Four secrets for reading in the ELT classroom
I have this habit when I start a book. Maybe ‘habit’ is the wrong word. It’s more of a strategy. First, I have a really good look at it – judge it by its cover. Next I’ll read the first line, word by word. Then I’ll read the first chapter, twice. Sometimes I’ll read it more than twice. Why? Basically, it’s because I enjoy it. I want to savour it. It’s such a treat to tune yourself into a new story – the style, the sense of place and character that the author is creating. That’s why I take it slowly. It’s all about anticipation. You never quite know what’s going to happen. In this respect a graded reader is no different, especially when it’s an original story. Encouraging students to read in English can provide massive benefits to their language learning. There are so many academic studies which prove just that … but how exactly do we do it? What’s the secret?
Secret # 1
First, and most importantly, it’s about the topic. I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in everything under the sun. Some things I sort of like, but other things I’m really passionate about. If you can find out what your students are passionate about – be it football or music or vampires or time travel then that’s half the secret. Because there’s bound to be a book or text in English about it. And that book or text is going to tell you something else about your passion – something you didn’t know before. In that sense, English is just a conduit for students to find out more stuff about what they like (and the world it’s part of).
Secret # 2
The second secret is getting the level right. Who wants to read with a book/device in one hand and a dictionary in the other? OK, fine if we encounter the odd word we don’t understand – it still happens to me and I’ve been learning English for over forty years! But students want to lose themselves in the experience, and they can’t do it if they keep tripping over words they don’t know. So the book needs to be of a slightly lower level than the students’ own language level. It’s not rocket science. (There are books about rocket science, too, though.)
Secret # 3
Thirdly, it’s about taking it slowly, or rather in stages. We need to help students to find a way in … or a way out if it comes to that. Only the bravest can plunge in without any preliminaries; the rest of us like to take our time. And here’s where my ‘habit’ comes in. I’m about to spell out one tried-and-tested approach for using graded readers inspired by it … So you’ve assembled your library of graded readers. (Incidentally, most publishers do a deal where you can get a collection of topics and levels for a discount instead of buying them one by one.) Here’s what you do next:
- Spread them out face-up on a large table (or do the equivalent digitally with thumbnails.) Ask students to choose a reader based on the title and picture on the front cover alone.
- Tell students to read the back cover blurb for homework. They can use a bilingual dictionary if necessary – who cares as long as they’re reading! Ask them to make a note of where the story takes place (setting); who the main person is (character); and what happens (plot).
- Get students to read the first line of Chapter 1 three times and Chapter 1 itself twice.
- At this point, if they didn’t enjoy it, they can STOP. But they must promise to do two things if they do decide to give up. The first is to tell you why (in English). The second is to take a different graded reader from the library. They can also stop this one after stage 3, to be replaced by another book, but this third one they must read through from start to finish, i.e. stick at it!
- Tell students to write a short summary (in the past or present tense) of what happens in Chapter 1. You can do all sorts of things with these summaries: error correction; peer dictation; gap fill, etc.
- Repeat the process with the next few chapters. If students start to copy each others’ summaries, do some comparison work in class and talk about the importance of original work vs plagiarism!
- Before students read the final chapter, get them to predict what’s going to happen (in the future) and how the story will end in terms of setting, character, and plot. They then read to confirm their prediction – even changing what they wrote to reflect what they read.
- After students finish the book, get them to give it a ‘star rating’ from 1-5. Decide as a class what the star ratings stand for, e.g. 1 = Don’t waste your time! 2 = Probably not for you; 3 = Give it a go; 4 = Definitely recommended; 5 = Out of this world! (If they want to write a review or give a mini-presentation about it, don’t stand in their way!)
- At the end of the term or year, do some project work. Tell students to calculate the most/least popular titles (and do a basic graph to show it), to interview each other about their favourites, to write follow-up chapters as a story chain, look for common ground between stories in order to draw up a list of If you liked this, then try … etc.
- Go back to stage 1 and start over. After all, the funny thing about reading a good book is that it makes you want to read another. And then another. That’s Secret # 4, by the way!