In this post, I wrote about my own experience of extensive reading and reflected on the idea of getting students a) reading extensively and b) benefitting as much they can from it. Following on from this, I have attempted to start the ball rolling and get the pages turning (at the hands of my learners, of course!).
My experimentation thus far is informed by:
- what I have learnt about learner autonomy (as well as the role multimedia can play in facilitating this).
- what I have learnt about motivation.
- what I have learnt about the relationship between these.
- what I have learnt about theories of learning (particularly drawing on social constructivist ideas).
- my own experience of extensive reading (as language learner and teacher) as well as others’ (e.g. the experiences related during a talk at a MATSDA conference this year).
- reflection on the relationship between the implications all of these and the learners in my classes.
My goal is:
To get my learners reading regularly, over a substantial period of time (not a one-week wonder) and reaping the benefits of this. However, it is important that it comes from them, that they are doing it of their own volition not because it’s forced on them, not because Lizzie said so. Ideally, it should also be something they can enjoy. Of course, pleasure is multi-faceted…
For example, this could be pleasure that results from:
- discovery/satisfying curiosity.
- overcoming a tough challenge.
- finding something really difficult but persevering nevertheless.
- feeling a sense of progress – linearly through the book and/or in terms of language learnt from it.
And the type of pleasure experienced, if any at all, is likely to shift regularly.
Why is pleasure important? I think because it is then more likely to be something they do long term rather than just this semester. (I read in French for pleasure still. And it keeps my language ticking over.)
For now, I am focussing on adult classes. (Perhaps when I have done my IH Young Learner training certificate, which I am starting soon, I will think about how to set about this project with my low-level teenaged learners…!) I teach a mixture of levels (currently pre-intermediate, upper intermediate and advanced) and I am using a similar approach with all of these levels. I’m keeping track of what I’m doing with the learners and how they are responding over time by recording anything of interest/relevance in a 50-cent notebook. (The same notebook that I’m using to keep track of my experimentation with various multimedia tools for developing learner autonomy, as I think extensive reading can be an important tool for autonomous learning and autonomy is important in extensive reading.) It’s early days but it’s already really interesting! (I think so, anyway :-p)
My approach (the beginning):
I started the whole process by putting the learners in small groups for a brief discussion about extensive reading (scaffolded by some simple prompt questions).
This enabled me to gauge:
- their attitude to reading
- what they already know about the benefits of reading for language learning
- what approaches they have used and how well (or not) these have worked for them.
At both lower and higher levels, the learners had experience and ideas to share. Unsurprisingly, a mixture of approaches were discussed. Of course, they then looked to me to tell them “the magic way” but that was not to be…
I responded that:
- all the approaches they had discussed were equally valid
- all the approaches had different benefits/drawbacks.
- varying the approach used could be the best way to gain the most benefits in the long term.
I think this was important to discuss, because there is a danger that learners may think there is only one “right way” of doing things (“I must read x type of book in y time using z approach, if I don’t I won’t learn anything”), and if the perceived “right way” doesn’t work for them, they may give up altogether, feeling that their way is wrong and therefore not worth doing. Whereas, there are, of course, any number of ways to skin a cat/read a book/learn a language.
They also wanted me to tell them what to read, so we discussed the benefits/drawbacks of:
- reading a book that you have already read in L1 vs. a book you’ve never read before.
- graded readers vs. authentic texts.
- books vs magazines/newspapers.
I then gave them the task of finding something they wanted to read in English. The only stipulation was it had to be something they could read over time. So, a book, a book of short stories, a newspaper/magazine that they would read regularly (as vs. a single article). I encouraged them to find something that they want to read.
This, of course, is very subjective:
- Some learners welcome the challenge of an authentic text (like me and Harry Potter in Italian – it may seem a ridiculous prospect, an elementary learner trying to read Harry Potter written for Italians, but it’s working! And, as it happens, one of my level 3’s has picked Harry Potter in English – which he says is difficult but he is enjoying it and wants to persevere – so far! 🙂 )
- Some prefer the security of a reader graded to their level and will benefit more from this.
- In terms of subject matter, one man’s meat is another man’s poison.
