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Using Graded Readers with Young Learners: Before you Read

Young girl reading in a libraryHaving given us some advice on choosing a reader, David Dodgson, a teacher to young learners in Ankara, Turkey, now introduces us to some pre-reading activities to encourage young learners to engage with the characters and the story.

When using a graded reader as a class text, one of the most important lessons is the first one. The students need to be introduced to the characters, the plot and the theme of the story, all the while capturing their interest. This activation of their background knowledge, or schemata, is essential to ensure the students don’t read the book ‘cold’. I therefore generally spend the first session asking the students to speculate, predict content and profile the main characters, all of which helps raise their awareness both of what kind of book they are going to read and the content within.

This year, my classes have used two different readers: one based on a classic tale and one adapted from a modern animated film. My approach to introducing each was different and I will discuss how I went about it below.

Working with an ‘adapted classic’

The first reader used this year was an adaptation of Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I knew most of my students would be familiar with the story, either through a translation of the book or through the classic film version starring Judy Garland, so I started by asking them what they already knew about the story. In groups, they brainstormed the characters, the places and the events they already knew with each group comparing their findings.

I remember one of my colleagues saying “but you’re giving the plot away!”  but I didn’t view it like that – after all, most of the children were familiar with the story anyway! Instead, I found this to be a great way to get them pooling and sharing their knowledge. A lot of the vocabulary they would need to understand like tornado, scarecrow, brain, heart and emerald came up naturally within the context of the lesson as well as some important threads of the plot. Moreover, as we were working with a shortened, adapted version of the story, there were bound to be discrepancies between what they knew and what was in the book. Gathering their ideas and knowledge in this way helped form the basis for a later activity looking for those differences, which proved to be a fantastic way to get them to engage more actively with the text.

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The Thrill of Discovery: Reading to Learn

Six year old girl reading on the floorAhead of his talk at IATEFL 2011 in Brighton entitled ‘The Thrill of Discovery: Reading to Learn’, Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, shares how he came to learn that students will be motivated to read in a foreign language if allowed to discover for themselves the thrill of reading.

My first experience with encouraging students to read was with a class of 10-year-olds in Portugal.  28 students walked around 4 tables full of different simplified readers. Their objective was simply to choose one to read, a much more difficult task than I was aware of at the time. One student, Eduardo, summarised the feelings of the class succinctly and directly: “Why should I read in English when I don’t even read in Portuguese?”

A good question. I realised most of them were doing this because I had asked them to, because they trusted me. I looked at Eduardo and told him he didn’t have to read if he didn’t want to. Surprised, and not really believing me, he sat down and waited for the bell to ring, putting me to the test. I walked around the room answering students’ questions, asking what they liked to watch on TV. I figured this would give me an idea of what would interest them.

A few minutes, Eduardo at my side. “Teacher,” he said, “this book is about football. Can I take this one?” When I said yes, he was obviously surprised that a book about football was acceptable. He walked away with the book. I knew that he was now worried about being able to understand it in English. Eduardo was not known for being a good student in general, and even less so in English. I left him alone, keeping an eye on him from a distance. Minutes later he was at my side again. “Teacher, did you know that Pele was only 17 in his first World Cup?” I told him I didn’t. Eduardo proceeded to tell me a lot of other information about football. By the end of the class he decided he would try reading the book.

Eduardo went on to read many other books that year and nearly 20 years later I still remember what I learned about motivating students to read – simply let them read. Let them discover the thrill of learning and the sense of achievement in reading in a foreign language.

Carl Rogers said “we cannot teach another person directly; we can only facilitate his learning.” Reading allows teachers to facilitate their students’ learning. It reinforces classroom learning, as the vocabulary and grammar of our syllabuses, are all there. More importantly, all those verb tenses, adjectives, nouns, and adverbs are there with the purpose of communicating information. The language appears in a context, it is a means to an end and not an end in itself. After all, we don’t normally go to a bookshop and choose a book to read because it has great examples of the ‘present perfect’.

Reading is also a great motivator to learn English. It exposes students to different worlds and different experiences, and it allows them to share these experiences with each other. More importantly, in my view, reading gives students a sense of achievement. It shows them the result of the years they have been studying English. In designing activities to accompany students’ classroom reading, I always make sure that my activities do not interfere with the magic that is reading. The aim of my activities is not to motivate students to read – the books will do that – it is to help them share their reading experience.

Eduardo taught me that, and I still remember the smile of satisfaction when he finished a book and the sense of expectation as he browsed the bookshelf for another.

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Are teenagers really reluctant readers?

Teenage boy on laptop and phoneAhead of her talk at IATEFL 2011 in Brighton entitled ‘Getting students into extensive reading painlessly: A threefold solution’, Sue Parminter, series co-editor of the Dominoes Readers series, considers how to get today’s tech-savvy teenagers reading books.

