A few months back, I was excited to hear about the release of a new story book for kids learning English by Jason Renshaw (a.k.a. English Raven). Anyone who knows the Raven knows he has considerable talents when it comes to material development and design so I was curious to see what his new creation would be like. I was even more delighted when he offered me free access to the final product to trial with my kids and review. Unfortunately, work and study swamped me soon after so it’s only now that I’m getting round to reviewing the thing (apologies Jason) but this is a work that deserves some attention so better late than never!
The story book is called World Adventure Kids and the first thing that impressed me was the fact that you actually get two adventure stories in one: Doctor Darkleaf and Tomb of the Pharaoh.
Here’s the first thing that sets WAK aside - it’s a ‘choose your own adventure’ style book. You may have read something like this in your younger days (I know I read a few!) but the idea is simple: you read a paragraph or two and then you are presented with a choice and, depending on what you decide, you are directed to a specific page number. For example:
The book itself is in pdf format so when you make your choice, you click on the relevant blue box and jump directly to that page!
This format of storytelling has the advantage of putting the reader ‘in control’ of the story (and this is why such books are often called interactive fiction). Therefore, the story is told in the second person with use of ‘you’ really giving the feeling that the reader is inside the story. This increases reader engagement in a number of ways - at times you may be asked to make a decision about what to do next that effects the progression of the story (as in the example above), at other times you may be asked something based on what you have just read and be required to answer the question correctly. Make the right choice and you can move on through the story; make the wrong choice and you may have to go back or, even worse, start all over!
WAK exploits these ‘choose your own adventure’ features to the full. While reading, you can’t help but feel involved in the story and instructions to note things down should be heeded if you are to make the right choices later on! Several of the choices also act as a clever way of weaving comprehension questions into the story - rather than a boring post-chapter exercise, your students will most likely see them as an integral part of the story.
For me, a stand-out feature of WAK is that it is very well written. Books like this are not easy to put together so hats off to Jason for making the story flow even through the differing paths it can take. Furthermore, it is beautifully illustrated with colourful character portraits and atmospheric backdrops adding to the sense of engagement and involvement. Another masterstroke is that one of the main characters you interact with, the President of World Adventure Kids Golden Sky, is female. Boys will have already been drawn in by the adventure theme and girls will be drawn in by this strong lead character.
But that’s just what I think. The best people to give opinions about this book are the children it is aimed at so I distributed copies of the book to six of my students. I didn’t want to influence their feedback at all so I just asked them if they would be interested in reading it and that was that. The only thing I told them was that someone I knew had written it and wanted to know what kids thought of it. I also instructed them not to share the book with anyone as it was a review copy.
The first sign that the book was a hit came when I discovered that, despite my instructions, the pdf file had been passed on to other kids. It seems the six I had given it to had been overheard talking to each other about it and they were put under pressure to share! Anyway, they really got into the stories and, as I suspected, the girls were impressed with Golden Sky and all the kids, boys and girls alike, loved the stories.
They were very keen to share their ‘secret names’ (even though I pointed out that this defeated the point of having a secret name!) and they were also keen to discuss the different choices they had made and the consequences. It was great to see such excitement and discussion arising from a book they had read, even more so because it was a book they had read in English.
All of them said the book was as good as or better than the books they read in their English lessons. One thing that surprised them was when I revealed the author was in fact an English teacher himself. “Oh, I thought it was a real storybook” was how one boy put it! They also enjoyed being given a book just to read rather then to study. As one girl commented “I’m reading this just like a normal book.” Both reactions are very much in line with what Jason was aiming for - a story to be read and enjoyed instead of interrupted with vocabulary reviews, comprehension checks and grammar exercises.
That makes WAK markedly different to the majority of readers for kids learning English on the market today. I showed it to a colleague as well and he immediately expressed doubts about how useful it would be as a class text. “The students will all be in different places and at different stages at the same time” he said. “How can you build a lesson around that?” To me, that is exactly the kind of ‘approach’ to using readers with young learners of English that WAK is trying to change. Somewhere along the line, readers and stories have become nothing more than extended exercises with more of a focus on language than plot. With all the narrated recordings available or reading aloud going on, students don’t even have to read them anymore. WAK has a good crack at getting kids to actually sit down and read something in English. There would be nothing wrong with setting up a lesson in which kids read quietly (why should there be?) As a teacher, you could monitor and help kids when they are stuck or not sure what to do. Or why not let kids read the stories in small groups and discuss the options and arrive at a decision together?
The only real criticism to come from me and my students is to do with the pdf format. The internal links work well as you jump from one page to another but I did wonder as I looked at it before giving copies to my kids if they might have problems with it. Sure enough, a couple of them (not the majority I might add) reported that they ‘got lost’ due to clicking on the wrong button or going on to the next page instead of selecting one of the options. The other issue was that the clickable links did not work on the electronic device of choice for many of the kids, the iPad. That was a shame as reading something like this on a tablet device would be more relaxing and enjoyable than reading from a computer screen. Good news for Android tablet users though in the shape of Mantano Reader, which keeps all the links usable. Perhaps there is an iPad app that allows the same but the ones I have tried did not.
Anyway, technical issues aside, this is a great book and I would strongly recommend it for children learning English. It works well as a book for kids to read through on their own (as holiday reading or a book for ‘reading hour’ for example) and, with the right approach, it would work as a class reader as well. I think the ELT industry as a whole needs to shift away from the idea that everything needs to be guided, supported and littered with ‘concept checks’, ‘vocabulary development’ and ‘language focus’ segments - a text, story or reader can stand on its own as a work of fiction to be read for pleasure and enjoyment - World Adventure Kids lets your learners do just that!
And, saving the best for last, in a surprise announcement, Jason has made the whole book and additional resources available for FREE. If you wish to download a copy to share with your students (and I strongly recommend you do) or you want some more information (from the Raven’s mouth so to speak), go to the English Raven World Adventure Kids page - the adventure starts there!