Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

I’ve moved away from the classroom over the past year, so for the first time at IATEFL I didn’t go to many talks which fitted this category. I got some interesting ideas from all three talks, and can’t wait to try to put them into practice when I finally do get back into the classroom in September!

A new way to teach reading – Ken Lackman

Ken‘s title seemed like a pretty dramatic claim, but that’s exactly what he showed us, and I really want to try it out!

He started by telling us some of the problems with the traditional approach to reading, mostly the fact that many of the skills used in the classroom are not easily transferable to real life. Students don’t have tasks like a pre-set gist question or vocabulary that somebody else has pre-selected from the text for them when they read texts outside the classroom.

He decided that there must be a better way to prepare students for reading in real life, and this is what he came up with, working through a demo lesson based on a short story as an example for us. You can get the story Ken used with us (A Secret Lost in the Water) as well as more information about the whole process by going to his website, clicking on Activity books > A New Way To Teach Reading > IATEFL.

  • What are the key characteristics of a short story? List them.
    e.g. Only two or three characters. One or two settings.
  • Turn these characteristics into questions. e.g. Where is it set? What is the relationship between the characters?
  • Show students the title. They add to the list of questions.
  • (Optional: Collect questions on the board.)
  • Choose one of the questions as a good gist question.
  • Read for gist, answering the question selected. As a side note, one of my favourite moments of the whole conference was how Ken got us to read fast: everybody stood up, and had to sit down once they had the answer. Still standing after everyone else has sat down? Too slow!
  • Choose other questions from the list as comprehension questions.
  • Read again more slowly to answer them.
  • Underline any words which you’re not sure of the meaning of.
  • Choose one of the words and analyse it to try to decide the meaning: What part of speech is it? Are there any clues in the parts of the word (e.g. prefixes/suffixes)? Do the adjacent words help? Come up with a synonym or phrase which you could replace it with and try it in the space. Does it make sense? Repeat as necessary.
  • Choose 10 collocations that you think are really useful for you.
  • Compare your list with a partner.
  • Divide the class into groups, each with a different coloured board marker.
  • Groups come up with discussion questions related to the text. They can’t be yes/no questions and you shouldn’t be able to find the answer in the text. Write them on the board.
  • Students choose some of the questions from the board and discuss them.

This strategy was very engaging as all of the questions were written and selected by us, and we managed to create the questions before we’d seen the text, in a way that is eminently transferable to any text type and can easily be used outside the classroom too. Repeated practice using the same lesson structure will make students more confident with their reading, and similar staging can also be applied to listening too. It encourages greater awareness of the conventions of different genres which should have a knock-on effect with writing too. If students are unfamiliar with a particular genre, you can analyse it with them the first time they see it. Vocabulary is chosen by the students rather than the materials writer, and they decide what is and isn’t useful for them. There is a lot of processing, which aids memorisation, and students are able to check it in a dictionary too if they want to. Coming up with their own discussion questions promotes critical thinking and a deeper reading of the text.

Recoleta church book

Academic reading circles: improving learner engagement and text comprehension – Tyson Seburn

Tyson’s EAP (English for Academic Purposes) students often have trouble understanding texts to a deep enough level to be able to discuss them intellectually or engage with them in their written work. When reading, they tended to treat texts very superficially and only deal with problems with lexis, with looking at the concepts at all. Academic Reading Circles were developed out of the idea of literature circles as a way to address this by dividing students into small groups and assigning them different roles to break down a text. Each group works on a single text and has time to prepare before the lesson. They then come together and share their knowledge to build up a deeper understanding of the text.

  • Leader: gauges group comprehension and situates the text for the other students, dealing with the purpose for reading, source, target audience, etc. They create one or two questions about the text to gauge understanding.
  • Contextualiser: picks out contextual references like times, dates, places and people and finds out more about them.
  • Visualiser: finds anything from the text which can be visually represented, e.g. maps, photos, videos, etc.
  • Connector: makes connections to outside sources, for example other events, other sources or their own experience.
  • Highlighter: focuses on linguistic problems, e.g. unknown vocabulary, topic specific language, anything which shows the feeling/attitude of the author.

