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insight Top 10 Tips for Using Literature (Part 2)

insight-top-10Students often find it difficult to engage with reading and writing instruction and practice, particularly when large, intimidating texts are involved. This is the third in our series of insight blog posts, aimed at helping teachers to overcome this problem. Following on from last week’s post, here are the Top 10 Tips for Using Literature (Part 2), from teacher-trainer Edmund Dudley.

  1. Exploit audio and video

Using literature in class does not always have to involve reading. Exploiting adaptations of literary classics on DVD or listening to extracts from audio books can be more motivating than working with texts only, especially if your students have negative associations with reading as an activity.

Alternatively, consider combining text and video in the same activity. For example, choose a short extract (max 2 min) from the DVD version of a work of literature, making sure it contains no dialogue. Play it to the class and ask them to describe what is happening and what they think is going to happen next. Then provide a gapped text from the book which corresponds to the scene the students have just watched. See if they can fill the gaps with an appropriate word. In each case, there can be more than one acceptable answer for any one gap.

  1. Get in the act

Experiment with different ways of responding to an extract, text or clip. For example, why not encourage students to perform a mini-drama or re-enactment of the scene you have been studying? Drama activities can be extremely motivating for students, especially if a variety of roles are made available which exploit the strengths and skills of different students. For example, not everyone has to be an actor; some students might prefer to work on the script, to design scenery illustrations, or to be the director.

You could even make a movie. These days, we do not need expensive camera equipment and the help of technicians in order to shoot film – many students have smartphones, which they can be encouraged to use in order to film performances. Upload the results to YouTube or a private data sharing site, and enjoy.

  1. Encourage students to write creatively

Does this sound too ambitious an aim? Well, if we ask our students each to write an entire short story in English, then perhaps it might be. On the other hand, a simple activity like ‘Write the first line’ works extremely well in class as an initial creative-writing task. Here is how it works:

Show the students the cover of a book and elicit some information about its plot, perhaps by using quiz questions (see tip 1). Do not let students open the book. Ask everyone in the group to imagine how they think the story begins. Provide them each with a slip of paper and ask them to write ‘their’ opening sentence. Meanwhile, write the actual opening line on another slip of paper.

When the students are ready, collect all the slips of paper, mix them up and read them out one by one. Students vote for which opening sentence they think is the best. The most gratifying feature of this activity is that the ‘real’ first line is rarely the one that gets the most votes. In this way, students gain a lot of confidence, which can be further harnessed in subsequent creative-writing activities.

  1. Get them talking

When we work with texts there is always a temptation to focus too much on comprehension; in extension activities, however, we need to make sure that we fire up students’ imagination as well. Design follow-up activities based on open-ended prompts. Aim to get students working together and give them plenty of scope to express their thoughts and opinions.

Try simple speaking activities which explore the possible opinions and motives of characters in the story you are looking at. Interviews, fishbowl debates and ‘empty chair’ activities can all motivate students to get involved and express their ideas, while also activating the language explored in the text. In the case of The Railway Children, for example (tip 3), the question ‘Was Peter right to steal the coal?’ could be the starting point for a whole-group follow-up speaking activity using one of these techniques.

  1. Make the most of art, illustrations and drawings

The illustrations contained in graded readers can be shown to students before reading as a way of generating interest in what happens. Encourage students to make speculations based on the illustrations and, if several illustrations from the same book are being used, invite students to order them and explain the possible chain of events.

Alternatively, get the students to respond to a text by creating artwork and illustrations of their own. For example, ask students to listen to an extract from the audio version of a story and get them each to sketch what is being described.  Or you could ask students to design a poster for a film-version of the book, based on a striking incident in the text they have been working with.

In conclusion

As we have seen, bringing literature into the EFL classroom does not necessarily mean dull and difficult lessons. Nor does it guarantee that students will be motivated and engaged. We need to choose texts, topics and tasks carefully, bearing in mind our students’ language level, needs and interests. Most of all, we should be careful about overdoing it: often the best way of raising interest in literature is leaving students wanting a little bit more.

