Graded readers then and now
Using graded readers to help learners to improve their reading, writing, speaking and listening skills is not a recently discovered English teaching technique. In the 1920s, for instance, Dr Michael West edited a series called New Method Supplementary Graded Readers (Longman) with exactly this aim, and these were not the first simplified story books for foreign learners of English. Nowadays, most ELT publishers produce a wide range of readers designed to appeal to different age groups. Oxford University Press, for example, publishes both Bookworms and Dominoes for teenage readers.
21st century skills
The idea of teaching 21st century skills is relatively new. What do we mean by 21st century skills? Although there are different definitions, most people agree the following four skills areas (the four ‘C’s) are at the heart of 21st century learning:
- Collaboration (with students working effectively in teams, groups, or pairs)
- Critical thinking (with students questioning content, and solving problems, rather than just accepting and learning facts by heart)
- Creativity (with students using their imagination to produce something new)
- Communication (with students transmitting and receiving spoken, written and mixed-media messages effectively)
The following three ‘C’s are also sometimes included under the 21st century skills umbrella:
- Computer literacy (with students undertaking online research, word-processing, the production of digital presentations, video clips, audio recordings, etc.)
- Cultural and global awareness (with students learning about other cultures and the world)
- Civics, citizenship and ethics (with students learning about society and social values)
Incorporating a focus on 21st century skills like these into classes based around graded readers can combine new and familiar lesson elements in fresh ways which are really engaging for students – especially teenagers!
When designing extensive reading lessons for learners of English from other language backgrounds, we should naturally provide support. This support should enable students to complete the reading-related tasks that we set them. It can take many different forms – for instance, with a fictional text:
- activating the language learners may need to understand the story
- raising learner awareness of the time and place of the story, especially if these are unfamiliar
- encouraging cognitive skills like prediction and empathy to help learners enter more fully into the story
Of course, choosing a story text which is simple enough for learners to read at speed without a dictionary can help to make the task of reading more achievable. This is where the carefully graded levels of a series like Bookworms or Dominoes can greatly help the teacher. Clear levelling helps teachers to select suitable reading materials for different classes (in a ‘class reader’ approach – where all students in a class are reading the same story). Clear levelling can also help teachers to suggest appropriate books for individual students to read (in a ‘readers library’ approach, where different students in a class are reading different stories according to level and taste).
Three different stages
The three classic stages (and stage aims) of a reading lesson – using a story text as a class reader – are as follows:
- Before reading (aims: to arouse curiosity and prepare learners to make sense of the story)
- While reading (aims: to help learners understand the story so far and make them curious about what comes next in the story)
- After reading (aims: to encourage learners to respond to the story through thinking, speaking, writing, or creating something inspired by the story)
Each of these stages will naturally focus on different 21st century skills. ‘Before reading’ tasks will often involve thinking skills (hypothesizing, predicting, questioning). ‘While reading’ tasks will often involve communication and collaboration skills (discussing the story so far, or the story yet to come, in pairs, groups, or as a class). ‘After reading’ tasks will often involve creative self-expression and maybe also computer skills (for online research, making and delivering PowerPoint presentations, word processing and designing texts for poster display, etc.)
Bill Bowler is a founder series editor, with his wife, Sue Parminter, of Dominoes Graded Readers (OUP). He has authored many readers himself. He has also visited many countries as a teacher trainer, sharing ideas about Extensive Reading. Bill has contributed to the book Bringing Extensive Reading into the Classroom (OUP). Two of his Dominoes adaptations (The Little Match Girl and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) were Language Learner Literature Award Finalists. Born in London, he now lives in Spain.
Bringing Extensive Reading into the Classroom (Revised Edition) – Day, R., Bassett, J. (et al) – Oxford University Press (2016)