Erika Osváth, an educator, English teacher and materials writer from Hungary, talks about some different ways for kids to interact with stories.
My friend, who teaches English literature at ELTE University in Budapest told me the other day “I wanted to read this book, which is said to be interesting, written in exquisite language, but I just cannot make myself finish it, even though I am now on page 400. I just cannot connect with anything and anybody in the book.”
This sheds a little light on why we read in our everyday lives. What is the engine, the personal motive that makes us read a story or a book? If I turned my friend’s comment into a definition, she doesn’t read to see if she understands the story, neither to explicitly learn a particular language point, but through reading she satisfies her fundamental need to connect with the storyline and/or its characters. I believe this is the case with most of us when it comes to free reading.
And yet in the language classroom, very often all we have time for (and what the course-books helps our approach to stories with) are the comprehension check activities and some language work based around the text of the story. The one and only way we tend to encourage children to connect with the storyline and/or characters on an emotional level is through acting. I firmly believe, however, that there’s room and need for much deeper engagement forms of authentic interaction with stories, which will help them internalise language in an unconscious and effortless manner.
Here are some activities you can use to go beyond comprehension check and help children engage with stories on an emotional level at lower levels.
After directed reading, i.e. a story chosen by the teacher:
Interacting with the characters:
- Ask children to draw their favourite character or the one they dislike, if appropriate, and fill in the sentence.”I really like him/her because he/she is/can/…” – here, choose verbs that are appropriate for the storyline.
“I didn’t like him/her because …”
- Go through the story again and ask children to stick adjectives to the characters at different stages of the story, for example naughty, cross, careless, attentive, helpful, etc. Alternatively, you could use the faces representing some of these words, if possible, and ask them to justify their choices in L1.
- Ask children to match colours, shapes or sounds of musical instruments to characters and let them explain why. In my experience they love doing such abstract things.
Interacting with the storyline:
- Again, children finish off the following sentence starters by simply drawing it if they are very young learners or drawing and writing the sentence depending on the level.Choose one, maximum two, sentence starters per story; ones that you find the most appropriate for the particular storyline.
“I felt worried when …”
“It was funny when …”
“The story reminded me of …”
- Stop reading the story at certain points and ask them to predict how certain characters may feel and how it might continue. Make questions focussed to the happening in the story, for example: ‘How does grandma feel? Why? Will she catch the gingerbread man?”
- How would you change the ending of the story? If possible let children express their ideas in L1 and reformulate them into L2, inputting the new language chunks they would like to incorporate. This way you are also allowing them to take ownership of the story and the new language. Then ask them to act out the story while you are retelling it with their new ending.
With all the activities above it is essential to let them practice their imagination and making the story live and relevant to them through their own interpretations, without rejecting or judging any of their responses, no matter how far-fetched they might seem.
It is equally important to get feedback on the stories you choose. Ask children whether they liked it, what it was that they liked/disliked about it. It is very important to try and use stories they can relate to because it has a tremendous effect on how they listen, and therefore on their language acquisition opportunities.
Children could have a reader diary, a notebook where they keep a record of all their above responses, feelings evoked during the stories you have worked through. An imprint of some sort, one which the child glances at and immediately triggers the emotions together with the storyline, and possibly some of the language from it, too.
If circumstances allow, have a shelf with books already read in class plus new ones and allocate free reading time, say once or twice a month when children pick a book, read it for themselves and then ask them to comment on it. The idea here is to let them read and react to a book of their free choice rather than one that is given by the teacher. Self-directed reading has a great influence on foreign language acquisition and this process continues even into adulthood.
And what are some of the obvious outcomes of incorporating such activities with young learners? Many of the A1 level 8-year-old children in my class started reading English storybooks on their own. Now, how great is that?