How to use readers in the classroom
The following is a digest of some of the ideas you can use to exploit the readers in your own resource box. More ideas can be found in Class Readers by Jean Greenwood. Other ideas may be found in your own imagination.
Throughout this section, 'Reader' refers to a book, and 'reader' refers to a student.
Attitudes to Readers
The Reader has long been the black sheep of the EFL classroom. Teachers either ignore Readers, or neglect and abuse them, failing to recognize their learning potential. The reason for this can no longer be laid at the door of the publishers. Nowadays, a vast range of material is produced suitable for all interests, age ranges, and ability levels. It is more probably the attitude of the teacher, and thus, the student which is responsible. Are any of the following close to your own attitude, or familiar to you from conversations with colleagues?
- "Readers are an expensive luxury. The school cannot afford them. Other things must come first."
- "I am trying to get through a fairly dense syllabus to equip my students, ultimately, for examinations, I cannot spare the time for frills."
- "Reading for pleasure is a private and personal thing. I cannot see how this can be used in the EFL classroom."
- "I understand that extensive reading for pleasure can only improve language, but I have no way of checking that learning has taken place other than comprehension questions. These activities reduce the pleasure."
The above are explanations, excuses, reasons and justifications from teachers talking about the scant use of Readers in the classroom. Their comments illustrate three views prevalent at present.
- time spared for Readers will in some way deprive their students of certain key language skills and abilities.
- teachers are fostering or even pandering to students' reluctance to read for pleasure.
- teachers are unaware of how to use and exploit Readers in their classrooms and, therefore, provide a limited range of activities which, in turn, limits the responses of their students.
If teachers take Readers into the classroom with any one, or a combination of the above attitudes, this will be imparted to the students who will then also believe that Readers are preventing them from doing something more important, and are a waste of valuable learning time, or a chore, read only to enable them to answer a comprehension task.
The aims of this section
This section is an attempt to change the attitudes of both teachers and students to classroom activities involving Readers. The teacher who is worried that students will be missing something important will find included in this section activities which develop intensive and extensive reading skills, listening activities, writing in a variety of styles and registers, and oral tasks involving varying degrees of subtlety. Students are also encouraged to interpret, criticize, and extend what has been written, transfer information, and perform guided writing tasks. Functions of suggestion, persuasion, argument, and disagreement are practised, among others. Vocabulary tasks, letter, report and summary writing, problem-solving and picture-inspired discussion, all of which are examination required skills, are all shown to be possible with a Reader as the stimulus. The teacher who brings Readers into the classroom is not depriving the students of language practice, but is, instead, providing a richer context for such practice.
Reluctant readers are a problem in all types of classroom at present. This reluctance stems from a variety of social causes, or pressures on the student. In some countries, especially eastern Mediterranean countries, secondary age students are burdened with extremely heavy reading lists for homework. Reading is, therefore, associated with memorizing and regurgitating, and hard work. Taking a set of Readers into such a class of students and presenting them with still more words to be read will understandably produce displays of reluctance. The teacher may be tempted to adopt the system that the students are familiar with elsewhere and insist that the reading is done to enable them to answer questions at the next lesson. Such a system is self-destructive. Reading is no longer a pleasurable activity, and the teacher, aware that learning is taking place on a cognitive level only, may reluctantly be forced to abandon the attempt altogether, knowing that it is accomplishing very little of the intended original aim.
Less academic students are also unwilling, or reluctant readers. Reading is, for them, a passive, boring activity, performed constantly in isolation and perhaps associated with skills which they feel they do not possess. The 1970s and '80s are rapidly spawning a generation who, given free time, prefer to fill it with either the quick thrill of video, or the cheap thrill of comics and cartoon strips. The result will be a population incapable of reflection or contemplation - skills theoretically available to all academic levels -who prefer to be bombarded with the powerful visual images produced by others and who are incapable of producing their own images in either LI or L2; a vulnerable generation.
As teachers we can either pander to the reluctant reader, or attempt to modify and enhance the view the student has of both reading for pleasure and, thereby, Readers.
Motivation and pleasure
It is up to the teacher to convince the reluctant reader that reading, either extensive or intensive, is pleasurable. Only one of many ways of obtaining pleasure is to be able to answer the teacher's comprehension check questions the following day. Such pleasure is fleeting as ultimately the teacher and the motivation of the comprehension questions will be removed. The world of reading will remain, and still be as inaccessible as ever to the student. The Reader and eventually, it is hoped, the unsimplified authentic text provide a means for the student to keep in touch with the foreign language long after the completion of the course. After we have learnt to drive and finally acquired our driving licences it would be perverse to then stop driving immediately and never to set foot in an automobile again, claiming that the licence alone was our goal. Yet, this is the attitude that we foster among our students. We enable them to obtain a licence' or certificate after examinations or tests and then, in the majority of cases, we deprive them of the interest, or ability to continue contact with the second language. (This excludes the minority of students who will be using L2 daily in some professional context.)
