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Kids World

Topics of interest to teachers of English as a second or foreign language to young learners.

April 16, 2001

Using Readers in Children's Classes

by Barbara Hoskins-Sakamoto

KidsI still remember the first time I bought a reader for my students. I looked through all the readers in my local bookstore, and finally found one with an interesting story written at my students' level. However, when I sat down to prepare a lesson to go along with the story, I realized that I had little idea what to do, beyond either reading the story to my students, or telling them to read the story. It seemed like a waste of a good language opportunity, so I started looking for ways to get the most out of my readers (both the books and my students!).

What follows is the approach that has grown out of my initial frustration. I still consider it to be a work in progress. After an explanation of each step in using readers, I'll include a couple of the activities that my students enjoy.

While I usually follow this basic sequence, I do vary the pace. Sometimes I'll take a brief break from our textbook and devote an entire class (or more) to studying a story. Sometimes, I'll devote the last ten minutes of several classes to studying a story, breaking up the steps into manageable segments. Both ways work fine.

Step 1: Preview the Story

Get students ready to read the story. Present vocabulary that might cause problems, activate their prior knowledge. Get students to predict what the story will be about.

Examples of Previewing Activities:
* Look and Predict (look at the cover of the reader, look at the illustrations).
* Brainstorm possible vocabulary. See what students already know about the theme.

Step 2: Read the Story Aloud

Students' listening comprehension is usually higher than their reading comprehension. Listening and following along often results in better comprehension than simply reading independently. Also, reading along with a cassette, or at the teacher's pace, encourages students to focus on the story, rather than on unfamiliar vocabulary.

Step 3: Focus on Vocabulary

For the most part, I prefer stories that have no more than 3 new words per page for my younger students (usually stories with less than 300 words total) and no more than 4 or maybe 5 new words for my older students. I like to bring in stories that my students can understand with the language they have already learned, so that the focus of reading remains the story, not the unfamiliar vocabulary.

When introducing new vocabulary, allow students to continue listening until the story comes to a natural break, either the end of a sentence or the end of a page. This enables students to construct a more complete understanding of the context surrounding the unfamiliar word, and improves their ability to guess the meaning of new words.

I model word identification strategies for students by thinking aloud as I read a passage. I encourage them to use all of their resources in guessing the meaning of unfamiliar words by asking key questions:

"Can I find another word that will work in this word's place?"
Look at the story around the unfamiliar word, and at the sentences that come before and after it. What kind of word would make sense in its place? Try substituting another word and reread the passage. Even if the substituted word is not an exact synonym, the process will bring students to a closer understanding.

"What kind of word is this?"
Although students don't need to know the labels for describing parts of speech (noun, adjective, verb, etc.) they soon develop enough of an intuitive sense of language to be able to identify the type of word (without labeling it). If they don't have confidence in their ability to do this, try substituting an incorrect type of word (putting a verb in place of a noun, for example). Students can usually tell you that the sentence is wrong, even if they can't explain why.

"Does this word look like any other words I already know?"
Can students "sound out" the unfamiliar word? Does it contain any parts that students have seen before (like affixes, or root words). Sometimes students will recognize a word that they have heard but never seen written.

Step 4: Read the Story Again

Students build reading fluency by rereading a story (many times!). Words that they learn in the context of one story become familiar when encountered in a new story. Students are able to improve their reading speed through rereading as they become faster at identifying the words in the story. They are able to understand more of the story, or appreciate details missed in an earlier reading.

In my classes we usually reread stories two or three times. Sometimes we reread a story fewer or more times, depending on a particular class's level, or interest in a story. As mentioned earlier, the rereading activities do not need to be completed consecutively. Students can reread a story between completing writing, comprehension, or extension activities to maintain their interest and recall.

Oral vs. Silent Reading
I like to include three types of reading in my lessons. First, students should have opportunities to hear stories read aloud to them (or listen to cassette). Second, students should have opportunities to read stories aloud. Especially with shorter stories, students enjoy reading aloud. Oral reading also provides teachers with a chance to check students' decoding strategy development by hearing what kinds of word substitutions they make, or how they attempt to sound out unfamiliar words.

However, as stories become longer, oral reading becomes unwieldy. Students should still have chances to read passages of stories aloud, but for the most part this type of reading will be for the purpose of participating in a reader's theater activity, supporting opinions, or supporting answers to comprehension questions. Rereading at this stage evolves naturally into silent reading. As students improve their reading fluency, they are able to understand the story through silent reading faster than they are able to read aloud, and will become frustrated if restricted to oral recitation.

Examples of Rereading Activities:
* Read and Recall. Students read the story silently, in pairs. After each page or two, they stop, and students take turns recalling what happened up to that point in the story. Another variation is to have students take turns trying to remember what will happen next in the story.

* One new thing. Also in pairs. After each page or two of silent reading, students identify one new detail that they hadn't noticed previously.

* After each page or two of silent reading, students take turns asking each other a question about the section they've just read.

Step 5: Comprehension Exercises

Most readers written for English language learners contain some sort of comprehension exercises. Sometimes we do the exercises as we reread the story, or sometimes I assign them as homework. Comprehension exercises help me to check my students' understanding, as well as help them solidify and synthesize what they have studied.

Step 6: Writing

I use two types of writing activities with graded readers:
1) activities that allow students to focus on writing skills while reinforcing the language and structures of the stories, and
2) activities that use the language of the story as a jumping off point for semi-structured creative writing.

Having students write in response to a story increases their comprehension. In addition, writing activities help me plan lessons that build on all four learning modalities–listening, speaking, reading and writing.

Examples of Writing Activities:
* Correct the sentence. Write a sentence (or passage) from the story with an incorrect word. Students find the mistake and correct it. This helps students practice noticing details in sentences.

* Change the story. Have students brainstorm how a story might be different with a specific change–different point of view, different main character, different ending. Then, have them rewrite one section, incorporating necessary changes.

* Write a letter. Students either write a letter to one of the characters in a story, or write a letter as one of the characters.

Step 7: Extension/Follow-up activities

These activities allow students to consolidate the language from the stories, or build on the situation presented in the story. While they sometimes involve writing, the focus in these activities is on building oral fluency.

Examples of Extension/Follow-up Activities:
* Readers Theater. For this activity, assign parts (including Narrator) and have students read the entire story aloud as they act out the events.

* Role Play. This activity differs from Readers Theater (above) in that the focus is more on the elements of the story than on the actual language in the story. By doing this activity you will be able to see if students understood what they read in English. Have students act out the story. They can use some of the lines directly from the reading, but it doesn't have to be exact. The point of this activity is to retell the story, not recite it verbatim.

I like using readers with my students. My students enjoy seeing the language patterns they've learned in class show up in "real" contexts. They also seem to gain confidence in their ability to use their English, rather than just learn it. Mostly, good stories are fun, and my students consider them as more of a reward than a lesson, even though they learn a lot, too.

Barbara Hoskins-Sakamoto

Barbara Hoskins-Sakamoto came to Japan in 1985 with a teaching certificate in English, a Masters in TESL and an idea that teaching English in Japan for a couple of years would be a fun adventure. Fifteen years later, she is still here, enjoying working with Japanese children and their teachers. Barbara frequently contributes articles to the the JALT Teaching Children SIG Newsletter and the Association for Foreign Wives of Japanese (AFWJ) Journal, and is co-author of Let's Go, the most popular children's course in Asia.

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