Along with our newest feature, downloadable, graded texts, we’ve been doing some research on extensive reading, and it turns out that in many programs, fluency reading is an ESOL underdog. It’s quite valuable, but we do not do enough of it.
To start, much research supports the notion that fluency reading aids language learning. Students who read a book or two a week for fluency develop not only ancillary reading skills but also vocabulary awareness, and even improve their grammar and writing (Grabe, 2012, Nation, 2004, 2011, Stoller, 2015, Waring & McLean 2015).
Nation describes fluency activities as meaning-based and designed to give students the opportunity to become really good at language they already know. In other words, students can experience the goals of their language learning while they are learning.
At the same time, reading specialists bemoan the fact that many ESOL programs focus almost exclusively on intensive reading, which involves working through more challenging texts, applying strategies, and intensively studying vocabulary and other skills. A challenging currciculum makes sense in one way because when reading is difficult and comes with lots of exercises, students feel they are being pushed to learn.
Yet extensive reading, in which students read a lot of material at or even slightly below level, offers a different type of reward. Because it is meaning-based, it affords classroom participants an opportunity to work with ideas. Their experience is similar to that of a native speaker who picks up a magazine in a doctor’s office. They can read for information or entertainment, and they can experience a sense of accomplishment.
With all the good and very little of the bad, it’s surprising that extensive reading is not better integrated into programs. Perhaps teachers simply need to connect it to curricular objectives more concretely. We might also benefit from developing a way to measure students’ progress.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of ways that teachers can make use of the positive experience of fluency reading, and that is by using texts across various ESOL strands. It takes only a few minutes to read a leveled text, and then the information, vocabulary and even ways of framing information are fresh in the students’ minds. They share something to communicate about.
The following are five simple activity ideas that incorporate graded texts across the curriculum.
Meaningful conversations need at least three elements: You, me, and a good topic. In the classroom, this can be surprisingly easy to achieve through a short reading and response question. The best readings are slightly provocative. They go beyond the basic presentation of facts to an interpretation that challenges the reader. When effectively constructed, the reader may want to variously agree or disagree, compare, interpret, or apply information.
For example, after reading about whether or not trees communicate with each other, students can share opinions about what it means to communicate. After reading about machine intelligence, they can talk about the future of work.
When choosing texts and setting up conversations questions, it is important to bear in mind that the best discussion questions are not comprehension tests. Instead, they structure inquiry into the topic. A question such as How would protected bike lanes affect your city? invites students to think about how to apply the information to their communities.
The most frequent words in the English language are grammar words, and graded readers are full of them. But many of these grammar words are hard to define. For example, the word enough is in the most frequent one thousand, but what does it mean? When it appears in a graded reader, the context provides the schema for readers to grasp both the meaning of the word and its place in a sentence.
Teachers can be on the lookout for these tricky lexico-grammatical features and draw students’ attention to them. For example, you might give readers a noticing task. Find three sentences with the word enough. Does it appear in statements, negatives and/or questions? It could then be followed by an application: Write your own examples by substituting other nouns for the nouns in the original.
The real gold, however, is in using the content of the reading to set up further practice. For example, ask a question about a story that elicits target grammar in the answer: Why didn’t the father want her daughter to marry Kenji? (Use enough in your answer) Answer: He wasn’t rich enough. Why did the father want her to marry Yoshi? He had enough money.
Writing Prompts and Scaffolds
When given a simple question prompt, multi-lingual writers may or may not have something to say. But given more content background through a four or five-paragraph article or story, writers have more to work with. The ideas and information can help them connect existing knowledge and beliefs to the reading and the prompt. For example, students can analyze different points of view. Or they can identify with a character or evaluate her decisions.
An accessible text can also be helpful for early work in paraphrasing or summarizing. Because the reading is not the primary challenge, more cognitive resources can be given over to the writing task. For example, after reading about the Autism activist Temple Grandin, readers can explore the contributions and perspectives of differently-abled people. The task lends itself to summarizing details from the text.
A simple, structured debate can be quickly organized around a reading about an issue. For example, Extreme sports such as rock climbing and base jumping should be banned for the protection of the athletes. Students can begin by reading the article and identifying pros and cons. Then the class can be broken into three groups. (For bigger classes, use two readings and have two debates by creating two groups of three.) Each three-group set can include a pro group, a con group, and a moderator group. While pros and cons each meet for 15-20 minutes to organize their arguments, the moderators formulate questions that can be posed to the debate teams. The moderators also make plans about how to run the debate and prepare to assign points to each answer. The winning team will have the highest number of points at the end of the debate.
Scaffolding for Listening Comprehension
Many news organizations now post short videos about topical issues on their websites. This material can be incorporated into lesson plans for students at the intermediate level and above. However, because these videos are not designed for language learners, learners can benefit from scaffolding. A background reading can set the stage by introducing concepts and language that listeners are likely to experience. Or at higher levels, it can provide a point of view that is similar to or different from the video. Learners can read, listen and compare.
For example, Mars has been in the news quite a bit lately as both private and government projects are underway to send humans to the red planet. There are many short videos on the NASA site and on mainstream media. For example, the New York Times has a video series about a group of volunteers who are spending eight months on a volcano that resembles the Martian landscape. The volunteers, all NASA scientists, eat and sleep in a small habitat, and if they go outside, they wear a space suit. A whole lesson can be built around the videos that includes readings on Mars and perhaps a panel discussion on the biological, ethical, and economic considerations of what it means for humans to live on a faraway planet.
While it may seem difficult to find just the right reading to pair with online material or a course book unit, an exact topic match may not be necessary or even advisable. For example, a reading on Akira Miyawaki, the Japanese forester who organized the planting of millions of trees, could be paired with a unit on climate change. Or a reading on the David Vetter, the boy who lived in a bubble for 12 years, might provide an interesting case study for a module on families.
Sometimes combining disparate topics can create interesting classroom dynamics. At times, a reading may open up a whole new avenue for exploration. Other times, it may just provide a short side note. In either case, sprinkling short readings into lessons can offer teachers and students an opportunity to use language to make connections with texts and each other.
*An earlier version of this article is available as a download on the Leveled Reading Texts tab.