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Category Archives: reading

By R. Michael Medley, Ph.D., Professor of English, Eastern Mennonite University

Two ways that I use the Academic Word List are as follows, the assumption being that this is some sort of English language development class for those who need English for academic purposes:

1. If the students are doing a reading which contains many unfamiliar words (but the reading is interesting to the students and helping them learn about something that they want to learn about), I might use the AWL to identify which words in the passage are more worth the students’ concentrated attention.  We all know that some words are of such low frequency that it is not worthwhile for learners to spend time working to incorporate those words into that active (or even passive) vocabulary.

But if some of the new words in the passage are on the AWL, then I can devise some kind of exercise or discussion that brings those words into focus and gives learners (a) additional multiple exposures to the words and (b) actual practice using them.

2. I am in the process of writing some ESOL materials based mainly on readings representing a unified content area.  I regularly use a vocabulary profiler, LexTutor,  to help me see the relative frequencies of the words that make up the passage.  This vocab profiler also identifies AWL words.  So if I am trying to simplify the text a little, I can simplify by changing the “off-list words” — that is those words of quite low frequency, which are not on the AWL.  I will certainly leave the AWL words in the text so that the students get exposed to them. Since most of the texts in my materials will be read by high intermediate or advanced students with instructor support (and not as extensive reading by the students independently) I feel that it is adequate if 90% of the vocabulary falls into the top 2000 words of English (usually that means about 80-85% of the words are in the top 1000).  The 10% of words not in the top 2000 will be AWL and low-frequency words.

A teacher who uses a lot of electronic texts with her/his learners, could easily use this vocabulary profiler to check on the presence of AWL words in the readings–in effect, guiding the choice of readings based on their vocabulary profiles and then guiding the teacher in choosing vocabulary to bring into focus either before or after the reading.

An interesting realization I’ve had in preparing these materials is that there is a lot of specialized vocabulary for the particular subject area with which I’m dealing. Now that I am working on chapter 12, it seems that the low-frequency vocabulary for one reading has grown very large. But when I look carefully at the words, I’ll see right away that many of these words have been introduced already and practiced many times through the previous 11 chapters.  This realization illustrates the value of doing extended reading (not exactly the same as extensive reading)–that is reading a lot in one subject area or becoming accustomed to the writing style (patterns of thought and expression) of one author.

By Ken Smith – Kaohsiung, Taiwan

Every Tuesday night (“Tuesday’s with Mr.Smith”?) at the college I teach at in southern Taiwan a group of students called “Book Travelers” gets together for a group discussion about books.

It is based on Mark Furr’s work with Reading Circles, but I’ve also added elements from the Robin Williams film “Dead Poet’s Society”.

Although we don’t use graded readers with this group, over the years we have discussed books including classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, and The Catcher in the Rye as well as more modern fiction including books by Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist, The Devil and Miss Prym, Veronika Decides to Die), Lois Lowry (The Giver, Gathering Blue), Yann Martel (Life of Pi), Mitch Albom (Tuesday’s with Morrie, For One More Day) and others like Into the Wild (John Krakauer), The Shack (William P. Young), and Dan Millman’s Way of the Peaceful Warrior.

When available I show a film version of the book we just finished reading.

Right now the group is reading “I Am the Messenger” by Markus Zusak.

Depending on the book, students are asked to read good chunks of reading (usually 40-50 pages a week) and come to meetings prepared with materials to share based on roles such as Summarizer, Word Master, Passage Person, Culture Collector, and Connector (we’ve added others too!) which we choose prior to each meeting. Usually the group reads two books a semester, one I choose and one the group selects.

It’s a student-centered group (although with input and guidance from the teacher at each meeting) using the roles that are presented in “Bookworms Club Gold’s” series.

The title of the book that includes these roles (the last few pages of the book) is called Stories for Reading Circles edited by Mark Furr. ISBN: 9780194720021

By Warren Ediger – California, USA

“One of my early mentors told me that leadership is “knowing what needs to be done, knowing why that is important, and knowing how to bring the appropriate resources to bear on the situation at hand.”

Helping my adult ESL students in the classroom and online tutoring students (mostly professionals) understand “why” has paid rich dividends.

Trelease, Krashen, and others have referred to the “home run” book – that book that is so engaging that it triggers the beginning of the reading habit. Your involvement with the students, to help them find that book (maybe not on the first try), may also contribute to accomplishing the goal you seek. See here – http://sdkrashen.com/articles/homerun2/homerun2.pdf

The “home run” phenomenon is one reason I tend to use popular fiction rather than graded readers. It’s easy enough to help an adult student learn what is best for him/her and the quality of the writing is often better. There is a reason it’s called “popular” fiction.”

