Reading isn't popular with everyone. I'm sure you know people who need a lot of encouragement to read.
I was like that all the way through school - I found all sorts of creative reasons why I didn't have time to read. I wiggled out of reading 'Paradise Lost', pretended to read 'Fun with Dick and Jane', and where necessary, I forced myself through painful hours of 'The Purple Plain' by H.E. Bates or the odd Dickens tome.
One exception to my reading aversion was the 'create your own adventure' series. These books are written in the second person, so 'you' are the main character. At each crucial stage, the text asks you to make a decision and you choose what will happen next. So it goes something like: 'You meet a large red dragon in the hallway blocking the way forward. You either have to go back, or fight the dragon. You decide to fight the dragon with your new broadsword: go to 37. You decide to run back to the inner chamber and fetch the wand: go to 117'. It requires good memory for numbers and a lot of page flipping.
It's easy to see why these are great for younger readers. The 'chunks' of the story are short, there is a heavy focus on action (rather than descriptions of bubbling brooks and muddied contemplations of characters' existential crises), and by actively involving 'you' in the plot flow, it encourages engagement in the story.
In our language classrooms, this kind of reading task is called a reading maze. Given that reading in a foreign language is tough, we have to be creative with looking for ways to get students to do so. Giving them an entire 'choose your adventure' won't work for the time constraints of a lesson, but we can create mini-reading mazes for the classroom. I've made one for the purposes of this blog, designed around 'you': a language teacher working in Thailand. Try it out and see how it feels.
Your new schedule includes a group that is renowned for their boisterous behavior. Right from the first lesson they have challenged your authority. They ignore you while you're teaching, they don't do their work, and are quickly distracted by one another, and are generally disrespectful when confronted about their lack of focus. Today they were a right bunch of @!*#ers and you have had enough of them.
You are going to take matters in hand by yourself
Some of the other teachers may have some ideas, you can speak to them
You think this is a matter to take up with your department head
It's been a vicious day. You are exhausted from your difficult class, so you can't be bothered to give the other classes much attention either. You have started to find that they are all monsters and you can't remember why you ever wanted to become a teacher in the first place. With the end of the month coming soon, there is a real temptation to simply book your ticket home and forget this whole distasteful chapter of your life.
⛔ DEAD END
You decide to keep a 'Teacher's Diary'. In it, you write anything about the lesson with this class that you can remember. Following a little study you found online, you use the lesson plan to guide your memory of the lesson and note all your memories – what went badly, how the children reacted, what they learned, your own reactions and so on. To make this work, you decide that during the lesson you'll minimize any tantrums and just see how the class unfolds. After all, by just letting the students be themselves, you have more to consider in your diary. You decide to do this for 2 weeks. Afterwards, with Landon's help, you look over the diaries. First, you highlight all the comments that are negative in yellow, and all the comments that are positive in pink. Then you look to see how the comments changed over the study.
Bob is happy to see you, and eager to talk. He tells you about the problems he had with this group, and focuses most of his attention on that 'group of bratty boys' at the back. He clearly found one of these boys, Poom, particularly unlikeable. You know the boy, but you aren't sure that he alone is the source of the problems. When you try to share your own experiences with Bob he doesn't pay attention and continues to rant about Poom and his 'pack of hooligans'. Bob tell you he found threats of 'sending them to the office' quite helpful. Talking to Bob makes you feel that your difficulty with this class is not your fault, but the conversation just makes you feel even more hopeless about the situation.
⛔ DEAD END
You storm into your next lesson with every ounce of authoritative presence you have – you shout, threaten, nag and generally spend most of the period trying to impose some order on the group. Nothing seems to work. The class blithely behaves as usual, ignoring your attempts at control. One group sit chatting to each other, a few do their maths homework. One falls asleep. A small group take in your vociferation with contrite apologetic looks, but it's such a small group that it makes no real difference.
You decide it's time for some serious discipline
It's time to see if you can get some help
The video explains that action research is a kind of teacher-based research in which the teacher collects data from their own classroom in order to improve the quality of their classroom experience. This seems to fit what you are looking for. You aren't sure how to go about it, so you meet Landon and explore with him some possible areas for a mini research project with your class. Once you start considering it in detail, you realize that although it will be a bit more work, it'll probably be quite interesting. There could be things happening in the classroom that you aren't aware of. All you have to do is collect some data while the lesson progresses. Landon says he'll help you analyze the results to see what it is that is actually going on and what can be done about it. After some consideration you find there are two possible areas to focus on.
