Monday, February 27, 2017

How do We Get Students Interested in Reading in the First Place?

Mark Bartholomew continues his invaluable contribution to the blog by writing a second post on extensive reading. In this post, he focuses mainly on how we get language learners interested in reading.

In my post last week, I talked about what extensive reading is and mentioned that students choosing their own reading material was essential, that reading outside class should not be graded or made the subject of a test and, finally, that it should not be used as fodder for grammatical or lexical analysis. All this can be summed up as reading for its own sake, for pleasure, for an adventure in another world. 
It follows then that we, as teachers, must do everything we can to reduce the stress students feel in tackling reading in a foreign language and to increase their confidence in their own abilities to do so. 
The first difficulty that new readers are likely to encounter is what exactly they should read. If you have not done much reading before, how do you choose an author you're going to like? It's hard to trust book covers because the publishers, of course, only tell you what's best about the book in the hope that you'll buy it. Teachers are often seen as foisting difficult books - probably dictated by the school English syllabus - onto reluctant students who are bored by classics or find them incomprehensible. So, maybe teachers can't be wholly trusted. There's another issue with teachers too: if a student chooses to read at a level far below the rest of her class, then she might be seen as lazy or stupid. All in all, then, the teacher may not be the best guide.
That leaves students themselves. They might be encouraged to write a very short piece on why they liked - or didn't like - a work. This can be stuck on the shelf next to the book. Another way is for the teacher to write very brief summaries of what a book is about or, maybe, fill in a form that requires one- or two-word answers, like "Spy novel - action - intermediate - great ending". On my website,, every story and article has a 50-word summary which just does this and also includes a word count.
But the most important thing here is that students should be encouraged to read whatever they like and however they like. This includes choosing texts that the teacher may feel are far below their real language level. Don't worry about it! All the evidence reassures us that students quickly get bored with reading books that are too easy for them and move on to more challenging work of their own accord. But they make the leap once they have the confidence to do so from having completed easy stuff on their own.
And, if students find they have made the wrong choice, let them change the book for something they might be more interested in. Don't insist that they finish it. Of course, let them read printed books, on a Kindle or tablet - it's all reading after all. The medium doesn't much matter.
Naturally though, not all reading will take place outside school or university: sometimes, students read in class. Your institution may have a DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) programme where everybody on the premises - students, teachers, secretaries and cleaners - takes half an hour a couple of times a week, stops what they are doing and reads. If not, you might consider turning over some time usually spent on geography or maths to reading. After all, kids who can't read well are going to do badly not just in English but in every other subject too.
Students might, of course, choose to read the same book as their friends. Fine. Let them! Some in the group could motivate others. In some schools, kids are allowed to choose their own partners; in others, a weaker student might be paired with a stronger one - a kind of reading mentor relationship. Whatever the arrangement, it should be made so that books are discussed, even argued over. Students should be encouraged to assign roles within their groups to ensure that everyone is pulling their weight: one might be in charge of note-taking, another researching unfamiliar facts on the web, and so on.
Finally, one all-important piece of advice. Teachers should act as reading role models. Time and again, research has shown that the most important inducement to getting kids reading is the active interest of their teacher in books. So, talk every now and then about something you are reading outside school or university! Ask them what they are reading. Academics may disagree about many aspects of reading programmes and which approach is best to adopt in class to teach reading but on this one area they're all in agreement. Teachers must model the behaviour they want their students to adopt. So, carry a book around with you and leave it on your desk so that all can see that you practise what you preach.

 Photo by Anna Pasternak

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