I live in La Habra (southern), California. I am no longer doing any classroom teaching. My time is divided between writing materials for international ELls who are working independently to improve their English and Internet-based tutoring, primarily with professionals and students preparing for the TOEFL. I will also be branching into speaking/presenting and, possibly, consultation.

Read more from Warren Ediger at http://www.successfulenglish.com/

By Erlyn Baack – ITESM, Campus Queretaro, Mexico

Here are two of my recommendations, both short essays, four pages and three pages.

For many years, I’ve used TWO essays for every advanced composition class I’ve taught (first semester, university level). I cannot remember a time when I haven’t used them, actually. My classes are for Mexican students who are supposed to have 550 although some have only 530 TOEFLs. The first essay is Chapter Two from an old book that is out of print and absolutely impossible to get these days unless you can find it in a university library or at Amazon.com (for $250.00 USD (not my copy; I have my own 🙂 )).

The book itself is Teaching ESL Composition, Principles and Techniques by Jane B. Hughey, et. al. (Newbury House 1983). I bought my own copy during graduate studies, and I would definitely like to see a second printing of this book because I’ve never seen a book thoroughly cover all aspects of teaching English Composition as this one does.

I use chapter two from this book, available here, http://eslbee.com/whywrite.pdf. In four pages, the authors basically begin /Why Write?/ by noting a dichotomy between two types of writing (meaningless and meaningful), and then they go on to write about four reasons for writing. The chapter is not only excellent information for students who can easily give examples for each reason from their own writing, but the ORGANIZATION of the chapter is much the same as the organization required of university level writing students.

The second essay I use every semester is from the book, Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya by a the Kenyan author, Ngugi Wa. Thiong’o, now a distinguished professor of Literature at the University of California at Irvine. His website is at http://www.ngugiwathiongo.com/index.html. The title of his essay is just three pages, Writing for Peace, a paper he wrote during the Ronald Reagan administration, a paper in which he discussed the economic, political, and cultural exploitation of Kenya at that time.

Well, obviously, third-world readers (or, politically correct, “developing-world” readers) can see parallels between Kenya then and their own countries now. (One boy I had taught in high school, for example, was very political–active in the student government, active in political activities at both the city and state level, and he had even gone to the US, Washington, DC, and met Colin Powell, had his picture taken with and signed by Colin Powell, wrote to Colin Powell after 9/11 and before the invasion of Iraq–and after reading this essay during his first year in the university, he asked, “Erlyn, do you have any more essays like this?” Writing for Peace is available at http://eslbee.com/writing_for_peace.pdf with the permission of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o.

I recommend both these essays, not only because their content is exactly relevant for first semester university students (either in a multi-cultural US class or a foreign class as mine are), but also because their are easily accessible for advanced (or even less than “advanced”) non-native speakers of English. It is easy for students to relate to both these essays. Finally, both are about writing and writers and their obligations as writers.

I have a few other essays I could recommend but none more highly than these two.

>By Dick Tibbetts – University of Macau, Macau

I’ve just been reading Letters (Burbidge, Gray, Levy, Rinvolucri) in the resouce Books for Teachers series and it seems to have some rather good ideas. Written in 1996, it tells how mario collected his letters unopened for a few days, brought them into class and gave them to students. He explained that he’d been to busy to open his mail and asked them to open his letters, read, summarise and suggest a course of action. It occasioned much surprise and interest.

There must be something similar you could do with emails, with the advantage that you can secretly vet the contents first and then mark them unread. You’d need to forward them enmass somehow – I wouldn’t want to do it to individuals or to allow access to my account.

A second idea is to show one of those chain letters that promise wealth if you pass it on and misfortune if you don’t. Then students write their own but give as content 3 phrasal verbs and meanings for the receiver to learn before passing on. you could do it with items other than phrasal verbs and you might need to check the explanations but this is a great idea for students to inform each other and can spread outside the class.

Some of the resource series are available in Chinese printed versions. If Letters is available it should be quite cheap. I like it.

>Maria Spelleri – Manatee Community College, Florida, USA

I have used developmental reading texts with EAP pre-college students with success. These books are written to teach L1 students who have tested and placed as “weaker” readers. These books focus on becoming an active reader, using a method like SQ3R (Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review) annotating strategies, and text book attack skills like identifying the main idea, types of support, purpose, tone, words that signal organizational patterns, bias, drawing conclusions, etc.

The one I’m using this semester in one class is called “Reading Across the Disciplines” by McWhorter. It has only authentic text book sections and chapters. Another, slightly lower level one is Advancing College Reading Skills from Townsend Press. These could only be used by high intermediate level and above ESL students.

I have found that some ESL reading texts seem to just read and test for comprehension without directly teaching the tricks for staying focused when the interest level is low, or how to change reading strategies with different kinds of reading, so I love these books that analyze what, exactly, good readers subconsciously do.

