At one of the two programs where I teach, we just finished a term, and I gave my students a survey to help me know what kind of class activities they liked the most and found the most helpful. I think it’s really important to do these kinds of surveys because it’s a way of giving students a voice, and it helps me to know how I can best help my students.
Personally, I really like to have a physical survey that students fill out rather than just having an informal discussion as a class. Of course, informal class discussions are great, too, but having each student fill out a survey means that you can get the opinions of all the students—not just the ones who are most vocal during class discussions. It’s also nice to have physical evidence of your students’ thoughts so you can go back and look at them later if you need to or even show them to administrators.
I did this survey in my Level 4 class, an adult ESL class of almost all Chinese students. I asked them about the three main activities we do in class—Story Listening, whole-class novel reading, and free voluntary reading time.
The results of the survey showed that by far the most popular activity in class was Story Listening. I was happy to see that my students enjoyed this so much. I was already pretty sure that most of them liked it even before giving the survey since I have a few students in my class who always cheer when I say, “I’m going to tell you a story now…” But the survey confirmed for me that all of my students really seem to enjoy it. Up until now, I had only been doing Story Listening every once in a while with my Level 4 students. (Though I do it almost every day with my lower-level students.) But after seeing just how much all my students like it, I’m definitely going to do more of it. It’s good for them, and they enjoy it…win-win!
The second most popular activity among my students, according to the survey, was whole-class novel reading. I know that some teachers are very opposed to the idea of reading a book all together as a class. One example is here, from Pernille Ripp, a 7th grade language arts teacher. She says that reading a novel all together as a class is “the number one thing ALL of my students report kill their love of reading.” She teaches language arts, which of course is different from teaching ESL, but her thoughts seem to reflect the thoughts of some ESL and foreign language teachers, too. I’ve heard several other ESL and foreign language teachers in online posts and discussions mention that forcing students to all read the same book can be a killjoy and that it’s better to give students free reading time so they can choose what books they want to read. However, I have not found that to be the case with my students. According to my survey results and the reactions I’ve heard from students in class, my students prefer whole-class novel reading over free reading time.
I think one of the keys for whole-class novel reading is to make sure it’s an interesting book that the students enjoy. The quality of the book definitely affects how students feel about it. The book we just finished reading in this class was a really great story that every single student said they enjoyed (The Long Road to Lucca). However, there have been other books we’ve read as a class that were…just okay. With those books, I would say that student engagement during class was a little lower. But even then, I think most of my students still enjoyed reading a book all together as a class.
Of course, finding books that all the students like is a lot easier said than done since students have different taste in books. But I do try to overcome that problem as much as possible by giving my students at least some choice in what they all read. Before we start a new book, I usually give them a choice of 2-3 books, and they vote on which one they want to read.
I also think it helps to make sure you don’t over-do a class novel. I try not to drag out a book too much. We usually read one chapter each day in class, and we have a short discussion after we read each chapter. The length of the discussion varies a lot. There are some chapters where there’s just not really too much to say, so we have a pretty short discussion. But if my students seem to have a lot to say and are eagerly discussing the book, then I let the conversation go on for as long as they seem interested. I also don’t use a lot of supplemental activities with the book. We occasionally do a Reader’s Theater or another activity, but I definitely try not to overload them with extra activities.
My teaching context is probably another big factor that affects my students’ perception of whole-class novel reading. Since I teach adults who have voluntarily decided to take ESL classes, the situation is a bit different from a school where students are required to take a language course. My students are pretty highly motivated to learn. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they are always 100% enthusiastic all the time in class! But, on the whole, they are there because they want to learn English. That’s a different situation from K-12 students who are required to take a language class and don’t like being forced into reading books.
Of course, I am just speaking about my own personal experience in my own classroom. If your students seem to hate reading a book all together as a class and it’s draining their love for reading, don’t do it! But for me, since my students seem to enjoy it, I plan on continuing to do whole-class novel reading, at least for now.
The third most popular activity for my students was free reading time. By “free reading time,” I mean that I’ve been giving them about 15 minutes almost every day to choose a book they like from our classroom library and read silently. Overall, most of the students said they like having the free reading time. This was my favorite comment from a student:
“Reading make me feel happy.” I love it! 🙂
I think that one of the reasons why my students prefer whole-class novel reading over free reading time is because they feel like they get more help with things they don’t understand when we do whole-class novel reading. When we’re reading a novel all together, I usually preview a few words before each chapter that I think might be new for them. Then, as we read, I provide quick explanations of unfamiliar words when necessary. They can also ask me questions about parts they didn’t understand, either while we’re reading or after we finish the chapter. I think most of them also enjoy our class discussions about the book because it can be interesting for them to hear their classmates’ thoughts and express their own thoughts about the book. I think they also like it that I read the chapter aloud to them so they can listen while they read.
To help my students enjoy their free reading time more, I think I’m going to try to focus on stocking my library with books that will be very easy for them. I already have some easy books, but I think I need even more. Free reading time should be a pleasant experience for students, so it’s important for them to be able to read on their own easily. If they feel like they need help from the teacher, it probably means the book is too difficult for them to read independently.
I feel like I’m in kind of a weird position in this Level 4 class. By Level 4, I think, ideally, the students should be able to do quite a bit of independent reading. However, that’s not always the case. Certainly, there are some students who are ready to do a lot of independent reading. I have a couple of students in this class who are successfully reading middle-grade and young adult fiction books, like Judy Blume books, etc. However, there are also some students who are way below that level. I think some of these students have been passed up through the levels of ESL classes because they were able to memorize grammar rules and spit them back up on a test. And for some of these students, even though they’re living in the U.S., they have hardly any exposure to English in their daily lives. Thus, they make it to a Level 4 class but still have a pretty low proficiency level.
So this is my plan going forward with this Level 4 class:
- Do more Story Listening – Story Listening is probably one of the best ways (if not the best way) to help my students develop their listening comprehension skills and help them make that “bridge” to independent reading. (I just saw this terminology of a “bridge” in this paper from Fei-yu Wang and Sy-ying Lee. Actually, I think either Stephen Krashen or Beniko Mason might have been the first to use this metaphor of Story Listening or story-telling as a bridge, but I can’t find a specific source right now. Leave a comment for me if you know!) This is essential for all of my students but especially for those students who have a pretty low proficiency level despite being put into a Level 4 class. Listening comprehension is the foundational skill for language, so my students NEED to do a lot of listening in class.
- Get easier books in the classroom library—I think that getting more easy books will help my students to feel more successful and will make reading a more enjoyable and pleasant experience for them.
Let me know if you have other thoughts or ideas! Do your students prefer whole-class novel reading or free reading time? It’s always great to hear from other teachers.