Tuesday, December 7, 2010
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
Email: zemach at comcast dot net