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Find your learner’s reading level | Andrew Dilger

Find your reading level

I have a question for you. Do you know your learners’ reading level in English – I mean, really know it? If your learners are halfway through an A2 coursebook, does that mean their reading level is A2-and-a-half?! The cautious ones among us would say ‘Not necessarily’; the bold ones would say ‘No’. But in an age when efficacy and assessment is all the rage in ELT, plenty of pressure is put on the teaching community (by itself, parents, and other stakeholders) to measure learners’ language skills accurately – down to the nth degree, in fact.

 The dark art of testing

Measuring reading level has always been something of a dark art, or at least a shadowy discipline. Part of the problem is that, as a receptive skill, it seems to take place inside learners’ heads. We can test comprehension, of course. And how we love to test it – with questions, gapfills, clozes, and multiple-choices, all of which require learners to skim and scan until they go cross-eyed! We often enjoy testing comprehension so much that we squeeze the life out of a text. It’s a wonder we don’t put learners off reading in English altogether.

There are other factors at play, of course – short attention spans in a fast-paced, device-driven world compromising the appeal of ‘deep reading’ is one of them, but that’s an easy target. The main issue is that most learners aren’t reading the right texts for them, and not in the right way.

Reading improves all-round ability

If learners want to improve their reading level – and benefit their all-round ability in English – then it’s vital we help them discover how to do this. And don’t just take my word for it. Research by luminaries like Richard Day and Paul Nation has suggested this for years. There are massive gains to be made by learners reading a lot in English – reading extensively for interest and pleasure. For more on this, see this article from El País (use Google Translate if your Spanish is rusty or non-existent).

Reading fluency over reading comprehension

So let’s go back to the question: Do you know your learners’ reading level? The important thing to appreciate is that I’m talking about reading fluency here. Can they read a text connectedly and understand the majority of words?

Most publishers have an online test which claims to tell learners their reading level. Take the Macmillan Readers Level Test, for example. In actual fact, it’s a series of grammar and vocabulary sentences with multiple-choice options, i.e. it doesn’t test reading fluency at all. It features prompt pictures for all the items but most are decorative rather than functional. In addition, some of the sentences are unnatural or misleading, e.g. I’ve got an ache in my throat; Did you hear the thunder last night? with the prompt picture showing lightning. The maximum level the test can give is Upper Intermediate and, if you retake it, the questions and options are all in exactly the same order… so you can improve instantly by virtue of having done the test already.

A tool instead of a test

Here at OUP we’ve come up with something different and something new. And we’d like you and your learners to decide how useful it is. For a start, we’re not calling it a test – it’s a tool. A semantic difference perhaps, but an important one. This isn’t a grammar check based on a random text, but something which genuinely attempts to gauge how fluent learners are at reading a page of a published story.

How does it do this? With a disarmingly simple innovation. Learners themselves decide whether they know the meanings of the words or not. They also decide whether a page of a story at a certain level is ‘Too easy’, ‘Too difficult’, or ‘OK’. This is known as the Goldilocks Principle and is common in cognitive science and developmental psychology.

‘But students will cheat!’ I hear you cry. If they do, they’re only cheating themselves because they’ll be shown a range of stories at the wrong level. It’s like buying clothes – why would you choose trousers which are two sizes too big if they fall down round your ankles? Instead, what learners need is something that ‘fits’ – something that’s right for them at that stage in their development. This means being able to read confidently at a comfortable level.

What’s the point?

After all, the point of learners finding their reading level isn’t so they can brandish it on a certificate or boast about it on social media. The point is to open up a world of texts, stories, and information which they will find digestible and rewarding – even life-changing.

If YOUR learners want to find their reading level in English, they can try our new tool here. Why don’t YOU try it, too? It’s free and takes less than 10 minutes. Because it’s a beta version, we’re also interested in getting feedback about ways to improve it, so please ask your learners to complete the survey too. Happy reading!                      

Find your reading level button

 


Andrew Dilger is a Managing Editor at Oxford University Press. He has been involved in English language teaching as a teacher, trainer, and editor for over a quarter of a century. He is passionate about the power of reading and claims to have read something every day of his life since he first went to school.


