Do you teach reading, or especially Extensive Reading classes? What are some ways we as teachers could use to help ignite the passion and joy of reading? In this issue, our bloggers Stewart Gray, Chris Mares, and Kate Cory-Wright suggest some ideas and share their tips for a better reading experience for students.
Making stories your own
Teenagers HATE reading!
Creative and critical follow-up activities for Extensive Reading classes
Many of my students are not regular or passionate readers in their first languages and seldom read for pleasure. By the same token, a lot of my students can “read” in English and yet rarely do so voluntarily, or for pleasure. In most cases, in fact, my students only read in English only when they have to.
This situation is, of course, not uncommon and not a surprise to many of you. The question is, what can we do to engage our students in reading? To this end I would like to report on a pleasing success I have had recently with my students.
I have never met students who do not like a good story that they can relate to. Stories are told in all cultures. They are part of the fabric that binds us together through shared experience and the transmission of values and knowledge.
With the above in mind, I wanted to get my students engaged in listening to stories, then reading them, then ultimately writing their own. And so, the Richard project began, in a class that met four days a week for 50 minutes, entitled “Story Telling.”
As a reader with a life-long interest in writing, I decided I would write my own stories for students – about me, but presented through the eyes of Richard. My thought was to write about things that we can all relate to: the first day at school, making friends, making mistakes, getting to know oneself, having parents and siblings, loss, part-time jobs, etc. I wanted to make them authentic, simple, understandable, and most of all, stories my students could relate to. The stories are around 800 words in length. I use short sentences, direct speech, and try to inject useful language which I then recycle in subsequent stories. I try to craft the stories in the style of “sudden fiction” with a hook, a body, and satisfying ending. I have found that students enjoy the humor and a full range of human emotions, especially those that reveal uncertainty, doubt, love, pleasure, and all the others that make us human.
So far I have used the stories in our regular core program plus two intensive programs, one with Mexican students, the other with Japanese students. I have also had one of my colleagues use the Richard stories with success.
Over time, students began to look forward to the stories and request that they be in them. Consequently, with ongoing groups of students I would write some stories that included them, and incidents we had discussed or that had happened in class. I found that not only were the students eager listeners, they also valued reading aloud, and would voluntarily re-read the stories at home. Another interesting development was that some students in my Personal Writing classes began to write letters to Richard, or write their own Richard-like stories. What I am reporting is anecdotal, but true. Finally, a couple of my students asked me about the University Library as they would like to find books themselves to read, stories, they said, like the Richard stories.
With my Mexican students who were very motivated I developed a worksheet on how to write a Richard story. It worked much better than expected as the students not only wrote wonderful stories but clearly enjoyed reading each other’s. Below is the handout I used in this class.
Writing a Richard story
When I write a Richard story, I first try and think about something that has happened to me in my life that you might find interesting or funny. Usually it’s something that I think you will be able to relate to in some way. For example, your first day at school, making a mistake, falling in love, or making new friends. I find it difficult to write in the first person. For this reason I write in the third person. I like to use direct speech in the stories. I keep the sentences very simple and often quite short.
I chose the name Richard because it seems very English to me and doesn’t have any particular associations. It isn’t the name of any of my friends or relatives, for example.
It normally takes me about 45 minutes to write a Richard story. It might take you a little longer.
Think of a particular time in your life.
Think of something fun or interesting that happened to you at that time.
Note down the names of the other people who will be in your story.
Choose a name for yourself.
Think of a title.
Giving it a try
Like many things in life, it takes a bit of time and practice. If you find it hard to begin (get going)… Just write. Start with the name of your character. Visualize him or her. Have a picture in your mind. Where is he or she? What is he or she wearing/thinking/doing? etc.
It is possible to get students engaged in stories and interested in reading. The stories need to be accessible linguistically and culturally and have a universal appeal. They also need to be short enough to be read in one class including the time available for schema-raising, which is to say, getting the students hungry for the story.
If you are interested in reading a short selection of Richard stories, please email me at email@example.com and I will send some to you.
Extensive Reading is often defined as “reading a large amount of books for pleasure.” Sorry? Did someone say “reading” and “pleasure” in the same sentence?
Personally, I can’t think of a better way to spend an evening than curling up with a book. I can’t think of a better way to improve my foreign languages than by reading. Reading is pleasure for me. However, I recognise that for many students, reading is about as boring and alien as boxing or wrestling is to me. So how can we foster a love of reading in students who are reluctant? The following tips are based on my experiences of extensive reading with tweens and teens over the years.
Consider your method.