You can collect data on your own teaching in the lesson
You can collect data on what the students (or certain students) do in the lesson
You round up the most rowdy members of the class, and send them outside of the classroom to cool off. One of these is a noisy boy named Poom. You expect that getting him and his buddies out of the room will allow you to get on with teaching the rest of the class. However, the students who stay in the class become really excited by the departure of their classmates, and start shouting comments at them through the door, much to everyone's apparent amusement. Even the children in the class next door get involved. The monsters in the corridor seem to be loving the attention, and make even more noise. At this point, your department head happens to walk down the corridor, peeks in to see what's going on, and asks you to go and see him after your lesson.
The video Landon gave you seems to be a waste of time. You see in the video description that it's something about 'Action research in TESOL'. Please! Perhaps Landon put this action research onto you because he has no idea what to do either. In any case, conducting research is unreasonable – you are busy with other things, and the problem with your new difficult class just doesn't seem worth all that effort. You tell Landon you are considering the options, but decide to ignore the whole thing and instead just grin and bear the ignominy of teaching a difficult class.
⛔ DEAD END
During lunch you tell the other teachers about your trouble with the class. They commiserate and seem genuinely concerned for you. One teacher, Bob, taught that group the previous year and he says he knows them well and wants to share his experiences with you. You find Bob a little self-obsessed, but he might have the answer. Another teacher quietly tells you that you are much better off going do the department head for help with this kind of problem.
Bob must have something to offer so you go and see him during the next break
You feel this is something you need some 'real' help with, and go to the department head
Disciplining the class is something you find hard, and there isn't a school policy on this that you know of, so you are on your own. Two options comes to mind.
Send the offending student(s) out of the class
Send the offending student(s) to the office
Because of the diary project, you find that you have become more aware of a variety of positive things that are happening in the classroom. In particular, you have started to notice how Poom uses his humor to draw attention to himself, but also to keep the class light-hearted. He is actually a really funny little guy. The diaries also make you more able to define the nature of the problems you're having with the class, so your discussion with Landon and other teachers is more specific to your areas of concern. Importantly, when you make decisions in the class about the lesson, activities and tasks, you feel you are doing it with more confidence based on what you know about the class.
🏆 YOU WIN!
The department head, Landon Johnston, is an experienced teacher who has been at the school for over 5 years. He asks you some questions about the difficulties you are having with the class, and allows you to explain the situation in your own words. He nods, and admits that the class is tough. This gives you some sense of affirmation about difficulties you are having. Instead of giving you some advice, however, he tells you that the solution is something you can probably figure out for yourself and sends you a link to a video by Anne Burns.
You'd really rather not waste your time on the video
Although the whole thing seems tiresome, you decide you'll see what the video is about
You decide that your focus will be on the children. As your focus, you choose two students who you consider to be the most problematic – Poom and his noisy sidekick, Benz. You aren't sure these two are the main problem, but they are certainly part of the headache. Every time they get distracted, you mark on your data sheet what they did (instead of studying), and what they were supposed to be doing. Because you are focusing on these two, you ignore other sources of trouble for the moment. You decide to do this for 2 weeks.
At the end of the study, you make two lists – one includes the activities students were supposed to be doing when the trouble began, and the other a list of what the students did instead.
You march the students down to the office and hand them over to the secretary. When you get back to the classroom, you find the class in riot mode and there are a few Thai teachers frowning at you as you pass on your way back in. After the lesson, your department head calls you in for a chat about what happened.
You've done your best, but nothing is working. You need to talk to someone and see if you can get some help. Who will you approach to help you out with your problems?
You approach some other teachers who may have some ideas
You go to your department head and see what he has to say
You immediately notice that the majority of the distractions take place during your board work. During activities using the books or worksheets, there aren't as many problems. The second thing is that all the disruptions involve a third student – a gifted but quiet girl, Aim. This gives you something to think about. How does Aim fit in with the classroom management problems you're having? Is she instigating the trouble? If she is separated from Poom will that help? With this data, you understand of the interactions in the classroom a little better, and you now feel you have some good ideas for how can start to make some effective changes to your lessons and how you deal with the group.
🏆 YOU WIN!
This maze is based on one by Tessa Woodward. Obviously, because you are already a reader, and you are a teacher, I didn't design it to be a page-turning block buster that will motivate a weak ESL reader to engage in the written word. But hopefully you can see that designing a maze isn't too hard, and it can be simplified for the level of your students, or personalized to the class you are teaching by adding in their names or places familiar to them. For ready made examples, check out this Holiday maze from the British Council, or the Evil Landlady maze or this detective reading maze to be played on mobile phones by the language department at King Mongkut's University of Technology Thonburi. Once your students have the idea, they can even make their own.
Getting students to read in class is not a waste of time. Elley and Mangubhai's 'book flood' study shows that meaningful input from reading can be twice as effective as a teacher-fronted learning environment. Now that's something worth reading!
Steve Louw is the lead trainer of the popular Chichester College TEFL Course in Bangkok.