The students deal with up to five texts per term, and no more than one per week, rotating the roles through the term. Academic reading circles lead to deeper comprehension and their writing also improves as a result, including a greater use of topic-specific language.

Lizzie Pinard wrote a summary of the session. You can read more about Academic Reading Circles on Tyson’s blog, and he is working with The Round to produce a book about them. I’m sure there must be away to apply this approach to other kinds of reading group too.

Classic exercises and why they work in the 21st century – Hanna Kryszewska

Hanna is the editor of Humanising Language Teaching magazine (always looking for articles!), which has a section called ‘Old Exercises’. These act as useful reminders of things you might have forgotten. She is also a believer in ‘thinking routines’, the idea that we need to make thinking processes visible to students. This can be draining but is very useful, so should be done little and often. Here are examples of classic activities combined with thinking routines:

  • Questions: Show students an artwork/poem. Give them post-it notes. Every time they have a question, they write it on the post-it and stick it to the board. The questions can be as deep or as trivial as they like. Students then go away and find the answers to their questions.
  • Tug-of-war: Show an image/quote etc conncted to an issue which could be debated. Hanna’s example was images of the Aral Sea showing how it has dried up over the last few decades. Students put their opinions on post-it notes, then rearrange them according to where they would fit in a debate. It’s a good way of dealing with potentially controversial issues.
  • Numbers: Students chose numbers which are important to them, then share why with other students. They aren’t forced to give information which they don’t want to, as would be the case if the teacher supplied questions for them to answer.
  • Mingle: Find two things in common with each person in the class. You can’t repeat them. Once they’ve finished, each student draws around their hand. Other students write what they learnt about their classmates in the relevant hand.
  • Thank you: Stick a piece of paper on each person’s back. Students write what they’d like to thank each person for – again, it can be as trivial or as deep as the students want.
  • All correct: In an multiple choice exercise which should have only one correct answer, get the students to justify why any of the answers could be right. This works particularly well with answers where changing the tone of voice could make a big difference.
  • Senses: Dictate the five senses. Then dictate random words, with students deciding which sense to allocate it to. They then share answers.
  • Map: In a similar way, give students a blank map. Dictate words and students write them where they ‘should’ be, entirely based on their own opinions, before sharing answers.
  • Playing cards 1: Hanna has a set of playing cards with pictures of artworks on them. She selects three at random and arranges them on a piece of paper. Students have to justify why they are arranged like that.
  • Playing cards 2: Each group gets 6 cards. They choose 3 and arrrange them. Other groups then have to say why they were arranged like that. They can then compare their justifications.
  • Exploiting the coursebook: After using a text, students are challenged to write questions to which there are no answers in the book/text. Another group then gets the questions and has to rewrite the text to include the answers.
  • Vocabulary: Draw a picture of a bicycle, but you can only include the parts that you know the names for in English. Choose which six items you need to learn to be able to compelte your picture. This is particularly good for mixed-level groups.
  • Shapes: Each group gets five slips of paper. On each they write one part of the body and arrange them into the approximate shape of a body. The teacher can offer/add more words. Students then group the words according to different categories, e.g. touching the bed/not touching the bed, important for work/not important for work.
  • Points of view 1: Have three chairs. Each represents one role, e.g. mother, daughter, dead guinea pig. Students ask questions and decide who should answer them, e.g. Was she a good owner?
  • Points of view 2: Set up a roleplay situation, e.g. breakfast time. Students start the rolleplay, but anyone watching can step in and take over at any point.

By encouraging visible thinking we encourage different points of view, build community and encourage critical thinking. You also move away from the ‘tyranny of the correct answer’. Start with simpler activities (like numbers/mingle) to introduce these ideas slowly and to build an atmosphere of sharing in the classroom.
You can find out more about thinking routines in the book Making Thinking Visible [affiliate link].


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