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4 Creative Ways To Share Your Enjoyment Of Literature

teenagers enjoying literature togetherThroughout my teaching I have used literature in the EFL classroom, and the most rewarding moments have always been connected to lessons where I was teaching a poem, a short story, or a play. I’ve always thought that the most important factor was my own love of the pieces that I was teaching, and finding ways of sharing that love with my learners.

Here are four ways in which you can engage learners with literary texts, convey your own love of literature to your students, and show them how literature reflects human experiences and connects to our lives.

 

1. Connect the piece of literature to your students’ personal lives

James Joyce’s short story, Eveline, is about a young woman in early 20th century Dublin who has a chance to leave home with her suitor and go to Buenos Aires (you can find it here). I taught this to students aged 17 or 18, to whom the themes in the story were very relevant, introducing these themes without students even knowing that our discussion would lead to a literary work.

I start by presenting Edward Hopper’s painting New York Movie and asking students to describe the woman in the picture, where she is, what she is doing, how she is standing, then what she might be thinking about. Then I ask them to write the first paragraph of a short story about this woman. Invariably, students describe her as tired, stuck in a tedious job; they suggest she might be thinking about household chores she still has to do; they write about her dreams for the future and escaping her lot through marriage. We discuss the students’ interpretations, their first paragraphs, what they mean about the students’ view of life. The students see this as an exercise in creative writing but, without knowing it, they are writing about many of the themes of the story.

At the end of the lesson (or even in the next lesson) I move to the first paragraph of the story:

She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue. Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired.

This extensive introduction ensures that even before we start reading Eveline, the students have made connections between the main themes of the story and their own experiences.

 

2. Illustrate ways in which literature connects to current events

Many literary works are extremely relevant to contemporary events. They may be overtly political and obviously written in response to a major event, like W.H. Auden’s September 1, 1939 (a wonderful poem, though I wouldn’t suggest using it in an EFL class!), but even poems that are not political have contemporary resonances. One example is Robert Frost’s Mending Wall, written in 1914, which talks about two neighbours meeting to fix the wall between their properties. It meditates on walls and boundaries, their uses and misuses, their personal and public meaning. Though Frost could not have known that 100 years later there would be such violent discussions of walls in the public sphere, the connection to current events is clear. Discussing this enables you to work on understanding other people’s points of view and balancing contradictions and ambiguities in one’s own thoughts – vital skills and attitudes in contemporary life.

 

3. Connect the piece of literature to art

Many artists have responded to literature in different ways. The contemporary American artist Roni Horn has responded to Emily Dickinson’s poems by casting lines from the poems in plastic letters. She embeds these in aluminium bars, which she then places against a wall – see here . When you walk into a room with these bars against different walls they present an enigma – you have to approach to realise that they include letters and words, and you realise slowly that these are lines from poems. The bars force you to consider their meaning – which is not immediately obvious or straightforward. As you walk round one of these bars and watch it from different angles the words appear and disappear – a wonderful metaphor for the way in which the meanings of poems are difficult to grasp and the way in which they enter and exit our consciousness.

By doing this you are demonstrating to learners that literature does not stand on its own – it is part of a rich cultural history and a rich cultural present.

 

4. Encourage students to react

One way of moving the focus from us to our learners is an easy technique called ‘a walkabout’ or ‘gallery walk’. The idea is simple – you choose a number of extracts, print out or photocopy enlarged versions of these extracts, and put them up on the walls around the classroom. Students walk around the room, read the extracts, and choose the one that they like most, or that means most to them. They then go and stand next to it, and discuss their reasons for choosing this extract with the other students who chose it. Each group then tells the others why they chose a specific extract.

In order for this activity to work the extracts need to be short – you can choose short poems, the opening paragraphs of different stories, or the opening paragraphs of different novels. I have also used it with short critical views of works that we have studied. Choosing short extracts means that students have time to read everything before they make their choice. Also, don’t choose too many extracts – 5 or 6 extracts are more than enough. This normally means that there is someone who chooses one of the extracts.

 

Want even more simple techniques to promote language development, for all levels and ages? Watch my webinar!

Watch the recording

 


 

Amos Paran is a Reader in Second Language Education at the UCL Institute of Education, University College London, where he teaches on the MA TESOL. He started his professional career in Israel, where he taught EFL in secondary schools and trained teachers. He has run teacher training workshops in countries such as Viet Nam, Uzbekistan, Israel, Switzerland, Spain and France, and works regularly in Chile.

His main research interests are reading in a foreign language and the use of literature in language learning, as well as distance education, and he has written extensively on these topics. He is co-editor (with Lies Sercu) of ‘Testing the Untestable in Language Education’, published in 2010 by Multilingual Matters. His most recent book is Literature, co-written with Pauline Robinson and published by Oxford University Press in the Into the Classroom series. He is also a lead tutor on the free Coursera MOOC, ‘Teaching EFL/ESL Reading: A Task Based Approach’.


