Archive for Tag: reading activity

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

Friday, January 8, 2010

To Read or Not To Read

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Getting students to read aloud is something I had often done as a teacher without giving it much critical thought. After all, if the students are reading, it means that I am not. And that means a reduction in teacher talk time — something we all strive for, right? However, in the past year, I have had two personal experiences that have shaped the way I approach reading aloud in my own ESL classes.

I have no idea what I just read.

About a year ago, my former supervisor convened a study group with the goal of learning more about how students learn to read. The teachers who participated were given several academic articles to read, and we met after reading each one and discussed it. One article was particularly dense and difficult to understand, even for educated native speakers. The study group was focused on one specific paragraph. In order to get a clearer grasp of the information, the group leader asked me to read it aloud. As I did, I noticed something fascinating happening. I was concentrating so hard on correctly pronouncing the words and getting the phrase groups right, that I had no idea what I had read when I was done.

If this can happen to a person reading in her own language, what happens when students read in a language that is not their first? As a result of this experience, I tried to avoid having students read aloud at all. I read everything, from the course syllabus on the first day of class, to the instructions for each activity, to the reading passages that I didn’t have them read silently. I wanted to make sure that they never read something aloud with no idea of what they were reading. However, I was often left with a tired voice and the nagging feeling that I was cheating my students of valuable practice.

Read after me.

It wasn’t until I joined my French class that I experienced the joys (or at least the benefits) of reading aloud for myself. When she gives us a text to read, my teacher, Sandy, reads it aloud or plays a recording of it first. That gives us a chance to note the pronunciation of key words, mark down the liaisons, and figure out what the text was actually about. Then, she assigns pieces of the dialogue or text for each of us to read aloud. We each read our bit and then listen as the other students read theirs. We recycle the same text over and over until every student has had a chance to read. Sandy interrupts our reading to correct our pronunciation as necessary. As a student, I feel quite comfortable with this activity. I feel well prepared for the phonological aspect of the task, and I already understand what I am reading, so I don’t feel stressed out in the slightest when I am asked to read aloud.

The consequence of this experience has been a limited return to reading aloud in my own classes. When we come across a dialogue or text in our course materials, I read it first and then the students take turns reading one or two sentences each. Sometimes I call on students randomly, and sometimes we go around the room. It gives me a chance to hear students’ pronunciation and address any issues they have, and it appears to increase their confidence as well.

“Is Reading Aloud Allowed?”

However, this evolution of my teaching practice had all been more or less subconscious until I read an article in the latest edition of English Teaching Professional by Jeremy Harmer called, “Is Reading Aloud Allowed?” In it, he debates the pros and cons of reading aloud and ultimately argues that there are many benefits to incorporating this activity into the ESL lesson plan. He makes the case for reading aloud as a diagnostic instrument (back to having students read bits of my syllabus on the first day, then) and as a tool for helping students to make connections between words and phrases and the sounds associated with them.

In addition, he also contends that reading is an actual real-life skill. As a PhD student, I use reading aloud when I have to read a dense academic text. I read it aloud to myself a couple of times and rely on the pausing to help me decipher the message of the text. In my experience, this is also a useful strategy for students who face the difficult academic texts from standardized tests. Being able to chunk the texts into manageable bits can help students to more quickly and easily understand what it is they are reading.

I am convinced that reading aloud has an important place in our classrooms. When done carefully, it can be a powerful tool and can help students hone reading and pronunciation skills they otherwise might not be able to. However, Harmer insists that the text that students read aloud has to be carefully chosen, they need to understand what it is they are reading, and they need time to listen and/or rehearse before being asked to do it in front of the class.

Harner, J. (2009) “Is Reading Aloud Allowed?” English Teaching Professional, 65.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Confessions of a Recovering Control Freak

By Maria Spelleri
Instructor, Department of Language and Literature
Manatee Community College, Florida, USA
It’s hard for me to surrender control in my life, including my classroom. (You catch that “my”? I’m not kidding here.) Even though my conscious self knows that studies show empowering students leads to more student satisfaction and adult learners need a say in their learning, the insecure inner me yearns to micromanage my classes, doling out pages and assignments like the last M & Ms in a lifeboat.

Admitting a problem truly is the first step on the road to recovery because now I am on a mission to give my students more say, more choices, more control of their studies in “my” courses. Proud in my recovery process, I just wanted to share a few small steps that I took as I started out.

1. I gave students several topics to choose from in preparing presentations and writing papers, or sometimes they come up with one completely on their own. (It took a weekend with the shades drawn to calm down after that.)

2. In a thick textbook that we never get through, students get to pick chapters with topics that interest them. (OK, I chose 7 of the 15 and they choose 2, but it’s a good start.)

3. I allow students to “blow off” their choice among certain homework and assignments. (The tremors are much better now.)

4. Students are permitted to look at incoming text messages during class. They aren’t allowed to answer them, but when they feel that vibration, do you think they are thinking about class anymore? No way! Better to take a quick glimpse and then shut it off until break time. (No one can actually hear my teeth grinding, I’ve been told.)

5. I use every possible excuse to have a student man the instructor station and show a paper on the projector or type on the computer for all to see. I might even stand in the back of the class and ask a student to be at the “controls”, pointing out items for the class to look at or comment on. (And I absolutely resist the urge to shout out Focus! Zoom in! The paper is upside down! Oddly enough, they figure it out without me.)

6. In an advanced level reading course, my greatest challenge because reading can be so teacher focused if an effort isn’t made, I incorporated a regular “You Be The Teacher” activity. In this totally student- centered activity, the class learned about the Hidden Treasures of Afghanistan, the problems with building a space station on Mars, issues regarding the Mexican border fence, and how dogs evolved into the hundreds of species we have today, among other interesting topics. Students delved deeply into their articles and became confident with every paragraph. It was very successful as far as student engagement, and I think it caused them to focus carefully on discerning important details from filler. But the best thing about this “letting go” was seeing how involved the students were as they worked on authentic readings of their own choice.

As I hand over more classroom control to the students, I feel we are becoming more like partners in their learning, which is what I had always told them we were. But now I am also walking the walk!