We hope that you have enjoyed reading our series of Top 10 Tips.

To access the rest of the series or to find out more about insight, click here: https://elt.oup.com/feature/global/insight/

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insight Top 10 Tips: Using Literature

insight-top-10Students often find it difficult to engage with reading and writing instruction and practice, particularly when large, intimidating texts are involved. This is the second in our series of insight blog posts, aimed at helping teachers to overcome this problem. Here are the Top 10 Tips for Using Literature (Part 1), from teacher-trainer Edmund Dudley.

For many English teachers, love of the language and love of English literature go hand in hand. But is it the same for our students? Sadly, most teenage learners of English do not seem too excited about the topic of literature, associating it with dusty texts and tedious book reviews. In this article, we will look at some tips for using literature in simple and motivating ways in the EFL classroom.

  1. Do judge a book by its cover!

lostworldHaving a large collection of graded readers, short stories or novellas in your classroom is a great way to make literature available to your students, but in itself it does not guarantee that students will be fighting to get their hands on the titles. Many of them may not even take the trouble to look at the books. That is the first thing to tackle. Design simple quizzes that get students to make predictions about a book’s content based on the cover.

Example: The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The book tells the story of a scientist who discovers that some dinosaurs are still alive and living in…

  • a) Africa
  • b) Asia
  • c) South America

(Oxford Dominoes / Literature Insight, Insight Pre-Intermediate p.92)

In these activities, the students do not have to read anything – in fact they do not even have to open the book. You can, of course, get them to look through the book quickly to find the answer. In any case, by asking them to make a prediction we can focus their attention on the books available and, with luck, generate some interest in reading.

  1. Make the most of blurbs

The blurb is the text on the back cover of a book. It provides key background information and a summary of the plot. Activities that get students working with blurbs can be an effective way to continue the process of generating interest in titles and encouraging students to get the books in their hands – even if they do not actually open them up.

Again, remember that a successful classroom activity about literature does not have to involve forcing your students to read books in class. Activities such as reading blurbs and matching them to titles help the students to practise language while also tempting them to look closer at the titles available in your class library.

  1. Work with short extracts

Sometimes, less is more. Resist the temptation to give reluctant students long passages to read – there is actually a lot that you can do with a short extract. One simple activity is to show students a single line from a story they have not read and get them to use their imagination to make sense of the gaps in meaning. For example, you could take this line from The Railway Children:

“Tell him the things are for Peter, the boy who was sorry about the coal, then he will understand.”

The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit

(Oxford Dominoes / Literature Insight, Insight Pre-Intermediate p.90)

Who is Peter? What things does he need? Why? What happened with the coal? And who ‘will understand’? Students have not read the book, so they have no way of knowing the answers to these questions. Instead, encourage them to think creatively. In class, get students working in small groups to come up with imaginative answers to the questions. Once you have listened to all the suggestions, the students are likely to be curious about the actual answers contained in the story.

  1. Reading for pleasure? Make sure it’s not too difficult

Be aware of the language level when selecting a text. It is important to make sure that the texts we use are at an appropriate level and that the activities connected to the text are as engaging as possible. When it comes to reading for pleasure – also known as ‘extensive reading’ – we should make sure that the language level of the texts we use is below the level the students are actually at. That way, they will be able to read faster and also focus on the story without having to stop at regular intervals in order to look up the meaning of new words in a dictionary. By contrast, if the texts we use contain too many new words or structures then the experience of reading them stops being pleasurable and begins to resemble hard work.

  1. Analysing language? Make the challenge enjoyable

The activity of analysing language can be made more engaging if we use extracts from literature to introduce the features of language we would like to focus on. For example, the following short extract from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland contains two examples of antimetabole (the repetition of words in successive clauses, but in transposed order). Ask students to read the text and identify the two examples:

‘Then you must say what you mean,’ the March Hare said.

‘I do,’ Alice said quickly. ‘Well, I mean what I say. And that’s the same thing, you know.’

‘No it isn’t!’ said the Hatter. ‘Listen to this. I see what I eat means one thing, but I eat what I see means something very different.’

