To celebrate the launch of Project fourth edition, Domino author, Nina Prentice explores the relevance of extensive reading in the upper primary classroom.
School is generally about hierarchies and rules. The teacher is the authority on and dispenser of the syllabus. Students are novices. Their purpose is to consume and learn the year’s programme of study and satisfy the requirements of the examination system.
But, if we believe that learning is not just about passing exams, our classrooms need not follow this pattern. We can break the traditional roles of ‘teacher’ and ‘student’ following our set tasks and duties quite easily. All we need is a library of graded readers and the enthusiasm and passion to read extensively alongside our class.
The transformation is astonishing. Discussion and debate become the norm. Students, even those who are less able or confident, participate enthusiastically because when people respond to personal reading there is no right or wrong answer. Everyone has a voice and a right to have it heard.
Extensive reading is the opposite of the obligatory ‘intensive reading’ we practice in school, crawling like snails over texts and leaving inky slime trails of annotation over every page. Reading extensively is about consuming large amounts of texts greedily to know the end of the story, not to dissect the author’s style. It is about choice, freedom and pleasure.
When we read extensively, we forget our dictionaries because we are reading well within our comfort zone. Choosing freely what we read (and rejecting it if we don’t like it) for our personal enjoyment and interest is liberating, motivating and empowering.
Extensive reading also frees us from daily textbook routines. The class library not only allows us to explore language together naturally through our reactions to the books we are all reading but provides a endless supply of spontaneous activities with which to animate our lessons and engage our students.
The class library allows us to share our reading experiences communally. This collaborative approach, where the normal, formal routines of the classroom are set aside, creates an environment where learning happens naturally through discussion, the expression of opinions and even disagreement! Extensive reading is real language in real use and demonstrates that books will always be the best and most stimulating teachers!
Some examples of practical extensive reading activities
Graded readers provide prompts for classroom activities in ways that many textbooks or undifferentiated material cannot. Books which students have chosen deliberately and are enjoying reading are self-evidently within their competence. Textbook work can never be quite as accessible or as pleasurable. Additionally, students are usually excited about sharing their current reading with the rest of the class and less able students gain confidence when they can perform and contribute in the same way as more able classmates.
Teachers can easily use the class library and students’ current reading to extend and practise textbook topics. The brief 5-10 minute activities below are just a few examples of the kind of naturally differentiated tasks which can amplify and support the syllabus.
- Cover Illustration Game: Ask students to look at the cover of the books they are reading. Give them thirty seconds to write down as many words as they can think of prompted by the images in the illustration. Then…
- Ask students to categorise the words they have collected by word class. Do they notice any patterns? Or…
- Ask if the colours they have noticed on the cover suggest anything about the story they are reading. Or…
- Ask the students to use the words they have collected to write a 50 to 100-word description of a place they know well.
- Ask the students to do this task with the cover of a book they have not read. After they have collected the words (without looking at the blurbs) ask them to use their collections to write 50 to 100 words predicting the story. Students can then compare predictions with the blurbs on the back.
- Word Class Hunt: Ask students to find an example each of word classes (e.g. noun, verb, adjective, adverb) from the books they are reading and then:
- Use the found words in their own sentences. Or…
- Use the found words first in a simple sentence, for example:The old man sang sadly.Then ask students to develop the sentence with an aspect of grammar you have been studying recently, for example:
- The old man sang sadly and played the piano.
- The old man sang sadly but had a twinkle in his eye!
- The old man who had been in the war sang sadly.
- The old man whose wife had left him sang sadly.
- Prepositional phrases:
- The old man in the piano bar sang sadly.
- The old man sang sadly through the night.
- Participial phrases:
- Thinking about his time in the war, the old man sang sadly.
- Weeping drunkenly, the old man sang sadly.
Discuss with students the effect of the various kinds of sentence development on the meaning of the sentence and its impact on the reader. Compare the effect of a series of simple sentences with more elaborate ones.
- Making a Statement: Ask students to turn a statement in the book they are reading into a question; or turn a positive statement into a negative; or change the tense or gender; etc.
- Talking Text: Ask students to turn a dialogue in the stories they are reading into reported speech or vice versa. Ask them how these changes affect the way the story is told.
- Five Words: Ask students to select any five words they like from a page in the book that they are currently reading and use them to write a 50-75 word opening to a new story of their own as in the example below.
Enclosed Signs Flags Meet FinishedThe flags were all hung out in the courtyard where I hoped to meet George and Freya at the end of the day. As I arrived, they had just finished their turns in the enclosed pits where the fights happen. I was worried but the signs were good. They were both smiling and waving at me. George only had a black eye and Freya a long, deep cut on her shoulder. (71 words)
- Question Time: Extend this last activity by picking a good example and then asking students to use the 5 Ws and the H to ask questions about the story. For example:
- Where is the courtyard?
- Why are the George and Freya fighting in pits?
- Who is the person telling the story?
- When is this story happening: in the present, the future or the past?
- What will happen next?
- How can George and Freya be happy when they are quite badly hurt?
- Sentence Starter: Ask students to pick a sentence at random from any page in the books they are currently reading and create as many new sentences as they can using at least the chosen words but adding more as desired.
- Discuss how the sentences have developed.
- Extend the task by seeing if they can change the sentence they have chosen to make it humorous, sad, frightening or unexpected.
- Ask students to compare their sentences and see how they can be improved.
These are just a few examples of short activities that can be created on the spot using the readers in the class libraries as prompts. These kinds of tasks are useful because they:
- Break up the monotony of lessons and create a sense of adventure and unpredictability in your classroom. The unexpected really motivates learning!
- Provide a range of differentiated tasks which all students can access and enjoy.
- Stimulate interest in the class libraries by getting students to share their reading experiences.
- Offer a range of brief do-able activities which persuade students that writing in English is not only something which can be practised and improved but which also can be fun!
- Give teachers an opportunity to observe how students are interacting with the libraries while, at the same time, getting students to extend, practice and reinforce textbook tasks with ‘real’ language.
Don’t forget that graded readers span a wide range of ability levels and there is strong emphasis on student choice. This ensures that all students, even the least able, can easily find accessible and enjoyable books for themselves to enjoy both at home and at school.
CDs with the spoken text now accompany the majority of the readers. For students with learning difficulties trying to read in a non-phonetic language like English, this audio input provides vital support to make the decoding process more intelligible. Moreover, research shows that students who regularly listen to recordings as they read become faster and more fluent, whatever their ability level. Pronunciation also improves naturally because of the aural stimulus to word recognition.