Autonomous learning (4) – Graded Readers

This is the fourth in a series of posts whose goal is to explore ways of helping learners develop their language skills autonomously. The first two posts are specific to listening. The first post, which focuses on perception of connected speech can be read here , the second post on dictations as an autonomous learning tool here and the third on “text mining” can be read here.  The first two posts focus on listening, the third on autonomous use of reading and listening texts, and, in keeping with my expansion of the series focus, this post is focusing on graded readers as means of autonomous learning – language development and skill development

What?

 Graded readers are books that are written in the target language, graded to suit learners of that language rather than being geared towards native speakers of that language. They exist for a range of levels, generally corresponding to those within the Common European Framework of Languages. Graded readers often (but don’t always) contain activities related to the text, either dispersed throughout the text or gathered at the end of the book.

A variety of well-known publishers have published collections of graded readers, information about which can be found on their websites. Here are some links to the graded reader sections of some of the publishers that do graded readers:

 Choosing a Graded Reader

As the list of links above might suggest, there is no shortage of choice where graded readers are concerned. Of course each publisher produces one or more different types of graded reader. Graded readers can be:

  • a text, graded to a particular level.
  • a text and an audio disc recording of the text.
  • a text, an audio recording of the text and questions/activities that accompany the text.
  • an e-book, with above-mentioned features integrated.
  • probably other versions exist as well…!

I recently discovered that graded readers do not only exist in English for learners of English but in other languages for learners of those languages. Including Italian! The main focus for this post will be book-plus-audio graded readers, based on my recent experience of working my way through Villa dei Mughetti, published by Black Cat.

Screenshot from Blackcat-cideb website

Screenshot from Blackcat-cideb website

Having worked my way through a graded reader, I now feel a lot better placed to help my learners get the most out of theirs, where before I tended to leave them to it, within the remit of my reading project.

In terms of choosing a graded reader, availability will be the major factor. When I bought my graded reader, in Palermo, it was the only one they had in Italian! I would recommend choosing one that comes with an audio recording, if possible, as this is a very valuable additional resource. Fortunately for me, Black Cat readers generally seem to come with accompanying cd.

Getting Started

My top tips for getting started with a graded reader would be:

  • Locate the answer key for the accompanying activities (if you have a version with activities!): with some, that’s as easy as checking the back of the book and finding that they are there. With Villa dei Mughetti I had to go to the Black Cat website, register as a teacher and then I was able to download them. Not the easiest, and if students are expecting the usual back-of-the-book scenario, they may be a bit perplexed and therefore a bit of help might not go amiss!
  • Decide how to begin: Think about your goals in using the reader and the different approaches you could take (dependent on what kind of graded reader you have chosen). Decide which approach(es) you want to try.

Different Approaches

Here are some approaches a learner could use:

  1. Read through the text without looking at the questions.
  2. Read the text and answer the questions/do the activities as you go along.
  3. Listen to the complete audio cd without looking at the questions or text.
  4. Listen to/read a section first, then read it/listen to it, then answer questions as you go along.
  5. Listen to a section first, then answer questions, then read it to check.
  6. Listen and read simultaneously, the whole text, without looking at any questions.
  7. Listen and read simultaneously, answering the questions as you go

A learner might use the same approach throughout or vary the approach from chapter to chapter. As mentioned above, learners’ goals will/should influence the choice of approach. For example, my dominant approach was to listen to a chapter, do the activities, read to check, then mark the score-able activities using the answer key. I.e. (5) above. My goal was to work intensively on my listening.

Here is how I perceive the above activities could match to different goals:

  1. Extensive reading
  2. Intensive reading/language work
  3. Extensive listening
  4. Supported intensive listening/reading (depending which you are stronger at and which you are weaker at, the other supports it)/language work
  5. Intensive listening/language work
  6. Sound-spelling awareness/pronunciation
  7. Sound-spelling awareness/pronunciation, plus comprehension/language work.

It could be useful to discuss different approaches with learners, to raise awareness of how different approaches map to different learning goals. Encourage them to experiment with different approaches and report back to their peers, so that they are encouraged to reflect on their experience of trying the various approaches – they could initially all experiment with the same approach and then compare notes, even if they were all using different graded readers (provided the graded readers all had the same resources e.g. audio and activities), and then move on to deciding which they prefer, or they could all experiment with whichever approach they wanted to and report back on whatever they have done. They could also group themselves according to what approach they wanted to try.

This experimentation and discussion would fit in quite nicely with both my Experimentation with English and Reading Project approaches. As mentioned in those projects, it needn’t be very time-consuming in class.

