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Reading for pleasure: appealing to learners, not readers

Girl reading bookVerissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, outlines the benefits of extensive reading and how to convince learners it’s worth doing.

“Teacher, why should I read in English when I don’t read in my own language?”

A very good question and one that I often get from students as I set up my class library.

“Students don’t like to read.”

Another familiar comment, this one from other teachers and some parents.

I didn’t believe those comments when I first began working with class libraries over 20 years ago and I don’t believe them now, despite continuing to hear them.

The benefits of reading for pleasure are well-documented.  You can watch Professor Richard Day explain the benefits below.

So, how do we get our students to read, to read a lot, and equally important, to enjoy the experience? Reacting to what my students like to do, I focus on establishing a positive reading environment.  They frequently talk to each other about movies, music, and television. I add books to this list. I appeal to them not as readers, but as people and so my class library is part of a social environment.

I am aware that what I am proposing to them is new, to some it is so new it is difficult to understand. Linking reading for pleasure, and the class library, to something they understand is important.

I begin by associating reading for pleasure to playing a sport, or playing a musical instrument.  After some discussion we agree that it is important to establish a routine – to play a sport or an instrument well takes time and practice. To get the benefits from our class library will also require time and practice. I ask them for about 15 minutes of reading per day, outside the classroom.

Soon, my students point out that they are not required to play a sport or a musical instrument. This is a key point to the success of the class library – it isn’t reading for pleasure if you are required to read a book you may not like. So, I tell them the class library is voluntary. There are usually some raised eyebrows of disbelief. I also tell them that they will be able to choose the book they want to read. More raised eyebrows! And since I’ve got their attention, I finish by promising that there will be no homework and that I will not test their reading.

In essence, our class library can only help them. After all, we will continue with our normal lessons, which include homework, testing and the required grades at the end of each term. Through the library they will be able to improve.

In essence, I am challenging them. Their initial reaction is to put me to the test. My students continue to believe they don’t like reading. Many even believe they can’t read in English. But I am not appealing to them as readers. I am not preaching to them about the benefits of reading. These they have heard before. I am appealing to them as learners. That is what a student is – a learner.  And just as you become better at playing a sport or a musical instrument by simply doing it, I am betting that my students will improve their English by simply reading.

My first challenge is getting them to understand that the books we will be reading were written for them – learners of English. My students simply don’t understand the concept of a Graded Reader. Then, I need to help them choose a book they like. Again, this is not easy for many of them. When it comes to reading, they don’t know what they like.

You may have noticed that I have not appealed to my students based on the well-documented benefits I mentioned at the beginning of this article. As a matter of fact, I haven’t said one word about them. Like the foundation of a house that is not seen, the benefits will be the foundation of the class library. They will become apparent to my students as they read.

Having challenged them and raised their curiosity, I will focus on setting up the class library and getting all of them involved. This will be the topic of my blog post next month.

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Read your way to better English with 30 new Oxford Bookworms apps available now on the App Store

Celebrate the birthday of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes) with an Oxford Bookworms app and read your way to better English…

30 famous stories from the Oxford Bookworms series are now available as apps for the iPhone®/iPod touch®, and for the iPad® from the App Store.

Using the apps students can enjoy reading and listening to a wide range of famous stories including the exciting Sherlock Holmes adventure, The Hound of the Baskervilles. They can view colour illustrations and test their vocabulary using interactive quizzes on the app.

There really is no mystery to improving English. Research shows that reading many stories at, or just below your language level is one of the most effective ways to improve English. By making the popular stories available as apps, Oxford University Press is opening up reading to students who prefer using mobile devices to books. It doesn’t take a detective to work out that this will help encourage a wider range of students to continue reading outside of the classroom.

Oxford Bookworms apps offer six levels of Readers, from Stage 1 through to Stage 6 with stories to appeal to a range of interests. The thirty titles include some of the great Sherlock Holmes tales including, Sherlock Holmes and the Sport of Kings, and Sherlock Holmes and the Duke’s son, all-time best sellers such as Dracula and The Elephant Man, popular classics such as Alice in Wonderland and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and modern stories including Dead Man’s Island and Chemical Secret.

What’s your favourite Sherlock Holmes story?

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Happy Valentine’s Day! – Reading Text and Activities for Younger Learners

Heart-shaped box of chocolatesThe following text and activities are taken and adapted from Seasons and Celebrations, Stage 2 Factfiles from the Oxford Bookworms Library, suitable for younger learners.

Activities Before Reading

1. This text below is about St. Valentine’s Day. Which of these things do you think you are going to read about? Circle four words.

Love Money
Flowers Buildings
Horses Cards
Festivals Storms
Answers: Love, Flowers, Cards, Festivals

2. How much do you know about St. Valentine’s Day. Are these sentences true (T) or false (F)?

a) St. Valentine’s Day started in the nineteenth century.

b) On Valentine’s Day people send cards to the people they love.

c) St. Valentine’s Day is 15 February.

d) Chocolates are a kind of food.

e) People often go out to dinner in restaurants in the evening.

f) St. Valentine’s Day is named after a famous Roman emperor.

Answers: a) F, b) T, c) F, d) T, e) T, f) F

Activities While Reading

Read the text below. While reading, answer the following questions.

