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Gamifying your way to Fluency: Read and Be Rewarded

Screenshot2015-04-24-16-44-34Dr Charles Browne is Professor of TESOL and Applied Linguistics at Meiji Gakuin University in Japan,  a recognized expert in vocabulary acquisition and extensive reading, especially as they apply to online learning environments. In addition to creating two well known high frequency word lists for second language learners (known as the New General Service List and New Academic Word List), he has created several free online learning sites including an extensive reading and listing website known as ER-Central, and has helped advise many publishers and companies working in these areas including SecretBuilders, who recently launched a set of ER reading apps using graded readers published by Oxford University Press.

Did you ever notice how whenever you try a new online game, that the first level is almost ridiculously easy to complete but the final levels are incredibly hard? This is done for several reasons, and some of the basic principles of online gaming can be usefully applied to online learning environments as well.

First, most online games provide a way of leveling up – for example if you kill enough monsters in Warcraft, you will gain enough experience points to go up to the next level. Games usually have many levels and make the first level(s) purposely easy both to help gamers to build confidence and interest in the game, to teach them how to use the basic features of the system, and to instill a desire to play the game more to reach higher levels.  Second, most good RPG (role playing games) as well as many other types of online games, provide players with an interesting or compelling storyline which helps to pull them deeper into the world of the game, as they become motivated to find out what happens next. And third, online games usually give players a way to accumulate points as well as to rank themselves against other players. This, too, leads to higher levels of motivation and commitment since most players want to achieve the highest score, or at least higher than others around them.

When we try to apply the use of game thinking and game mechanics to learning environments such as second language learning it is called “gamification”, something which, when done correctly, can lead to higher levels of learner motivation, engagement and time-on-task.

Interestingly, one popular approach to second language acquisition, extensive reading (ER), echoes many of these ideas.  In 2002, Day and Bamford wrote a very influential article on the 10 most important principles of a successful extensive reading program, with the following 3 principles often cited as the being the most important:

1) reading materials should be easy
2) learners should be able to choose what they want to read
3) learners should read as much as possible

First, if the reading material is easy, it instills leaners with a confidence at being able to read well, as well as the desire to read more and more in order to reach higher levels, very similar to the principles of gaming. Second, when learners are able to choose whatever story they want to read, they get pulled into the book’s storyline and become motivated to find out what happens next in a very similar way that gamers are pulled into the storylines of RPG games. And third, when teachers have students keep track of how many pages they’ve read and post those numbers to the whole class (which is common in many ER programs), it leads to higher levels of motivation through a friendly spirit of competition in much the same way this is achieved in the gaming world.


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A Picture is Worth A LOT More than a 1000 words…to a 6 year old.

testDo we collate data too much? Do we infer from observation too much? Do we believe we know what’s best for our young learners to read simply because we are the teachers? Answering the third question first – without going directly to the source – our students – then the answer is probably an unfortunate yes, making the other two answers a negative yes as well.

The following is an interview to get a 6 year-old’s opinion on Extensive Reading. The insight on the value of pictures and the power of their appeal and reading encouragement to young learners is soon apparent and is something educators should not undervalue nor underestimate, especially when selecting the right readers for their classroom library.

What’s your name?

George

How old are you?

6

Do you like to read?

Yes, a lot.

Do you know about Extensive Reading?

(Thinks for a second) What does that mean?

Do you play video games?

Sometimes. I like Minions.

Is that a race?

Yes. If you finish the first lap then you can do the second lap.

You mean you get extra time?

Yes.

Your time is extended?

Hmm, extra yes. Oh! Extended means like extra?

Yes. Do you think extra means choice?

Hmm, yes. So Extensive Reading means… reading choice?

Basically. Do you like Extensive Reading?

Yes.

What is the last book you read?

George’s Marvelous Medicine.

Why did you like it?

It’s funny, and I really liked the pictures, especially when Grandma got taller and thinner – and uglier!

Who gave you the book?

Alex (his uncle). He said it was his favourite book when he was little, so I really wanted to read it.

Did you read it by yourself?

No, with my Dad. And the pictures really helped me understand the words I didn’t know.

What other books do you like?

Curious George.

Do you like books that have characters with your name?

(Laughs) Sometimes.

When do you read books?

With my Dad, at night. In bed before I go to sleep. George’s Marvelous Medicine took about a week. At night is my favourite time to read but I sometimes read after lunch. On the sofa. I don’t like reading in the morning so much.

How about reading on a computer?

I like reading stories both on computers and books.

What book are you reading now?

Fables from Africa.

Do you like it?

