Discussion brings literature to life
Wednesday, December 06, 2017
Like complementary colors across from each other on the artist's color wheel, reading and speaking complement each other in the ESL classroom. They are opposites in terms of one being receptive and the other productive — an ideal pairing that leads to complete, balanced language learning.
Classic comprehension questions and exercises are valid as they assure us that students understand what they've read and have done their assigned reading. Yet accompanying reading with dynamic conversation activities takes lessons far beyond pure comprehension to activate higher levels of critical thinking and metacognition.
Analyzing their process while reading gives students more to talk about when discussing the book and aids in metacognitive thought. Such self-reflection is effectively encouraged through prereading activities, which also serve in activating prior knowledge and interest. Note-taking or answering questions while reading or at designated breaks in the story are among the options teachers may employ depending on their aims.
Following their reading, prepare a transition activity to aid students in organizing their thoughts in preparation for the discussion. This not only promotes a more profound level of contribution but also facilitates the mental transition between these two distinct tasks.
Engaging them in a short written assignment done individually is one route. Discussion in pairs or some form of note preparation such as a mind map are other ways to consolidate ideas before larger group discussions.
Here are some activities I have used with junior high and high school students. These ideas originally came from Gillian Cuminski, English language curriculum consultant and Cambridge examiner, to whom I'm deeply grateful for being my teaching mentor for nearly 10 years.
Predicting plots and themes
Making predictions engages students and activates their imaginations as well as prior knowledge. Even before the book is opened students can be asked to predict what a story is going to be about based on title and cover illustration.
If they know the author, you might even base a prediction on that. I assigned this to high school students who were familiar with Roald Dahl prior to reading one of his short stories. The group outdid themselves with their macabre predictions.
Comparing and contrasting story elements
With one or more elements of the material you have read, students can engage in lively discussions or even debates that develop their critical thinking. Comparisons can be made between various parts of the book, different characters or settings — and even across different literature selections.
Short story anthologies especially lend themselves to such cross-story analysis.
Filling in missing parts of the story
While reading stories that you are going to use with your students, look for places where the author omits or neglects to include certain information or an element. It could be a description of a character or setting that lacks detail or maybe characters talk but readers aren't privy to the actual dialogue.
Whatever you find makes excellent fuel for an intriguing lesson with your students.
Following a discussion with students on reasons why the author may have chosen not to include this information in the story, students can write the missing element, whether it be a description or dialogue. Make sure they are also conscious of why they're making their choices so they can explain and justify them when they share their work with a partner, group or the whole class.
Creating an alternate version
On the other hand, you can also work creatively with what the author did include in the story. Alternate outcomes can be created at key junctures in the plot, the end of a chapter or story.
This activity works well following a prediction. To prepare, students can note down their reactions to what happens while reading along with what they would have liked to have happened or thought might have happened.
Creating alternate outcomes to what has been read is fun and empowers students to think like an author. It challenges them to be thorough so their version ties in with the rest of the text.
If appropriate, given the group's level of English and self-esteem, discussion may involve classmates pointing out any incongruences in the new made-up versions.
Conducting interview on favorite extracts
Sharing favorite parts of the story with a partner is the perfect lead-in for a discussion using an interview format.
Make sure the student who is conducting the interview asks the interviewee to give for reasons his or her preference. They can structure their interviews using the 5 W's of news reporting (when, where, who, why, what) or other criteria you've given them.
While most of the examples are tailored to more advanced students such as intermediate or higher, these techniques can be adapted to various levels and types of literature. Lively conversation is a wonderful way to bring books to life and help foster a love for reading and literature.
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