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The Perfect Way to Celebrate Friendship in the ELT Classroom

A sign of friendship and teamwork - three fists bumping together

International friendship day is a holiday established by the United Nations in 2011 to celebrate friendship worldwide. The UN celebration is on 30th July. (This choice of date originated in Paraguay in 1958.) Some countries celebrate friendship on different days: In Spain, Argentina and Brazil it’s 20th July. In India and the United Arab Emirates, it’s the first Sunday in August. Regardless of the date, friendship is important for people everywhere.

How can you celebrate with your students?

One way you can explore this theme of friendship with your students is by using thematic quote cards to prompt class discussion. First, put learners into small groups. Then give each group a cut-up set of Friendship Quote Cards (download below) to look through. Allow learners to use a dictionary to check the meaning of unknown words. Go around monitoring to make sure learners stay on task. Once they are ready, write these sentence stems on the board and drill the correct pronunciation:

My favourite quote about friends is….
I really like it because…
My least favourite quote about friends is….
I don’t like it because…

Then ask the learners to choose their favourite and least favourite friendship quote. (There are as many different ‘correct’ answers as the number of students in your class. Everyone is different!) Once learners have done this, encourage them to compare their ideas with the ideas of other learners in their group, using the stem sentences to guide them.

What next?

If your students seem motivated by the topic of friendship, you can open this out into a whole-class discussion. However, if time is short, you may want to keep to small group discussions which you monitor as you walk around the classroom. If you want to express your personal preferences regarding your favourite/least favourite quote, do this at the end of the discussion so learners are not put off sharing their thoughts by you taking part too early in the discussion.

If we want our learners to read a classic story that describes a group of friends, we couldn’t do better than recommend ‘The Three Musketeers’ by the French writer Alexandre Dumas. The three Musketeer friends – Porthos, Athos and Aramis – have a slogan: ‘All for one and one for all!’ This describes their readiness to collectively help one of their number in need (‘all for one’) as well as each man being ready to work for the greater good of the group as a whole (‘one for all’)

As well as the Three Musketeers of the title, there is also the character of D’Artagnan. He arrives in Paris from the country and ends up, after many adventures, befriending the three Musketeers and himself becoming a Musketeer by the close of the story.

If you want to explore the differences between the four close friends in this story, give learners the Three Musketeers Grid (download below) and ask them to complete it with details about the different characters as they read.

Possible answers (Based on the Oxford Dominoes retelling):

  • Athos: tall, good-looking (page 1, lines 19-20), likes sleeping (page 11, lines 4-5), disappointed in love (page 22, lines 7-14), likes eating and drinking (page 33, lines 8-10)
  • Aramis: gets gifts from women, very private (page 2, lines 6-12), writes well (page 36, lines 18-25), likes pretty women (page 53, line 11)
  • Porthos: expensively dressed, quick to get angry (page 2, lines 1-3); likes a good sword (page 10, line 7), strong (page11, lines 1-2), likes adventures (page 53, lines 12-13)
  • D’Artagnan: wild, young (page 1, lines 17-18) brave (page 3, lines 2-3), loving (page 4, lines 13-15), loyal, helpful (page 9, 17-19), foolish (page 23, lines 1-4), innocent (page 34, lines 3-4)

To make this grid-filling easier, write on the board the information above in jumbled order. Students can check the meaning of unfamiliar words and match the phrases with the four main story characters, later reading the story to double-check their predictions.

A final (freer) speaking activity could involve learners matching the friendship quotes we mentioned earlier with key moments in the story, with learners explaining why they made these connections. (For example, ‘The W.B. Yeats quote matches the story opening because the three strangers D’Artagnan bumps into in chapter 1 become his friends later.’)

These resources are available via the Oxford Teacher’s Club.

Not a member? Registering is quick and easy to do, and it gives you access to a wealth of teaching resources.


Found these resources useful? How did they work for you? Share your experiences with our teaching community by leaving a comment below, or by tweeting us using the handle @oupeltglobal!


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.


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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 explored this topic in my webinar. Please click here to watch the recording!

We also discussed 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.


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!


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.