>By Merton Bland

Introduction

A few years ago the author was assigned to the prime TESOL institution in southern Vietnam, the University of Social Sciences and Humanities. What he found was quite a challenge: an educational system, centrally administrated, mired in traditional practices. The grammar/translation methodology, a legacy of the French, held sway in the classrooms, producing, in spite of six years of English in the secondary schools, a nation of graduates unable to communicate in the target language. Discussions with Vietnamese colleagues, usually trained abroad, resulted in plans for a lecture tour to the major teacher training institutions of Vietnam (including Hanoi, DaNang, Hue, and about a half-dozen others) with a message stressing alternatives to the status quo, and the present format was developed. The author was subsequently invited to speak at institutions of ideological training (Communist Party Cadre) and information diffusion (schools for journalists) previously off-limits to Westerners, as well as the teacher training institutions previously noted.

The Commandments

(1) Do not teach English. Teach something, anything, IN English, using English as a vehicle of communication rather than an object of study. This is sometimes called the content-based curriculum.

(2) Do not teach grammar. Ingesting rules can be counterproductive: We are all familiar with students who are unable to apply rules learned through rote memorization. Instead, the grammar of English is best acquired inductively by the students formulating their own hypotheses. (This reflects Krashen’s acquisition vs. learning.)

(3) Do not teach vocabulary. The schema, the concept pods which constitute the lexigraphical units of language, vary from language to language, even from person to person. No language is a direct translation of any other. Thus, vocabulary must be forged within the target language itself in a manner not unlike that of first language acquisition. To do otherwise is to risk forging the chains which prevent the bifurcation of the native and target languages and forever making your students translate in their heads word for word.

(4) Do not teach pronunciation. There is no longer any standard English. Well over two-thirds of the world’s 1.5 billion English speakers are non-native speakers. Their English is certainly as acceptable as the Received Pronunciation (RP) of a tiny fraction of the British or the Broad Midwestern of Hollywood–as long as their English is comprehensible to the greatest number of persons who do not share that particular accent.

(5) Do not give tests. While testing is well embedded in many parts of the world, scaling is to be preferred to testing. Usually tests only require the regurgitation of knowledge. Scaling, placing people on a scale from beginner to educated native, has much more validity.

(6) Do not use lesson plans. Teach students, not lesson plans. Many teachers come away from their teacher training institutions with a mandated compulsion to spend hours writing lesson plans. Such planning is quite counterproductive since in an actual teaching situation the teacher must be alert to the reactions of the students–stressing pragmatic considerations, putting more time and effort where the lesson needs it and shortening or eliminating parts where the students seem to be in command of the concept being stressed. Yes, the teacher should have a general idea of the objectives of the lesson. Certainly the teacher should have available any materials which will be needed. Most importantly the teacher should leave time after the lesson to reflect on it and evaluate its strengths and weaknesses. But the focus of any teaching should be on the students, not on the constraints imposed by any preconceived lesson plan.

(7) Do not use the native language in the classroom: Never, never, never! If our aim is the successful bifurcation of the native and target languages, any use of the native language is by definition counterproductive. Draw a chalkline on the doorsill and proudly use the native language outside the classroom, but create an immersion situation inside.

(8) Do not use textbooks. You know your own students better than any textbook author. Authentic materials are all around you. For example: Record the news from the VOA or the BBC. Videotape CNN or Australian TV. Bring in any expatriate Anglophone in town and have him chat with the students. Have your school subscribe to the “International Herald Tribune” or “Time” or “Newsweek.” Borrow English language videos. If they have subtitles put a book in front of the bottom of the monitor to cover up those subtitles. Buy, with your own money if necessary, paperbacks. After you read them they can be the nucleus of an individualized reading program (each student reads his own book and then reports on it to the class). Have your class keep journals in English, and write their own English to English vocabulary lists. Have the class write their own book.

(9) Do not teach the microskills: reading, writing, speaking, listening. English is one language, indivisible. And English is a living language; one only dissects the dead.

(10) Do not teach. Empower your students to take responsibility for their own learning. This reflects a general trend, especially in North American education, to deemphasize the role of the teacher as the font of all knowledge and provide the students with the means to further their own educative process beyond the classroom. This is called the student-centered classroom (as opposed to the teacher-centered classroom).

Thus Hath Dr. Bland Spoke

On the international plane, a focus on communication is overtaking traditional methodologies. This is reflected in most of the commandments. On the other hand, some of the commandments, i.e. Number 4, were reactions to local controversies. Number 4 was a response to the discussions as to which English represented the standard: British (RP), Midwest American, or even, in the Vietnamese context, Australian English. The answer was none of the above, but rather a Vietinglish comprehensible to the greatest number of non-Vietnamese.
Obviously, no immediate revolution was planned, nor did one occur. The aim, rather, was to present some alternatives and allow them to foment. Someday one of those teachers-in-training will become minister of education, and perhaps he or she will remember Dr. Bland’s seminar and institute some of those reforms.

