Two weeks before I left Poland to move back to the UK, I finished my quest to read all of the Harry Potter series in Polish, with the added bonus of The Tales of Beedle the Bard and Quidditch Through the Ages.
I started reading them 5 years ago, for a few minutes every night before bed. With some short breaks when I was away or waiting for the next volume, I read them pretty consistently over that time.
When I started book 1, my Polish was about A2 level. It took me around 10 minutes to read each double-page spread, and I think I understood about 10-15% of the words on the page. I generally read 2-4 pages a night and it took me about 6 months to finish.
By the time I finished book 7, my Polish was getting to B2 level. It took about 2 minutes per page, and I generally read 6-12 pages per night depending on how awake I was. It also took me about 6 months to finish, but it was nearly twice as long as the first book 🙂
I had sometimes read in other languages before, mostly in German, but never so consistently, and always after many years of study and supplemented by other learning. This was the first time that reading formed a major part of my learning, combined with studying vocabulary and living in Poland, though not using much Polish on a day-to-day basis.
I chose Harry Potter because I was familiar with the stories. I’d read them when they came out, and seen each film at the cinema. I’d seen some of the earlier films a couple more times, so I was more familiar with the key events. This familiarity was key I think: I knew enough about what was going on to be able to identify where I was in the story, but I couldn’t remember exactly what happened so I wanted to keep reading. The familiarity was helpful in another way too: because I knew where I was, I could make an educated guess about the meaning of some of the words.
How I read
When reading in a foreign language, I read to read, rather than reading to learn. What does that mean? Basically, my priority is to get through pages rather than learn lots of new words. If I see an unknown word come up lots of times which I think is in some way important, or is just annoying me because I’ve seen it a lot and still don’t know what it is, then I’ll look it up, but otherwise I just ignore what I don’t know and keep going. I had a couple of paper dictionaries by my bed so I didn’t need to use a screen to check things before going to sleep.
In the first two books, I also made use of the fantastic Polish-English glossary provided by the translator at the back of the books. I wish they’d been in all of them! In it, he explained the meaning of some Harry Potter specific vocabulary, as well as the meaning of some of the translations he had chosen to make. I learnt about the etymology of some of Rowling’s vocabulary choices in this way, not just the Polish words.
What I learnt
Apart from the magic-related words you might expect, like wizard, witch, broom, wand and so on, I learnt a lot of clothing vocabulary, as well as places and related nouns like hedge, and a lot of adjectives, especially to describe feelings.
My grammatical awareness improved. I was exposed to the adjective and noun declensions of the 7 cases of Polish, as well as verb conjugations, and over time I found that I was able to produce these myself much more naturally. Conditional structures were also interesting – I could recognise them, and was just starting to attempt to produce them myself as I got to the end of the books. I don’t always know the grammatical explanations for what I understand, but I don’t need to: my priority is understanding and communication, not a declarative knowledge of the language.
I think the main benefit though was for my reading speed – my Polish reading speed is now almost the same as my English reading speed 🙂
My top tips for reading in foreign 🙂
Choose a story you’re familiar with, or a world you know about.
Pick a book you would enjoy reading in your own language.
Read to read, not to learn. Focus on covering as many pages as you can, rather than understanding a lot.
Choose words to look up which seem key to the plot or which you see a lot. Limit how many words you look up each time – you’ll remember much more if you look up 1 or 2 words each time.
This week my students have been reading the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I took my students on a trip to Durham (where some of the first two films were filmed) last week because one of them is a huge fan of the books, and while we were there we talked about reading in English.
I discovered that they don’t really read in English, partly because it’s daunting, and partly because they can’t be bothered 😉 so I decided I’d make them do it by bringing it to class. We’ve done a whole range of activities based on the chapter, none of which included comprehension questions, but I’m sure you could write some if you wanted to. Let me know which ones you use, and if you have any more 🙂
The first question was ‘What do you think of when I say Harry Potter?’ My students are upper intermediate, from six different countries, aged 18-30. There was clearly a whole range of opinions, but nobody was out-and-out negative. As feedback, I asked a list of questions, with students standing up if the answer was yes. I joined in with the standing up. Stand up if:
you have never read or watched any Harry Potter.
you have watched part of a Harry Potter film only.
you have watched a complete film in your own language.
you have watched all of the films in your own language.
you have watched a complete film in English.
you have watched all of the films in English.
you have read one or more of the books in your own language.
you have read all of the books in your own language.
you have read any of the books in English (one student had finished Philosopher’s Stone the day before!).
you have read all of the books in English.
