We know from Krashen and many others that reading is crucial to acquisition of first and other languages. Reading gives us repetitions on vocab, “fuses” the visual with the auditory, and, crucially, allows us to slow down, pause, and go back, which we can’t do as much when getting oral input.
Also, crucially, reading shows us the zillions of subtle ‘rules’ that make up language use, rules which we could teach but which would be tedious. For example, which sounds better: “I am a hard-working, employed professional” or “I am an employed, hard-working professional”? The first. Why? I dunno. I could work it out, probably, but who cares– I’d rather read a good story and soak it up that way than have to hack through a set of rules. In Spanish, this is another tricky thing: you can say “es un gran hombre” and “es un hombre grande.” The first means “he is a great man” and the second means “he is a [physically] large man.” You could teach people the rules about literal vs figurative adjective placement, bla bla, or you could let them read. For what it’s worth, as an English teacher, I can tell you with 100% certainty, the best writers are– always— readers. There are no good writers who don’t read a ton. (I often joke with friends that the exception here are the Irish, and in the case of the Irish what we have are a culture that seems above all to value verbal dexterity and storytelling.)
(By the way, in my view, one of the biggest problems in the so-called “communicative” classrooms I see is that they don’t read. No matter how good your teaching is, if you don’t make the kids read, you are shooting yourself in the foot).
So, reading matters a lot. First, principles:
a) reading should be 95%+ comprehensible. If it isn’t, the kids stop or majorly slow acquisition, screw around, get annoyed, etc.
b) reading should be easy, and not intimidating/embarrassing, etc.
c) reading should be interesting— and what is interesting usually involves people, suspense, and a bit of humour (and surrealism sure doesn’t hurt either).
The best non-teacher-centered reading strategy I have yet seen I learned from Von Ray, and it’s called “ping-pong” reading, also known as “volleyball” reading: the kids take a text, sentence at a time, and “volley” the target language and the English back and forth at each other.
So how do we do ping-pong reading?
a) Get kids into pairs. I do pairs of rows (5 kids per row, two rows beside each other, three “pairs” of rows = 30 kids). They can “be with their friends” because they will be moving soon. You can also do Socratic circles. Any system where kids can easily move to a new partner works.
b) Make sure each kid has a copy of whatever you are reading (versions of asked stories best– novels tend to have WAY too much new vocab).
c) Set a timer with alarm for 3 min.
d) One kid per pair reads the first sentence aloud in the target language.
e) The other kid translates that into English, then reads the second sentence in the TL.
f) The first kid translates that into English and reads the third sentence aloud, etc.
g) When your timer goes, they switch partners. In my room, the left-hand kid moves one back; kid at back moves to front.
h) They figure out where each was, and start from the least-far-along kid’s last spot. E.g. if Max and his partner read to the 19th sentence in the story, while Samba and her partner read to the 15th, when Max and Samba sit together, they will start reading where Samba got to: the 15th sentence. That way Samba doesn’t get lost, and Max gets reps.
i) Reset phone and start timer again. Repeat until they are done the story. Then of course review the crap out of it! You can ask t/f questions, or get your superstars to give one-sentence answers (and have the slower processors translate) etc.
- I don’t do this a lot– typically once per story, and it will last about 15 min– but I have not yet seen a better way to keep kids reading and focused. I also tell them “if you disagree about what something means, check your vocab sheet or ask me.”
- Another REALLY good idea thanks to Laurie Clarq is to use embedded readings for this (Blaine Ray is also big on embedded readings). For this, the teacher reads the first version– the simplest one which contains the target structures– aloud and the kids chorally translate. For the second, more complex version, the teacher reads aloud, the kids translate, and you can throw in a few questions. You must make sure they understand everything, because if they don’t, they will screw up/misunderstand when they are reading on their own. For the third and longest version, the kids go into full ping-pong on their own and the teacher just sets timer and keeps them on track.
- the kids seem to see this as almost a game, which is cool. Also the get-up-and-move thing is really helpful and they like that they can sit even for a few minutes with their friends.
- I have found that my kids really do stay on task for this, provided it doesn’t go on too long and provided that the reading is comprehensible.
- One of the reasons the kids like this– other than the “I get to sit with my friend” thing– is that, like choral output, this is non-intimidating. You know the words so you probably won’t screw up either the reading or the translation, and if you do screw up, only one person gets to hear.