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

(Oxford Dominoes / Literature Insight,  Insight Pre-Intermediate p.87)

Ask students to explain the difference in meaning between say what you mean and mean what you say, and between see what you eat and eat what you see. They can provide a spoken explanation, put something down in writing, or even demonstrate the difference by drawing pictures. As a follow-up, collect further examples of antimetabole on the board or on a specially made poster, complete with illustrations.

Note that although in this lesson we are focusing students’ attention on the language and how it works, by the end of the class you might find yourself with some students who are suddenly more interested in finding out more about Alice…


insight Top 10 Tips: Writing

insight-top-ten-writingStudents often find it difficult to engage with reading and writing instruction and practice, particularly when large, intimidating texts are involved. This is the second in our series of insight blog posts, aimed at helping teachers to overcome this problem. Here are the Top 10 Tips for Writing, from teacher-trainer Olha Madylus.

Writing is the most difficult of the four language skills. In order to write well, students need to not only have mastery of grammar, a large bank of vocabulary, know how to structure texts, and be able to plan and edit their own writing – they also need to have ideas, opinions and imagination. They are also expected to write things they would never normally write in their own language, let alone in English. Little wonder that so many students don’t like writing and find it hard to see any progress in this skill.

Here are 10 tips to help you teach writing in the classroom.

  1. Start small

Initially do short writing tasks in class. Writing even one good sentence is a great start. All too often, teachers ask students at low levels to produce long texts, which they have not been prepared for. Students will become confident with a step-by-step approach based on the success of mastering skills one by one.

Whatever the focus of the lesson, encourage students to produce their own sentences which incorporate the target language.

  1. Provide good models and discuss what makes them good

Students need to see what they are aiming for. Ensure that lessons focusing on reading texts include a discussion on what makes it an effective text – why is a particular description good? Maybe because it uses vivid adjectives and builds up a picture that can easily be visualised by the reader. Remember: just reading a lot of texts is not enough – students have to notice how they work in order to then reproduce those skills.

  1. Plan to develop different aspects of writing separately

There are so many different skills which students need to develop in order to become proficient writers in English, they cannot be developed simultaneously. So, plan tasks in class which develop these skills separately. Course books often have lots of writing tasks to develop grammatical accuracy, but what about other writing sub-skills? You could create a gapped text of a story with no adjectives and ask students to add powerful adjectives to see how they add colour and tone to the text i.e. using different adjectives could make it funny, serious or even frightening.

Note which writing sub-skills your students have problems with and create tasks to address these problems.

  1. Brainstorm and input ideas

Before setting writing tasks, brainstorm in class. You can brainstorm ideas, vocabulary, appropriate grammar etc. Encourage students to record mind maps and to use this technique when they have to write independently or in an exam.

Often, a problem students have when writing is that they don’t have the background, experience or knowledge to write on that particular topic, even in their Mother tongue. Exploit the texts in your course book by asking students to underline ideas they find interesting and then use them later in their own writing. They should not be hampered by lack of general knowledge in a class that is aimed to develop their language skills.

Use videos from websites such as Youtube or texts from the internet, English language newspapers, or magazines to introduce the topic.

  1. Provide a reason to write

All too often there is no real reason to write in class other than to have the teacher mark it! This is not very motivating for students.

Could the class create their own chat room or blog for sharing ideas about lessons, jokes, interests or news? What about getting students to write dialogues based on a unit topic, before recording them with sound effects?

  1. Collaborative writing in class

By always setting writing for homework, students are left isolated with little support to develop writing skills. This means that writing rarely improves and students lose motivation and confidence. Do writing in class and ensure that students work together, sharing both their ideas, vocabulary and grammar knowledge.

  1. Make it creative and fun

Writing doesn’t always have to take the form of examination-style texts like ‘Advantages and disadvantages of living in a city’, or ‘A letter of application for a job’.

Creative writing can encourage interesting and effective language use. For example, find interesting pictures of pairs or groups of people (e.g. famous paintings which can be found online) and ask students to imagine what they are thinking or saying to each other.

