Creative and critical follow-up activities for Extensive Reading classes

Stewart Gray
Stewart Gray
By Stewart Gray

Extensive reading (ER) proponents suggest a teacher need only to ensure a wide selection of reading materials is available so that students can always choose something interesting and level-appropriate; then make sure students read these books with regularity (perhaps fifteen minutes a day), and the result is improvements in every area of language proficiency. No formal assessment is necessary, vocabulary learning is “incidental,” and maybe no extra language practice is required. ER is, you might say, an input approach to language learning. With that in mind, it feels almost sacrilegious to recommend that ER teachers employ follow-up, output activities, but I believe these have benefits, particularly for teachers interested in students’ creative expression and critical thinking.

The case for follow-up activities in ER classes

To begin with, I’d like to note the following, pro-follow-up activity arguments from the research literature on ER; these are arguments that have shaped my own perspective and practice:

* While ER done right should always be interesting to students, students are more likely to find it uninteresting if there are no activities to encourage participation.

* ER provides content for discussion and artistic expression, and in return discussions and art activities related to texts promote active engagement with those texts.

* ER itself can be a solitary activity, until you use a collaborative follow-up; then, it becomes a social activity with all the benefits in terms of motivation and language acquisition that come with social interaction.

These arguments are subject to caveats, but they’re certainly worth considering. So, I present some examples from my work with very young, beginner-level Korean EFL students for the perusal of readers.

Follow-up activities for fun and deeper engagement

“Critical” activities:

In a small, ER-centered kids’ class of our own, my partner-teacher and I had students read their storybooks to the class and invited the audience to raise questions. We supported this by teaching vocabulary and grammar needed to form English-language questions. We were happy to note that students’ questions were often open enough to be discussed: “Why is (character) not in this picture?”, and “How did (character) feel in this picture?” We encouraged students to discuss their own questions amongst themselves, offering support by teaching specific phrases for discussion (“What do you think?” etc.).

At times, we asked students to give opinions about books rather than questions; this sometimes lead to spontaneous discussions (partially in English!) when students disagreed. At other times, we encouraged students to role play characters from the books to critically engage with the story. For instance, we had students play the mother and father characters from Anthony Browne’s Piggybook to negotiate the roles of the parents in the household. Despite their age and level, students engaged with this activity energetically using helpful vocabulary taken straight out of the book that they were discussing.

Even though we played a guiding, supportive role in shaping these activities, we both felt that giving responsibility for deciding what was worth talking about to the students was a good way to maintain the student autonomy that ER is so great for, while also encouraging students to engage in critical literacy.

Creative” activities:

In the same class, we also tried out a few creative and artistic activities based on the books that our students were extensively reading. As homework, we asked students to either produce a piece of art, create a new story/comic, or make a board game (example below) based on the language and/or story content of their book.

To feedback on this homework, we invited students to present their art, tell their story, or in case of a board game simply play it right there in class. This gave students a chance to engage with each other’s books and practice the books’ language content in a creative and fun way. This meant yielding a lot of territory to the students (it took at least half the class time to explore everyone’s homework), but we were happy to do so, as it gelled nicely with the autonomous spirit of ER.

Students, for their part, seemed to love making games, art, and stories; when time came to ask them if they wanted to continue making art and games as homework, they all said yes. Moreover, and importantly for us, they used a lot of English to make their creations – English that usually came from the books they were reading.

And so…

I confess I love ER for its “students choose” philosophy. I also happen to value critical thinking and creativity for promoting students’ development and motivation to learn. I believe that ER can provide the basis for these things when combined with enjoyable and well-supported follow-up activities, and I hope my experiences might be of interest or use to other English teachers. Whether you try out anything I’ve described or something completely different in your ER class, good luck, and keep exploring.

Reflective Journaling: An Endorsement 

Stewart GrayBy Stewart Gray

If you’re like me, you’re one of the many teachers who live with the fear of one day settling firmly and conclusively into a teaching routine, never to improve, experiment, or learn much of anything again. Well, the end to our anxieties is at hand; we have only to reach for a small notebook, and perhaps some colored pens.

I first encountered the practice of reflective journaling at a Reflective Practice meeting in Seoul, a gathering for teachers interested in sharing their experiences and concerns, and collaborating in the process of reflecting on their teaching. At this meeting, it seemed to me that the other teachers in attendance, cool as they were, had already been journaling for years. The idea was pitched to me as a personalized means of engaging in reflective practice: you keep a journal, be it paper or electronic, in which you jot down your observations and musings after each (and ideally every) class, and based on these writings you make plans to improve areas in your practice you find to be lacking. Then you can make those changes, see how they go, make further notes, plan further changes, and proceed in this fashion until you hit mandatory retirement age.

As a result of that meeting, I became convinced that reflective journaling was the solution to the problem of my afore-mentioned anxiety about professional stagnation. With a new semester looming, and gripped somewhat by a desperate desire to seize the reigns of my own professional development, I went out at once and purchased a small, pink notebook, on the cover of which I scribbled ‘reflective journal.’ What follows is an excerpt from my first ever reflective writing which I noted down after finishing that semester’s first class:

Aug 24 – Class was quite boring. Too much talking from me, all-round. This frustrates me. HOW CAN I STEP OUT OF THE LIMELIGHT? (Caps in original)

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It was an inauspicious start but, crucially, I had started, and so I proceeded to make notes regularly after class throughout the semester. At that point I had received one piece of advice about the content of reflective notes (from Chris Miller, of Daeil High School) that had really stuck – that it makes sense to push myself to write a certain minimum length, say, eight lines per entry. As the weeks wore on, though, I was able to refine my technique considerably thanks to conversations with many sage, introspective teachers, who shared with me the wisdom I shall now share alike:

1 – Try to make initial, observational notes as objective as possible. At first, write down what you saw, heard, felt, describe the organization of the classroom, what the students did and when; only then commit to expressing feelings and judgments about the meaning of what happened. If instead you begin your reflections with “That class was so terrible,” you may miss something valuable in your haste.

2 – Try Kolb’s cycle. Kolb’s is a simple, four-stage format for organizing the process of reflective thinking which I use in my own journaling: 1. Making objective observations of in-class phenomena; 2. Contemplating the reasons for those phenomena occurring; 3. Considering the implications of all of this; 4. Making plans for a change. I always write the different stages in different colored ink, for ease of visual organization, for example:

May 27 – Students spoke English with surprising confidence in the partner activity. (Black)

–> Maybe the example questions on the board helped, and maybe they’re getting used to this type of speaking activity over time. (Green)

–> I should provide visual assistance (examples) to support speaking activities. (Pink)

–> Before the discussion in the next class, I will work through a few examples with them on the board. (Light blue)

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3 – Collaborate on reflection. Once you’ve got a journal going, there’s no obligation to keep its contents to yourself. Participating in a group of reflective teachers in person or online can help to keep you accountable for your reflections and improve your approaches. This has certainly been my experience; everything I know about reflection I got from the advice and shared experiences of others.

If any of the above ideas appeal, I wholeheartedly recommend giving them a try. Perhaps, though, you are thinking that color pens and reflective group meetings are not your style, or that Kolb’s cycle seems a bit restrictive. Not to worry, for whether you prefer to do things by yourself, in your own way, or exclusively in black ink, journal writing can still provide great benefits to your practice. For me, it has provided a greater sense of control over the direction of my ongoing professional development, a means to respond to challenges in my teaching practice as and when I encounter them, and a valuable record of my past teaching experiences. I only hope I can keep it up until retirement.

Happy journaling.