I start by teaching them the letters and the sounds, and gradually progress to making words out of letters, sentences out of words, and short texts out of sentences. Reading aloud or using read-along books with audios is an integral part of any lesson. When young learners grasp the new skill, they enjoy reading aloud to their peers; they also get used to reading & rendering short stories, doing various exercises, and having discussions. A little guidance helps, we may offer them a choice for summer reading. Once the habit is established, they continue reading something every year. As in their own language, some students may read a book a week, while others may plod through one book a year at most. There are two important principles to remember:
• We should progress from simple to complicated gradually. In other words, a picture book with short captions is fine for eight-year-olds, but it is definitely boring for those who are ten. If we have one prodigy in our class who starts reading chapter books by the end of the first year, let them.
• To each according to their interests. One pupil may enjoy spy stories, another loves romance, some may read anything about cars, animals or fashion. Occasionally, there is a student who prefers dictionaries, reference and fact books to any others. I believe in the freedom of choice. I once had a student who was a great enthusiast of The Guinness Book of Records. His reports on what he had learned from it were so fascinating that the whole class began reading that wonderful publication!
Naturally an ideal anything is hard to encounter in real life. More often, I would get a class full of teenagers who were never taught to read in a foreign language on a regular basis. Not only would they not regard reading as a necessary activity; they would tell me, “Of course I have to translate every word, mentally or by writing out all the new words, from English into Russian, and it is so boring!” I would start by enquiring about the interests and hobbies; testing the students’ abilities is useful too. If possible, we can try and learn what kind of family a student comes from. If it is a family of intellectuals, chances are that reading is a regular pastime for them. If we suspect that there is not a single book and nobody reads at home, we may be up against either a very difficult situation, or an easy one. Children and adolescents love a challenge. They may be eager to do something new. All that remains is to find a book, a story which will grip their attention at once. A group of teen girls became interested in the popular series “Just 17” because they loved the colorful book covers. Boys preferred aliens, monsters and all sorts of machinery. Everybody loved “Ghost Stories”. We read the latter in the classroom, discussing the vocabulary, the possible outcomes, the heroes, and whether anybody believed in ghosts. The former was our home-reading: everybody read what they liked at home, and then made short reports, presentations, or wrote their own essays about any book they chose.
Vocabulary work is an integral part of any reading activity. Younger learners would bring in any word or word-combination they thought might interest everybody, or which they found hard to understand. Seniors would choose some phrases which they considered useful, or obsolete, or untranslatable. Idioms are invariably fascinating. Not the sharpest knife in the kitchen drawer; not much on the upper floor; slow on the uptake; not the brightest bulb in the chandelier… What are all those expressions? What do they mean, why are they used? Why not simply say, “He/she is stupid”? Any such discussion, any examples help students see the language in a different light. They realize that idioms, figures of speech, synonyms and antonyms exist not only in their mother tongue, but also in the foreign language they study. When we continue the discussion, turning their attention to the fact that many of those colourful expressions do not have an equivalent in their own language, or are hard to translate because there are no analogues, they begin to understand the intricacies of any vocabulary, and the importance of dictionaries.
At this stage, it is useful to cite a few similar examples from the students’ native language, and ask them if they can find any suitable variants in English.
Discussing misunderstandings and mistranslations helps students of any age and level understand the importance of working with a text, of reading, and of consulting a dictionary or a reference book, be they real or virtual. I keep a stock of various examples handy. For instance, William Thackeray calls Amelia “tender parasite” at the end of his novel “Vanity Fair”. In the Russian translation, we read “tender convolvulus/flower”, which rather changes the whole sentiment so to speak. In English, we stumble upon my favourite “babushka” quite often, as in, “She put her babushka on her head and went out”. The English dictionary defines “babushka” as “shawl”, but in reality it means “granny, grandmother”. So, you put your granny on your head… Yes, hilarious. How do such examples help us teach reading? They show students that, first, mistakes occur in any language; second, that it is important to double-check any meaning which seems incongruous.
Many of my former students who began reading literature at my lessons, and my colleagues who attended my teacher refresher courses often stop by to borrow a book, to ask me what they should read for their English, and to talk about the problems and difficulties they come against.
Nina MK, Ph.D.