A piece of string and a shoe that fits

This time last year I was filling in a forum post on my top 3 books.  It was in the orientation module of my online diploma course in ELT Management with International House London (any DOSs or ADOSs out there thinking of doing this course, by the way – do it!).  While subsequent forums throughout the course were rather more hard-hitting and demanding (though still enjoyable!), this forum was a great way to get you into participating in forums.  It gave me an insight into others’ favourites, created debate about some of the books, and challenged me to think of my own top 3.

After reading only books related to my studies during the past few years, I have neglected reading purely for pleasure and without purpose.  My own top 3 are Women Who Run with the Wolves, The Last Unicorn and MAUS (more of this last choice later), and as I was finalising my choices I thought not only have I neglected reading lately but I don’t see much of it going on in our classrooms.  I suspect I know some of the reasons why this is.  First, our students come to Ireland to learn English from native speakers and, while they can easily practise reading and writing skills back in their home country, speaking English is top of their wish list for their General English lessons.  Second, while our syllabus is flexible and driven by student needs, the day and indeed the week can fly by very quickly, sometimes without enough time to fit in everything a teacher planned.  And third, which is something I suspect from my own first few years of teaching, is that it doesn’t feel like ‘proper teaching’ to watch your student read anything of significant length.  Maybe give the text out as homework, and then discuss it the next day?  But to sit in silence as people read – that’s not what I’m being paid for!

Actually, simply put – teachers being silent in the classroom is a good thing!  It means there’s a good chance the students are processing, using language, learning…

When I taught English to migrant students in an Irish secondary school, reading skills had to be part of our lessons as it’s the foundation of the national curriculum.  My students often arrived in Ireland with beginner English and had to face tough literature exams within a couple of years.  It was a great experience for me looking at using reading with English L2 learners, and there are lots of ways of transferring this to the traditional ELT classroom.  Here are two  articles which discuss theory and ways to draw on literature in ELT lessons: Here and here.

My favourite lesson when working with the secondary school students was called ‘A piece of string and a shoe that fits’.  For that semester, we worked on a topic based portfolio to give the students a focus while we looked at English as an L2 within all of the curriculum subjects.  The topic was ‘peace’ and this particular lesson started with the title of the lesson written on the board.  My students were required to guess what on earth that sentence was referring to. The students made great mind-maps after their group brainstorming.

Blog 1
Picture 1

Next we looked at the picture above. For a small picture, you can get a lot of discussion out of it.  They described it, guessed the context, wondered what the animal was and what that represented, predicted what could come next and what had appeared before…

The groups were always multi-level so we took the next few steps slowly, with the stronger students helping the others, leading to looking at the whole page:

The whole book page
The whole book page

Depending on which school subjects the students were focussing on, we then developed the lesson into a look at the Holocaust, ideas about needs vs. wants, gratitude.  Some students wrote lists of what they are grateful for. It was usually a very moving lesson, as some of these students came from a war context, and all students made thought-provoking contributions to discussions or written responses to the book page.  The book is MAUS and is a graphic novel, sothe visual element meant the beginner students had a foundation to scaffold the written words onto – great for a multi-level group.

So, the first goal for the team this year – get more books into the classroom!


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