(Versions of this list have appeared in other publications, including the “WATESOL Journal.”)

Merton L. Bland has worked as a K-12 teacher in the USA; a US foreign service officer in Africa, Asia and Australia; and as an ESL/EFL teacher and teacher trainer in the US, Asia, Africa, and Europe. <mert_bland@yahoo.com>

>By Eve Ross – Beijing Institute of Machinery

I asked students to discuss with a partner what percent of their learning is the teacher’s responsibility, and why. The answers ranged from 10% to 100%, but most were between 30% to 50%. The insights used to defend the various answers were really great, too. Since everyone admitted that the teacher had at least some responsibility, this was a good segue into creating a teacher’s contract.

The list members might be interested in my students’ suggestions of clauses to go in my contract, since they create a students’-view picture of the ideal English teacher. I should mention that I taught these same students last semester, so they are already familiar with my teaching style. The numbers reflect how many of the 32 students included the item in their list of suggestions.

26 – Provide more opportunities to speak English
14 – Teach more Western culture
14 – Point out mistakes and correct them immediately
12 – Show more films
8 – Work more on pronunciation
8 – Give more opportunities to talk about daily life
8 – Provide more chances to meet other native speakers
6 – Give advice on how to study English

Suggestions given by fewer than 5 people:

Give advice on reading
Take students out of the classroom
Answer e-mail quickly
Do more role plays
Ask for student suggestions
Give practical knowledge
Give advice on passing the Band 4 Exam
Be friends
More homework
More tests
More oral presentations
More games
More focus on the text
More different topics
More vocabulary
More grammar

All of these seem like pretty good ideas to me, but only the first three are actually going into my contract: I will provide as many opportunities to speak English as possible. I will teach some aspect of Western culture in every class. I will point out and correct students’ mistakes immediately.

>By Stephen Krashen, Emeritus Professor of Education, University of Southern California

I think skipping [words when reading] is a good way to increase one’s vocabulary.

1. The more you skip, the more you read, and the more you can acquire. Of course if you have to skip too many words and the text makes no sense without them, the text is too hard.

2. If you stop to notice, you won’t be focused on the meaning, and you won’t acquire much.

Once again, the acquisition/learning distinction is helpful. Acquisition is subconscious, while it is happening you don’t know it is happening, and once it has occurred you are not always aware of it. Readers get meanings and partial meanings of many words and they are not aware this is happening.

Learning is very concrete, when it happens we know it happens. But it is not very efficient.

Another problem: For people like us, professionals in language who are interested in language per se, it can be very satisfying and pleasurable. We like the feeling of learning a rule and we feel pleasure when we can actually use the rule. But normal people get their pleasures elsewhere.

>Maria Spelleri, Manatee Community College, FL, USA

A teacher asks: “… how can I combine language teaching and literature together, to get my student more interested in English and to make English learning more meaningful?”

First, does “literature” refer to classics by Bronte, Hardy, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Oates, etc.?

If so, my quick response to this is: Who says that reading or studying literature makes English more meaningful to the students? Sure, making the language more “meaningful” to the students will increase their motivation in class, but I believe 100 year old foreign language literature is the kiss of death for high school students.

If you want to bring meaning to the students’ study of the language and you want to incorporate reading, find some modern novels that feature teens or characters in their 20s. At least the language will be contemporary and there is more of a chance the students will be interested in the story. You don’t have to read teen romance pap.

There is some excellent Young Adult (YA) fiction out there. You may even be able to find online teaching guides for some of most noteworthy. At the American Library Association page for book awards you can find titles and descriptions under “Young Adult” and “Newberry Awards.”

Now some teachers have criticised me. The implication of this question was that teaching literature would increase student interest, and that teaching literature would result in more meaningful learning. To me, it sounded like literature, just because it is literature, will lead to meaningful learning, which I believe to be untrue.

“Meaningful” needs to be redefined with every class, with every student. Tolstoy might be meaningful to one person, while Auto Mechanics Digest will be meaningful to another. I can think of plenty of cases where bringing literature into the class would be the surest way to get some to drop out simply because it would not be meaningful.

Any kind of reading material for the class should be selected because of its appropriateness for the lesson and interest level for the student, not because someone calls it literature, and therefore “important” and “meaningful”. That is the crux of the matter in my opinion. It does not mean you should never teach literature. It means that doing so will not necessarily provide interest and meaningful learning.

Finally, I see many list members’ idea of “literature” is more broad than mine. While I certainly did not mean only dead white authors, I surely was not considering fables, myths, current best sellers, or everything written by NNS authors writing in English solely because they write of the cross-cultural experience. I was thinking, perhaps incorrectly, of writing that has stood the test of time as work of artistic and creative excellence.