According to The Course of Study for Upper Secondary School: Foreign Languages implemented in 2013, one of the contents to be dealt with in English Communication I is “understanding information, ideas, etc., and grasping the outline and main points by reading explanations, stories, etc.” In the case of stories, “The Teaching Guide” (Kaisetsu) attached to The Course of Study states, “it is important for learners not only to understand the literal meaning of a text but also to enjoy reading it.” Enjoyment of reading a text (“the pleasure of the text” in Barthes’ term) is said to be enhanced by interpreting it (Barthes, 1975). To examine to what extent learners are encouraged to interpret stories, we analyzed the questions (“Comprehension”, “Read It Through”, “Reproduction”, etc.) attached to the stories in 10 English Communication I textbooks. This is because we thought that the questions reflect the ways in which the stories are read in the classroom. The results revealed that, while literal understanding of the text was emphasized, most of the questions were irrelevant to interpretation. Our conclusion is, therefore, that reading the stories in the textbooks does not lead to learners’ enjoyment.
To make the above situation better, we propose to use, besides the government-authorized textbooks, post-modernist picture books in secondary schools in Japan. Post-modernist picture books are generally said to be open to interpretation. This generalization, however, needs to be examined with Japanese EFL learners as target readers. The other generalization that interpretation leads to readers’ enjoyment should also be examined with the same readers. To examine these matters, this paper set the following two research questions:
RQ1: In what ways do Japanese EFL learners interpret a post-modernist picture book, The Red Tree?
RQ2: How do Japanese EFL learners feel about interpreting The Red Tree?
The Red Tree was chosen for two reasons: (1) we assumed that it would attract Japanese EFL learners content-wise; (2) the English in the book is easy even for secondary school pupils in Japan. To answer the RQs, we conducted a survey in which 8 undergraduate students (6 in their first year and 2 in their second) participated. We asked them to (1) read The Red Tree silently, (2) take part in a discussion on the book, and (3) answer a questionnaire in which they were required to write freely about the book and the discussion. Analyzing the results of the survey, we found the following answers to our questions:
A to RQ1: Japanese EFL learners, individually or collaboratively, interpret The Red Tree beyond its literal meaning, focusing on its words, its pictures, or both.
A to RQ2: Japanese EFL learners show interest in individually interpreting The Red Tree and also find discussing their interpretations enjoyable, significant, and helpful for expanding their perspectives.
It is noteworthy that the survey was conducted almost independently of the surveyor. Similar results might be obtained in the actual classroom: Learners might enjoy interpreting The Red Tree without any special assistance from their teacher.