The only time my school teachers successfully put me off reading was when we all had to read the same book and classes were spent analysing it to death, completing worksheets, etc. Is this the way to foster a love of reading in a reluctant reader? Unlikely. In fact, that is intensive reading, not extensive reading. Nowadays I have developed a method that treats the books like movies that students can watch in their free time. In other words, reading is:
not accompanied by tests or worksheets;
students’ responsibility: they choose what, when, and how to read. If they don’t like the book they have chosen, they can abandon it and try another, just as they would change channels if the movie was unappealing.
So, how does this work in reality? Six months ago, I introduced my students to extensive reading. After explaining the benefits, I invited them to choose a book from my library and reminded them that it was optional to borrow a book. A few students took the lead. They chose books because they wanted to read. Others followed suit, slightly hesitantly. The last two students shook their heads and said “No, thank you.” My response? No comments, no persuasion. Their peers did the job for me! After two weeks of watching their classmates bring back books and borrow more, the last two decided to participate. It was their choice. One of those two is now the most avid reader in the class.
2. Provide Variety.
To foster the habit, students need to read a lot of books. But which books? Before now, I’ve made the mistake of choosing for them, but I failed. I remember suggesting a James Bond reader for Brandon, a 13-year-old student. He pulled a horrible face and instead chose a book about an Indian girl who gets sold into slavery! One tendency I have noticed over the years is that teens often borrow “information” books. At the British Council, we had a huge selection of genres, but the fantasy, mystery, sci-fi, romance, and adventure books often went untouched. Many teenagers preferred to read about nature, planets, history, etc. You can of course make suggestions, but be prepared for students to turn their nose up at your notion of “interesting.”
Since we have no idea what they will enjoy, variety is the key. Offer plenty of genres and topics. Readers are not the only option: try magazines, multiple-path books (see Atama-ii books), plays, audio books, ebooks, etc. Old books are fine, too. My students often choose “Tintin”, even though it is an old dog-eared comic book from my childhood!
Easy does it.
Christine Nuttall suggests using the SAVE rule to promote reading. Offer students books that are Short, Appealing, Varied, and Easy. The focus here is EASY. If students struggle with unknown words in every paragraph, they are likely to give up. In intensive reading, we tend to study books that are higher than the students’ level. Extensive reading is the opposite. Easy does it. My current group of students uses the “five finger rule”: they choose a random page and spot how many words they don’t know. If it exceeds five, then it is probably not the right level for them.
If you are an avid reader, your students can pick up the habit from you. Tell your students about the wonderful things that they will gain from extensive reading, be a model. If students ever read in class, read a book yourself. Read the students’ books, too. And from time to time, show students a book that you’re reading. Spread the joy!
Creating reading games or challenges can promote reading to reluctant students. For example, students who need some extrinsic motivation might enjoy reading their way through a bingo card. This way, they can feel their progress. Younger learners like to draw pictures and make dioramas, based on the book. Older learners enjoy technology, for example they can “pin” the book, or adapt their reading to a social activity.
Note: we do not need to provide post-reading activities. In the words of Bamford and Day (1998), the best post-reading activity is to read another book!
Children across the world celebrate books on World Book Day in March, but why only March? Choose your event and consider a fun activity:
* Dress up as a character from your favourite book. Take selfies, holding the book.
* Visit a bookstore to buy your first ever book or get your first card from a library.
* Hold a book fair (you can even raise money for the library).
* Make food and drink for a party. Name the food items after people in the books.
* Act out a scene from a book with your reading buddy.
Trust your students
Marco is a 12-year-old student who sometimes fools around in my English classes, so I admit that I secretly doubted he was reading the books that he borrowed. Until one day there was a knock at the door… The man standing there, dressed in building overalls, introduced himself as Marco’s father. As we talked, I learned that he was illiterate but thanks to Marco he was learning to read. He was almost in tears as he described how he and Marco regularly read books on the sofa together in the evenings. I was almost in tears myself. Marco was not only reading, he was helping his father to read. How had I underestimated him so badly?
For many teachers, giving students the freedom to read with no post-reading task or test is an odd concept because it requires trust. “But how will I know if they are really reading the book?” teachers ask. The fact is, you don’t. School is full of tests. Extensive reading is a rare occasion when kids can do something for pleasure.
Wishing you every success and happiness in your extensive reading!
Bamford and Day (1998): Extensive Reading in the Second Language Classroom
Nuttall, C. (1996): Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign language
If you would like to learn more about extensive reading, you are cordially invited to join an iTDi Advanced Course in April. “The Power and the Joy of Extensive Reading” will be run by Malu Sciamarelli and Kate Cory-Wright. During the 4-week course, we will cover: extensive reading, setting up and running a reading program, and setting up a library.
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
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.
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.
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.