“A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.” Wise words from Mr Mark Twain, American writer, who neatly summed up the pleasure, knowledge and power one gets when reading. In this day and age where social media and video platforms are often the preferred go-to choice for people of all ages to have fun, it’s now more important than ever for us to be introducing literature into our classrooms, not only to bridge the gap between hearing dialogue from videos and reading the words from books, but also to help our students learn a second language faster and more successfully.
Yet, among the millions and millions of books out there, how do we know which ones are the right choice and level for our students? A bit like the story of Goldilocks, they should neither be too hard nor too easy, but just right. Plus, how can we make the experience lots of fun, and add communicative and collaborative elements to help our students use the language they will pick up from reading? Below, I will explain some ideas for how to select the book, help get your students interested in it, and activities to do during and after reading that can be applied to every story – whether you´re teaching primary, secondary or adult students.
How to select the book
Many course book publishers have created their own library of graded readers that you can purchase. Pearson is one of them, but an extra bonus feature is that Pearson also offers e-book mini libraries, so students can enjoy a range of readers online and can listen to the stories as well as read them. Teachers also have interactive front of class software to project the readers onto the board.
How might we choose a reader from a library as a class? First of all, search for books which are at your student´s language level. These books provide grammar and vocabulary students should be learning at that level in context, with high amounts of repetition of any higher level vocabulary essential to the story. Secondly, organise the books on offer into themes, such as Action, Romance, Mystery. Make a grid of these themes with the titles underneath it. Ask you class to tell you what type of books they like to read. This can be done in the needs analysis or getting to know you activities at the start of term, or it can be introduced later on as a quick survey. I suggest that you ask the students to privately complete this information, in case of any peer pressure issues. From your survey, you can see which types of books have proved the most popular. Show the students the results and, for example, if the vast majority of the class have chosen Mystery stories, show them all of the titles on offer for this category. Then, have a vote and choose the title they think is the most interesting to read. From there, you can read the book together as a class, and when that one is finished, go to the next voted-for category and repeat.
1. Pre-reading activities
Build up a sense of excitement for the book, and get your students speaking and thinking with these fun activities.
Use the pictures to your advantage
You can cover up the front cover picture with square pieces of paper. Challenge your students to guess what picture is underneath, or what is happening underneath by removing one piece at random at a time. Introduce guessing language, such as ‘It might be…’ ‘I think it’s…’
Put copies of all the pictures included in the story up on the board. Challenge the students to put them in the correct order of the story, and to tell you what they think will happen. Make a note of their predictions, and when you have finally reached the end of the story, revisit their guesses to see what they got right, and ask them to correct what they got wrong.
Look at the pictures of the characters with their names under. Provide some adjectives and ask students to match the adjective to the right character and ask them to justify their choices. You can also take some lines of dialogue from the book and ask students to match them to the character pictures and justify why they picked it. Again, making a note and revisiting this activity after you have read the story together to correct any mistakes will help you to check their understanding of the book as well.
Prepare some sentences from the chosen book plus some sentences from another book. Pin the different sentences up around the room. Ask your students to go and find a sentence each, bring it to the board and decide if they think the sentence belongs in the book or not. You will end up with two columns. Sit together and ask your students to explain their choices. This is also a nice way to introduce any key, but difficult, vocabulary they are going to encounter and teach the meaning.
Alternatively, you can write on the board, or on a handout, the chapter titles in the wrong order, and ask the students to try and put the headings in the correct order and guess the story. You can also ask further questions, such as which chapter do they think will be the most exciting, the saddest, and so on.
Some books contain a character description at the front to introduce the characters before you read. We can use this information in a role play. Prepare character cards for your students based on this page with details such as name, age, job, character adjectives, and so on. Each student receives one card, and takes some time to look at their information and imagine further details about them. Then ask your students to mingle at a party, or go shopping, etc, and introduce themselves to each other. When the activity has finished, the students should tell you what they have learnt about the other characters. You may want to prepare a worksheet for the students to fill in as they mingle to help them remember.
2. While you read activities
Many graded readers contain little activities at the back of the book to complete as each chapter has been read, so this is a great place to start. Here are some other ideas you can use.
Choose key sentences from the book, mix up the order and ask students to put them in the right order. This can be made more fun by giving each student a sentence and they have to physically stand in the correct order, and read aloud their sentences to you to check.
Getting ready for the next part
Choose key words from the next chapter they will read and ask the students to tell you what they think is going to happen. Alternatively. you can select an important or exciting passage from the next chapter and provide the first line and last line of the passage. Can the students guess and write what will happen in the passage?
Jigsaw activities are those where students only have access to some of the task, or answers, and they must work together to get all of the information. For example, choose a passage from the book and prepare a list of questions about it on a handout. Ask the class to work in groups of three. Divide the passage into three sections and print it out. Give each student the handout of questions, but only one part of the passage. The students work together to answer the set questions.
Describe your picture
Students secretly choose a picture from a part of the book they have already read. They describe their picture to their partner or group. The students listen and guess which part of the story they are describing.
This activity invites the students to look out for grammar items by way of small challenges. This is also a nice ‘fast finisher’ activity students can access. All you need to do is to prepare the cards and leave them in an accessible place in your classroom. Students write the answers in their notebooks.
3. After reading activities
You can further extend the pleasure of reading the book by choosing some of these activities.
Ask students to make a short strip cartoon of the story, and then write a narrative or dialogue to match it. Then ask them to film the cartoon but with their voices narrating and speaking the character’s dialogue.
Write the full list of characters on the board. Students work in pairs or groups to play 20 questions. One student secretly chooses a character, and the rest of the group must find out which character it is by only asking Yes/No questions. They have a maximum of 20 questions to find out.
Continue the story
Students work together to continue the story. They write either one more chapter, dialogue for a play and then act it out or a brief summary of future events.
Lollipop questions is a fun activity to check your students understanding. On brown lollipop sticks, write down some questions for the students to answer. It could be fact checking about the book, or asking students to use their imagination based on their knowledge of the character, such as what would X character do if… Leave some blank lollipop sticks as well for students to write their own questions. Place the sticks in a pot in the centre of the group. Students pull out one stick at a time and work together to answer it.
Mobile phone chats
Mobile phone dialogues is a fun activity where you print off mobile phone templates and then give one to each student. Ask each student to choose a character from the story, and then write a message to their partner, another character. The characters might be best friends, or enemies. When the first message is written students swap phones and answer the text.
Critical thinking cards
Prepare some questions that have no one correct answer and ask the students to work together by discussing the answer to them.
Writing the blurb
Show the students some examples of the descriptions written on the back of books, and elicit from them their key characteristics (they are short, they try to hook the reader into reading it, and they do not reveal any spoilers!). Challenge your students to write a blurb for the book they have just read. To make it more ‘modern’ say that the blurb will be published on Twitter, so they only have a limited amount of characters they can use.
Write to the author
If you have chosen a book where the author is still alive, why not invite your students to write them a letter where they thank them for writing the book, and explain their reactions to it. Find out the address of the publisher, and send them! I once did this and the author wrote back to my class thanking them and gave them each a little postcard from America that he had written on for them to keep. It was really meaningful and memorable.
There are so many wonderful things we can do with a book as a resource and I hope you and your class enjoy reading together.
For more information on Pearson’s fantastic collection of readers go here and have a look at the catalogue.