Graded Reader Activities

In Villa dei Mughetti, there was a chunk of activities at the end of each chapter. Each chunk included a mixture of score-able and un-score-able activities.

There were:

  • Comprehension activities: T/F; Y/N; ordering events; matching utterances and characters etc.
  • Language focus activities: grammar explanation plus practice activity, vocabulary activities e.g. matching pictures and words, a crossword, matching words and definitions etc.
  • Productive skills-focused activities: each chunk of activities had both a writing activity and a speaking activity.

Comprehension activities

These are straightforward and can be done as a reading exercise or a listening exercise. If learners choose to listen and answer the questions, as I did, it would be useful to encourage them to use the text as a transcript to identify why they make any mistakes. Of course this would be easier for them to do if you have done with them in class before, in your listening lessons.

Language focus activities

Vocabulary: learners need to be selective in deciding what to do with the vocabulary that the activities encourage them to focus on. Is it vocabulary they want to actually learn? It won’t necessarily be – some of the vocabulary in Villa dei Mughetti was very random and I wouldn’t choose to focus on it sufficiently for it become part of my productive linguistic resources (e.g. names of flowers whose names I don’t even know in English – I’m happy for the flowers to be pretty, I’m happy enough to learn what the names are in Italian, but I’m really not fussed about *learning* all their Italian names.)

So, if the vocabulary isn’t useful, that’s fine, do the activities and move on. However, if is vocabulary that learners want to learn, then they  need to do something with it beyond the activities in the book. For example, input it into Quizlet and use the various study and game modes; try to use it in the writing activities etc.

Grammar: This (at least in Villa dei Mughetti) is generally based on language/examples from the text. If a learner is familiar with the grammar and gets all the questions in the practice activity right, great. Move on but don’t forget to look out for more examples, in context, in the ensuing text and in other texts that you encounter. However, if there are a few mistakes, it could be worth using a website or book with grammar explanations and activities, to try and clarify any misunderstanding. Once it’s under control, at least on a declarative level, it’s even more important to look out for further examples of it in context – in future chapters and other texts (written or spoken). In this way, the grammar activities become diagnostic, either confirming what you are familiar with or acting as a springboard to working on what you are less familiar with.

Productive skills focus activities

These activities, at least in Villa dei Mughetti, are the un-score-able ones. I’m of the opinion that self-study material doesn’t have to be score-able to be useful, so I am glad these activities feature in my current preferred graded reader series!

In order to get the most out of them, it is useful to have tools to use alongside them: i.e. a blog for the writing and a voice-recording tool (e.g. Audioboo, Audacity, a mobile phone, vocaroo etc, for the speaking. That way, you can collect your writing activities on your blog, and accumulate a series of voice recordings too. If using a website to record your voice, you can usually link to the recording in your blog, or if you make files on your computer, this can usually be uploaded. Evernote could be used in a similar way.

This enables progress to be charted. You could also encourage learners to share blog links with each other, and compare their production. Or, if you use Edmodo with them, they could post things on it instead of creating blogs etc. Of course a class blog could be used too. Once learners have reached the end of the graded reader, they could go back through their recorded written and spoken activities, to see if they can identify progress and identify/correct any errors.

Some of the activities might seem a bit lame (in my limited experience) but they may be able to be combined, with a bit of imagination. Thus, as you might have picked up on, I don’t think it’s necessary to complete the productive activities before moving on to the next chapter. As long as you are doing the activities regularly, then it just becomes a matter of how it best fits the time frame you have available. Writing a text takes longer than answering a few T/F questions, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop doing the T/F questions until you have time to do a longer activity.

Other Activities

Graded Readers can yield activities beyond those contained in the book (if it’s the type of reader with activities):