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Webinar: Leading a horse to water and making it drink!

Olha Madylus, a teacher and teacher trainer specialising in both primary and secondary education, introduces her upcoming webinar entitled ‘Leading a horse to water and making it drink‘ on 5th and 7th March, where she will explore ways to motivate students to read and enjoy doing so.

How do we motivate our students to read long texts in course books and how do we ensure that students understand and enjoy what they read?

To our students a long text in a course book can be very off-putting. Not only does the length put them off but it may contain a lot of vocabulary they are not acquainted with and the tasks they need to do, e.g. answer comprehension questions, may seem too difficult.

Using examples from the Insight series, my webinar on reading aims to address these issues by answering the following questions:

  1. What is reading?
  2. What makes a text difficult and off-putting for students?
  3. What can we do before looking at the text to increase motivation to read and to prepare students for potential difficulties like a lot of new vocabulary
  4. What strategies can students employ to get a ‘feel’ of the text when they first meet it, putting into to context, to make reading easier
  5. How can skimming a text effectively help students understand text organisation in order to better navigate it
  6. What do students need to know about syntax, discourse markers and cohesive devices that will make reading easier
  7. How can students deal with new vocabulary within a text?
  8. How can students be encouraged to ‘read between the lines’, identifying implications in order to make inferences
  9. How can we personalise response to texts, to ensure that students do really think about its meaning, rather than just try to get to the end of the activity.
  10.  How can reading be more rewarding and more fun?

So, if you teach reading skills and want some ideas on how to make your teaching more effective and reading lessons more motivating for students, do join me in this webinar.


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Reading for pleasure – Inviting a Character to Class

Interviewing a character helps your students learn the language, gives them an opportunity to be creative and use their imagination, and, whilst having fun, allows them to share their reading experiences.

As with previous activities, you can see the steps to actually do the activity with your class here. Beyond the fun and imagination, there is serious language work taking place. Let’s look at it a bit more closely, taking the example of Becky Thatcher from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

First, reading for pleasure helps students improve their language skills. In this case, students improve vocabulary and grammatical structures when they are writing the questions for the interview, as well as when they listen to the answers. Whether it is simple questions like, “What’s your favourite colour?” or “How did you feel on your first day at school?”, you can help your students write their questions correctly. You can also focus their questions on the language you are working on in class. For example, if you are working on past tenses, you can focus the questions on Becky’s last holiday or weekend. Questions might be, “Where did you go?” or “What did you do?”

The activity also helps students improve their listening and speaking skills. Since every student has a question, it is important not to repeat the same question for the interview. This means students will need to say their questions out loud to the class to make sure there is no repetition. In a controlled way, they are beginning to speak. Weaker or shy students can do this in a safe environment, focussing only on their own question. The person who will play Becky in the interview is listening to the questions from the class and so can prepare her answers in advance. The interview itself further improves listening and speaking. Students will ask their questions, listen to the answers, and some may even have follow-up questions.

There are great opportunities for students to be creative and use their imagination. First, students should be encouraged to ask questions they want an answer to. Any student who knows the story a little may ask questions about Tom, which usually raises a few giggles in the class. The student playing Becky is free to imagine some of the answers that are not directly in the story. Becky’s favourite colour is not in the story, nor is there anything about who buys her clothes. To answer these questions, “Becky” is free to use her imagination and the information in the story. This will certainly make it more interesting for everyone. Questions concerning Becky’s opinions may even raise a few interesting discussions. The language in the activity can quickly become secondary as students focus on the “Becky’s” answers.

This is a fun activity that can easily lead to students being curious about the story and wanting to read it. It is important to encourage students to enjoy the interview. Would they ask the same questions in their own language? If not, then they are focussing on the language more than on the interview itself. Help them ask the questions they really want to ask. Questions about her relationship with Tom, how she feels about school, living in the small town, or her family can raise interesting discussions.

The interview allows “Becky” to share her reading experience with the class. She will expand on the parts she enjoyed more, talk about events in the story, like being lost in the cave. In this way, many students will become curious about the book and want to read it.

By helping students with the language, encouraging them to use their imagination, and allowing them to have fun with the activity, they will become more personally involved in their reading. This will help them learn more effectively.


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Reading for pleasure – Making puzzles, improving comprehension

JigsawThis month’s activity will have your students fully engaged in their stories. Your students may be familiar with solving word search puzzles, but in this activity they will be asked to make their own puzzles for other students to solve.

In making their own puzzles, students will be improving their reading comprehension in various ways. Let’s take a look at the different steps of the activity to see this more clearly. You can see the steps to actually do the activity here.