1. Match the beginnings and endings of the sentences

1. Valentine’s Day started more than…

2. Saint Valentine was a Christian who…

3. Valentine was sent to prison because…

4. When Valentine was in prison, he…

5. People started sending Valentine’s cards…

a) he helped a soldier to marry.

b) in the early nineteenth century.

c) two thousand years ago.

d) lived in Rome.

e) fell in love.

Answers: 1. c), 2. d), 3. a), 4. e), 5. b)

2. Choose the best question word for these questions, and then answer them.

What / When / Who / How / Why

1. _____ was Saint Valentine?

2. _____ is St. Valentine’s Day?

3. _____ do people send to the people they love?

4. _____ long have people celebrated Valentine’s Day?

5. _____ do people write ‘Be my Valentine’ at the end of the cards?

6. _____ was the Emperor of Rome when Valentine was alive?

Answers: 1. Who, 2. When, 3. What, 4. How, 5. Why, 6. Who

14 February is St. Valentine’s Day. This started more than two thousand years ago, as a winter festival, on 15 February. On that day, people asked their gods to give them good fruit and vegetables, and strong animals.

When the Christians came to Britain, they came with a story about a man called Saint Valentine. The story is that Valentine was a Christian who lived in Rome in the third century. The Roman Emperor at the time, Claudius the Second, was not a Christian. Claudius thought that married soldiers did not make good soldiers, so he told his soldiers that they must not marry.

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Are teenagers really reluctant readers?

Teenage boy on laptop and phoneAhead of her talk at IATEFL 2011 in Brighton entitled ‘Getting students into extensive reading painlessly: A threefold solution’, Sue Parminter, series co-editor of the Dominoes Readers series, considers how to get today’s tech-savvy teenagers reading books.

What do you take with you when you travel alone by plane? I have a hunch the answer to this question reveals lots about us. I never get on even a short-haul flight without a book to read: I guess having a paperback in my hand also reassures me that I won’t need to bury my nose in the in-flight magazine in order to escape from tedious conversations with over-chatty people who might be in the seats next to mine. When my kids were young, our in-flight bags invariably bulged with colouring books and crayons, replaced – as the kids aged – by hand-held computer game consoles, and latterly by iPods, crammed to bursting with music and films.

A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting on a plane with a book in my hands, letting my thoughts drift, when my pleasant daydreams were rudely interrupted by a boy of about thirteen moaning to his parents in the row behind mine. He’d been perfectly happy when I’d followed them up the stairs onto the plane, earphone attached to his android mobile, tapping out text on the screen faster than I can type on a regular computer keyboard. The cause of his sudden fury was the safety instruction to turn off all electronic equipment, forcing him to enter into reluctant, monosyllabic conversation with his parents while the plane taxied and took off.

His reaction brought home to me the parallels between my addiction to words on a paper page and a teenager’s dependence on the small screen. Although I find it fascinating to play with an iPad, turning digital pages at the swipe of a finger and marvelling at how ‘real’ they look, I’m a bit too old to transfer my passion for paper text to the screen version. For me, the traditional bookworm, it’s a technological gulf as hard to cross as it must be for ‘digital natives’ to feel passionate about reading books, especially school books in a language not their own.

It is really vital – I feel – for us English language teachers not to underestimate how wide this ‘digital native-print native’ divide is, and how much we need to do in order to bridge it.  But there’s one aspect of the small LCD screens that have invaded our world in recent years that we can also be grateful for. Ten years ago, studies of how teenagers spent their time shocked us when they itemized all the hours spent in front of television sets. Nowadays the balance has tilted away from the passive watching of larger screens to interacting in various ways with smaller ones, and this quantum shift towards interactivity makes a significant difference.

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The importance of extensive reading – “Red Dog”

Statue of Red Dog in the town of Dampier

Jenny Bassett, Series Editor of the Oxford Bookworms Library (OUP), stresses the importance of extensive reading to improving language proficiency.

The new Bookworm just out is Red Dog by Louis de Bernières, an adaptation at Bookworms Stage 2. It’s a true story about a Red Cloud kelpie, an Australian sheepdog. There’s a life-sized bronze statue to him (left) in the town of Dampier, put there by his friends after his death. When Louis de Bernières was in Western Australia, he came across this statue and felt he had to find out more about this ‘splendid dog’. So he collected all these tales about Red Dog and published a book about him. ‘But I hope,’ he wrote, ‘that my cat never finds out that I have written a book to celebrate the life of a dog.’

Red Dog was a real character – I got to know him quite well while I was retelling the story and researching the background. Here’s a bit about him from the story introduction in the book:

Red Dog front cover - Oxford BookwormsRed Dog had many names. At different times he was called Tally Ho, Bluey, the Dog of the North-West, but mostly he was called Red Dog, or just Red. Everybody in the north-west knew Red. He never really belonged to anyone, but he had many friends. He was never without a place to sleep, or a good meal, before he moved on – because he was also a great traveller. It is a hard, hot country, up in the Pilbara region, but Red knew how to get around. He rode on buses and trucks, in people’s cars, and on trains. If people saw Red Dog on the road, they always stopped and gave him a ride.

But there was one thing about Red Dog. You really, really didn’t want to travel with him in a car with the windows closed…

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