Posted by: Alastair Grant | August 26, 2011

Dear Agony Aunts…

This is hardly something I’m proud of, but then this isn’t all supposed to be about winning gold at the Teaching Olympics (if only such a competition existed…).

I wanted to share it and see if any of you have had similar worries and we can all have some kind of group therapy/wailing session.

Here goes… I’m kind of worried that one of my classes is losing the plot a bit.

Last week, we were looking at an article (student-provided 🙂 ) by “No Impact Man”. This truly heroic figure decided to spend a year using no electricity (yes, that means no TV… or fridge), water only for washing, buying locally produced food (yep, no Big Macs) – well, you get the picture. He hits criticism from just about everyone from his wife to the media, but still manages to pull it all off.

Great, right? Well, so so, actually. Really, I’m not sure if my class just weren’t in the mood or what, but I felt that they weren’t really hooked.

We read the article together (was this a good idea? I’m never sure) with us all reading a paragraph in turn, we look at difficult vocabulary and I got out of the way while they looked words up and taught each other, but… I think they just got bored. Subjects were changed, L1 speaking started and before I knew it…

So I started to panic a little and reverted to my old ways (before my Dogme conversion) of being Mr Controller, getting everyone to calm down and start speaking in English again and back on track. Fine, but my panic didn’t stop there.

Before next class, I found myself preparing an all-singing-all-dancing lesson, complete with laptop, video, little bits of CELTA-style cut up paper and it WAS a good class, but wasn’t the student-centred Dogme-fest that their course is supposed to be.

Help. I’m trying to think of new ways to get the love back – or just focus them!


  1. We read the article together (was this a good idea? I’m never sure) with us all reading a paragraph in turn

    Hi Al,

    Sounds like you had the students reading aloud? Not a good idea in a reading class, as it focuses on their pron not their reading and prob means no one will understand what ‘s being read – which may lead to the boredom. What was the reading task? Did it reflect how they would read in real life? And how much difficult vocab was there? And was it related to the task? Perhaps the task / vocab combo was just too challenging for them and so they got demotivated?

    • Thanks Neil.

      I’ve always heard this about reading classes too, but have equally thought… doesn’t it make it more interactive? A bit more 2.0? And I can correct pron? I know I’d basically fail a CELTA class for this, but…

      Very good point re. real life, though… Maybe that’s the point – they’re so worried about pron and about how they sound to their classmates that they’re not taking it in.

      The vocab was hard and perhaps I should have got them to read sections in groups with dictionaries – that at least would have brought their affective filters right down and made sure they could read more naturally and work collaboratively, without worrying about any of the above.

      Schoolboy errors. Please don’t say anything to Cambridge 🙂

  2. Hi Al
    Thanks for sharing. Been here SO many times! When lessons have gone badly I think it’s worth asking the class next lesson if that was their impression as well, and why. You’ll get interesting feedback and win back their love (or at least respect) for having the balls to admit failure. And probably have a good discussion into the bargain!

    • Great Tim – I like this a lot. And yes, I will ask them about it. It doesn’t have to be me me me doing all the… doing… and it IS supposed to be Dogme, Freireian i.e. working together as an equal group.

      I appreciate this advice and will report back!

      And yes, respect will do me just fine. Love would just make things complicated. 🙂

  3. Hello Alastair,

    thank you for your post! I think it’s a great idea to share not only successful lessons, but ideas that didn’t go the way planned. I must tell you we’ve all been there and I see a great chance for reflection on professional development and also to straighten up your bond with your group.
    As timjulian said, it’s good to have the balls to tell the group that it didn’t work and ask WHY. I’m sure you’ll be impressed with the feedback you’ll get.

    About reading aloud, I don’t think it’s a good idea in general. Students have their own pace, and they’ll feel more comfortable if you give them a moment to read individually and then get feedback from the whole group.

    What you could have done, was to personalize the reading before actually reading it, making it a ‘real-life’ task (as Neil mentioned), bringing it to students’ reality and maybe using scanning or skimming or doing a quick competition with general questions about the reading. Or you could have highlighted the words you think Ss will have difficulties and do some kind of pre-reading activity with them.