On scraps of paper, students guessed what they thought the titles of the books are in English – one title per piece of paper, with a number (1-7) indicating which book. The students who had no idea became the teachers. They collected the paper and compared the answers against a list I took with me.
I then put the titles on the board one at a time, and we talked about what they meant and how they differed, mostly in terms of word order, from the translations. We also talked about capitalization.
The titles in Britain are:
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
For students who didn’t know the books, we talked about the meaning of some of the words, especially goblet and phoenix.
The first page
To get into the book, I started off by asking students to read the first page (until ‘high chair’ if you have it in front of you). When they finished, they had to stand up. It wasn’t a race, but rather was designed to help them appreciate different reading speeds in class. Afterwards, I asked them two questions:
How did you read the page? For example, did you follow words with your pen? Did you underline words you didn’t understand?
How would you have read it in your own language?
The aim of these lessons was to reduce the students’ fear of reading in English. One of the things I did the first time I tried to read a book in German was copy every word I didn’t know onto a long list. After 2 pages I had about 100 words, and I stopped reading because I was so depressed! My class weren’t that bad, but I strongly believe (from personal experience) that:
If you don’t understand a word, keep reading.
If you see a word you don’t understand three times, keep reading.
If you see a word 10 times and you still don’t understand it, it might be important. You should probably look it up.
Especially in children’s fiction, ‘difficult’ words are generally explained. If a ‘difficult’ word only appears once, then the likelihood of it being essential to a story are slim. We came back to this point at various points during the week, and I think the students are a lot happier to continue reading now.
Adjectives and nouns
Before reading the first page, I handed out this sheet:
(You can download it by clicking ‘slideshare’ and logging in – it’s free to create an account, and you can link via facebook if you want to. For some reason, the word cloud doesn’t always appear properly. If that happens, once you’ve downloaded and opened the file, right click on the word cloud and select ‘arrange’>’bring to front’ or ‘in front of text’. You should be able to see it and move it to wherever you want on the page.)
I challenged students to think of as many adjectives as they could that would collocate with each noun. i had to tell them that ‘people’ and ‘sky’ were two separate words.
Once they’d read the first page and we’d had the discussion above, they returned to the sheet and found the corresponding adjectives from page. Here are the answers:
(no) finer boy
thin, blonde woman (Mrs. Dursley)
dull, grey Tuesday
big, beefy man
the last/unDursleyish people
very large moustache
most boring tie
screaming baby (Dudley)
Throughout this exercise, and the ones following it, I tried to discourage students from using dictionaries. Instead, they had to use what they know about the world and about Harry Potter in particular to guess what words meant and try and explain them to me so I could confirm, or help them change, their guesses.
As revision, they said the nouns, and their partner had to say which adjective collocated with it.
For homework, they used the BYU-BNC corpus to check which of their collocations were correct – I showed them how to do this during class first.
On pages 8 (from “None of them noticed…”) to 11 (to “a whisper about the Potters…”), Mr Dursley witnesses, and misses, a series of strange events. Students worked in pairs to highlight the strange events, again without using dictionaries. They then summarised the events using key words, and we talked about how often each description was repeated, and the fact that even if they didn’t understand the description the first time it appeared, they usually did by the last time. These were the key words and events I came up with:
owls flying in the day
page 8: “None of them noticed a large tawny owl flutter past the window”.
page 9: “owls swooping past in broad daylight”
page 10: “there have been hundreds of sightings of these birds flying in every direction since sunrise”
page 11: “Owls flying by daylight?”
page 8: “a cat reading a map” “It was now reading the sign that said ‘Privet Drive'”
page 10: “…the first thing he saw […] was the tabby cat he’d spotted that morning. It was now sitting on his garden wall.” “It just gave him a stern look.”
page 8: “…there seemed to be a lot of strangely dressed people about. People in cloaks”
page 9: “This lot were whispering excitedly.” “‘The Potters, that’s right, that’s what I heard -‘”
page 11: “Mysterious people in cloaks all over the place? And a whisper, a whisper about the Potters…”
page 9-10: “The man was wearing a violet cloak. He didn’t seem at all upset at being almost knocked to the ground. On the contrary, his face split into a wide smile and he said in a squeaky voice that made passers-by stare: ‘Don’t be sorry, my dear sir, for nothing could upset me today! Rejoice, for You-Know-Who has gone at last! Even Muggles like yourself should be celebrating, this happy, happy day!’ And the old man hugged Mr Dursley around the middle and walked off”
page 10: “instead of the rain I promised yesterday, they’ve had a downpour of shooting stars!”
page 11: “Shooting stars all over Britain?”
