Teaching The Great Gatsby to ESL Students

Instructor: Linda Winfree

Linda has taught English at grades 6-12 and holds graduate degrees in curriculum and teacher leadership.

In this lesson, explore various strategies and scaffolded steps to use while teaching F. Scott Fitzgerald's ''The Great Gatsby'' to English Language Learners.

Teaching The Great Gatsby

Rich with symbolism, imagery, and figurative language, the novel The Great Gatsby can be a challenge for high school students who are native speakers of the English language. To students for whom English is a second language, the text can appear inaccessible. Teachers can help English Language Learners interact with Fitzgerald's iconic novel of the American Dream by employing strategies to help them access the text, comprehend the text, explore Fitzgerald's use of language, and ultimately understand the novel's theme.

Accessing the Text

Before English Language Learners can enter the rich world of Fitzgerald's language, we must open the door to the novel. First, we want students to have an awareness of the story and be exposed to the work in English as Fitzgerald's use of language distinguishes the book and establishes it as a piece of classic literature. Depending on your student's current level of familiarity with English, one or more of the following options can help students approach the novel.

Chapter Summaries

Provide students with short summaries of each chapter, as well as a list of the main characters and their role in the story. These summaries can be translated into the student's native language. For students with a higher capability with English, partial summaries are an option, with students reading to fill in the missing events.


Another way to immerse students in The Great Gatsby is using audio versions of the book. In small groups or electronic listening stations, English Language Learners can listen to the novel and follow along in the text.

Discuss the American Dream

Activating prior knowledge and building context also help English Language Learners access the novel. The Great Gatsby is a particularly American novel, exploring multiple themes on the American Dream, the idea that people can become successful in the United States no matter their background.

Introduce this concept to your ELL students and explain that while reading, you will explore together what The Great Gatsby says about the American Dream. Ask students to write their own definition of the American Dream. Discuss in a small group and tell students you will reference those definitions throughout the novel, comparing the characters' experiences with students' expectations of or knowledge about the American Dream.

Interacting to Comprehend

The Great Gatsby is told through a first person narrator, Nick Carraway, who may or may not be reliable, and the plot and characters can be difficult to understand.

Create a Timeline

The plot is somewhat nonlinear, with Nick's remembrances moving backward and forward in time. To help your English Language Learners keep track of the plot, create a timeline on chart paper or bulletin board paper and post it in the classroom. As students read each chapter, work with them to place the key plot events on the timeline. Students can use the timeline to review events before beginning a new chapter. As the novel builds toward Gatsby's destruction, discuss with students the causes and consequences of important plot points.

Provide Focus Questions

Help your ELL students by providing a focus question to guide their reading of each chapter. These questions should be open-ended and require support with ideas from reading. For example, chapter two's focus might center on Tom's characterization. Ask students to pay close attention to Tom's actions and words in the chapter, then respond to the following: 'What kind of person is Tom? How do you know?'

These focus questions serve as a quick comprehension check but also provide support when students delve into the novel's themes. Work in small groups during and after reading to discuss the focus questions. If student responses indicate misunderstanding, take the opportunity to re-read and clarify student comprehension.

Make Connections

Making connections to the people and events in the novel can also aid comprehension. As students read, ask them to record places that remind them of people, events, and emotions in their own lives. In a small group, model this strategy for students, then ask them to apply the strategy themselves. Students may write their connections or debrief in small groups.

If needed, provide students with connection prompts, such as 'Describe a time when, like Nick, you felt out of place in a social situation' or 'Tell about a time when someone did something you could not forgive the way Nick cannot forgive Jordan.' You might also ask students to connect by imagining a scenario, such as 'If you could reinvent yourself as Gatsby did, what new life would you choose?' Use these connections to deepen student understanding of the characters, their emotions, and motivations.

Understanding the Language

Fitzgerald's use of vivid imagery and figurative language distinguishes The Great Gatsby; however, the language also poses challenges for English Language Learners.

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