    Regarding what you’ve written at the end: “but wasn’t the student-centred Dogme-fest that their course is supposed to be” I’m into Dogme, and I use it sometimes. From what you’ve written, it makes me think that you want to apply dogme on every lesson, and that if you prepare your ‘plot’ before the lesson and it goes right, then it isn’t dogme. Is that it? I’m into Paulo Freire, and I think that even if you have prepared a whole lesson, you can focus it on your students, their visions and their opinions, but not a dogme lesson. Don’t worry too much on making it Dogme all the time, give students the power to modify the lesson with their own thoughts, still having a ‘plot’ to monitor and guide them. In the end, it’s all about them, ain’t it?

    Eduardo (@eltbakery)

  4. Great thinking Eduardo. I like your ideas, especially the pre-reading task after I’ve skimmed the text for challenging vocabulary.

    Now here’s a puzzler…

    I was speaking to my colleague @emcresswell yesterday about one of her classes and the reading she does with them.

    She told me that the kids not only enjoy reading, but actually ask (nay, demand) to do so in the class. Admittedly, this may have something to do with the fact that they are reading a novel and there is more… drama to the situation when reading an exciting story. But I do get the feeling that it’s not as cut-and-dried as “don’t get the SS to read” aloud. I think there’s a lot to be said for doing so, as Emma’s example would suggest.

    But going to back to your point, Eduardo, I think there’s a great deal in simply asking the SS what they would like to do with the text. Because, again going back to Dogme and Freire, it’s all about them (ain’t it) and I do feel like we tend to act as judge, jury and executioner on all class activities when actually bringing the SS into the mix would be far more SS centred and thus productive for them (and motivational).

    I’m going to see if I can get an ex-student to say something about this too… would be good to have a voice from outside ELT’s ivory tower!

  5. Al beat me to it, but yes, I’d like to share my experience of reading aloud in class.

    When I started teaching I avoided it religiously, partly influenced by my own language learning experience at school when I would dread being asked to read out loud as I became extremely self-conscious. Fast-forward to my teaching career and one afternoon I had to have a meeting with a parent, so my DoS stepped in to cover. When I re-entered the room there was silence (a rarity with that class) as they were listening to one of their classmates reading.

    That was two years ago. This year I’m teaching the group again, and once we had chosen their reader for the year (Face by Benjamin Zephaniah – highly recommend it) the first thing they asked me was if we could read it in class. We do. Not everyone reads aloud, and if someone says they don’t want to, I don’t make them. It tends to be the “louder” members of the class who want to read. There are people who ask to read, and I have to stop myself groaning inwardly as they read very slowly and painfully. But I would never discourage them. Nor are these kids afraid to ask what something means or how to pronounce something. Often they will correct their peers if they think they’ve read it wrong.

    We finished reading Face in August, 3 months after we started it, and it was supposed to last the whole year. We’re now reading another book by Zephaniah. Lots of the students, especially the boys have admitted that this was the first book they’ve ever read properly (in their L1 or their L2), and that they didn’t realise it was possible to identify with a book. Some of this I contribute to reading it together, out loud, in class. It creates a group experience that they can all share.

    Granted we’re reading to read. I don’t follow the readings with any kind of grammar or pron work. If we do anything we’re looking at the book from a literary perspective, and we look at the characterisation and the story.

    As far as the kids are concerned all we’re doing is reading a cool book.

  6. […] Posted by felixvargas This is hardly something I’m proud of, but then this isn’t all supposed to be about winning gold at the Teaching Olympics (if only such a competition existed…). I wanted to share it and see if any of you have had similar worries and we can all have some kind of group therapy/wailing session. Here goes… I’m kind of worried that one of my classes is losing the plot a bit. Last week, we were looking at an article (student-provided ) by “No Impact … Read More […]

  7. Dear Al and Emma,

    My experience resonates with Emma`s. Whenever there is a need for reading aloud, I ask if there`s anybody who would like to read… there usually is! And if there isn`t, I do the reading hoping it is at least a good model. I never, never ever force a student to read.

    By the way, what level are your students, Emma? I would love to read Zephaniah with my students! Have done some of his poems but never dared with a novel.

