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Creating a reading environment | Using readers in the classroom with adults

We all know why our students should read. Ask any teacher and they will probably tell you that reading builds vocabulary, improves grammar, improves writing skills, and develops critical thinking skills. Readers will tell you that they read because it gives them knowledge, helps them sleep, enhances the imagination, provides entertainment, or takes them ‘away from it all’ when they are feeling stressed.

But reading in a foreign language can feel like work. Tethered to the dictionary, learners often don’t get the same satisfaction from reading in a foreign language that they do in their first language. I recently experienced this myself. Wanting to ‘brush up on my French’, I bought a novel that looked promising. However, after 2 pages I gave up. Why? There were too many unknown words and expressions. It was a chore, not a pleasure.

So, how can we encourage our adult students to read?

1. Ensure they choose the right reading level. Graded readers are ideal for students learning English because they can choose the right level for comfortable reading. A quick way to assess reading level is to read a page from a book. There should be no more than 2-3 unknown words on the page, and students should be able to read steadily and with understanding. Students can also find out their level with this interactive level test. Once they have their level, they can choose a book that interests them out of the many available.

2. Create space for reading and discussion in class. Adult students have busy lives outside of class, so if you are serious about getting them reading, carve out reading time into every lesson. First, put students into groups to discuss what they are reading. Each student gives a short summary of what the book is about and how they like it so far. Next, give students 5-10 minutes of quiet, uninterrupted reading time. Without interfering or adding any pressure, quietly observe the reading behaviour of the students – if they are glued to the dictionary, suggest a lower level reader for this part of your lessons. You may find that students enjoy the quiet reading bit of the lesson the most!

3. Make reading a social experience. Building social relationships is a motivational driver, and many people enjoy talking about what they’ve read, so integrate this into the classroom with reading circles. Put students into groups and ask them to choose one graded reader that they will all read. Assign different roles to each student: discussion leader, summarizer, connector, word master, passage person, and culture collector. You can find out more about these roles in my webinar, or go to the teaching resources site at the Oxford Bookworms Club.

4. Find ways to link books to the outside world. In Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes takes on a very strange case with links to the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. As a project, students can learn more about these and other islands – connecting fiction with fact. For non-fiction lovers, there are plenty of graded non-fiction books that are informational and educational. One example is the Factfile about Stephen Hawking. You may know that between 1979 and 2009, Hawkins was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, can you name three other well-known scientists who held this role (answers in the webinar!)?

5. Create low-stakes competition. A little competition can add a game-like element to lessons, bring students satisfaction from seeing their progress charted, and create a sense that students are part of a reading community. Set each student a 6-book challenge. To complete the challenge, they read a book and write a review – complete with a star-rating system. A review can be structured for any level:

Create a class chart or leader board to record how many books each student has read. Give students certificates once they have reached 6 books. Of course, students can read each other’s reviews to help them decide which book to read next!

If you are using e-books from the Oxford Learner’s Bookshelf, ask students to share their reading diary which not only tracks which book they have read, but also how many words they have read and time spent reading – this can give them quite a buzz when they see how a little reading over time can add up – imagine reaching 5,000 words read!

There are many more ways to foster reading. Join me in my webinar where I’ll present these and other ideas for using readers in the classroom with adults. Come a few minutes early and share what you are reading with others in the chat box!

Click here to register for the upcoming webinar, see you there!


Stacey Hughes is a part-time lecturer at Oxford Brookes University and also works freelance as a teacher developer, materials writer and educational consultant in ELT. She has taught English in the US, Poland, Italy and the UK in many different contexts. She also taught French and Spanish. As a teacher developer, she enjoys engaging with teachers from all over the world. She has recently run an introduction to teacher training course for the Oxford Department of Education Summer School.


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Graded Readers and 21st Century Skills

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!

Giving support

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.)

Webinar

Join me in my webinar ‘Graded Readers and 21st century skills’ to learn more – with examples from Bookworms and Dominoes – about practical ways of refreshing and varying your reading classes. Blending modern skill sets with classic graded reader techniques makes for rich teaching territory that we will explore together.


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.


Further Reading:

Bringing Extensive Reading into the Classroom (Revised Edition) – Day, R., Bassett, J. (et al) – Oxford University Press (2016)


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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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Reading for pleasure – Coming Soon to a Cinema Near You!

Movie ticket and popcornContinuing the Reading for Pleasure series, Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, looks at how students can make movie posters to keep them engaged with reading.

Reading appeals to a student’s imagination. From the words spring images, and each image is personal. The forest from “The Wizard of Oz” is unique to each reader, as is the castle in “Dracula”.

As your students read from month to month, they are developing their ability to imagine, to add images to the stories. Many of the stories they are reading may have been made into films, so it will not be difficult for them to make film posters. How to do this is explained on the Oxford Big Read website. (You’ll need to login (or register for free) to your Oxford Teacher’s Club account to access the free video and downloads. You’ll find the “Movie posters” activity under the ‘Activities’ tab)

By now, your students are becoming confident readers. Most are finishing their second story, many will have read more than four. Activities also need to keep up with this confidence.

