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The Novella | Why it’s a great extensive reading resource for English Language Students | OUP

The benefits of extensive reading for learners of English have been well documented, and there are some informative articles easily discoverable on this blog.

The Graded Reader can play a hugely important part in developing reading skills, and OUP has a fantastic selection of them for all levels – as a teacher I used them regularly in and out of class. Occasionally, however, I would have a medium to high-level student ask what they could read in unabridged format, and when they did I often pointed them towards a novella.

This post will consider the novella: one of the more neglected fiction categories and how you can find novellas suitable for your students using lexical frameworks.

What is a novella?

At the most basic level, a novella sits between a short story and a novel, with a word count between 17,000 and 40,000 words. Typically, it may include subplots, twists and a range of characters. A novella will frequently not have chapters as you’d find in a full-blown novel and can often be read in one sitting. There are a lot of exceptions in the world of the novella so some works mentioned may be considered ‘short novels.’

The novella can be difficult to sell (Stephen King, in his collection ‘Different Seasons’, describes the novella as being thought of as ‘an ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic’), but they can also be enticing to write: Ian McEwan wrote, the novella is “… the perfect form of prose fiction. It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated ill-shaven giant.

However viewed, the novella/short novel can be ideal for the Intermediate+ student.

What’s a Lexical Framework?

Very simply, a Lexical Framework (developed by Stenner and Smith III in 1989) is a method used to grade (never ‘score’) readers through quantitative methods around, amongst other things, individual words and sentence lengths to assess difficulty and readability.

Many sites online provide a full breakdown of lexical ranges. Many will let you put in a published novel or novella and give a Lexile measure. Some will let you enter your own Lexile measure and provide you with a percentage comprehension estimate of a text, and identify challenging vocabulary in it.

A simple Google search around ‘Lexile level’ will help you choose the most suitable site for your needs.

Five Novellas/ Short Novels to Consider…

I have selected five pieces of fiction to consider – all with a Lexile measure of less than 1,000 (roughly equivalent of a US Grade 5/11 year old native speaker UK). There are, of course, other issues beyond ‘difficulty’ and ‘readability’ levels in deciding upon suitability – subject matter being key. These five novellas/short novels are, in cinema terminology, no more explicit than a PG-13. Depending on your location, this will depend on who the publisher is.

  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

At around twenty-nine thousand words (approx. 187 pages) Of Mice and Men was published in 1937. It tells the story of George and Lennie; two field workers in depression set California trying to scrape out a living until they can ‘live off the fat of the land’. The beautiful simplicity of Steinbeck’s writing makes this an easy-to-read tale with complex ideas.

  •  The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

The last major work published in his lifetime and probably Hemingway’s most well-known work. The story of Santiago, an ageing fisherman, and his struggle with a giant marlin off the Cuba coast is approximately 27 thousand words – which makes it 179 thousand words less than Moby Dick…

  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Note: this is available as both a short story and short novel.

Flowers tells the story of a man, Charlie, with learning difficulties whose intelligence grows after a science experiment (some terminology acceptable of the time around mental disability are somewhat problematic today).

Written in journal format, Flowers is told from Charlie’s POV: initially almost unintelligible in its’ spelling and style but becoming increasingly lucid and intellectual as the story progresses.

  • The Body by Stephen King

Taken from his collection ‘Different Seasons’ (also including the novella ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ was based on), The Body (filmed as ‘Stand by Me’) is the story of four boys who go on a hike to find the dead body of a boy with the aim to become famous. The novella is a poignant examination of youth and ideal for those who think King only writes horror.

  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding

William Golding’s 1954 Nobel Prize-winning novel(la) is the longest in this list at around fifty-nine thousand words. Named by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels, the book follows a group of schoolboys stranded on an uninhabited Pacific island and the disintegration of their newly built ‘society’.

You can find the exact Lexile ratings for each of these titles, and many more as well, via simple searches around ‘Lexile level’.

For a challenging reading piece – native speaker or not, you could always try A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess – its use of a slang Burgess invented for the book makes for an interesting read levelling for the native speaker or learner.

Happy Reading!


Simon Bewick has taught in the UK and Japan and worked in ELT for more than 25 years. You can find more of his writing: including fiction, resources for writers, and reviews and articles for Readers at www.bewbob.com

 


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Making reading fun: Using graded readers with young learners

There is a famous saying by Dr. Seuss that says: “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

Anyone who has read a good book knows how  reading can transport us to far and distant places. Not only does reading help us relax, but it also develops our mind, and imagination. Reading has become an essential life skill that helps us interact with the world around us. Equipping our children with effective literacy skills has become a natural and fundamental part of our lives.

However, reading isn’t a skill that we are naturally born with. Whilst it is true that there are some children who are capable of learning to read on their own, the majority of us need to be taught how to read. In most cases children start developing their literacy skills at nursery school, where they start to learn how to decipher the letters of the alphabet. It is only usually at primary school that they begin learning how to read by learning how to apply decoding and blending strategies. Although mastering this skill requires a lot of focused practice both in and out of the classroom, the result is and should be magical.

So how can we, as teachers and parents, promote the love of reading in our children? How can we make it easier for our children to choose a book that appeals to their natural curiosity, as well as their interests? Only with the answers to these questions can we enable them to have a meaningful and personalised reading experience.

Children need to make sense of, and personalise their reading experience.

