Thursday, 21 May 2015

Extensive Reading - playing the numbers game

On an average week, I would probably read about a dozen 250 word essays. That's about 564 a year. So over the last 7 years, I've read....3,948 essays. And not just read; I've corrected the life out of them. The potentially dispiriting thing is that it seems like they never really get any better. If it were the same person writing all those essays, then of course you'd be worried. But those 3,948 essays are the work of hundreds of students - students who improve and move on, replaced by students who need to improve to move on. So in the halfway house that is the classroom, I've been trying to think of ways to "do" writing better.

What I'm thinking now is that I have to get those numbers up. 

At the same time, the problem I often find with students' writing is either a lack of vocabulary or a lack of ideas on a relevant topic. So, naturally, I want to get the quality up too.

If you follow Stephen Krashen on Twitter, you'll know that he posts a lot of his articles for free on his website, Krashen writes a lot on the topic of extensive reading. The idea is that tons and tons of self selected reading helps language acquisition. A bit of a wander around google (scholar) throws up some interesting free articles like this and this. Scott Thornbury has some interesting points here about extensive reading and how on its own, it isn't enough. To learn new vocabulary just from extensive reading, you need to come into contact with the word multiple times - some form of reinforcement is needed. Thornbury advocates dictionary usage as a way to top up extensive reading (from a vocabulary acquisition point of view). (NB: In this post, Thornbury mentions the 96% figure I've come across once before - apparently, this is the amount of words in a text you need to know to be able to guess the meaning of the ones you don't).

I'd guess, like many teachers, I am quite attracted to the idea of extensive reading (especially when you get to do stuff like this great idea from BALEAP conf - everyone brings a book to class, including teacher; 10 minutes of reading time, then chat about it.....sorry, would love to credit, but I can't track down the source of this great idea. Please let me know if you do. Addendum - found it! - Greg Strong talking about Fluent Reading posted by BALEAP) My concern is the self selected bit - my students have to write on a load of topics, topics that they might never be particularly motivated to read about of their own volition. The other thing is that many do not read a lot in their native language.

So in terms of getting them to write more (with hopefully more vocabulary and more developed/relevant ideas), I've been trying a bit of guided extensive reading (with a bit of listening/watching thrown in as well). Strictly speaking, this isn't exactly extensive reading - it is probably better defined as "doing a good bit more reading than you would usually do (about topics that you may not normally read about)"(c) :)

I've been trying this approach for the last month and so far it has been interesting. It is nothing revolutionary, but... 

Basically, a week before the class, I email students with the following instructions:
  1. The topic for next week's writing class is ......(insert topic here)
    • Read this article and highlight any relevant vocabulary (insert link here)
    • Read this (different) article and highlight any relevant ideas (insert link here)
  2. (Listening) Here is a talk on this topic (insert link here)
    • What are the speaker's 5 main points?
    • Look at the transcript - any relevant vocabulary?
    • If you were in the audience, what one question would you ask?
  3. (Reading) Here is an article on this topic (insert link here)
    • What is the overall point the writer is trying to make?
    • What are the main ideas? What examples does the writer use?
    • Does the writer talk about effects (e.g. as a result....consequently....)
    • Do you notice any vocabulary that you found in the listening or other articles?
  4. (Writing) Now, after doing all that reading and listening, write 250 words on the question (insert a question related to the topic here).

This is an example that we did a while ago. Here in Dublin, we had some bus strikes so the students missed class. As the concept of trade unionism was not a familiar one to them (and having seen this topic come up in an EAP exam in the past), I thought it might be of interest.

Trade Unionism example

(photo taken from

Reading (approx. 30 minutes)
Use google to find the answers to these 4 questions. Write a few lines to answer each question. We will discuss in  class. 
1.       What is a trade union?
2.       What are the advantages of a trade union?
3.       What is a picket?
4.       Why did Dublin Bus go on strike? 

This video might be a good place to start 

Listening/Speaking (approx. 30 minutes) 
Watch this Ted talk. The talk is about peaceful protests and is very interesting. 
1.       Write 3 sentences to summarise the talk
2.       Write one question that you would have asked if you were at the talk
3.       Note 5 new words/phrases

Writing (approx. 1 hour)
Write a 250 essay based on this question. 

Workers in essential services (e.g. police, doctors, bus drivers) should not be allowed to go on strike. It causes too much inconvenience to the majority of people. Do you agree or disagree? 

Read these two webpages as support

The end result as I see it is that students are writing more than they did, they are reading a good bit more than they did. Are their essays any better.....

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