Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Chocolate Museum

Photo courtesy of EuroMagic, available here.

Recently I had the good fortune to do some curriculum advising and teacher training at a large English language institute in the Middle East.

One area of concern for many of the teachers was teaching reading; many of the students didn’t read much in their own language, and didn’t have any particular love of reading in English either. We talked about both intensive and extensive reading, and pre-, during, and post-reading strategies, all that good stuff, and then had some time for questions and answers.

One teacher asked about how to handle a reading selection that was part of her textbook. Every term, she said, she got to that same passage, and students were never interested in it. Yes, chimed in other teachers, they’d struggled with that one too! The passage in question, from Interchange Third Edition, Level 2 (Richards, Hull, and Proctor, Cambridge University Press, 2005), is in a unit called “It’s Really Worth Seeing,” which as a topic covers landmarks and places of interest around the world. The grammar of the unit is the passive voice, and of course there is target vocabulary and a pronunciation point and a writing assignment and the usual things you’d expect to find in a coursebook.

The reading passage is a called “A Guide to Unusual Museums,” and describes the Kimchi Museum (Seoul, Korea), the Gold Museum (Bogotá, Colombia) and the Chocolate Museum (Cologne, Germany). I asked what the problem was. Vocabulary? Sentence structure? Level? Length? No… the problem was that students simply weren’t interested in any of those museums. (And no, it doesn’t matter that I happen to like chocolate and gold; the point was, they weren’t interested.) What to do about that? the teachers all wanted to know.

I’ll pause here for a bit to let everyone come up with his/her own answer. You have the question, right? Here is a reading passage that will come up every term, on the Chocolate, Kimchi, and Gold Museums, and you know there is a good chance students won’t be interested in any of them because students in your past classes haven’t been interested in them. What are you going to do about that?

Got your answer? OK, I’ll share mine too. Nothing. That’s right—I’m not bothered by students who aren’t interested in the Chocolate Museum, because we’re not on a tour. This isn’t a class on museums, or even landmarks. We’re not taking a field trip, and we’re not voting on destinations. It’s an English class. Now, if the reading is at the wrong level (which it isn’t), or it doesn’t work on reading skills (which it does), then we have a problem. But if students don’t like one topic, one day, in one reading, in their entire study of English—no, I am not bothered by that, and I don’t think they should be either. If whether they personally would or would not want to visit the Chocolate Museum seems important, then it’s the teacher’s job to gently remind them what they’re doing in class—learning a language, and learning how to learn that language, and that is going to involve meeting new words and new topics. They’re not going to be riveted by every sentence, and it doesn’t matter. Language isn’t about one sentence, or one reading passage, or one topic. It’s so much larger than that.

Now, I’ve written a number of textbooks, and worked as an editor on a good number as well, and I can assure you that authors try to choose engaging topics around which to weave their language points. There probably isn’t a topic that interests every student in every country, but still, no one begins writing a reading passage by saying, “Well, this is going to bore them all to tears.” Of course not.

However, “an interesting topic” is not the only consideration. For many writers—and for me—it isn’t the most important consideration. A reading passage that helps students learn and practice English, and learn and practice reading—that is the most important consideration.

Does an interesting topic make it easier for students to learn English? Perhaps. It could increase motivation, and that can make learning easier. But perhaps we do our students a disservice if we focus too much on entertainment and pleasing them with every topic, and keep them from the inevitable work of learning. What if students learned to find the joy in the learning itself, and in the results they achieved, and not the topics of the passages they used to accomplish those results?

I’m not suggesting that you not endeavor to make your classes interesting. Before you launch into a reading passage, activate students’ background knowledge with discussion questions on the general topic. Give them prediction questions so they’ll feel they have a reason to read. Give them adequate time to digest and then discuss the reading passage. However, make sure they also realize how they’re recycling vocabulary they’ve already studied, and learning new words from context. Let them see how the grammar they’ve studied in isolation is now used in a fluent whole. Guide them to respond emotionally and intellectually to the content of what they’ve read—even if that emotion is “I would never want to visit that museum”—because then they’ll really know that they can read in English.

And isn’t that what your reading lesson is all about?