    Back to Al`s agony… I think planning is the heart of any lesson, Dogme or not. And flexibility to adapt or change when we see it`s not working is a most essential virtue of a teacher. Al, don`t be so hard on yourself, I continually struggle with students` switching to L1…either because they are too excited and want to say so much, or because they find the task too difficult to tackle in L2.

    And even if you conceived your course as a Dogme-driven space, you can sometimes steer away from it =)


    • Hi Vicky,

      I also read myself with the students, but to be fair, they usually prefer to read themselves… I guess they hear my voice enough during the class itself!
      The group in question are Lower Advanced, most of them sat for the First Certificate last year. However, I think you could attempt Face at least with a lower level (maybe Upper Intermediate). I found that because they were interested in the book itself, the level of language didn’t phase them. The only thing they struggled with to begin with was the speaking parts, as it really is written as people speak as opposed to the grammar we teach them!


  8. Hi Emma and Vicky,

    Thank you both for your comments. Well, this is turning into a really interesting one…

    It seems that many students actively like and enjoy reading aloud, despite what CELTA tells us not to do.

    Moreover, a friend of mine and a student of English posted this message on my Facebook page about our topic:

    “As a student I can say that I don´t love to read at loud but it´s so needed, that´s what I ask [my teacher] to make on practice with me. I think that will help me to improve my english skills.”

    So it seems that not only can it be enjoyable, but also requested!

    Going back to my class, I think that in future I will ASK if anyone wants to read aloud, as Vicky suggests. That’ll be much more Dogme and much more about their choice. Taking away that opportunity seems almost worse that making them do it!

    Yes, I’ve heard the argument that reading aloud forces them to concentrate on pronunciation and not the content, and that it’s not what they would do naturally… but I’m not sure I agree with this any longer.

    When I read in Spanish, I frequently read aloud to hear the sound of the language – and wouldn’t this also therefore make a mockery of drilling, to say that students shouldn’t read aloud, full-stop?

  9. Hi,

    what does your reading class aim to? why do Ss read? I don’t think they read to be able to read aloud- Reading aloud may distract the attention of other students or forces shy students to hide behind strong ones, who is fond of dominating the class. To be honest with you if you insist on reading aloud the result usually will be as follows: a quarter of your class (at least) decides to find sth more interesting to do( chatting in L1, having a nap or eating a snack). Other students look at the book or the printed material not to follow, they turn pages till they are asked to read . In addition to trouble makers who insist on annoying other students or even you, you may find some interrupt the reader; we can’t hear, it is three month not months, etc.

    In my opinion you should match your teaching style to their learning styles, I mean vary your strategies to involve visual, auditory and tactile (there are more) learners. You ought to divide your reading lesson into three stages as you know; before reading, during reading and post reading and if you like reading aloud you can highlight some important lines or quotations then ask one or more to read it aloud (during reading) to focus on an idea- (post reading) to check answers. you can use jigsaw reading and your students can exchange what they read with each other (you go around them to monitor) they will work in a more comfortable atmosphere with a low affective filter as they speak and correct inside small groups without feeling shy or embarrassed.

    My students don’t like reading short stories/novels so I have to change my strategies from read to find answers, to match, to paraphrase, etc. to more interesting ones like role play, visualization or debate. Some times I ask two or three pairs to come voluntarily to the front of the class or even in their seats and all the class look at them acting a certain scene of the novel-others, who don’t tend to act, can draw, predict in their own words what will happen next or write a dialogue according to a picture included in the part they read. I taught them Oliver Twist as reading text in their textbook not as a novel in its own, I divided the class into three big groups; the first group to defend Oliver ( he had to live with the gang and steal as he didn’t find any other solution) the second to claim that what is wrong can’t be considered right according to circumstances and the third to be the jury and they have to decide at the end of the debate (guilty or not guilty). you know they handed me assignments(I didn’t ask them to do) about the novel – I found out that they searched for the whole text online and posted it to the school wiki to be read by other students, some of them read it at homes and felt sorry for feeling angry with the character during the debate.

    • Hi Salma,

      What a great comment! Thank you so much for this feedback – it’s really helpful.

      Some things that really strike me as being especially important from what you said.

      1. It would have been much better for the class to have been clear on the aims from the outset: i.e. what we were going to do with the text apart from read it!