Once they’d identified all of the events, the groups had to try to work out the meaning of any of the words they didn’t understand in the lines they’d highlighted. I emphasised that they should focus on these lines, as these are the important events here.
After they’d guessed as many as they could, each group was allowed to choose one word from each page, i.e. one from page 8, one from 9, one from 10, and one from the top of 11, to look up in the dictionary.
They then mingled to share their words.
The website Harry Potter companion is a repository for everything you ever needed to know about the Harry Potter universe, and many things you probably didn’t. They have chapter-by-chapter guides to all of the books. Each guide has a set of fan pictures accompanied/inspired by quotes from the relevant chapter. Here are the pictures from chapter 1 in a slide show, so you can print them out and cut them up:
Students had read the rest of the chapter (page 11 to page 18) for homework. Only one of them failed to heed the warning that the next lesson would be very difficult if they didn’t. Before looking at the pictures, we started the lesson with students verbally summarising what they could remember from the chapter. I put the pictures around the room. Students had to circulate and try to identify a quote which could be matched to each picture.
say, sniff, nod, blink, repeat, appear, whisper, behave, act, climb, sit, lay sth down, look up (emphasising that this is the opposite of ‘look down’ not the phrasal verb)
Students had to decide which adverbs you could use with each verb. Once they had as many as they could think of, they went back to the book and looked for more. While they did this, I checked their lists and we talked about why some of their suggestions were not possible. Finally, we put the adverbs on the board to check, and talked about some of the stranger combinations, like ‘blink furiously’.
Summarising the chapter
We spent a whole two-hour lesson today on writing a summary. In pairs or groups of three, the students had to summarise the main events of the chapter in not more than 100 words. Inevitably, they tried to include every event they could think of, which meant a lot of editing.
The groups swapped first drafts. They then had to improve on these and rewrite them, with a little help from some prompt questions on the board and some advice about what to look up in the dictionary. Examples of my prompt questions were:
Are all of the main ideas included?
Is tense use logical?
Are capital letters in the right places?
The second-draft summaries were excellent, but unfortunately I forgot to copy one to put on here!
Never judge a book by it’s cover
For our final two-hour lesson, we’re going to look at some of the different covers for the first Harry Potter book:
identify the objects they can see on the covers;
describe some of the similarities and differences between the covers;
think about why those images were chosen for each cover;
decide which cover would make them most/least likely to pick up the book – disregarding the language barrier of course!
The great Harry Potter language quiz
The final activity of the week will be a quiz bringing together the language we’ve studied this week, so the Harry Potter fanatics shouldn’t have any particular advantage over the newbies!
All of the adverbs are one small pieces of paper, one per piece.
In a variation on the classic adverb revision game, the adverbs will be divided between the groups. They have five minutes to decide how to mime or act out all of their adverbs, without saying it.
Each group will then perform, winning five points for each adverb another group guesses, and losing one for each one they fail to guess from the other groups. (this scoring system may be edited on consultation with the students!)
One word: pictionary.
The rest of them
I’ve kept a list of the random words which have come up during the week. The final part of the quiz will be a backs to the board/hot seat game. In this game, students work in pairs. One student can see the board, the other is facing them and cannot. The teacher writes a word or phrase on the board. The student who can see it describes it to the one who can’t, without using any of the words on the board, or variations of them, and without translating. As soon as the student with their back to the board thinks they know what is on the board, they stand up and tell the teacher. Two points for being first, one point for any other pair who gets the correct answer but are slower.
Although I enjoy Harry Potter, I’ve only read them once, and watched them twice (once at the cinema, once on DVD) or sometimes a couple more times. I’m interested in the universe Rowling has created, but nowhere near as obsessed as some of my students. Her books are sometimes the whole reason they want to come to the UK! I was lucky, in that only one student didn’t really like Harry Potter at the start of the week, and two of them had never read or watched any of it, and they seem to have enjoyed the classes as much as the fans.
Sharing the richness of her language has made me re-appreciate how good her writing is, and how suitable it is for teaching, as well as the many layers of what she put together, no matter how much it might be sneered at by those who ‘hate’ Harry Potter. I’m sure there’s a lot more you can do with it too. The activities I’ve written about here, I came up with fairly quickly. You could use it to focus on so many different aspects of language.
The best thing about this week, though, was that today, in our fourth of five lessons, two of the students walked in carrying brand-new copies of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Neither of them have read a book in English before. One of them had even decided that he would use each chapter to focus on a different kind of language, once he had read it. In chapter two, he had circled all of the verbs of speaking, and all without any encouragement from me.
And if that isn’t an argument for extensive reading, I don’t know what is.