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Teenagers and literature
What better way to find out about a country or English-speaking countries and challenge the stereotypes portrayed in many coursebooks? We can give students this essential background to their language learning while improving their extensive reading and language skills at the same time.
The BritLit materials on the TeachingEnglish website take as their premise that reading is a creative process, and that reading and writing are two sides of the same coin. They build on students’ innate knowledge of narrative and storytelling. Teachers can use the materials to engage the students as readers in their own right. Introducing narrative as input encourages students to build closer relationships with the text and makes them less dependent on the teacher. The kits are designed for teachers to select materials to build their own lessons.
A selection of authentic, ungraded materials from the BritLit resources are now available on the LearnEnglish Teens website with online activities as well as printable worksheets. The materials on the LearnEnglish Teens website provide opportunities for students to read more independently.
The stepping stones reading approach
As the approach emphasises engagement with the text the materials in the BritLit kits provide activities and tasks which are more subjective and there is a move away from traditional comprehension and data-collection activities. In this approach the pre-reading stage becomes vitally important. The aim of these pre-reading activities is to get the students to want to read the text and to provide motivation to read. The activities suggested in the kits allow teachers to build a narrative base and include:
- Using pictures/video/sound as prompts, e.g. show students illustrations and ask them to speculate on the story or show students illustrations or a video clip to encourage them to speculate on the story.
- Building on shared narratives, e.g. working together in groups to work out a story before reading the text - teachers can tap into students’ imagination.
- ‘Chunking’ and ‘stepping stones’, e.g. providing chunks of text from the target story, but leaving gaps which students can fill in by creating narrative. When students finally read the text they meet familiar sections.
- Narrative building questions, e.g. asking questions about a story the students have not read yet - this is a fun way of building a story.
All of these activities create heightened interest and curiosity about the content of the story. Students will want to compare their own story with the author’s. They encourage group work, sharing ideas and recognise our student’s abilities as story-tellers. All this provides a solid framework before students meet the target text.
After the pre-reading or ‘characterisation’ activities reading can be done in various ways, whether reading or reading and listening to the text. Teachers can download audio recordings by the author of many of the stories and poems.
As students read the story teachers can provide textual intervention activities to exploit the content of the story. For example, the story can be interrupted at key moments to explore the content and allow students to speculate and examine points.
The last stage involves follow up activities to round up and provide a sense of closure. This can provide an opportunity to link to the school syllabus or can support wider themes such as family/relationships, science or technology. We can use the story as a springboard to explore these themes.
Further story-building work is also possible. A fun variant is to ask the students to write their own stories using characters ‘borrowed’ from the original story. Or students may be asked to break the story down into its component parts and characters, describe them and then find modern equivalents for a contemporary setting.
Teachers often wish to provide grammar practice of key grammar points, but this needs to be handled with care so that we don’t overdo it and destroy the enjoyment of reading.
Choosing suitable texts
The original choice of texts was based on the criteria of using living, contemporary authors from Commonwealth countries. They reflect the multi-cultural nature of the UK.
Another criteria was brevity and the texts needed to be fairly short to be accessible, for example Louise Cooper’s short story Chain Reaction, a short story with a funny twist at the end (see also the corresponding BritLit kit).
Poetry is also included with texts from a variety of poets. For example, the popular poem Orange Juice by Michael Rosen is an easy-to-read poem and provides humorous language practice at a lower level, and could even be used as a model for students to create their own poetry (see also the corresponding BritLit kit).
During the BritLit project some lucky students in different countries were able to meet different authors. Students can learn more about the authors they are reading and background information or biographies are often provided. For example in the BritLit kit for Pink Bow Tie, there is a biography of the Australian writer Paul Jennings. Some authors also are willing to contact students through their websites, e.g. the former children’s laureate Michael Rosen (author of Orange Juice above).
I used Pink Bow Tie (see above) to fit in with the topic of school rules and teaching modal verbs in a younger teens intermediate class. The students worked through the following stages.
- Students speculated on the title and explained ‘bow tie’, why it might be pink and where it would be worn
- Using the narrative building questions they worked in small groups to create their own stories
- Students familiarised themselves with the quotes or ‘chunks’ from the story and how they might fit with their narratives
- Students coloured the first line of each section of the story to break the text into accessible sections and provide easy reference for the teacher
- Students read the text section by section and answered selected questions about the characters/speculated on the story
- Students worked on the characters to understand them more fully
- In groups students imagined their ideal school
- Students practised grammar, making up rules for their own/ideal school and extending use of modals – can/can't, must/mustn't, should/shouldn't
- Students read and performed the narrative play
- Students created posters about the text, choosing their favourite characters, chunks of text and writing about their response.
I originally planned the work over two long lessons, but finally the students became so involved that follow-up activities took longer. The objective of getting the students to read and engage with a longer text that they might not tackle on their own was achieved. As a result of this lesson students went on to read further stories independently using the LearnEnglish Teens site.
The short stories and poems in the Literature UK section on LearnEnglish Teens are all authentic and ungraded, and are a selection of the more accessible stories which your students could read more independently. We could adapt the step by step approach outlined above to exploit these further.
For example, you could provide the essential pre-reading stage in class to set the context for the story and then ask students to read the story as homework independently. In the next lesson back at school follow-up activities could be tackled in small groups or project work could be undertaken. They can share their views and opinions about the themes in the story.
Alternatively students can tackle a story completely independently. Each story has a pre-reading vocabulary activity to introduce new lexis and familiarise the students with key vocabulary items from the story.
After reading the story themselves the students can check their comprehension by doing one of the follow up activities – for example a quick true/false check. Or they may like to tackle one of the more challenging tasks such as re-ordering events from the story or summarising and gap-filling. It is important to stress to students that they don’t have to do all the exercises and that these are just a fun way to check their understanding of the story.
Students could keep a record of the stories they have read in a reading log, or write short reviews to recommend stories to other students. Or they may just like to leave a comment on the website.
Students frequently ask us, ‘How can I improve my reading?’ Pointing them towards the Literature UK section on the LearnEnglish Teens website is a pretty good answer!