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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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Perspectives on Lesson Planning

lessonplanELT teacher, teacher trainer and course book author, John Hughes, looks at different approaches to lesson planning and their effectiveness as teaching tools ahead of his webinar on the subject on the 19th and 22nd of January.

Here’s a photograph of a colleague’s lesson plan. It’s written on a piece of note paper taken from a hotel room and was used with a class of students at a business college. In many ways it breaks the rules of what we might call ‘lesson planning’. After all, where are the aims, the timings, the class profile, the anticipated problems and all those other things we expect of a formally written lesson plan? The only thing we can really tell from it is that the lesson had something to do with CV writing.

The lack of detail in this particular lesson is of course because the teacher in question didn’t write it for anyone else to read. As she explains, it was for her own personal use: “I treat lesson plans like shopping lists – I write them at home in preparation for the task ahead and then don’t look at them after that. The helpful part for me is writing it down, not sticking to it.”

I think her ‘shopping list’ approach to planning is probably true for most teachers at a day-to-day level. We don’t have time to write long detailed documents with every step described in detail and – especially if we’re experienced – we don’t need to. As she says above, the ‘writing it down’ is not an end in itself, it’s just part of a longer thought process.

Because most teachers tend to plan in this less formalised way, there is often debate about – and sometimes criticism of – the more formalised type of planning that is expected on teacher training courses or when teachers are formally observed and assessed. Teachers sometimes wonder if the long hours spent writing detailed documents which predict what they might (or might not) do at every stage is time well spent.

I’d argue that on training courses it can be time well spent – especially for new and inexperienced teachers – because it’s a way to develop your thought process. However, I’d question whether a formally prepared lesson plan always has to take the shape of a page with rows and columns that a teacher is expected to fill in and rigidly follow.

In my webinar on this topic, I’ll propose that we take some fresh perspectives on lesson planning by varying our approaches and thought processes at the planning stage. I’ll present some alternative ways to develop lesson planning skills and I’ll demonstrate how visual thinking can help to aid your planning. Participants will also be invited to give their own perspective(s) on lesson planning.

If you’d like to sign up to join John Hughes’ free webinar on the 19th or 22nd of January, please follow the link below. We hope to see you there!

register-for-webinar


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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…


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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.

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