Not long ago, I was subbing for a reading class. They were using Read This 3, which starts with a text about ice hotels. The students were to have read it before class, but they hadn’t, and I was on the spot. Having just spent several hours with William Grabe and Fredricka Stoller’s Teaching and Researching Reading, I decided to put one of their recommendations into action: connect new information from the text to background knowledge. It would be a challenge because, like with many reading passages in ESOL materials, the topic was far from their reality
I went into pre-reading mode. After a look at the photo of an ice castle and the aurora borealis (Northern Lights), I asked, “Why would anyone ever want to stay in a hotel made of ice?” The students called out answers:
“They want to do something different.”
“They think it will be beautiful.”
“They like nature.”
Then they read to confirm and check what it would actually be like. The while reading question was, “Who would like this experience? Do you know anyone who might want to stay here?”
The plan seemed to go well. Students read, talked and eventually wrote a letter to that adventurous friend. In the letter, they included details about why the person might like the thrills associated with staying inside the arctic circle, including dog sledding and swimming in the icy ocean. This summary with a purpose helped them to go back into the text, make choices, and produce something new that combined information from the reading with their background knowledge of a friend or relative.
In reflecting on the experience, I felt that students were able to have a conversation with the text because it was graded to their level. These readers had what Paul Nation calls an authentic reading experience. Students are authentically reading when they do not have to decode figurative language or look up words in the dictionary. They are authentically reading when they can “sight read” words and chunks. The result is that they are able to absorb the ideas and emotion in the text and connect it to their own feelings and experience. When that happens, they can engage with each other at a higher level as well.
After many years of teaching with course books that challenge students to read above level, I could appreciate why Grabe and Stoller bemoan the fact that few teachers use extensive reading (sometimes called fluency reading) in their classes. My experience with the ice hotel taught me that when students easily understand the text, they can work with the ideas in new ways, showing an understanding and application of information that also creates a a sense of accomplishment.
Intensive (above level) reading has value, but Grabe and Stoller cite research that says only about one percent of the native speaker population reads material that is challenging, and that most reading in our first language is reading for information and entertainment such as magazine articles. Teachers can create a similar experience for English learners by using graded readers. The benefits include enhanced vocabulary development and collocation awareness but also the fact that cognitive energy can be devoted to understanding whole sentences and paragraphs. Learners can work on the overall structure of the piece, the author’s purpose, the way the ideas talk to another text or the reader’s experience. Such experiences can create a dynamic classroom environment by creating opportunities for interaction, reflection, synthesis, and evaluation.
Inspired, I wanted to do more to create conversations with texts, not only in reading but across other skill areas. I started writing short articles to create opportunities for students to engage with content in brief, efficient bursts. For example, in my writing class, an assignment from Trio Writing 3 focused on a favorite company. Students needed to explore the features that create customer loyalty. I had written a piece on Sarah Blakely who made a fortune by inventing and marketing Spanx underwear, so I decided to try it out.
It took less than 10 minutes for the students to read Sarah Blakely’s Underwear in class, and it led to much discussion about the personalities behind great companies. Students came up with concepts of persistence, being able to deal with failure, and philanthropy, which led to discussions about their own purchasing decisions. Many ended up choosing environmentally friendly companies. One chose Toms Shoes because the company gives away a pair of shoes for every pair they sell. Yes, people choose companies for affordability, quality and customer service, but there were other characteristics that mattered as well. These might not have come up if we hadn’t read about the human story behind Spanx.
When it came time to collect their papers, I was pleased. They were rich in content and quite accurate on the whole. I found well developed paragraphs, and I suspect that the simplicity of the Sarah Blakely text gave them models for writing sentences that they had the skills to emulate.
Of course abundant research highlights the value of including reading in the writing classroom, so my epiphany was nothing new in one sense. However, it did raise my awareness about the importance of leveling. The reading that informs the writing should not overwhelm in its scope and complexity.
I also started using short texts in my oral communication classes. Students read an intermediate level article titled Who Owns the Streets about the war between bicycles and cars on urban thoroughfares. Then they had a debate about who has the right to the streets. The discussions around how cities can improve the safety and flow of bicycle, pedestrian and vehicle traffic was quite lively. Students talked about cities they had come from and brainstormed solutions to population densification.
Reading has always felt important, but it has been interesting to dig a bit deeper into the research and realize that not all reading has to be difficult. Not all reading has to come with a long sequence of vocabulary, decoding and intensive skills work. In fact, it was very liberating to think that a quick reading could be used as a classroom warmer, a way to get students thinking about a writing prompt, or even to set context for grammar. I’ve had students use comparison language to compare themselves to a character in a story, or use modals to suggest a different ending.
The hardest part about incorporating fluency reading may be acquiring a collection of engaging leveled texts. When I first started including more readings, I simply wrote them myself, and some are included on this website under leveled reading texts. I’ve also started contributing to the Big Ideas series, which includes collections of magazine-style articles and short fiction. There are also other series published by Pearson, McMillian, Oxford and Cambridge, which are mainly designed for pleasure reading. For websites with freebies, check out the links below.
Many teachers may have questions about the leveling of their reading material and how to create a balance between intensive and extensive or fluency-based experiences. For these people, Grabe and Stoller recommend a little action research, which can be as simple as reflecting on a class over time. This can be especially helpful through the lens of a question, such as the following: How did the students respond to the text and activities? How was their motivation? Did they engage with the ideas? Was there frustration? How do I feel about the dynamics of the class? Were students’ motivated to read more? to talk?
Then see where the results take you.