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net


Comment from Claire
December 9, 2010 at 12:11 pm

This is an interesting, yet common dilemna. We are teachers before we are entertainers. However, if there is a section in a reading text that students do not like for whatever reason, and it happens every semester, why not have the students submit their own entries of readings on the same subject that allows for pre/during/post reading strategies with specific grammar points? The criteria could be specific. Students would spend time researching and reading authentic material instead of what’s given to them in the textbook. I am not recommending this activity for every chapter or unit, just the one(s) that are repeatedly uninteresting to students. It’s just an idea…

Comment from Dorothy
December 9, 2010 at 12:28 pm

Claire, great question! For me, there a few reasons not to do this:

1) Students aren’t teachers, or materials writers. Even experienced teachers and authors can spend days or weeks finding just the right article and then adapting it to have target vocab and target structures, and enough context that unfamiliar (but useful) vocab can be inferred, and also feature the reading strategies being taught, whether those are sequencing or discourse markers or using word roots or whatever. I don’t mind “find an article” for some assignments, or as a supplement, but it can’t replace a carefully chosen text in a textbook that is fulfilling a specific purpose (as this one was).

2) More importantly, it gives students the false impression that they have the right to like everything they encounter in language class on a personal level. I think that slows down their language learning and makes the whole process a lot more difficult! It narrows topics and vocabulary, as well as learning strategies.

ESL, more than other subjects (including English), seems to get this “It must be FUN!” layered over it. I can’t imagine my son telling his English teacher that “Anna Karenina” isn’t as appealing to him personally as the video game “Gods of War,” so she’d better swap it out. Or telling his physics teacher that he’s not a fan of memorizing formulas, or telling the biology teacher that he’s not in the mood to learn about plants this semester, or his Japanese teacher that he doesn’t like this reading passage because it’s not about soccer, so could she please get another one (I guess two new ones, because the girl next to him doesn’t like soccer…).

And I know of course that you weren’t suggesting anything so drastic. But why are ESL teachers so reluctant to teach students how to approach material that they might not find “fun”? I think by avoiding those topics, they’re shortchanging students both in the moment and long-term.

Comment from Nick Jaworski
January 1, 2011 at 10:38 pm

I definitely agree with Claire. Switch it out. If the students don’t like the material, why are you using it? Anna Karenina is a perfect example. Most students get very little out of doing things they aren’t interested in. In fact, most students probably don’t read it at all and daydream during the classes. I didn’t enjoy and appreciate much of what I forced to read in high school until I rediscovered it years later. I got loads more out of it when I approached it on my own terms, as do most students.

Especially in EFL we’re aiming to teach skill sets as well as words and grammar. All of that can effectively be taught in a large number of ways and relying on a single article just because “it’s in the book” is silly.

Of course all students won’t be interested in every lesson and students need to expect that, but at the same time, if a lesson continually fails there is a problem with the lesson, not the students.

The idea that the textbook author created an appropriately graded text meant to teach them useful language is also ludicrous in my opinion. How exactly does the text book author know that class? The fact is, they don’t. They don’t know them at all and are making an educated guess at best. Teachers and students in the actual class are in a far better position to determine what the students need, what they are interested in, and what they can handle.

I understand what your saying about how many students expect English to always be “fun” and I agree it’s an expectation that can be rather irritating. However, I think all lessons should be engaging whether or not they are fun. This is not so hard to do.

Often the motivator for memorizing a formula you don’t want is simply the threat of a low score on an exam down the road. I find that depressing. Connect the content to the students and give it to them in a way that is motivating. Riding on a high horse and informing them that this dreadful lesson is good for them doesn’t cut it in my book.

Comment from mona
January 3, 2011 at 10:14 pm

This lesson is the one I’m gonna teach tomorrow.It’s boring I do agree with the point that we should make it interesting, though.I printed out some interesting pictures of each museum and stick them on different walls they go around the class and guess what they are.I selected some vocabularies actually not more than 6.I p reteach the vocabularies.the vocabularies are those which make it easier answer the questions in gist reading & detailed reading tasks.
as a following task they will be in groups and choose one museum in our city which they have seen.I’d remind them of passive before starting to talk, though.

Comment from Abduslalam
February 2, 2011 at 7:00 am

Thank you very much for Dorothy for her valuable article. I do agree with you on what you said about the idea of teaching the language. You are right but through my experience teaching any reading that student complain about it and say it is boring. I think the teacher should create his own ideas in order to make the reading interesting. A teacher should follow various techniques to teach any reading passage. Everybody knows that book writers spend much time thinking and selecting the best of the best for the sake of the student. They also try to avoid any difficulties might appear from the title or the text. I think the teacher is the master here.

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