To do this, get them to develop their creativity skills. Ask them to create a final “product” that reflects upon their reading experience. Rather than relying solely on reading worksheets with comprehension questions (which we can use to test the children’s reading memory), there’s a wider variety of activities out there that we as teachers could use to get an insight into our student’s understanding of the story.

I’ll be exploring this topic, and answering all of the questions above in my upcoming webinar. Please click here to register!

We will also discuss how these activities allow children to take a step further in their language learning process. As children make and present personalised reading activities, they are also learning to apply the language to real world scenarios. By the end of this webinar, you’ll be equipped with the tools that’ll allow your children to experience and share the magic of reading. Afterwards, you’ll have an opportunity to ask questions, and to share your own valuable experiences with fellow teachers.


Vanessa Esteves has been teaching English as a foreign language in Portugal for the past 23 years in both private and state schools around the country. She is currently teaching at Escola Superior de Educação in Porto. She has an M.A. in Anglo-American Studies and has been involved in teacher training in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Serbia, Romania, Turkey, Croatia, Slovenia, Malta, Morocco, Egypt and Portugal. Vanessa is a regular presenter at conferences.


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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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Four Secrets for Reading in the ELT classroom 

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Andrea Sarto is the author of Football Forever, a NEW Dominoes graded reader available now. He was born in the UK but has lived and worked in several different countries as an English-language teacher, trainer and editor. By his own confession, he probably reads too much.

I have this habit when I start a book.

Maybe ‘habit’ is the wrong word. It’s more of a strategy. First, I have a really good look at it – judge it by its cover. Next I’ll read the first line, word by word. Then I’ll read the first chapter, twice. Sometimes I’ll read it more than twice.

Why? Basically, it’s because I enjoy it. I want to savour it. It’s such a treat to tune yourself into a new story – the style, the sense of place and character that the author is creating. That’s why I take it slowly. It’s all about anticipation. You never quite know what’s going to happen.

In this respect a graded reader is no different, especially when it’s an original story. Encouraging students to read in English can provide massive benefits to their language learning. There are so many academic studies which prove just that … but how exactly do we do it? What’s the secret?

Secret # 1

First, and most importantly, it’s about the topic. I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in everything under the sun. Some things I sort of like, but other things I’m really passionate about. If you can find out what your students are passionate about – be it football or music or vampires or time travel – then that’s half the secret. Because there’s bound to be a book or text in English about it.  And that book or text is going to tell you something else about your passion – something you didn’t know before. In that sense, English is just a conduit for students to find out more stuff about what they like (and the world it’s part of).

Secret # 2

The second secret is getting the level right. Who wants to read with a book/device in one hand and a dictionary in the other? OK, fine if we encounter the odd word we don’t understand – it still happens to me and I’ve been learning English for over forty years! But students want to lose themselves in the experience, and they can’t do it if they keep tripping over words they don’t know. So the book needs to be of a slightly lower level than the students’ own language level. It’s not rocket science. (There are books about rocket science, too, though.)

Secret # 3

Thirdly, it’s about taking it slowly, or rather in stages. We need to help students to find a way in … or a way out if it comes to that. Only the bravest can plunge in without any preliminaries; the rest of us like to take our time. And here’s where my ‘habit’ comes in. I’m about to spell out one tried-and-tested approach for using graded readers inspired by it …

So you’ve assembled your library of graded readers. (Incidentally, most publishers do a deal where you can get a collection of topics and levels for a discount instead of buying them one by one.) Here’s what you do next:

  1. Spread them out face-up on a large table (or do the equivalent digitally with thumbnails.) Ask students to choose a reader based on the title and picture on the front cover alone.
  2. Tell students to read the back cover blurb for homework. They can use a bilingual dictionary if necessary – who cares as long as they’re reading! Ask them to make a note of where the story takes place (setting); who the main person is (character); and what happens (plot).
  3. Get students to read the first line of Chapter 1 three times and Chapter 1 itself twice.
  4. At this point, if they didn’t enjoy it, they can STOP. But they must promise to do two things if they do decide to give up. The first is to tell you why (in English). The second is to take a different graded reader from the library. They can also stop this one after stage 3, to be replaced by another book, but this third one they must read through from start to finish, i.e. stick at it!
  5. Tell students to write a short summary (in the past or present tense) of what happens in Chapter 1. You can do all sorts of things with these summaries: error correction; peer dictation; gapfill, etc.
  6. Repeat the process with the next few chapters. If students start to copy each others’ summaries, do some comparison work in class and talk about the importance of original work vs plagiarism!
  7. Before students read the final chapter, get them to predict what’s going to happen (in the future) and how the story will end in terms of setting, character, and plot. They then read to confirm their prediction – even changing what they wrote to reflect what they read.
  8. After students finish the book, get them to give it a ‘star rating’ from 1–5. Decide as a class what the star ratings stand for, e.g. 1 = Don’t waste your time! 2 = Probably not for you; 3 = Give it a go; 4 = Definitely recommended; 5 = Out of this world! (If they want to write a review or give a mini-presentation about it, don’t stand in their way!)
  9. At the end of the term or year, do some project work. Tell students to calculate the most/least popular titles (and do a basic graph to show it), to interview each other about their favourites, to write follow-up chapters as a story chain, look for common ground between stories in order to draw up a list of If you liked this, then try … etc.
  10. Go back to stage 1 and start over. After all, the funny thing about reading a good book is that it makes you want to read another. And then another. That’s Secret # 4, by the way!