We need to talk about (and change) the way we use books in the Primary English Classroom

Juliana Tavares

I have always had the impression that people think of reading for pleasure as a genetic or hereditary habit. If my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles were bookworms, so will I be. Although I do believe there is truth to this idea – after all, the environment plays a crucial role in building our identities – I feel that it is inaccurate to determine what a student’s reading habits will be like based solely on their family’s habits.

In fact, I believe it is rather unfair to imply that a child will never love reading just because mom and dad do not buy books for them, or do not read to them. Obviously, children who are deprived of this kind of routine will need more work and effort in order to develop a taste for reading, but I strongly believe it is possible to turn students into book lovers despite the reading habits of their families, and the key to doing so is how we work with reading in the classroom. Part of our job as educators is to make students aware of the importance of reading for everything they do in life. However, we must not forget that it is also to offer opportunities for them to develop the habit of reading for fun, for pleasure. In short, reading just because it is awesome.

In that sense, our job as English teachers is even more challenging: develop reading habits among students in a language they are not yet familiar. After all, I do not need to quote anyone who has proved the importance of reading when learning any language, because I know you believe me.

Having said all that, these are the questions I would like us to think about: how do we make our students enjoy reading books in a foreign language and how do we make it a habit amongst them? What is the best way to do so?

As every question in Education, this one hardly has a direct answer, but many different routes to take. I am going to point out the main obstacles to implementing extensive reading in the primary classroom –based on experience – and then propose some ideas (previously tested by competent teachers and schools) that can help you to overcome them.

Tackle the time issue

The first problem teachers bring up is time constraints. I hear and understand how difficult it is to manage all the demands within limited time. Let’s remember that English in the Primary classroom is not yet mandatory in public schools, and private schools have only begun to give more importance to the number of classes they offer a week, so juggling course books, projects, school events and tests can leave you with no time for extra projects involving Graded Readers. However, even when we do have more time, we seem to give more attention to oral skills. We prepare speaking tasks, games that develop fluency, activities with songs, movies, etc. The focus is mostly on developing oral production and comprehension, whereas developing extensive reading is set aside as something to do in case there is time left.

If that is the case, it is probably wise to rethink your planning and to evaluate how much importance you give to reading. Begin with the end in mind. Start with a small goal, say, one reader a year in Grades 1 and 2; two readers a year in grades 3 and 4, and maybe three titles in Grade 5. The most important is that these books be included in your planning, in the supply list, and in the syllabus. Making it “official” forces us to spare time for it, even if it means rearranging other contents and course book units. It also makes parents take it more seriously, which means you could even ask for their help at home.

Change your mindset

Why is teaching reading often seen as a hassle? Why do teachers have such a hard time planning ideas and projects that present books in a fun, non-traditional way? Why do we always fall in the trap of giving book quizzes and assigning book reports?

In The Book Whisperer, Donalyn Miller talks about how we teach the way we were taught, and when it comes to reading, it often means students will read the assigned chapters, do boring activities and tests, before it starts all over again with another book.

If this kind of approach does not get students into extensive reading, why not change it? With the little ones, do a picture walk to get them excited to read; read the book aloud and allow them to say what they think about the story as you move along; have students act out a few parts of the story, draw their favorite characters, and work on projects that extend the topic of the book. Ask them to draw a new cover for the book and describe it to their friends.

With the older ones, allow them time to talk to a classmate about the book; present and discuss the values the book conveys and how they can relate to their reality; show students you can express your opinion about the book without having to write a report about it; ask them to change the end of the book. Encourage them to imagine what would have happened to the story without one particular character.

In every idea I just presented, students do something enjoyable with the book that can also be used as assessment. We do not need tests and quizzes to check comprehension. We need to use books to ignite the spark within students and get them hooked on reading.

Choose wisely – or let students choose

Books for Primary students of English must be fun, colorful, and just right for their language level. They will be discouraged if the book is too difficult and bored if it is too easy. One of the problems it might come along is that older students with lower levels of English might find the books suitable in terms of language, but too “silly” in terms of theme and story. You can ease this by proposing activities that expand the topic of the book, for example, adapting activities and projects to their age. Another option for this problem, if you feel your students can handle, is to choose a book a little higher than their current level of English and spare more time to work on vocabulary. Whatever you do, make sure you are ready to work with the book you choose. Read it, explore it, brainstorm activities and projects around it. Imagine you are your students: how can you make them like the book?

The other way to go is to keep a good collection of readers from which students can choose. This means more independent work, but they will have no excuse, as they are the ones choosing what they want to read. The good side to this is you will have a variety of stories and perspectives.

Set the example

The need to encourage students to read more is urgent and has been long taken for granted. As we have said at the beginning of this text, children who have adults who read or who read to them are more likely to become life-long readers. Parents are not the only adults that can do this. By making reading a recurrent topic in your classroom, you encourage students to talk about their adventures with books. Talk about what you are reading, use book reviews more often as a teaching resource, encourage students to start a book club in the school, help them organize a book market where they can swap books. Make the classroom a welcoming place for book lovers. After all, what is language without the wonders it provides when words come together in the shape of a book?