When students are looking for the words or the sentences for their puzzle they will be reading the story, each student choosing language at their own level. For stronger students you may want to frown at some of their choices. Don’t discard them completely, but question them. This will encourage your student to go back to the story to find a more interesting word or sentence. In this way they are encouraged to read the text at a deeper level. Also, encourage them to show their words or sentences to someone else in the class who has read the book. By asking for the opinion of others, students have a context to discuss the stories and get different points of view.

As students complete the words in the grid, they will be thinking how these words fit into their story. In this way, they are revising the story, the words helping them remember the parts they enjoyed most. But the words may not fit into the grid. They may be too long, or the last words may not fit with the words already written. Don’t make the grid bigger. This is on purpose. By reworking the words, students are once again revising the context of the story. They may have to return to the story to choose a shorter word. This is great, as it increases reading time with the story. Although they have not used a word they had chosen, they still worked with it, which helped them remember that part of the story.

Make sure that your students understand that their puzzles are to be solved by other students, either in their class or in another class. This will motivate them to reduce mistakes and to make their writing legible. They easily understand that their friends can be more critical than their teacher. This will also have another interesting effect – they will try to make their puzzles a little more difficult. In making their puzzles more difficult, they will read for details and specific information. This will improve their reading comprehension.

Solving the puzzles helps students in many different ways. First, it is a revision of the story for those students who have read the book during the year. Some students may be able to find all the words without needing to go back to the story. Others may find 3 or 4 words difficult to find. This may encourage them to talk to the person who made the puzzle. Notice how, once again, the puzzle has created a context for students to discuss a story. By the way, rarely do students simply give the answers. This means the discussion helps both students revisit the story.

In solving the puzzles, students also become aware of how interesting it is to solve. For puzzles to be interesting they must be challenging – too easy and they are boring, too difficult and the student gives up. In this way, students reinforce the language and comprehension at the general level of the class. Especially important is that students who consider themselves weak in English will be motivated to make their puzzles for students they consider better. This will help to raise their own level of English. Since the puzzles are based on the story, the student reading and making the puzzle knows that it is simply a matter of copying words or sentences. Weaker students see that, through effort, they can make their puzzles challenging to any student in the class.

And finally, when the puzzles are solved by another class, students will usually talk about their experience outside of class. Comments like, “Hey, I did your puzzle today.” will become common.


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Reading for Pleasure – Making Triangles, Sharing Opinions

Continuing the Reading for Pleasure series, Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, looks at how students can make triangles to keep them interested in reading.

This month’s activity is deceptively simple. However, it is an important step in the sequence of activities our students have been involved in. So far, the language for the previous activities has come directly from the stories. Whether it was simple words, phrases, or sentences, students were able to browse through their books and simply copy what they wanted. Making triangles is the first activity in which students are free to use their own words. How to make triangles for their stories is explained on the Big Read website, or in the video below.

Let’s take the example from the video clip about “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”. Expressions like “lives in the USA” or “saw Injun Joe kill someone” are probably not part of the story itself. The student here is using their own words to describe facts and events in the story. An expression like, “Tom and Becky became good friends” is this student’s opinion. Another student may see the story differently. So, the triangle gives students the opportunity to use the English they have learned to communicate about the story they are reading.

At this point it is important to point out what students have achieved by doing the previous activities that allow them to make their triangles:

  1. Students are confident that they can read in English and enjoy the story they are reading.
  2. Students have become aware that the activities are based on effort, not knowledge. Everyone can do them if they want to.
  3. Students know that their activities are to be shared with their friends and family.

These three points are important as students prepare to make their triangles. The positive environment created around the class library means that students are confident they can do the tasks. Some students may insist on finding expressions directly from their story. Some may ask for help from their friends or the teacher to improve their English. For example, some students may write “see Injun Joe kill someone”. Although this is not incorrect a friend may suggest using “saw”. And others may personalise the words they use, mixing facts, events, and opinions. Knowing that their triangles are to be shared, students will try to make them interesting to their friends.

This is also the first activity in the class library in which students need their English to be checked and corrected before it is displayed. As their teacher, encourage peer correction. Reinforce the idea that the triangles are to be displayed and so the English must make sense to their friends. When correcting any student’s work, reinforce your role as a facilitator – you are helping them with their work, not judging it.

As with making movie posters, making triangles allows students to become more personally involved with their stories, in this case by encouraging them to share their opinions and thoughts about the story. You can ask them that 2 of the lines from the triangle are based on their opinion, 2 lines are based on events in the story, and another 2 lines are facts about the story. Suggest this to your students as a way to make their triangles more unique and personal. Don’t make it a requirement, as this may interfere with their enjoyment of the story and the activity.

By making triangles, the class moves beyond simply copying the language they need, to using the English they have learned to communicate their thoughts and opinions. Depending on your students, this can be the basis for brief summaries of the story as they expand their expressions into complete sentences. Building on their confidence and involvement, the triangles allow students to more fully personalise their reactions to their reading experience.