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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?!

Reference

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


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Using outside materials in the classroom

Young adults in classMike Boyle has taught English to adult learners in Japan and the United States, and is now a materials writer in New York City. He is the co-author of the Starter level of American English File Second Edition. In this article, he shares his thoughts on using outside materials to make your lessons more relevant, effective, and memorable.

For the last two years, I’ve had the great privilege of working with Clive Oxenden and Christina Latham-Koenig on the second edition of American English File. One of the best parts of this experience has been seeing firsthand how these great authors find and adapt outside texts, topics, and stories for the course.

I think Christina and Clive’s approach to outside materials not only makes for a great coursebook, but can also be helpful for teachers who use outside articles, videos, songs, and other materials in their lessons. Here are some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned.

The “train test” and the “wow factor”

Clive and Christina always say that the readings in a textbook must pass the “train test.” If you picked up the coursebook on a train, would you read the texts with interest?

We know that students are going to learn more, and retain more, if they are interested in what they’re studying. For the same reason, the best materials have memorable facts or characters which make your learners think, “Wow!” and which stay in their minds after the lesson has ended.

Very few texts truly pass this test, which is why so much of a writer’s time is spent reading newspapers, magazines, advertisements, news sites, social media, blogs – anything and everything – in search of the next great idea.

The “so what?” test

The best texts (or audio recordings, or videos) do more than grab your learners’ interest. They also lead to genuine speaking and communication. It’s vital to use texts that your learners would be stimulated to read and talk about in their own language. Because if they wouldn’t be, they certainly won’t be very motivated to do it in a foreign language.

The best topics are usually ones that you and your class have some experience of or an opinion about. A text about a totally unfamiliar topic (tornadoes in the American Midwest, for example) can be very interesting, but might go nowhere in class. It would be better to find a text that lets the class see something familiar in a fresh, new way.

For these reasons, when considering a text, a good test is whether you can think of three great discussion questions that would follow it. If you can’t, it might not work in class. Your learners might only shrug and think, “That’s interesting, but so what?”

Google-ability

We know how disappointing it can be when you Google the people in a text and discover the authors simply made them up. That’s why we’re very proud that the people, places, and stories in American English File are real. You can Google them and find out more about them – and maybe even find photos or videos of them to share with your students. In many cases, we’ve gone to great lengths to interview these people ourselves and get their stories firsthand.

Teachers can do the same to bring real, interesting people and their stories into the classroom. Blogs are a great place to look. Bloggers who are doing interesting things are often quite easy to reach and happy to be interviewed over email or even Skype. Knowing that they’re hearing from a “real” person will make your lessons much more motivating and rewarding for your learners.

Humor and suspense

Anything that makes your class laugh (or even smile) can be a huge benefit in the classroom. Laughter creates a relaxed, stress-free classroom, and this will make everyone more comfortable about speaking English and participating in the lesson. Humor can also be a great check of comprehension – if they didn’t understand, they won’t laugh.

Another great way to engage a class and keep their attention is to use texts and stories that have surprising endings or unexpected results. Give the class everything but the ending and have them guess before you reveal it to them.

The text comes first, and the target language follows

Some writers and teachers begin their search for a text by thinking: “This is the simple past unit, so let’s find a text with lots of regular -ed verbs.” The problem with this approach is that it often leads to texts that don’t get your learners’ attention and don’t get them talking.

It’s more effective to find something truly interesting and then dig into the text for the appropriate vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation points. When your learners are eager to discuss the text they will be much more motivated to master the new language that’s already in it.

To hear more from Mike on using outside materials in the classroom, sign up for one of the following webinars:

24 October 2013: 02:00 BST / 10:00 Japan / 23:00 Brazil / 21:00 New York (-1 day)
25 October 2013: 16:00 BST / 11:00 New York / 12:00 Brazil / 00:00 Japan (+1 day)

Register for the webinar now!


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Critical Thinking – Teaching Tips from Around the World

Adults sharing ideasFollowing his webinar on Teaching Critical Thinking in EAP, Louis Rogers looks back at the participants’ tips and ideas on the subject.

In my recent webinars on critical thinking in EAP I asked participants to write in the chat box any definitions of critical thinking and any teaching tips they had. The aim was to then analyse the definitions and to try and pick out any commonalities. I also asked everyone to share teaching tips for encouraging students to think critically.

With around three hundred participants across the two sessions I did wonder what I had let myself in for, but it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss with such a diverse range of cultures involved. One of the great things about these sessions is that they bring together people from all over the world in one forum to discuss issues relevant to all of us in our teaching contexts. Whether it was six in the morning for some people or midnight for others it certainly did not stop the ideas flowing. In all, there were just under one hundred definitions and a whole host of ideas. So what ideas stood out?

Before moving on I should probably point out that this was not the most scientific collection method or analysis and I certainly won’t be awarded a PhD on the basis of it; however, hopefully it will prove of interest.

One of the first things I decided to do was to look at the frequency of individual words in the definitions. I was about to cut out function words and look at the content words when fortunately the alphabet intervened. The first word I noticed in the alphabetical list was the final word: ‘you’. When I highlighted this along with other pronouns and words related to the concept of ‘self’, one thing that stood out strongly was the interaction of the person with many other things. As we might expect there were a lot related to the interaction of the reader with the ideas in the text, but also the interaction of the individual with concepts such as society, culture and our own past influences. Other words that had a particularly high frequency were; think, inform, critic, analyse, evaluate, culture, difference.

One other thing that stood out quite strongly as a feature of the definitions was that I felt many could be categorised in two ways. One set could be perhaps defined as ‘interpretation of information’. These tended to focus on analysis, evaluation, interpretation and challenging ideas. The second set could perhaps be defined as ‘using information’. These tended to contain more concepts along the lines of synthesising, organising, using and applying.

In terms of teaching ideas many people seemed to feel that the ideas of self-reflection, peer evaluation and the use of video work well in encouraging critical reflection. For recording and sharing presentations for peer review one participant suggested the use of www.mybrainshark.com

Another suggestion was that The CRAAP test would help many students as a useful set of transferable questions. These focus students with questions related to issues of:

Currency: the timeliness of the information

Relevance: the importance of the information for your needs

Authority: the source of the information

Accuracy: the reliability, truthfulness, and correctness of the content

Purpose: the reason the information exists

Many examples of the test can be found online.

Other ideas included using definitions as a discussion tool as they are often open to debate. For low language levels, ideas that were suggested were the analysis of images and the different meanings of a word.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the chat room transcript afterwards. As a presenter you try to follow and join in with the lively discussions but you’re often too preoccupied remembering the points you want to make so it’s really beneficial to be able to take time to analyse the contributions after the event.

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