  • Dictations: A great additional use for the accompanying audio disc. Dictations may not immediately come to mind as a potential activity but actually it works well, as the language is graded to the reader’s level and it tends to be read clearly. Of course it won’t be a dictation speed or with built in pauses, but as one has control of the recording, one can repeat a short passage (a minute at most) multiple times and see how many times it takes to get everything done. If the activity is repeated at regular intervals, comparisons regarding number of times necessary can enable progress to be tracked. Comparison with the transcript, as with standard dictations, can indicate weaknesses in decoding skills.
  • Writing/speaking: As mentioned, those in the book may not seem the most exciting, but the concept is sound. So, if a group of students are using the same graded reader, then get them to come up with alternative ideas for productive activities, that they actually want to do. You as the teacher could collect these and over time build up a collection of supplementary materials to share with future students. If your school has a library of graded readers, copies of those materials could live with the collection of readers.Students may be concerned about lack of feedback with the productive activities, so it may be useful to explain that a) it’s still a useful activity even without feedback, as it helps the development of fluency (of writing or of speaking) and b) it’s also useful to go back over the texts produced (written or spoken) and see if any mistakes can be identified, especially as time passes and language level (hopefully) consolidates.
  • Gapping the text: A bit more work is involved with this activity, but it should be worth it. Learners type up a small portion of the text. (A similar length to that used for the dictation) and then gap some words. This could be words that they struggled to hear/decode the first time round (to facilitate this, after they listen to a chapter, do exercises and read to check, they could also check if they read anything different from what they had heard. Alternatively, listening first and then listening/reading simultaneously to compare). It could be chunks relating to the language/grammar point in that chapter, or a previous chapter. It could be any chunks that they understand but wouldn’t produce unprompted, that they think might be useful to activate. (See my post on text mining for more information about this approach.) Students then leave the reproduced, gapped text aside for a while. Later, they come back to it to play the audio and attempt to fill in the gaps. (NB: If you think this would be too easy, I can only say that I have done something similar with dictations: I’ve listened, made mistakes, identified mistakes through transcript comparison, marked mistakes but not corrected them, left it aside for awhile, come back to it and tried to listen and correct the mistakes – now gaps where something is wrong – and struggled! Generally I’ve been able to correct some and still failed on some, even though I’ve seen the correct answer previously.)

Is it extensive reading?

Some might argue that with all the activities breaking the text into small portions, reading graded readers doesn’t count as “proper” extensive reading. However, I would say that:

  • a graded reader can still be used for extensive reading/listening if the text is heard/read through first time round without using the activities. Or, after the activities have all been done, one could read/listen through the whole text without stopping for activities, enjoying a greater understanding of the text.
  • a graded reader is a beneficial learning resource that can be used as well as more traditional texts. E.g. I read other things to read extensively and use my graded readers mainly for intensive listening. As with anything, alone it might be insufficient but as part of a varied diet of activities, including extensive reading/listening without activities, it can be very valuable.

So, I don’t think it’s such an important issue to worry about. As long as students are aware of different ways of using their graded readers, of how these ways map to different learning goals, which may change as they progress through their graded reader, and, finally, of the benefits and limitations of graded readers as learning resource, then they can use their graded readers as suits their purpose and get as much out of them as possible.

Conclusion

Graded readers are a rich resource of learning, perfect for autonomous study. This is particularly true if you have access to an audio recording as well. A wide range of approaches can be used with a graded reader, depending on learning aims. There is also potential for a students to do further activities not stipulated by the graded reader, and create supplementary materials for use with them. Both the process of creation and the use of these can be another valuable part of the process of using a graded reader. Some teacher guidance could be helpful in enabling learners to make the most of their graded reader, through a cycle of experimentation and metacognitive discussion. This could be achieved without the graded readers necessarily becoming a teacher-led/controlled activity.

I’ve really enjoyed using my graded reader in Italian and look forward to using more! (And, I confess, I do still have a couple of productive activities to do – one of which is next on my agenda for this afternoon!) I also look forward to being able to help my learners get more out of their graded readers when I re-launch my reading project at IHPA in October! 🙂

If you have any more ideas for helping learners use graded readers more effectively as an autonomous learning tool, please share them by commenting on this post. 

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Helping language learners visualise their linguistic development: growing learning

My learners often struggle to recognise the progress they are making and how much work they do put in to their learning – both seem like a drop in the ocean compared to all the lacks – the “I can’t“‘s and “I have no time“‘s  that are all too clear to them and tend to be their focal point. Time spent on language study and progress made are quite intangible for a lot of the time, to the person using that time and making that progress. This can lead to lack of motivation and tailing off of initial enthusiasm.

Additionally, learners tend to avoid studying unless they have a substantial chunk of time to devote to it. Being busy people, with a range of commitments to juggle, clear hour-long chunks of time do not arise as frequently as they might like. However, what they often don’t realise is that there is value in “little and often” when it comes to language study.

When I started my reading project with my learners, I looked for a motivating way for them to record their reading and goals, but wasn’t able to find something that matched what I was after. This remained the case with the “Experimentation with English” project that came next in my series of initiatives.

With all this in mind, I wanted to come up with a new way of recording learning that would address some of these issues. I wanted:

  • motivating: way for learners to record their out-of-class work that would make them value short periods of time more highly
  • visually appealing: a way to enable learners to see at a glance how they are using what time they do have to dedicate to their language learning/use and to compare this with their own personal learning goals.
  • simple: the learners won’t use it if it’s overly complicated – and who could blame them!

What came about was a handout called

“Growing language skills – how many flowers can you grow?”