Yes, it’s about animals. I really like books about animals. And it has some good pictures.

Do you talk to your friends about books?

Not really. But I sometimes read to my sister. I point to the pictures when I read to her.

How old is she?

18 months. But I only try when she’s in a good mood.

How many books have you read in your life?

I have no idea about that.

You have 2 Curious George books that have 8 stories each, so 16 stories. How many times have you read those stories?

So many.

Why have you read the same stories so many times?

Because the pictures are so funny.

What other books do you read?

I speak Japanese too, so sometimes I read Japanese books, but not the ones with Kanji. I don’t know Kanji.

What do you like about Japanese books?

The stories are good. And I really like the pictures. They help me understand more. Oh, and I really like word search puzzles. It doesn’t feel like reading but I feel smarter after I do them.

Last question, do you have a favourite book?

I have four! Curious George (all), George’s Marvelous Medicine, Baby Animals, and Where the Wild Things Are – that one has great pictures!

Sorry, one more question. If a book doesn’t have pictures will you read it?

Yes…maybe…, but I will always choose the one that has pictures.

So George, I think you like Extensive Reading.

Yup!


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Reading for pleasure – Inviting a Character to Class

Interviewing a character helps your students learn the language, gives them an opportunity to be creative and use their imagination, and, whilst having fun, allows them to share their reading experiences.

As with previous activities, you can see the steps to actually do the activity with your class here. Beyond the fun and imagination, there is serious language work taking place. Let’s look at it a bit more closely, taking the example of Becky Thatcher from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

First, reading for pleasure helps students improve their language skills. In this case, students improve vocabulary and grammatical structures when they are writing the questions for the interview, as well as when they listen to the answers. Whether it is simple questions like, “What’s your favourite colour?” or “How did you feel on your first day at school?”, you can help your students write their questions correctly. You can also focus their questions on the language you are working on in class. For example, if you are working on past tenses, you can focus the questions on Becky’s last holiday or weekend. Questions might be, “Where did you go?” or “What did you do?”

The activity also helps students improve their listening and speaking skills. Since every student has a question, it is important not to repeat the same question for the interview. This means students will need to say their questions out loud to the class to make sure there is no repetition. In a controlled way, they are beginning to speak. Weaker or shy students can do this in a safe environment, focussing only on their own question. The person who will play Becky in the interview is listening to the questions from the class and so can prepare her answers in advance. The interview itself further improves listening and speaking. Students will ask their questions, listen to the answers, and some may even have follow-up questions.

There are great opportunities for students to be creative and use their imagination. First, students should be encouraged to ask questions they want an answer to. Any student who knows the story a little may ask questions about Tom, which usually raises a few giggles in the class. The student playing Becky is free to imagine some of the answers that are not directly in the story. Becky’s favourite colour is not in the story, nor is there anything about who buys her clothes. To answer these questions, “Becky” is free to use her imagination and the information in the story. This will certainly make it more interesting for everyone. Questions concerning Becky’s opinions may even raise a few interesting discussions. The language in the activity can quickly become secondary as students focus on the “Becky’s” answers.

This is a fun activity that can easily lead to students being curious about the story and wanting to read it. It is important to encourage students to enjoy the interview. Would they ask the same questions in their own language? If not, then they are focussing on the language more than on the interview itself. Help them ask the questions they really want to ask. Questions about her relationship with Tom, how she feels about school, living in the small town, or her family can raise interesting discussions.

The interview allows “Becky” to share her reading experience with the class. She will expand on the parts she enjoyed more, talk about events in the story, like being lost in the cave. In this way, many students will become curious about the book and want to read it.

By helping students with the language, encouraging them to use their imagination, and allowing them to have fun with the activity, they will become more personally involved in their reading. This will help them learn more effectively.


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Reading for pleasure – Making puzzles, improving comprehension

JigsawThis month’s activity will have your students fully engaged in their stories. Your students may be familiar with solving word search puzzles, but in this activity they will be asked to make their own puzzles for other students to solve.

In making their own puzzles, students will be improving their reading comprehension in various ways. Let’s take a look at the different steps of the activity to see this more clearly. You can see the steps to actually do the activity here.

When students are looking for the words or the sentences for their puzzle they will be reading the story, each student choosing language at their own level. For stronger students you may want to frown at some of their choices. Don’t discard them completely, but question them. This will encourage your student to go back to the story to find a more interesting word or sentence. In this way they are encouraged to read the text at a deeper level. Also, encourage them to show their words or sentences to someone else in the class who has read the book. By asking for the opinion of others, students have a context to discuss the stories and get different points of view.

