It’s hard to believe, but the Let’s Go series is nearly 20 years old. We recently had a chance to talk with the series authors, Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto, Ritsuko Nakata and Karen Frazier, about the changes they’ve seen in publishing, and in teaching English to children, over the past two decades.
As a special thank you, Barb thought it would be nice to share a short video with you, as a little flavour of the last 20 years of working on Let’s Go. Thanks also to Barb for conducting the following interview.
Barb: Let’s Go was one of the first course books for teaching English as a foreign language to children. Quite a few features that are commonplace in young learner courses now started with Let’s Go. What were some of the “firsts”? Please complete this sentence: Let’s Go was the first English course to _____.
Ritsuko: It was the first English course to expose children to the Roman alphabet at such a young age. Let’s Go was also the first English course to include so many verbs. If you know plenty of verbs, you can talk a lot! Also, it’s written so that children can actually use the dialogues they are learning.
Karen: It was the first English course to include full answers and question forms to get kids talking. With Let’s Go, kids don’t just learn one word answers to teachers’ questions, they learn the words to ask the questions, too. It’s so common now that it’s hard to believe that it was a pioneering approach back in the 1990s.
Ritsuko: I’m pretty sure it was the first book to include chants, and to include movement to help children remember sentences as well as the verbs.
Barb: What’s something teachers may not know about Let’s Go?
Having chosen a reader to use with your young learners and helped them engage with the characters and story through pre-reading activities, David Dodgson now shares some tips on how to support their reading by going beyond comprehension questions and language work.
Kids love reading stories and, in the foreign language classroom, they can be motivating and captivating. However, reading in their second language can also present children with a considerable struggle as they grapple with plot and character development, extended passages of text and new language. There is also the danger that reading followed by standard comprehension questions turns what should be a fun activity into ‘just another lesson’ in our young learners’ eyes. In this post, we will look at some ways to engage the students by supporting them before, during and after the reading process.
Visual stimuli as advance organisers
In my last post, I looked at activities to raise the students’ interest before reading the book so here I’ll share some ideas to use before individual chapters. I’ve always found that one of the best ways to engage children is through video – the combination of moving images and sound provides a context-rich way to display and explain difficult concepts. I’ve been lucky this year in that both of the readers we have used in class had films to go with them: for The Wizard of Oz there is the classic 1939 film starring Judy Garland; and The Wrong Trousers is of course based on the Nick Park animated film of the same name.
I think it’s a waste when the video version of the story is just shown after the book has been finished as there is so much that can be done to support the reading process throughout the story such as showing a relevant clip to set the scene before a chapter. This can be a great help when it comes to pre-teaching specific vocabulary needed to understand the unfolding events. Rather than go through a difficult explanation to teach an unknown word that appears once in the chapter, you can quickly show the class the word in action instead.
Having given us some advice on choosing a reader, David Dodgson, a teacher to young learners in Ankara, Turkey, now introduces us to some pre-reading activities to encourage young learners to engage with the characters and the story.
When using a graded reader as a class text, one of the most important lessons is the first one. The students need to be introduced to the characters, the plot and the theme of the story, all the while capturing their interest. This activation of their background knowledge, or schemata, is essential to ensure the students don’t read the book ‘cold’. I therefore generally spend the first session asking the students to speculate, predict content and profile the main characters, all of which helps raise their awareness both of what kind of book they are going to read and the content within.
This year, my classes have used two different readers: one based on a classic tale and one adapted from a modern animated film. My approach to introducing each was different and I will discuss how I went about it below.
Working with an ‘adapted classic’
The first reader used this year was an adaptation of Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I knew most of my students would be familiar with the story, either through a translation of the book or through the classic film version starring Judy Garland, so I started by asking them what they already knew about the story. In groups, they brainstormed the characters, the places and the events they already knew with each group comparing their findings.
I remember one of my colleagues saying “but you’re giving the plot away!” but I didn’t view it like that – after all, most of the children were familiar with the story anyway! Instead, I found this to be a great way to get them pooling and sharing their knowledge. A lot of the vocabulary they would need to understand like tornado, scarecrow,brain, heart and emerald came up naturally within the context of the lesson as well as some important threads of the plot. Moreover, as we were working with a shortened, adapted version of the story, there were bound to be discrepancies between what they knew and what was in the book. Gathering their ideas and knowledge in this way helped form the basis for a later activity looking for those differences, which proved to be a fantastic way to get them to engage more actively with the text.