What do you take with you when you travel alone by plane? I have a hunch the answer to this question reveals lots about us. I never get on even a short-haul flight without a book to read: I guess having a paperback in my hand also reassures me that I won’t need to bury my nose in the in-flight magazine in order to escape from tedious conversations with over-chatty people who might be in the seats next to mine. When my kids were young, our in-flight bags invariably bulged with colouring books and crayons, replaced – as the kids aged – by hand-held computer game consoles, and latterly by iPods, crammed to bursting with music and films.

A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting on a plane with a book in my hands, letting my thoughts drift, when my pleasant daydreams were rudely interrupted by a boy of about thirteen moaning to his parents in the row behind mine. He’d been perfectly happy when I’d followed them up the stairs onto the plane, earphone attached to his android mobile, tapping out text on the screen faster than I can type on a regular computer keyboard. The cause of his sudden fury was the safety instruction to turn off all electronic equipment, forcing him to enter into reluctant, monosyllabic conversation with his parents while the plane taxied and took off.

His reaction brought home to me the parallels between my addiction to words on a paper page and a teenager’s dependence on the small screen. Although I find it fascinating to play with an iPad, turning digital pages at the swipe of a finger and marvelling at how ‘real’ they look, I’m a bit too old to transfer my passion for paper text to the screen version. For me, the traditional bookworm, it’s a technological gulf as hard to cross as it must be for ‘digital natives’ to feel passionate about reading books, especially school books in a language not their own.

It is really vital – I feel – for us English language teachers not to underestimate how wide this ‘digital native-print native’ divide is, and how much we need to do in order to bridge it.  But there’s one aspect of the small LCD screens that have invaded our world in recent years that we can also be grateful for. Ten years ago, studies of how teenagers spent their time shocked us when they itemized all the hours spent in front of television sets. Nowadays the balance has tilted away from the passive watching of larger screens to interacting in various ways with smaller ones, and this quantum shift towards interactivity makes a significant difference.

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What do idioms look like?

Man with egg on his faceAhead of his talk at IATEFL 2011 entitled ‘Don’t give up on idioms and phrasal verbs’, Stuart Redman, co-author of Oxford Word Skills, ‘gets to the bottom of‘ idioms in the English language.

What’s the first thing that comes into your mind when you see these expressions?
- kick the bucket
be barking up the wrong tree
a storm in a teacup
strike while the iron is hot
have egg on your face

Your answer is probably that they are all idioms: groups of words that not only have a meaning that is different from the individual words, but also a meaning that is often difficult or impossible to guess from the individual words. If someone is barking up the wrong tree, they have the wrong idea about how to get or achieve something; it has nothing to do with – or is unlikely to have anything to do with – dogs or trees. If you have egg on your face, you might need a handkerchief, but it’s more likely that you are embarrassed or feel stupid because something you have tried to do has gone wrong. These expressions are also good examples of the commonly-held view that idioms tend to be very vivid and colourful expressions.

Now, let’s turn to another list of expressions. What do they have in common with the list above?
- to some extent
I’ve no idea
from time to time
first of all
in the distance

Less obvious perhaps, but the answer, in fact, is the same: they are all idioms. Is the meaning of these expressions very different from the individual words? Not to any great extent. Is the meaning difficult or impossible to guess? Not particularly. Are they vivid and colourful expressions? Certainly not. So, why are they idioms?

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Going with the Flow

Children running in the playgroundAhead of his talk entitled ‘Linked language learning’ at IATEFL 2011 in Brighton, Patrick Jackson –  co-author of the forthcoming Primary course, Everybody Up – tells us why children are naturally hard-wired for learning.

As part of a recent talk to teachers of young learners in Taiwan I asked participants to complete the following sentence: ‘Children are…’ The idea was to identify some natural characteristics of children which we might consider to bring out the best in students. My overall goal was to explore ideas around the topic of making teaching more real and relevant.

So, what would you have written had you been there? ‘Children are…’

In Taiwan the most popular answers were ‘energetic’, ‘curious’, ‘creative’, ‘friendly’ and ‘playful’. To be totally honest, there was also a smattering of ‘cute’, ‘lovely’, ‘naughty’ and ‘monsters’ but I think that’s the subject of another post.

So does this help us at all? Does the best language teaching take into account the nature of children? Do good lessons for young learners mirror these characteristics?

Good language teachers certainly harness children’s boundless energy by including plenty of movement and action through songs, TPR activities, games and role plays. They also build connections to the wider world and to school subjects, thereby satisfying children’s natural curiosity. Their lessons are full of surprise and wonder. It’s not just about English but ways to use English. Good teachers allow space for creativity, giving students plenty of chance to contribute in a personalised way. They build a community in and beyond the classroom that nurtures children’s friendly nature and they build a supportive environment for learning. This can be done through stories and a values program that models the thoughtful behaviour we seek. Finally, the best teachers allow for playfulness, both for the sake of fun but also because they understand that that’s the best way for children to learn about the world around them.

In nature, most things that are fun are fun for a very good reason.

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