More rewarding than the fleeting pleasure of the correct answer and the narrow language skill that this demonstrates and practices, is to grant the students access to the world of the Reader and enable them to perceive the writer's skill or aims, while practising a wider range of language tasks. The writer's skill is demonstrated in Graded Readers and Simplified Texts as well as in authentic texts. Part of the pleasure of reading is to use the ability to appreciate, for example, theme, plot, setting, and characterization, and to have the confidence to trust one's own perceptions about what has been written and to voice one's ideas if required. These skills are most fully developed and refined with authentic texts, but the world of the authentic text and its language may not be immediately accessible to the foreign student. The initial steps towards this world can be taken through Readers. I am not necessarily advocating literary analysis in language classes; this would terrify more students than it would encourage. The activities in this book are all language based, but they also give students the chance to explore, at their own level, the way an author has developed character, etc. and provide opportunities to voice their views without fear of failure. When teachers use Readers they are often too concerned with what was written at the expense of how. Reading in any language is an affective as well as a cognitive process.
One way to encourage reluctant readers is to show them that reading can also be fun and give rise to a variety of interaction. The pre-reading stage should rarely, if ever, be omitted, for it is then that the students' curiosity to read is aroused. This can be done through a game based on their response to key vocabulary, or a project, or by transposing the world of the Reader into a form which is more recognizable, such as a magazine problem page, or by giving students a problem to solve as with the news headlines exercise, or with a role play where students respond to first impressions of characters and provide faces suitable to play the roles found in the Reader, while they themselves role-play as a studio casting department.
The activities in this book encourage students to respond to language subjectively, as well as objectively, and also allow them to interact. The communication takes place, not to arrive at a right answer, but to give a hearing to a variety of different ones. The teacher's role is not that of corrector or judge, but rather that of enabler. Teachers must, therefore, avoid the temptation to voice their own perceptions at the expense of those of the students, as they will automatically be judged, rightly or wrongly, to be the correct ones, and group interaction will be nullified. The teacher assists with language errors, but should not replace the students' perceptions with his or her own. In almost all the activities an opportunity exists for the teacher to check and assist the students' language learning without repressing the students' perceptions of what they are reading.
The presence of 'open' activities will also encourage the reluctant reader. 'Closed' activities are those which have a definite answer in mind at their onset, whereas 'open' activities simply have a series of different ones. If the students can recognize and communicate their perceptions about the Reader the activity is valid in an EFL classroom, whether or not these perceptions are shared by the teacher or by the majority of the class. If reading becomes associated with the opportunity to air views without penalty, then motivation to read is also fostered. A great many of the activities have been designed to enable the students to make conclusions of their own rather than to reach a particular pre-ordained conclusion.
Closely linked with the ideas above is the view some students have of reading for pleasure as intellectually artistic and, therefore, involving linguistic skills beyond their grasp. If students recognize the Reader to be a simplified version of a literary work they may well lack confidence in their own ability to criticize, comment, or interpret in a foreign language. This should not prevent the teacher from taking such Readers into the classroom. However, in order to make the world of the Reader accessible, the teacher may well have to renounce all his or her vows of 'purity' regarding creative literary writing. It is infinitely preferable to tear or cut a book up into pieces and present it in a more palatable, or dynamic form, if it will make this and subsequently other texts more accessible to the students, than to insist on a traditional reading which leaves the student 'cold'. Respect for the author is all very well, but not at the expense of the reader. Using Readers should always be viewed as a long term teaching investment and not as a short term input.
Extensive and intensive reading
The skills required to read with depth and, therefore, with pleasure have to be nurtured. They do not develop overnight, nor can they develop if students are instantly expected to read extensively simply because a class library has been organized. Teachers frequently complain that class libraries are time-consuming to organize and rarely worth the effort. Students take their first book home with a flush of enthusiasm, their second with grudging curiosity, and their third with an air of resignation; and this third book seldom, if ever, is read or returned, unless the teacher has kept a vigilant administrative eye over the library.
The failure of so many class libraries can be attributed to the over expectation of the teachers that students can develop reading and interpretative skills and a pleasure from reading within a vacuum, without encouragement or guidance. Class libraries or extensive reading programmes should also be accompanied by the intensive reading activities necessary if students are to develop any interpretative ability or awareness of the possibilities available in their second language. In other words, activities to develop, foster, and practise these skills should take place in the classroom, and be supplemented by a carefully chosen, readily available class library for after lesson hours.
The range of activities available to the teacher who embarks on intensive reading is large: from role play to card games, from matching tasks to Snakes and Ladders board games, from creating documents to playing Bingo. The age range of the students and their ability, and the enthusiasm of the teacher for the activity will dictate their success. What the activities mostly have in common is the students' close involvement with each other and with the Reader, and the acknowledgement of the use of Readers as part of a process, rather than as a product to be measured by the yardstick of comprehension questions or number of Readers superficially consumed within a school year.
As mentioned, classroom activities that the willing teacher can perform using readers are many and varied. For teacher convenience, these activities have been divided into four distinct types. They are,