When Cambridge University Press began publishing graded readers in the late 90s we took a decision not to sell the abridged versions of classic or popular novels that were the bulk of most publishers’ lists. We chose instead to make our readers much closer to the experience of naturally reading a book. So the Cambridge English Readers
are original fiction in a range of genres (romance, adventure, crime, sci-fi) with a quality design that made them look like popular paperbacks rather than schoolbooks. And they don’t have the lists of comprehension questions that are a traditional feature of this kind of product.
This approach was quite brave at the time as simplified classics are by their very nature well-known stories that teachers can choose from the catalogue, whereas as one teacher told John Henry “with your original fiction we have to read the book.”
We believe that the design of the Cambridge English Readers encourages students to read quickly, read for a gist understanding of the story, and read a lot. Which is all good, and indeed reading for pleasure is a current focus of ELT guru Stephen Krashen,
as outlined in his talk at a recent IATEFL Young Learners SIG
in which he argues that reading is pleasant (as long as the books are interesting and comprehensible students will prefer them to grammar lessons) and effective, especially when students have a free choice of text.
So often in ELT we gain insight into our students learning through reflection on our own learning and communication, by asking ourselves: How do we read? What do we enjoy reading? Why? Therefore it’s appropriate that the Henry Brothers’ workshop on Using Graded Readers takes as its example text the first page of the book “How I Met Myself” by David A. Hill.
Here’s the text:
The questions covered in the workshop are:
What can the teacher do to help understanding?
Prediction: Whether the students are reading individually or whether the whole class are studying the same text the teacher should try to coach them in good study habits such as prediction, from the cover image, the text on the back cover, and any images in the book. Encourage your students to think about the genre and the setting, what kind of characters they may expect to encounter in the story and so on.
Comprehension; We are not enthusiasts of comprehension questions, which only add to the language challenge and slow down the reading process. So in our workshop we quickly establish the gist of the story with what/who/where/when questions. “Q. Where is this story happening? A. Budapest, in a street. Q. When? A. January, a cold winter evening. Q.Who’s in the story? A. A man. Q what do we know about him? A. He’s married, he’s frightened.
Then we encourage non-verbal responses to the text such as:
- a picture dictation – in the workshop we do this as a whole group activity where two or three participants come to the front and draw the scene but ONLY by following the instructions shouted out by the whole group.
- acting out or miming parts of the story – here again I involve the group, by choosing two “actors” while the bulk of the group are “directors”, shouting out instructions. The directors also provide sound effects (the cold January wind, the door slamming, a gasp of surprise).
What can the teacher do to make the text more enjoyable?
This is where you are free to take the class in various directions depending on their age, language level motivation and so on. You might ask your students to find out more about Budapest, predict the way the story develops, draw the characters, find out how to say “sorry” in Hungarian etc. But the main aim should be to encourage students to read more so anything you add to the text should be primarily for motivation. Otherwise it would be better to get them started on the next book.
What will the students learn?
Vocabulary, first and foremost. We ask our workshop participants to read the text again and find three groups of related words. It’s always disappointing when the group suggests “adverbs”, “irregular verb” or other grammar concepts, because we are really looking for lexical sets, words related to a topic area. three that we have identified are:
- Winter – Cold; dark; quiet; hot soup; snowing heavily; empty; completely white; low clouds.
- The city – buildings; narrow streets; district; main road; street door.
- Fear/suspense – quiet; strange; empty streets; I felt afraid; it felt as if the city was waiting for something; (he spoke) very quietly.
As with the other activities in the workshop we like this because it’s quick and doesn’t add too much to the language challenge of the reading while it does recycle the students interaction with the words in the text.
What would the teachers need to say in the class?
Hopefully not too much!!!
Finally we hope that you are enjoying a little summer reading of your own and look forward to seeing you in the autumn. But in the meantime we’d be happy to hear, and share, your thoughts, tips and ideas on using graded readers with your students. Please add as a comment below.