Writing poems is a great way to allow students to focus on quality of writing rather than worrying about quantity. (Have a look at Creative Poetry Writing by Jane Spiro, Resource Books for Teachers, Oxford University Press).

  1. Include writing in every lesson

Plan to have at least some writing in every lesson, so that it becomes more natural and easier for your students to write in English.

You could create a graffiti wall in class and ask students at the end of each lesson to write on post-its / small pieces of paper the things they liked about it. They could even write requests for future lessons or a note of praise to a student they have noticed has worked particularly well that day. These can be put up on the wall and read by all the class, while you can mention any comments. Knowing that people will read your writing makes it more real and interesting.

  1. Sometimes focus on accuracy and at other times on fluency

If students feel that when they write for you, you will focus on their mistakes, they may well lose sight of the message.

Plan writing tasks so that some just focus on fluency, encouraging students to express their ideas and what vocabulary they know. Why not have students write regular texts, emails or letters, telling you about things going on in their lives? Don’t correct these, but send back short replies that address the message of the text.

  1. Mark positively

There is nothing more disheartening than getting back your writing covered in red pen, with a bad mark at the bottom and the comment ‘Try harder!’

Avoid using a red pen to highlight all the mistakes. Why not highlight everything the student has done well, so they know to keep doing that in the future and make them feel good about the effort they have put into the text. You can also be selective in marking mistakes: choose the three most common / serious errors and focus on those. But always mention the good points in the writing.

Remember how hard it is to write well even in your own language and that students need as much help as possible in developing this complex skill. Encourage and don’t over-correct to make writing a positive experience for students in class.

For more ideas on writing in class, see Writing by Tricia Hedge, Resource Books for Teachers, OUP.



insight Top 10 Tips: Reading

2 teens readingStudents often find it difficult to engage with reading and writing instruction and practice, particularly when large, intimidating texts are involved. This is the first in our series of insight blog posts, aimed at helping teachers to overcome this problem. Here are the Top 10 Tips for Reading, from teacher-trainer Zarina Subhan.

What does reading really mean? To your elementary students it involves letter recognition and decoding the letters so they can decode words. To your advanced students it’s a process of decoding ideas which may be stated directly, or a process of ‘reading between the lines’. Either way, your students are practising a form of decoding.

This decoding is a perfect way to expose them to vocabulary because it’s embedded in a context. This technique is similarly useful for grammar study, but whether it is vocabulary or grammar that we highlight, this is a chance for students to see models of language that they can then put to use in conversation or writing tasks.

In our L1 we read for information, whether it’s following signs at an airport, or doing an internet search to find a relevant article online. When reading in English, it’s important to maintain a purpose for reading the information. We need to remind ourselves as ELT teachers that our students are not English language specialists; 9 out of 10 are very likely studying English because it’s on the school timetable, or someone has decided for them that it’s best they take English classes. So don’t treat reading as the teaching of vocabulary and grammar structures, because that won’t be what persuades them to read.

So what can we do to encourage our students to read? Try these top 10 tips:

  1. Get that schema warmed up

    Always warm up students’ background knowledge (known as ‘schema/schemata’) first. We cannot guarantee that our students all have the same knowledge on a topic or theme, so it is important to get everyone to the same point. Images are an ideal way to gather together what your students know – and allow time for a quick brainstorm where they can discuss their thoughts first.

  1. Get them using all the clues, in true Sherlock Holmes style

    Focus on headings, images and subheadings (if there are any) to help students to predict what the topic or content might be about. This stimulates ideas further and prepares them to read, allowing for a subconscious awareness of what type of vocabulary might be found. This also illustrates that a handful of words can help us understand and that we don’t need to know every single word to appreciate a piece of text.

  1. Peer checking

    After their first reading of a text, get students to discuss it with each other. Speaking about something you have just read helps to clarify your understanding because you can’t explain something until you’ve understood it. You’ll also find that students voluntarily re-read sections to make sure they’re explaining their thoughts correctly. It also allows them to get help with sections they may not have understood well when they read it themselves.