As students complete the words in the grid, they will be thinking how these words fit into their story. In this way, they are revising the story, the words helping them remember the parts they enjoyed most. But the words may not fit into the grid. They may be too long, or the last words may not fit with the words already written. Don’t make the grid bigger. This is on purpose. By reworking the words, students are once again revising the context of the story. They may have to return to the story to choose a shorter word. This is great, as it increases reading time with the story. Although they have not used a word they had chosen, they still worked with it, which helped them remember that part of the story.

Make sure that your students understand that their puzzles are to be solved by other students, either in their class or in another class. This will motivate them to reduce mistakes and to make their writing legible. They easily understand that their friends can be more critical than their teacher. This will also have another interesting effect – they will try to make their puzzles a little more difficult. In making their puzzles more difficult, they will read for details and specific information. This will improve their reading comprehension.

Solving the puzzles helps students in many different ways. First, it is a revision of the story for those students who have read the book during the year. Some students may be able to find all the words without needing to go back to the story. Others may find 3 or 4 words difficult to find. This may encourage them to talk to the person who made the puzzle. Notice how, once again, the puzzle has created a context for students to discuss a story. By the way, rarely do students simply give the answers. This means the discussion helps both students revisit the story.

In solving the puzzles, students also become aware of how interesting it is to solve. For puzzles to be interesting they must be challenging – too easy and they are boring, too difficult and the student gives up. In this way, students reinforce the language and comprehension at the general level of the class. Especially important is that students who consider themselves weak in English will be motivated to make their puzzles for students they consider better. This will help to raise their own level of English. Since the puzzles are based on the story, the student reading and making the puzzle knows that it is simply a matter of copying words or sentences. Weaker students see that, through effort, they can make their puzzles challenging to any student in the class.

And finally, when the puzzles are solved by another class, students will usually talk about their experience outside of class. Comments like, “Hey, I did your puzzle today.” will become common.


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Reading for Pleasure – Making Triangles, Sharing Opinions

Continuing the Reading for Pleasure series, Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, looks at how students can make triangles to keep them interested in reading.

This month’s activity is deceptively simple. However, it is an important step in the sequence of activities our students have been involved in. So far, the language for the previous activities has come directly from the stories. Whether it was simple words, phrases, or sentences, students were able to browse through their books and simply copy what they wanted. Making triangles is the first activity in which students are free to use their own words. How to make triangles for their stories is explained on the Big Read website, or in the video below.

Let’s take the example from the video clip about “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”. Expressions like “lives in the USA” or “saw Injun Joe kill someone” are probably not part of the story itself. The student here is using their own words to describe facts and events in the story. An expression like, “Tom and Becky became good friends” is this student’s opinion. Another student may see the story differently. So, the triangle gives students the opportunity to use the English they have learned to communicate about the story they are reading.

At this point it is important to point out what students have achieved by doing the previous activities that allow them to make their triangles:

  1. Students are confident that they can read in English and enjoy the story they are reading.
  2. Students have become aware that the activities are based on effort, not knowledge. Everyone can do them if they want to.
  3. Students know that their activities are to be shared with their friends and family.

These three points are important as students prepare to make their triangles. The positive environment created around the class library means that students are confident they can do the tasks. Some students may insist on finding expressions directly from their story. Some may ask for help from their friends or the teacher to improve their English. For example, some students may write “see Injun Joe kill someone”. Although this is not incorrect a friend may suggest using “saw”. And others may personalise the words they use, mixing facts, events, and opinions. Knowing that their triangles are to be shared, students will try to make them interesting to their friends.

This is also the first activity in the class library in which students need their English to be checked and corrected before it is displayed. As their teacher, encourage peer correction. Reinforce the idea that the triangles are to be displayed and so the English must make sense to their friends. When correcting any student’s work, reinforce your role as a facilitator – you are helping them with their work, not judging it.

As with making movie posters, making triangles allows students to become more personally involved with their stories, in this case by encouraging them to share their opinions and thoughts about the story. You can ask them that 2 of the lines from the triangle are based on their opinion, 2 lines are based on events in the story, and another 2 lines are facts about the story. Suggest this to your students as a way to make their triangles more unique and personal. Don’t make it a requirement, as this may interfere with their enjoyment of the story and the activity.

By making triangles, the class moves beyond simply copying the language they need, to using the English they have learned to communicate their thoughts and opinions. Depending on your students, this can be the basis for brief summaries of the story as they expand their expressions into complete sentences. Building on their confidence and involvement, the triangles allow students to more fully personalise their reactions to their reading experience.

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