In this essay, I will discuss extensive reading with Young Learners, and how extensive reading can be promoted, with reference to young learners in Hong Kong. Children learn to read in English in schools in Hong Kong at an early age, but there is little encouragement for them to read for purposes other than to learn the language. I will examine the benefits of extensive reading, in particular children’s stories, and how these can be used to promote extensive reading with primary learners in my teaching context at the British Council Hong Kong.
Why extensive reading?
Day and Bamford (1998, 4) contend that the type of reading done in ESL classes bears little resemblance to reading done in the real world, and that in fact “students learning to read a second language do not read and they do not like reading”. Reading in the classroom tends to be done purely in order to teach or review a language point, or to train students for an exam. However, “It is simplistic but true that the more students read, the better they become at it” (Day and Bamford 1998, 4). Teachers therefore need to find ways of encouraging students to read that are enjoyable and motivating for them, and more closely resemble the kind of reading that is done outside the classroom.
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Extensive reading, “is any reading that is done either for pleasure or not explicitly for the purposes of teaching reading”. (Emery 2009, 38). This can be any type of text, whether fiction or factual. With this type of reading, the “reader’s attention should be on the meaning, not the language, of the text” (Day and Bamford 1998, 5). As children focus on meaning when learning a language, extensive reading should then particularly appeal to them as a way of learning English, especially if the texts are of types that they would normally read in their first language. Language learning from reading comes from exposure to the language, but is not the primary aim of extensive reading.
Clark and Rumbold (2006, 9) list the following benefits of reading for pleasure;
- reading attainment and writing ability
- text comprehension and grammar
- breadth of vocabulary
- positive reading attitudes, which are linked to achievement in reading
- greater self-confidence as a reader
- pleasure in reading later in life
Although their report was regarding native speaker children in the UK, they note that these benefits are equally true for second language acquisition. It appears, then, that extensive reading is crucial for literacy development.
In Hong Kong, there is little interest in reading for pleasure, particularly in English (Ho 2008, Leung 2005). Taking into account the above benefits of reading for pleasure, it seems crucial to encourage a love of reading extensively in our students in Hong Kong, both inside and outside the classroom.
First and foremost, children enjoy stories. “Stories are particularly important in the lives of our children â€¦ Children’s hunger for stories is constant” (Wright 1995, 3). If we provide children with stories, they will be motivated to read and listen to them. Reading stories in the classroom is a shared event, which encourages “social skills, such as cooperation, collaboration, listening and turn taking and helps to create appropriate affective conditions for learning to take place” (Read 2008, 7). We can also provide them with the means to read stories for themselves outside the classroom, increasing their exposure to language further.
Children are also aware of and enjoy stories in their first language; “From their early experience, children are likely to be familiar with story or narrative structure” (Cameron 2001, 129). This means that, unlike many classroom activities, the telling or reading of a story will be a familiar activity. Even if reading books and stories are not commonplace in the home, children will have had exposure to stories through a variety of other media, e.g. films and cartoons. Children are therefore more likely to be receptive to a story than an activity which is not so familiar and therefore potentially confusing. Stories fulfill children’s need for ‘security and novelty’ (Cameron 2001), as there is the security of the familiar structure of the story, with a beginning, introduction to characters, a problem which is resolved, and an ending, and also the novelty of new stories, characters and plot surprises.
Stories provide a clear context from which children can find meaning. The meaning and enjoyment of the story are the most important for children, and the meaning of the language is supported by the context. “They work out the meaning first and tend not to pay attention to the words that are used to express the meaning” (Moon 2000, 5).
Stories are a rich source of language. “Because stories are designed to entertain, writers and tellers choose and use words with particular care to keep the audience interested” (Cameron 2001, 163). Many words and phrases are often repeated throughout a story, increasing students’ exposure to them, and also helping to create the sense of security and familiarity. Through such exposure to language children are learning new vocabulary, often without realising it (Cameron 2001, 164), and the teacher can also exploit this vocabulary in classroom activities. Moreover, this vocabulary is used within a clear context, so “Children have the ability to grasp meaning even if they don’t understand all the words” (Ellis and Brewster 2002, 8). Heathfield (2009, 17) refers to his own experience of storytelling with elementary Italian learners, who were able to follow and understand the general meaning of stories told in English.
Attention can be paid to vocabulary and students’ accuracy once the context and meaning have been established. Stories provide children with exposure to not only vocabulary, but also to the structure of sentences and the “general ‘feel’ and sound of the foreign language” (Wright 1995, 5). If stories are read aloud, children have exposure to the pronunciation of the language, its rhythm and intonation. This exposure helps them with their fluency, both written and spoken, when they are later ready to move to more productive use of the language.
Stories also contain a variety of themes and topics which can be interesting and relevant to the students themselves, or can be exploited in the class. These themes can be linked to other subjects across the curriculum. They can also help develop children’s awareness of the world around them, or of different cultures. Stories can also be used as a stimulus for speaking and writing, and “exercise the imagination” (Ellis and Brewster 2002, 1).
Cameron (2001, 160), warns, however, that we should not allow our feelings of nostalgia and fond memories of childhood stories to colour our perceptions of the ‘magic’ of stories. She notes that the classroom is not the same as the family home, and the teacher is not a parent, so we should adopt a more “critical stance” to using stories in class, both in our choices of stories and the way that we use them, and to be open to using other text types which may be equally appealing to children. We should also be aware that stories are also available through other media than books, e.g. animated cartoons or TV programmes, and it is very likely that children may be even more receptive to these forms of media than traditional books.
The stories used with children should first of all appeal to them (Phillips, 1993, 46), whether it is the theme, the illustrations, or the fact that it is a story which is familiar to them and they know they will enjoy it. “A good story â€¦ is simply one that listeners or readers enjoy” (Cameron 2001, 166). The story should have interesting characters that the children can relate to and a clear plot, with possibly a surprise at the end.
The length of the text should be appropriate, i.e. for beginning readers using books with shorter texts will promote success and motivation. The language used in the book should also be simple enough for them to understand, but also contain some language which is beyond their current level in order to develop learning and language development. The child should be able to build on familiar language with new language, but not be demotivated by reading something beyond their level. A story which uses a lot of repeated structures and vocabulary will help reinforce meaning, and children also enjoy the repetition.
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The illustrations used in a book are also important, as they not only make the book more appealing to a child, but can also support the meaning of the text and new vocabulary and stimulate their imagination (Hsiu-Chih 2008). The themes of the story can also help children to understand more about the world, but should have appropriate values and portrayals of characters. If a story is being used in class, one could be used which fits the topic of the lesson.
There are many graded readers available for young learners, in which language is carefully selected to match the child’s level of English. However, the language is often simplified in these readers to such an extent that the language becomes unnatural, for example present tenses are used throughout, whereas in authentic literature a story is nearly always told using past tenses. As Cameron (2001, 166) comments, “It seems a pity to deprive learners of opportunities to hear authentic uses of past tense forms â€¦ I can see no intrinsic reason for supposing that use of the past tense would prevent children understanding a story”. Cameron also points out that although many text books for young EFL learners contain stories, they often lack the ‘prototypical features’ of a story, such as a plot with a a problem to be resolved, and a satisfactory ending. These stories are unlikely to “capture children’s imaginations in the same way that stories can do” (Cameron 2001, 162). “Quality stories have characters and a plot that engage children, often the art work is as important as the text in telling the story, and they create a strong feeling of satisfaction when the end is reached” (Cameron 2001, 166).
There are many arguments for providing children learning English as a second language with ‘real’ books “offering a rich source of authentic input and challenge” (Ellis and Brewster 2002, 8). These stories are more likely to contain the elements necessary in a ‘quality story’ as described by Cameron, and children can feel highly motivated by being able to understand a story which has not been simplified. There is also such a wide variety of authentic story books which makes it easier to choose something which will appeal to many different children.
Ellis and Brewster (2002, 8) note that it can be argued that the language in authentic story books can be too complex for children learning English, while the content may be too simplistic for their age if a book is chosen which has been written for a younger target age. They argue that “In a foreign language, however, children are often very happy to accept stories which they may reject in their mother tongue”. Although care needs to be taken to select books which will appeal to the child, what is important is the way that the story is exploited and the language learning supported for the children’s particular level. “It is what we expect the children to do which determines the proficiency level required, not the story itself” (Wright 1995, 3).
It is also important that the child, not just the teacher or parent, chooses the books that they would like to read. Clark and Rumbold (2006, 22) stress the importance of children choosing their own reading material on motivation and acheivement. They refer to Krashen, saying that “students who choose what they read â€¦ tend to be more motivated, read more and show greater language and literacy development”. Cameron (2001, 164) believes that children may learn vocabulary while listening to stories without realising it, and “learner involvement with a story may be what makes a difference â€¦ letting children choose the stories they want to hear may help maximise the learning that takes place”. They will be more likely to choose books that interest them, and therefore be more motivated to understand and engage with the text. “It is difficult to place too much emphasis on the role interesting material plays in the desire to read” (Day and Bamford 1998, 29).
Using stories and promoting extensive reading
There are many ways in which extensive reading and reading stories can be promoted both inside and outside of the classroom, which I will discuss in relation to my current teaching context.
In the classroom, the teacher can use stories in a variety of ways, both to promote reading and to exploit stories for further language work. Reading stories aloud to the class is an effective way of exposing children to story books and their narrative structure. “From listening and watching an adult read aloud, children can see how texts are handled, how texts encode words and ideas, how words and sentences are set out on a page â€¦ Affectively, reading aloud can motivate children to want to read themselves” (Cameron 2001, 141). The telling of the story should be an enjoyable experience, and, if possible, the classroom arranged so that all children are sitting around the teacher, maybe on the floor, so that everyone can see the book (Wright 1995). The teacher should take care to hold the book so everyone in the class can see it, and use mime, gestures, facial expressions, the stress and intonation of their voice, and the pictures in the book, to help students’ understanding (Ellis and Brewster 2002, Read 2008). Students should be encouraged to participate in the story reading through questions which reinforce understanding, e.g. describing the pictures, or making predictions about what happens next. The teacher can help students with new and difficult vocabulary by providing tasks to pre-teach vocabulary, and follow up with activities which consolidate the language and help students to recall the story. Above all, the story and related activities should be enjoyable for the students. “Favorable feelings for and experiences with the teacher, classmates, materials, tasks, procedures, and so on, can forge positive attitudes toward reading in the second language” (Day and Bamford 1998, 25).
At the British Council Hong Kong literacy texts have been incorporated into the syllabuses for the higher level primary classes for students aged 8 and above. These are generally texts which are used in schools in the UK to teach literacy in the British National Curriculum, with accompanying teacher’s notes and materials – these are usually adapted to suit the EFL and local contexts. The texts chosen are for a younger age group than they would be in the UK, i.e. materials for British children aged 8 to 9 are used in classes for Hong Kong learners aged 10 to 11. These have proved to be overwhelmingly popular with teachers, who report that they enjoy using them and find that students also enjoy the stories whilst being stretched, because they can see that the materials are authentic and feel a sense of achievement.
Many teachers also use storytelling in class, as story books are readily available in Hong Kong. These teachers appreciate the value of using story books in class, and find storytelling an enjoyable activity in class themselves. Some teachers use story books not just for teaching purposes, e.g. the introduction/consolidation of language or to complement the course book materials, but also for a ‘story time’ slot. Often at the end of the lesson, the story time slot is used as part of the classroom routine and settles children. The stories are read purely for enjoyment, and if enough books are available (some teachers have their own story book collection) students are able to choose which stories they would like to hear.
For younger primary students ‘book boxes’ are provided with a selection of suitable books, which teachers are encouraged to use with their classes. One advantage of the book boxes is that with a selection of books children are able to choose for themselves what the would like to read, or what they would like the teacher to read. Other ways of encouraging children to choose and read books would be to have a book corner in the classroom or a lending library for children, so that children could enjoy reading by themselves either in class or at home. Unfortunately, neither of these are currently feasible at British Council Hong Kong. The classrooms are used by many different classes, including adults, so it would not be practical to set up a corner of the classroom with books. There is also the issue of funding book corners or a library; with approximately 3,500 primary students currently taking courses at the British Council, the cost of buying sufficient books for either scheme is prohibitive.
One scheme which has been successfully introduced for primary classes is a ‘Reading Challenge’. Students are encouraged to read books in English and write brief reviews of them. After they have read six they receive a prize of a certificate and a book. The success of the scheme seems to depend largely on how much the individual teacher promotes it, but prizes have been earned by students across a range of classes, not only in the highest levels or older age groups. Clark and Rumbold (2006, 20), in a review of studies examining the effect of reward on motivation, conclude that we cannot be certain that rewarding children for reading actually motivates them to read more, or if they do so, that they are reading purely to get a prize and will not continue to read widely in the future. However, if a reward is given for reading, it “appears that literacy-targeted rewards, such as books or book vouchers, are more effective in developing reading motivation than rewards that are unrelated to the activity”.
The most important factor, however, in developing children’s literacy and enjoyment of reading is the involvement of their parents (Clark 2007, Clark and Rumbold 2006, 24, Wood 1998, 220). The British Council Hong Kong has recently introduced ‘parent workshops’ to encourage parents to read with their children, emphasising the importance of reading not only for literacy and educational attainment but also social and emotional development. Parents are also shown how to choose appropriate books and how to read them with their children, exploiting the stories and the pictures. These workshops are proving to be very popular with parents, who, while keen to encourage their children academically, had previously not realised the benefits of reading for pleasure.
There is not on the whole a ‘culture of reading’ in Hong Kong, but, given the advantages outlined of extensive reading, it is particularly important to encourage our students to read for pleasure, and using story books can be particularly effective. This requires not only access to suitable texts, but also training for teachers and parents on how to read books with children and develop further language use.
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