Me - “Read the chapter - that’s all.”
5th Grader - “Er… teacher… CD?”
Me - “What do you mean?”
5th Grader - “Will we listen to the story?”
Me - “No, we’re reading now.”
5th Grader - “Take turns?”
Me - “Sorry?”
5th Grader - “Will we take turns to read?”
Me - “No, just…”
5th Grader - “So you will read it?”
Me - “No, you will read.”
5th Grader - “By myself?”
Me - “Yes!” (thinking “finally!”)
5th Grader - “Oh… OK…” (looking slightly puzzled)
I also include the audio recording of the story in the ‘superfluous’ category. I have used them in the past but I no longer do so for a couple of reasons - first of all, the pace of the recording is slower than the rate at which someone, even a second language learner, can read. If we are aiming to improve reading skills (which should also include reading speed), then having our students following along as the story is heard from a CD player is detrimental rather than helpful. Secondly, I have witnessed far too many students switch off when the CD is switched on. Some of them just stare into space, not even reading the book, not even looking at it!
These days, I aim to get the students to actually read the stories. Now, that doesn’t mean I just say “here’s the book - start reading” of course! We spend time doing pre-reading activities such as predicting what might happen based on the title, the illustrations and the events of the previous chapter or other awareness raising and schema activating activities. Once the chapter has been read, we talk about how the plot advanced, what new things we learned about the characters and go over any unknown vocabulary that came up. However, in between all that, I want my students to get used to just reading… normally.
Think about it - once we are past a particular age of early childhood development, how do we read? With an audio recording of the story playing at the same time? Sat in a circle with some other people taking turns to read a page? Of course not! Reading is a solitary and quiet activity. We will often curl up in an armchair with a drink and a few biscuits and spend some quality time with a book. So why is this not the case in the EFL classroom? It amazes me how many times I have an exchange with one of my students like the one at the start of this post - some of them are simply not used to reading stories by themselves. The whole idea of sitting quietly and reading a chapter of a book seems alien to them!
But, once they are used to it, they start to see the benefit. Having actually read the story instead of half listening to it from a CD or struggling to follow a class mate reading it aloud, they have a better understanding of the book and comprehension activities become easier. They are also more willing to return to the chapter and fish out some specific information (being also more aware of where to find it).
Of course, pressing ‘play’ is easy. It’s easy for the kids to just sit and daydream, it’s easy for the teacher to be sure everyone is at the same place at the same time and it’s easy to say the chapters have been covered. But, teaching is not an easy job and neither is learning a language. For me, the flood of supplementary activities that come with readers is indicative of one of the biggest problems in the ELT profession today - the over-reliance on materials designed to keep the students busy (but not the teachers!)
There’s no magic trick to getting a class to read. It’s just a matter of establishing good habits. It may make classroom life more difficult initially but, like many other ‘difficult’ things, it works out for the best in the long run and keeps the focus where it should be - on reading and learning to simply enjoy a good story.
That’s what I think but (in a blatant act of copying from Phil Wade’s excellent blog posts), I’ll finish with some Questions
- Should we encourage young learners to read ‘normally’ or do they need more support such as audio recordings?
- Are there any other ways the recordings could be put to use?
- Do EFL teachers (and, to an extent, students) over-rely on supplementary materials?