Ahead of his talk at IATEFL 2011 in Brighton entitled ‘The Thrill of Discovery: Reading to Learn’, Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, shares how he came to learn that students will be motivated to read in a foreign language if allowed to discover for themselves the thrill of reading.
My first experience with encouraging students to read was with a class of 10-year-olds in Portugal. 28 students walked around 4 tables full of different simplified readers. Their objective was simply to choose one to read, a much more difficult task than I was aware of at the time. One student, Eduardo, summarised the feelings of the class succinctly and directly: “Why should I read in English when I don’t even read in Portuguese?”
A good question. I realised most of them were doing this because I had asked them to, because they trusted me. I looked at Eduardo and told him he didn’t have to read if he didn’t want to. Surprised, and not really believing me, he sat down and waited for the bell to ring, putting me to the test. I walked around the room answering students’ questions, asking what they liked to watch on TV. I figured this would give me an idea of what would interest them.
A few minutes, Eduardo at my side. “Teacher,” he said, “this book is about football. Can I take this one?” When I said yes, he was obviously surprised that a book about football was acceptable. He walked away with the book. I knew that he was now worried about being able to understand it in English. Eduardo was not known for being a good student in general, and even less so in English. I left him alone, keeping an eye on him from a distance. Minutes later he was at my side again. “Teacher, did you know that Pele was only 17 in his first World Cup?” I told him I didn’t. Eduardo proceeded to tell me a lot of other information about football. By the end of the class he decided he would try reading the book.
Eduardo went on to read many other books that year and nearly 20 years later I still remember what I learned about motivating students to read – simply let them read. Let them discover the thrill of learning and the sense of achievement in reading in a foreign language.
Carl Rogers said “we cannot teach another person directly; we can only facilitate his learning.” Reading allows teachers to facilitate their students’ learning. It reinforces classroom learning, as the vocabulary and grammar of our syllabuses, are all there. More importantly, all those verb tenses, adjectives, nouns, and adverbs are there with the purpose of communicating information. The language appears in a context, it is a means to an end and not an end in itself. After all, we don’t normally go to a bookshop and choose a book to read because it has great examples of the ‘present perfect’.
Reading is also a great motivator to learn English. It exposes students to different worlds and different experiences, and it allows them to share these experiences with each other. More importantly, in my view, reading gives students a sense of achievement. It shows them the result of the years they have been studying English. In designing activities to accompany students’ classroom reading, I always make sure that my activities do not interfere with the magic that is reading. The aim of my activities is not to motivate students to read – the books will do that – it is to help them share their reading experience.
Eduardo taught me that, and I still remember the smile of satisfaction when he finished a book and the sense of expectation as he browsed the bookshelf for another.
In his first guest post, David Dodgson, a teacher to young learners in Ankara, Turkey, gives his advice on how choose a Graded Reader that is not only suitable for young language learners, but will also motivate them to read more.
Stories are undoubtedly an important part of children’s literacy development. They offer a rich source of vocabulary and familiarity with narrative structure. In the classroom, they can also add colour to a lesson and provide motivation for kids to read more. However, reading in a second language is a complex process, especially when dealing with young learners, and the stories and books we use need to be carefully considered.
Before reading on, just take a moment to consider what criteria you or your school use for choosing readers for primary aged learners (if you haven’t selected any storybooks for use in class before, think about what those criteria might be). What is your main consideration?
Ready? Good. Now, I may be wrong (let me know in the comments section if I am) but in my experience, most teachers’ first thought will be “Is it at the right level for my students?” and by the ‘level’, they usually mean the language level. An analysis of the grammatical structures in the book, the vocabulary and number of words will then follow. Increasingly, the exam level the book is said to be suitable for is also a factor as schools look to support children in preparation for tests such as Starters, Movers and Flyers.
But look at the above paragraph again and something seems to be missing, something fundamental to any storybook. That’s right – the story! While the above considerations are important, I can’t help but feel the content is often overlooked or a secondary factor. The plot, the characters and the theme should all be relevant to and engaging for the age group. If they enjoy the story and like the characters, they are much more likely to be motivated to read.