      2. Having the SS take parts in terms of defending the text like you did with Oliver Twist. An excellent idea. Getting them involved at this level must make it a whole lot more engaging rather than reading for the sake of it. I will try this tomorrow: getting them to look at the text from a particular angle. Certainly my getting them to just jump straight into it as they would any text they come across was simply not motivating enough for them.

      3. You’re so right about the snacking, napping, just not paying attention part that the other SS sometimes do when one of their classmates is reading. This has happened to me and it’s one of the reasons I’m dubious about getting them to read aloud individually…

      I DO think reading aloud can work, especially if the SS want to. But

      I’ve realised since my original post that there’s more to it than just getting them to dive in.

      I also need to think of something to have the students do if they decide the DO want to read aloud, i.e. how they can be occupied if one of their classmates is reading – apart from following the text themselves…

      Tomorrow’s plan:

      1. Get SS to look at text in groups and pick up the general idea for them to present to the class.
      2. Get them to look at any challenging vocabulary and help teach this to each other.
      3. Get SS to take a stance on it – i.e. be “for” or “against” some points raised by the text. I’m not really getting them to work enough with texts and I know that texts can be a lot more productive than I’m giving them the opportunity to be.

      I might actually start all of this off by getting them to tell me what they’d like to do with the text too. Often they need guidance with this kind of thing but it won’t hurt to ask.

      Really Salma – your comment is very useful indeed – thank you so much!

      Stay tuned tomorrow and I’ll let you know how it went!

  10. Hi Al, well… I wanted to share my experiences with you as regards reading aloud. Hope you get something useful!
    I teach teenagers from pre-intermediate to upper intermediate level and after lots of trial and error, I’ve found out that this is what works for me… If the text I want them to read is in the textbook and we are going to do some pre and post reading activity together, they’ll read silently. Mainly because most of the times it is a new topic, they are not so acquainted with the vocabulary (unless we REALLY work on that in a pre-reading activity) and all their attention will be on how they are doing at pronunciation instead of on meaning.
    Now, during the year we also work with readers. I usually have a whole session just looking at the cover of the book, setting the book (and author) in time and place, a bit of maps and history as well. Then, they try to guess what the book will be about. I find this extremely hooking. They get so excited that they really want to start reading.
    So, we open the book and I start reading it to them. It’s like taking them back to the time their parents or granny used to read them in bed. But I read only chapter 1. Then I ask if anyone would like to read aloud. They usually do. My reading the first chapter serves a purpose. By the time a student starts reading, he/she will already know the people in the book and will have heard how to pronounce the character’s names. Thus, he will not worry about anything other than what happens to the people in the story.
    If there is some direct dialogue in the book, I’ll probably make up different voices for the different characters. Some students will even mimic this apart from pronunciation and rhythm.

    Rounding off, this is what I’m doing now and what is working now for me and my students. Every group is different, every class is different. Just try and see what works for you and your group. Negotiation is vital (Dogme or not)!

  11. “By the time a student starts reading, he/she will already know the people in the book and will have heard how to pronounce the character’s names. Thus, he will not worry about anything other than what happens to the people in the story.”

    Hi Stefi and thank you so much for your comment. I’ve quoted the above as I think it’s a great idea. It makes a lot of sense to have your students familiarised with the characters and names etc. before asking them if they would like to read.

    The situation I have with an article is, I feel, slighty different. The text is shorter and there’s less to get really stuck into in this way (see discussion with Emma about fiction). But your pre-reading activities I could certainly transfer to this medium: brainstorming and talking will get ideas going instead of diving straight into a text “cold”.

    And I am definitely going to follow your approach the next time I do any kind of fiction with my class.

    For tonight, I think I might also get them to read silently, as I’ve said in my last comment, but then perhaps get them to read aloud so we can talk about pronunciation?

    What do you think?

  12. I understand what you mean. Maybe you could start a debate about the article and have them “justify their answers” by quoting the article. Thus, you’ll have them reading chunks of the article aloud but they wouldn’t be reading just for the sake of…

    • Great Stefi. Do you think that they should only read chunks or be able to paraphrase too? I’ve just started thinking about this and I think it’d be a really useful skill… to be discussed….