  2. Question their understanding

    To reinforce the main ideas of a text, ask questions that check understanding of the context, rather than finer details. If we focus on overall comprehension, we encourage students to skim the text to find areas that are relevant to questions, rather than them reading in detail.

  1. Word recognition

    The quicker we learn to read, the more efficiently we can get information, so it is helpful to encourage this in L2 as well. Have a competition to train students to ‘see’ a word/collocation/phrase in the text. Project a text onto your whiteboard and bring a group of students to the front of the class. You say a word that is in the text and they have to point to it.

  1. Speed them up

    Get students to time themselves reading a text so they have a record of how many words they read per minute. Then, at intervals throughout the academic year, give them a similar text, in both length and complexity, to see how they progress. In each instance, ask questions that bring out the main points of the text after, so you know that they are not simply glancing at the words, but actually reading them!

  1. Recall and highlight words

    Once the context has been understood, highlight vocabulary by using flashcards. Use different coloured cards to differentiate between different parts of speech – main verbs could be on a green coloured background; auxiliary verbs on yellow; nouns on blue, etc. If students are in groups, get them to take turns to give a definition, synonym or antonym.

  1. Recall and highlight structures

    Take sentences from the text and write each word on a separate card, jumbling them up into the wrong order. Then, get students to place them in the correct order. This could be done in groups or on large flashcards at the front of the class. Do these with useful sentences, or ones that include important phrases so that they are subconsciously reinforced.

  1. Lure them into reading

    Have lots of reading material available – pamphlets, brochures or graded readers for students to pick up and read. This can play on students’ curiosity and encourage reading in L2 for pleasure as well as for information.

  1. Nurture a love of reading

    Finally, get students to find a piece of text on a topic of their choice and have them talk to you about it and why they chose it. If you don’t have time to do face-to-face interviews with each student, they could record themselves talking about it and send it to you as an mp3 recording, along with a link to the text.

As Krashen said, “Reading is good for you…Reading is the only way we become good readers, develop a good writing style, an adequate vocabulary, advanced grammar and the only way we become good spellers.” (1993:23)

With all these benefits, reading is something we need to ensure is developed, but without necessarily making students aware that all the above is going on. It’s like enjoying a meal – who wants to be told about all the nutritional value of everything you eat when you can enjoy the taste?!


Krashen, S. (1993) The power of reading: Insights from the research. Englewood, Co.: Libraries Unlimited.


How to get students writing: an insight into writing

Young woman writingZarina Subhan-Brewer is a freelance teacher trainer and has been working in the field of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) for over 20 years. Here she previews the upcoming webinar How to get students writing which takes place on Wednesday 18th June and Friday 20th June.

Do you see more and more people whip out their smartphones to take a note of something instead of a notebook and pen?

With the advent of technology, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the act of writing is dying out. I don’t know about you, but I still like to scribble ideas down on paper. I think better with a pen in my hand, and even while using technology, that circumnavigates the need to write, I have a pen and paper to hand, or even a pen in my mouth!

In ELT, writing is a skill that tends to be developed later, once students become confident in listening, speaking and reading skills. This makes absolute pedagogical sense of course – immediate communication skills are strengthened in order to give students the ability to react and respond in real time to each other. These skills also lend themselves well to more fun-filled activities in the classroom, which can keep the learner engaged and motivated. As language teachers, however, we are also obliged to facilitate the learning of writing skills.

Writing in English is no longer simply something students have to demonstrate in order to pass exams. It is a skill which affects employment opportunities and is actually put to practical use in the global village we now occupy. It is a skill that can open many doors and can be the deciding factor between one person being promoted and the next. Therefore we need to ensure that even though writing may be a skill that is taught and developed last of all of the four skills, it is not one that is ‘half-heartedly’ taught.

So how can we get our students to spend time on writing activities that can make lessons less fun and more ‘serious’? In the webinar How to get students writing, we’re going to look at what constitutes writing, the difficulties students have with writing and the subsequent problems that arise for teachers and what can be done to overcome them.