Students will be familiar with making posters, and by now they know that their work is to be shared with their friends and family. Making movie posters will appeal to their imagination, allowing them to make the story more personal. It will also give them an opportunity to bring their world into their reading experience.

With both the titles and the stars of the “movie”, encourage your students to be both unique and imaginative as they create their posters. They can base their title on their favourite part of the story, or an event they think will appeal to their friends. The same with the “strapline” sentence they choose. The more mysterious, the more curiosity it will arouse.

Choosing the stars of their movie also allows students to personalise the story. Students can choose from famous Hollywood stars or movie stars from their own country. More interesting may be to choose people from their school to play the leading roles. In “The Wizard of Oz”, who would play Dorothy, or the Wizard? Who would play the Scarecrow with no brains, or the Tin Man with no heart, or even the Cowardly Lion? The choices would certainly get a reaction from their friends, leading to many discussions. These discussions encourage a greater knowledge of the story.

Movie posters do not have to be based on the stars. They can also be based on an event in the story. This can encourage students to bring the real world around them into their reading. Ask them to imagine that event happening in their area. Where would it be? – a street corner, a café, a house? They are free to use their imagination.

Choosing the stars and the events allows students to take their own photos for their poster. This gives them an opportunity to use digital technology in the activities. Many students may think of reading as boring, but the activities can give them an opportunity to use digital skills they enjoy using. This will give their reading a new dimension, allowing them to be more creative and to think beyond the story. They will become even more personally involved.

Finally, making movie posters allows students to go beyond the activity itself. Thinking of their stories as movies leads naturally to filming a scene or making a trailer for the movie. This is a more involved project and may not be for all students, but it will encourage students to use skills they already have (or to develop skills) to become even more personally involved with their reading experience.

By making movie posters, the class takes a big step in their reading experience. They build on their personal involvement from previous activities, and expand that involvement into using their imagination, creativity, and personal skills to share their reading with friends. Reading takes on a new dimension as the activities allow for another level of involvement and sharing. The class library slowly becomes a social environment.


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Reading for Pleasure – Students make their own word games

Teenage girl reading on couchContinuing the Reading for Pleasure series, Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, looks at ways of keeping students reading for pleasure.

You have set up the class library and started your students reading. First of all, congratulations. Next, we need to keep them reading.

Having played Bingo and made some posters, I now ask my students to make some word games based on the stories they are reading. Students usually expect activities around words in a language class, so word games are no surprise. However, games like word search puzzles or crosswords are usually provided by the teacher. In this case, I am going to ask my students to make the games themselves, and more importantly, I am going to show them that the games they make are for their friends to solve.

You can follow the instructions for the word game here. I would like to focus on why we are doing word games and how this is helping our students learn better.

My students have played Bingo and made some posters for their stories. Although I have displayed their posters around the school, with word games I want to encourage them to share their reading experience with each other on a more personal, one-to-one level. By making a word game that a friend will solve I hope to achieve this level of involvement.

I start with a very simple game that is quick to make. I want my students to make the game and have another student solve it within a class period. This is to reinforce the idea that the games are not for the teacher. I also want them to focus on their stories, not on how to make the word game. As they decide on the sentences to use, they are going over their story, using their books as examples of the English they want to use.

Of course, some of my students, usually the stronger ones, will write sentences without actually using their books. Expecting me to look at their work, they rely on me, as the teacher, to correct any mistakes. So, I purposely stand back and not correct any work. After all, they have the correct sentences in their stories, all they have to do is copy. Being responsible for their own work is the first thing many students notice. If they do make mistakes, their friends will point these out when they solve the game.

And this is the second important point they notice, that their word games go directly to another student. They get immediate feedback, not only on any mistakes, but also on whether the game is interesting or not. If it’s too easy, then it is boring. If it’s too difficult, then a student won’t want to do it. This feedback helps students adapt to the activity. They begin using their books in order to avoid mistakes. With their friends in mind, they adapt their sentences accordingly.

As they get used to making the word games, students focus on making them fun and challenging. They choose sentences that are interesting to their friends, rather than focussing on correct language for the teacher. They try to make the sentences difficult so as not to make the game too easy. In doing this their reading comprehension improves as they browse through their stories a second and third time.

An equally important point is that as students solve the word game, the sentences create a certain curiosity about the story.  This curiosity leads to further conversation about their stories, usually outside of class. These conversations further strengthen the social aspect of the class library and the positive reading environment, which is an integral part of the project.

As my students understand the activity, they become better at making the word games. They enjoy making various games for friends throughout the month. At this point, it is possible to introduce games that take longer to make, like word search puzzles. The key is that the game is easy to make and the focus of the students is on the content.

With word games, the participation of my students in the class library becomes more personal. If there are still any hesitant readers, they are usually motivated to participate by a friend as they share their games.