  13. Hi Al,

    My Spanish teacher would often ask me to read things aloud in Spanish, suffering through my poor pronunciation and overly Anglo intonation patterns. When I finished, usually in a hot sweat and out of breath, she’d ask me something about the content and I would exasperatedly puff that I had absolutely NO IDEA!

    On the other hand, I loved it when the teacher would read aloud to us in class as a child and have very fond memories of ´The Wind in the Willows´. If there are any volunteers to read to me now, I’d happily accept.

    A happy medium for the EFL classroom? I’m going with shadow reading. Choose a small section of text and record someone reading it naturally and well. Play it and let the students listen and read aloud. Play it again and let them mouth the words, practising the actual physical aspects of mouth movement that pronunciation work entails. Again, this time letting them say it with the recording… as many times as necessary. If possible, record a before and after version of the students’ work.

    Not real world but hopefully preparing them for it in some small way…

  14. Hi Lisa! Great to see you here and thanks for the exellent feedback.

    I’ve never heard of shadow reading and I really like the idea. I’m going to try this next class – we have had a text chosen by a student on Lady Ga Ga – an interview with lots of nice vocabulary which they can really get stuck into.

    Although, as you say, it might not be a real world situation – I think there’s a lot to be said for reading aloud – I think students do it all the time to get the feel of the language and the taste for reading it.

    I do think institutions can be far too dogmatic sometimes about what is and isn’t right. I think it’s easy to jump to “black and white” conclusions when in fact there are some things that are being missed out – things which the students want and need on a subtler level that CELTA simply ignores for the sake of convenience.

    Isn’t it ironic to note that as soon as the students come across an unfamiliar word in a text, apart from the meaning, the next thing they want to know is how to pronounce it?!

    I agree that, as with the example of your Spanish teacher, getting students to fumble and flounder their way through an entire text is a bad idea – but getting them to read as part of it in time with a well-prounced recording (or even along with me? If I can be trusted not to founder myself!) is a great idea – helpful for them and their “taste” for the language.

    Thank you Lisa – I’ll report back.

  15. Hi again all,
    Very interesting to hear Emma’s and Vicky’s positive experiences with reading aloud, but as later posters have suggested, even if the students like reading aloud, do their classmates like listening to them and can they understand the text better if they do so.

    Yes, reading aloud has a place, but it has to be for a well-defined aim. Estafania’s suggestion of having them read chunks of text aloud to justify answers is an excellent idea. Another one you could try is to get them to pick a quote out of the chapter and prepare a discussion question about the quote (perhaps for homework). Then in class they read out their quote and ask the questions to the class, who can then discuss it in pairs and then as a class.

    As with Estefania’s other excellent idea of the teacher reading the first chapter, you could do the quote/question preparation for the first chapter of the book to show them what you’re looking for and then get them to prepare quote/questions for the remaining chapters. Enjoy!

    • Great Neil – I like the idea of preparing a discussion question based around a quote. Perhaps something about one of the characters that another says, and then the class can discuss their feelings on it, whether it’s fair, how much it tells us about the characters and the others’ understanding of them etc.

      “do their classmates like listening to them and can they understand the text better if they do so”

      This is the one thing I might take issue with… isn’t it up to the students to say what they think about this? I’d be wary of applying this as a blanket “no-no”.

      I’d argue it’s less about understanding the text better and more about hearing the language to associate it with the words they are reading. And if there is an error in pauses/sentence stress/whatever, can’t this be discussed too?

  16. Thanks Neil for the praise! I really liked your idea with the quotes. I’ll try that!!
    Going back to Al, I would definitely accept paraphrasing if I am checking comprehension. In fact, I prefer that to reading textually. But if what I want is to get them read aloud (especially if I want to check pronunciation) I wouldn’t accept it. Why? Because if they paraphrase, they’ll look in their data base for the vocabulary which they feel more comfortable with.
    Does it make sense?

  17. Absolutely – I’m sure paraphrasing really has it’s place to demonstrate comprehension of a text, but neither would I get them to do this when they should be concentrating on the text reading itself.

    I’ve also tried getting SS to paraphrase (actually to summarise) things we’ve discussed in class using the new vocabulary we’ve seen in that class related to the topic to get them to use it in context. Works very well – even when one recent word we saw was “tug”… (not exactly “up there” on frequency lists).

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