the classroom, retelling with a partner or in small groups builds upon the collaborative nature of Pacific island children. Small group retelling provides a supportive, collaborative setting to practice verbal discourse and recall of text. In this context, retelling becomes even more culturally compatible with Pacific Island cultures.

Oral Retelling as a Scaffold for Writing

While the writing process is essentially the same for English native speakers and English learners (Peregoy & Boyle, 1997), English learners may find writing laborious, producing very little at first. If they produce a great deal of writing, logical organization is apt to be lacking. Oral retelling facilitates writing competency in that verbal rehearsal of text generates ideas, improves the quality, style, length, and variety of sentences, and facilitates the logical ordering of ideas (Gambrell, Koskinen, & Kapinas, 1991; Gambrell, Pfeifer &Wilson, 1985; Morrow, 1985). The more they talk about the text in English, the easier it will be to write in their new language (Krashen, 1982). Such was the case for Saichy from Chuuk and Weltin from Pohnpei, who produced the following unedited written retellings shortly after small group oral retelling of the Legend of Why the Iguana Has a Double Tongue:

Saichy’s Unedited Written Retelling

Many, many years ago in the dense jungle of Guam there was an iguana. After all he was a very handsome and stroing iguana, After months of care the iguana went to find eggs then the iguana met a mockingbird the iguana said hello where are you. But the mokingbird left without an answer. With disappointment the iguana went on his jolly trail. Soon he met a rail after, they got frends they decited they needed color. When they decited the iguana would go first the rail took a paintbrush and colored the iguana with beutyful colors after the iguana started to sing. Then the iguana took the paintbrush and put dots all over the rails body. Then the rail said now your voice shall be hars and ugle. Then the rail slashed the iguana’s toung and it split to two toung’s and that’s how the iguana has two toung’s like a fork and the rail has spots all over its body.

Saichy’s understanding of the text emerges from the organization he uses in retelling the story and from his use of the author’s language and his own. A comparison of Saichy’s written retelling with the original text (Guam Department of Education, 1981a) shows that he recalled the basic story structure as well as events crucial to the story. Notice, too, the linguistic spillover that found its way into Saichy’s writing in language such as, “Many, many years ago in a dense jungle of Guam there was an iguana. After all he was a very handsome and strong iguana. After months of motherly care . . .” Using the author’s phrases helps Saichy acquire the language complexity necessary for writing and comprehending English. Spelling, punctuation and other mechanics can be taught in the context of Saichy’s written retelling during the writing process.

Weltin’s Unedited Written Retelling

Many years ago there lived an iguana who was very handsome and strong. After many months of motherly care the young iguana thought that he should go egg hunting and went to the jungle. After the iguana was walking in the jungle he heard a mocking bird singing and said, “Hellow where are you”? The bird However flew away without answering. The iguana being very angry went deeper into the jungle. When he was walking he saw a bird who was known as the rail and said, “How would you like to be friends?” After being friends the iguana and the rail decited that they needed more color on their skin and that the rail shuld paint the iguana first. After painting the iguana very nicely the iguana took the same paint brush and splattered the paint all over the rail. Being very angry he said, “your very pretty voice will become haorse and ugly and scrathed the iguana’s tounge. That’s why to this day the iguana has a forked tounge and the rail has spots all over his body.

Weltin’s written retelling provides another example of how oral retelling facilitates written recall of text. Linguistic spillover in phrases such as “After many months of motherly care,” and, “That’s why to this day the iguana has a forked tongue,” enhance the quality and style of Weltin’s writing, helping him to overcome limitations in expressive abilities. Weltin’s retelling shows that he comprehends the legend. He tells a complete story that reflects knowledge of story structure and internalization of vocabulary and sentence structure. Mechanics such as spelling and punctuation are areas for improvement to be taught during the writing process.


At the heart of language and literacy acquisition are meaningful learning experiences. For learners new to English, special care is required to make learning relevant, enjoyable and culturally responsive. The retelling strategy is culturally consistent with the Pacific Island tradition of storytelling, and highly successful for acquiring language. In the classroom, small group retelling is a social means of developing literacy that is compatible with the collaborative nature of Pacific Island cultures. Island legends, readily available and culturally familiar to Pacific Island children, are a great way to introduce retelling in the classroom. Legends generate student interest and facilitate text recall because they build on prior knowledge and familiarity with text structure. The repeated reading and retelling in small groups provide additional scaffolding for language and literacy acquisition as students incorporate the story structure, syntax, vocabulary, and language conventions from the legends into their own speaking and writing.

In addition to narrative texts, the retelling strategy can be used across the curriculum to enhance content area learning. Once students are comfortable retelling narrative text, teachers may introduce expository, or content area, text for retelling. As with narrative text, it is important to select expository material for which students have sufficient background knowledge. In retelling expository text, students see the relationships among key facts and ideas, in contrast to story recalls that should show evidence of sequence and storyline (Lipson & Wixson, 1997). Students soon become adept at retelling both narrative and expository texts across the subjects. An additional windfall is that retelling facilitates literacy learning not only for English language learners but for primary English speakers as well (Brown & Cambourne, 1987).

Teachers will find that retelling is effective, requires no materials other than a good story or interesting expository text, and is easy to implement across the grade levels and subject areas. What more could a teacher hope for in an instructional strategy, especially in classrooms with limited resources for educational materials?

Catherine E. Stoicovy is an Assistant Professor of Language and Literacy at the University of Guam in the School of Education. She earned her Ph.D. in Administration, Curriculum and Instruction, emphasis Language and Literacy, from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her current academic interests include culturally responsive instruction for diverse students, second language acquisition, and instructional technology to support literacy learning. Email: