How Can I Get My Students Excited About Reading?
Learning – the lazy way
‘What is the best strategy to improve one’s English?’ Well, this is a hard one to answer. Change just two words however and the question becomes ‘What is the laziest way to improve one’s English?’ All of a sudden, a single answer springs to mind: ‘Extensive Reading’. Now imagine you are a teacher of English and someone tells you that OUP is launching the amazing Oxford Reading Club which could give your students access to literally hundreds of top-quality readers, allowing them to ‘read their way to better English’. Wouldn’t that be great news?
Why Extensive Reading?
There must be at least a dozen good answers to this question. Here are four of them:
Reading Speed: The more you read, the faster you become. You gradually get used to coping with ambiguity when you encounter unknown words, and you learn to focus on the gist.
Vocabulary: Countless studies have shown that extensive reading helps one acquire vocabulary effortlessly – through a process of osmosis.
Grammar: The late Michael Lewis used to say that extensive listening helps one acquire the grammar of the language subconsciously. Most of the readers in the ORC are accompanied by audio recordings. What better way to make use of ‘dead time’?
Identity: Every time you spend a few minutes reading, you are sending a message to yourself: ‘I am a good learner. I care about getting better.’ Research shows that what changes people is not words, but actions – their own actions.
But wait: just because this material is available does not necessarily mean your students are going to be interested in it. So how can you get them interested? Here are two answers: ‘Curiosity’ and ‘Investment’.
Principle 1: Curiosity
Professor George Lowenstein has come up with the following fascinating theory: curiosity is the result of the gap between what we know and what we do not. If you know everything or nothing you are not curious. But if you have only a partial picture – well, that’s different.
Lowenstein tested this in the lab: he got two groups of people to sit in front of computer screens. Each screen was covered in tiles, like a brick wall. When you clicked on a ‘brick’ you could see what was behind it. The subjects had to click on at least five ‘bricks’ – and then they could keep on clicking for as long as they wanted – this was actually what the researchers wanted to measure. When the people in the first group started clicking, they found the image of an animal behind each brick, so after a while they got bored. In the case of the second group, however, each click revealed part of the outline of a large animal. This group went on clicking away – they wanted to see what the picture was! (Lowenstein 1994).
A reading activity: Half-sentences
So how can we use this idea to generate curiosity in a book? One of my favourite techniques is ‘Half Sentences’. The idea is very simple: you take some key sentences from the text (or you make up a few yourself), you cut them in half and you give the first half to the students. Now they do know some things about the story – but not everything. So naturally, they want to find out what the second part of each sentence is. Let us say the book is ‘The Lazy Grasshopper’. Here are some possible half-sentences:
In the summer, the grasshopper likes to spend his time…
When he is hungry, the grasshopper likes to eat…
In the summer, the ant is always busy. She is…
In the winter, things are different because…
In the winter, the grasshopper goes to the ant’s house in order to…
And if you want your students to be even more curious, you can take things a step further; simply ask them to predict what the second part of the sentence is. This is called ‘Investment’. Read on…
Principle 2: Investment
Curiously perhaps, once we have spent some time and some mental energy on a particular task, what we have been working on becomes disproportionally important to us and we are dying to find out how successful we were. This was demonstrated by a study that took place in the US (cited in Gilbert 2007)The researchers got together two groups of elementary school students. They told the first group they would ask them a few general knowledge questions. They also told them that when they had finished, as a reward they could get either a bar of chocolate or the answers to the questions. But they had to choose the reward in advance. No prizes for guessing which one the kids chose…
With the second group, however, they did things differently; they asked them the questions first and only then did they offer them the choice. Amazingly, this time around the kids chose the answers over the chocolate! Because they had made an ‘investment’ in trying to give the answers, they were dying to see how many answers they had got right.
Another reading activity: Sequencing
How can we make use of this principle? Well, the simplest form of ‘investment’ is asking students to make guesses (as in the ‘Half-sentences’ task above). Here is another idea: these brilliant Oxford Graded Readers contain images. As the books are digital, it would only take a minute to take screenshots of some of them (but not the last one!). You can then jumble them up and show them to the students. Now the students have an idea about what the story is about – but they do not know everything (a gap = curiosity!). The next step is to get students to guess what the right order of the pictures might be (investment 1). Then you can ask them to predict how the story ends (investment 2).
For me, the best thing about introducing your students to the magic of Graded Readers is that reading might then become a habit. And the habit of reading simplified books may then turn into a life-long love of books. As teachers, we tend to focus on the linguistic benefits of course, but people with a love of reading have also been found to have superior people skills and to be more well-adapted socially (Mar et al., 2006). Now you didn’t know that, did you?
Nick Michelioudakis (B. Econ., Dip. RSA, MSc [TEFL]) has been active in ELT for many years as a teacher, examiner, presenter and teacher trainer. He has travelled and given seminars and workshops in many countries all over the world. For articles or worksheets of his, you can visit his YouTube channel or his blog.
Gilbert, D. (2007) Stumbling on Happiness. London: Harper Perennial
Loewenstein, George. (1994). The Psychology of Curiosity: A Review and Reinterpretation. Psychological Bulletin. 116. 75-98
Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., Hirsh, J., dela Paz, J., & Peterson, J. B. (2006). Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds. Journal of Research in Personality, 40(5), 694–712.