Picture this. A boiling balcony of a huge block of flats some time in a July afternoon. Tiny table with a small parasol. Tiny person. A girl. Sitting at the desk in her bathing suit. And working. Hard. Ploughing her way through her very first English book. As she has never heard nor learnt a word of English before, every single word (even the small a and the) has to be looked up in the heavy dictionary. The English book and the dictionary are gifts from her grandfather who himself is an English teacher.
Alright, poetry stops here. And no, I probably didn’t finish the book, and no, it was not a moment of sudden revelation where the stars aligned and I knew I was going to be a teacher or a writer. However, that hot afternoon on the balcony is my earliest memory of my love of dictionaries and understanding that to learn a language you should work on it. And what better way to learn, to bathe in the language, to learn its rhythm than to read it.
During the weeks leading up to the proficiency exam in English I read all the Economists I could get my hands on. And I am fairly certain that the high score I got in the writing paper was very much thanks to all the hours spent rocking in the English rhythm. As it worked so well for me, I keep telling my students to do the same. Every year, before the final exams I tell them to take an English book or a magazine, and read it, even if just a page a day. Okay, I harbour no illusions as to the number of students who will follow my precious advice 😉 but at least I didn’t keep it secret, right?!
However, reading is not something I only suggest my students do in order to get ready for their final exams. It is one of the instruments in my How-to-survive-in-mixed-level-classes toolbox. As I have already mentioned in previous posts, I teach extremely mixed-level classes. And what’s more, every class has only two 45-minute lessons per week. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that barely the classroom hours are far from enough to boost my students’ English vocabulary. Not only are they way too short but having many different levels in the same class also means that acquiring new vocabulary (which is truly NEW for everyone) becomes a real challenge.
“A good part of vocabulary learning has to be incidental. Incidental learning is facilitated through exposure to language input, in the form of extensive reading, for example.” (Thornbury 2001: 22)
Hence, read a book a semester policy in my classes. From the beginning I decided to let students choose their books. Firstly, they aren’t necessarily all into English classics. Go figure, right 😉 Secondly, having their say in what they are going to read might sparkle a valuable interest. Thirdly, having so various levels, reading task is something where everyone’s needs can be met on the level they’re at.
When I introduced the reading in my first year, I was a tiny bit afraid of the reaction. Will they protest, will they moan about the workload, will they blatantly state they hate books and reading. None of that! Quite the contrary, actually. In the end-of-the-year feedback forms the majority of students point out reading as one of the activities that helped them the most. And at one precious moment, a guy walked up to me and confessed he had never read a book before but actually quite enjoyed doing it now.
In order to keep track of their reading and mark it too I have tried and experimented with various tasks throughout the years. I have fallen into stupid pitfalls and created monster projects, which took me more time to evaluate than for them to complete. However, this year I did something new and it worked really well.
Here are the guidelines:
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”
George R.R. Martin
Reading – spring semester 2012-2013
Once you have finished reading your book, take the time to digest it … and then prepare your presentation.
Create a collage out of your book. Find pictures from magazines, Internet or take your own pics. Next to the pictures write key words, which help to explain the images and also help you during your presentation.
You could talk about the following (choose at least 4):
- Describe a character from the book
- Describe a place from the book
- Describe the period when the story takes place
- Describe the atmosphere of the story
- What kind of music do you associate with this book and why
- Describe a relationship between some characters
- Describe how a character develops / changes during the story
- Describe a special moment in the story
- Describe your own feelings when reading the book (explain them!)
- Think of the questions you would like to ask the writer, explain why these questions.
Or anything else that comes to your mind and that you would like to share.
And here are some of the posters:
Most of the students told me afterwards that making a poster helped them gather their thoughts and think of how to structure their talk. It was also a kind of safety belt they could hold on to during the presentation.
Ideas for next year: I will definitely continue with the reading activity. However, I’m thinking of introducing reflections on reading earlier and more often into the classroom. I might ask them to keep a reading diary or maybe write an email to someone else in the class about what s(he) is reading at that moment, or bring some interesting vocabulary into class to introduce to the others …
What about you? How have you introduced reading into your programme?
Thornbury, S. (2002) How to Teach Vocabulary, Harlow: Pearson