…which sounds ridiculous, I know, but, despite this, is a useful non-technological tool for my learners to use. (I’d like to technologise it too, turn it into a “motivation app” of some sort, but I haven’t yet figured out how, so for now it is a simple hand-out!)

The handout - with a flower courtesy of www.openclipart.org

The handout – with a flower courtesy of http://www.openclipart.org

What you don’t see in this image (because I did it manually post-printing and pre-photocopying!) is that I have divided up the entire image into small segments. Each segment represents 10 minutes. The idea is that learners use colour-coding. E.g. listening is blue, reading is red, writing is green, speaking is orange. (There is also space for them to add other things e.g. exam preparation) In this colour-coding example, if they read for 30 minutes, they can shade three segments in red. Of course many activities use multiple skills. In this case, learners need to decide what their goal is in doing that activity – which skill they are focusing on. I also added some instructions to act as a reminder. (See the completed versions below…)

Thus, as well as creating a visual of time spent on learning, the idea is that learners are encouraged to reflect on both their activity purposes and learning goals.

What you end up with is something like this:

Some students piloted it for about a month...

Some students piloted it for about a month…

Benefits:

  • Visual impact: A learner can look at his/her flower and see immediately how much of their time they are spending on any given skill, in comparison to other skills.
  • Motivation: Hopefully, they can feel some kind of satisfaction as the number of shaded segments grows. And if they shade in all the squares, they can have another handout and can start on their second flower. During a course, they can see how many language flowers they can grow. (This I haven’t been able to pilot yet, as I only had the idea late on in the course, so it’s only been a mini-pilot so far…)
  • Metacognitive development: Learners are encouraged to develop a habit of reflecting on their language learning activities, their own learning goals and how the two relate. It would be helpful to support this via in-class discussion around these handouts, both before learners start using them and during the period of time that they are in use. (With the dual purpose of ensuring they don’t get forgotten!)
  • Pride: Hopefully learners will feel proud of all the learning that is represented in their flowers, with the flowers playing the role of making that time and study more tangible and visible.

Feedback from one of my students (one whose flower is pictured above):

I think that the guided study flowers is important for student because he can notice all the activities he does every day and in this way he can know his improving!

So, learning and progress become more noticeable, more tangible. It’s only a very small tool, nothing earth-shattering, but can hopefully make a positive difference.

Issues:

  • It’s a flower. It’s sissy! Perhaps I need to come up with a design that is appealing to male as well as female learners. (Not that all female learners are automatically going to find flowers appealing!) Having said that, although the photographed examples are from ladies, a couple of my male learners did also use theirs. I’m planning to redesign it for my next lot of courses. Maybe there will be multiple design options!
  • What about the learners who do loads? Some of my learners are prolific in their guided study and rack up hours and hours and hours. They might find shading every ten minutes of every activity they do rather tedious. I wonder if I could make it so that learners could decide on how many minutes each segment would be worth.

Future directions:

  • Obviously thus far I have only used this idea with two classes, and only for a relatively brief length of time (dictated by when I had the idea!) so it’s still very much in the developmental stage. I’m currently overhauling my learner autonomy projects and trying to create a course plan (parallel course plan? It’s *not* the main course plan, but the idea is for it to run alongside that, as it has been doing but more systematically) that brings them all together systematically, so fitting this idea into that is one of my (many) challenges.
  • Introducing it needs more thought, as does how it is revisited, in order for it to be most useful to my learners in the long term. This of course ties in with the whole challenge of fitting it satisfactorily into the above-mentioned course plan. For this, more thought also needs to go into how best to mine the potential metacognitive benefits, in conjunction with other activities for metacognitive development.
  • I want to make it into an app. I think it’s a fairly straight-forward concept and wouldn’t be difficult to turn into an app. I envisage there being a choice of designs you can use, all of which would be already divided up into ten-minute chunks (or perhaps the student could specify the length of time, within reason – maybe between ten and thirty minutes). Learners would just have to attribute a skill to a colour, with x number of colours available. There could be some completed models with brief commentaries, to demonstrate.
  • I’d like to try it with my own Italian learning – but that will have to wait until I have access to a printer, since it isn’t an app yet! I’d be curious to see how my Italian learning time divides up between skills, especially as I am using my learning contract to try and bring more variety into my learning. I’m sure reading and listening extensively would dominate, but I wonder how everything else would stack up. Which makes me think that perhaps this idea is more intrinsically interesting when you are experimenting with new ways of learning: if you know that all you do is watch films extensively, then you already know which colour will dominate, whereas if you try a range of different activities over time, then it’s less predictable.

Watch this space…