I think that whatever learners choose to read, if the desire is there, they can gain something from it. Why? Because it will add to the all-important motivation to persevere. And perseverance = exposure to language in use.
The learners themselves had ideas of where to get hold of English reading material:
- local bookshops
- the library
- online sources, for those with kindles
- I also posted a link to the Gutenberg project on Edmodo for added inspiration.
My approach (further information):
I did not make this project compulsory, but explained that once a week we would use ten or so minutes of a lesson to discuss progress/difficulties/approaches used etc. As we had already discussed the benefits, they understood why I was introducing this into their course and were receptive to the idea. I’m not forcing this on them, I’m offering it to them as a potential learning tool and scaffolding their independence in using it. A couple of students in one of my classes don’t want to read. So they are going to listen extensively instead. They are going to watch series/films in English with English subtitles on (so, a bit of reading too!). That’s fine. We’ll see – perhaps as the course progresses and the other learners who are reading share their experience of it and how it’s helping them, these learners may be tempted to experiment outside of their comfort zone. Meanwhile, any exposure to English is better than none!
With the lower levels, this discussion came the lesson after we had done a lesson of which part had focused on learning new vocabulary and the kinds of things you need to know about a word in order to learn it. This tied in quite nicely: Their homework was to find three words/phrases that were new to them, find out the type of information that we had looked at in class (collocations, prepositions, examples of different meanings of a single word where relevant etc. etc.) and post this on Edmodo, to share with the other learners. I put a link for the Oxford Learners Dictionary onto Edmodo for them to help them with this.
With higher levels, I have some other tools up my sleeve to try out with them, but meanwhile the project levels itself by choice of reading matter.
Subsequently, I have told learners that I won’t set this vocabulary work as homework anymore but it is still something they can continue to do. It can also count towards their 10hrs guided study (learners at IH Palermo need to complete 10hrs of independent learning – any time they use English outside of class of their own volition i.e. not homework). Soon, I want to introduce Quizlet as a way of reviewing the vocabulary they accumulate. Over time, I hope to help them build up a range of ways to use reading material and any vocabulary they choose to extract from it. (I’m not dictating when or how often they should look up words, but between them there is a range of approaches in use, which I am encouraging and will continue to encourage experimentation with.)
I have also asked two levels (so far) – pre-intermediate and advanced – to set themselves mini-goals for their reading over the next week. It was their choice what their goal was, the only stipulation was that it should be small enough to be a realistic aim for one week of reading. Next week’s ten-minute discussion will enable them to share what progress they have made with their goals and consider how realistic they were in light of this. Hopefully, success with the goals will be motivating, in terms of the reading, and if any learners don’t achieve their goals (there are bound to be some), collaboratively (and with my help if necessary) they can work out why and adjust their goal-setting for the next week to make their goals more achievable while still challenging. This will hopefully avoid demotivation by guiding learners towards a way of enjoying a series of meaningful mini-successes rather than becoming dispirited because the end goal (the usual, vague “improve my English for xyz reason”) doesn’t seem to be getting any nearer. I’m doing this because I think motivation management is important for the development of learner autonomy and perseverance.
So, it’s early days but I would say a positive start: the learners are on board. For me, the next step is to help them sustain this motivation rather than get bored/lose interest/give up. Additionally, of course, I want to help them become more autonomous learners. This extensive reading project is one strand of that. I have a handful of ideas up my sleeve (in relation to this project and the larger learner autonomy project) and time this weekend (a three-day weekend, hurrah!) to reflect and formulate the next phase of my plan of action.
Well, if you want to know the results of these experiments (what worked, what didn’t, evaluation at the end of these learners’ current course/level, what else I did to try and make these projects successful i.e. the afore-mentioned ideas lurking up my sleeves), I think you’ll have to wait till my British Council webinar on learner autonomy which will take place in February next year, as conveniently enough my current adult classes mostly finish towards the end of January next year (except for one that finishes in December) – just about in time to round up what I learn, and package it suitably for sharing with others… 😉
Meanwhile, as usual I would be very interested to hear from anybody with any thoughts on all this. As I mentioned in my previous post, I would love to hear anybody’s experiences of trying to get learners reading extensively and independently, as well as of being a language learner and using extensive reading as a learning tool.