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Automatic English For The People

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

A Day in the Life of a FOCAL SKILLS Reading Teacher

Copyright © 2003 by Ashley Hastings. You may freely download, print, copy, and distribute this material, but do not alter, add, or remove any content, including this copyright notice.

Background

From 1993 until 1999, Shenandoah University had an intensive ESL program using the FOCAL SKILLS Approach. I joined the SU faculty in the 1995-96 academic year. For the first part of that year, I taught the Reading Module. We were a bit short-handed at the time, so I covered all three hours of Reading every day for one four-week term. (Like all students in the program, Reading students spent the fourth hour of the day in an Elective class.) Virtually all of our students were internationals who had already been admitted to the University and (in most cases) were already taking at least a few credits in their major field (almost all of them were business or music majors).

This vignette is a composite reconstruction from memory. Its purpose is to demonstrate my own approach to the job of teaching Reading within the FS framework. It should be understood that quite a few people have extensive experience as FS Reading teachers, and each of them could no doubt write vignettes that would differ in various ways from mine. Also, no claim is being made about the applicability of this vignette to other ESL or EFL environments. In particular, the principles and techniques exemplified here presuppose the FS placement system, which groups students in such a way that reading is taught intensively only to students whose listening comprehension is no lower than the intermediate level and whose reading comprehension is no higher than the intermediate level. Furthermore, the materials that I used were appropriate for university-level international students, but would certainly not be suitable for all ages, populations, or environments. However, given the right kinds of reading materials, I do believe that the principles that guided my teaching could work in most environments where FS placement is used.


Preparing for Class

My first class starts at 12:30 every afternoon. I have an early lunch and head for my classroom a few minutes before noon, stopping off to pick up the day's bundle of USA Today. This is all I will need for the first two hours of class.

When I reach my classroom, I take one copy of the paper for myself and put the rest on a chair by the door. As the students arrive, they each take a copy and sit down. Some open the paper right away and start browsing; others sit and chat with classmates or munch on portable lunch items they've brought along. While this is going on, I prepare for class.

I never have to write exercises, handouts, or quizzes, nor do I ever have any grading to do. All I need is a few minutes to glance over today's issue and familiarize myself with the headlines and gist of the major articles in each section. The students understand the routine and allow me to work in peace.


First Hour of Class

At 12:30, I call the class to order and make sure everyone has a copy of USA Today. I ask everyone to skim through the news sections and look for an article for us to read together. I give them about three minutes and then ask for suggestions.

One of the students nominates an article about an important political event in his own country. He announces the page number and reads the headline aloud so everyone can locate the article. I then begin a cycle that I call "interactive reading." It consists of three stages: familiarization, clarification, and discussion.


Familiarization. First, I read the article aloud, all the way through, while the students read along silently. I use a rather careful, formal pronunciation, much like a newscaster on the radio, but not too fast for the students to follow. The students' task at this time is to listen, read, and understand as much as they can, but not to ask questions.

Clarification. After we've gone through the article, I go back to the beginning and read through it again, paragraph by paragraph. This time, the students are invited to ask me questions about anything they don't understand. This is the time to deal with vocabulary, collocations, or difficult sentence structures. Since USA Today is written at a middle-school level, the difficulty level is usually just about right for these students' i+1. The students set the agenda here, and I keep fielding their questions until they seem satisfied.

Discussion. The next step is to discuss the content of the article. This is when I get to ask the students questions. After reading through the entire piece twice, I'm ready to pose queries like "Why did the President of the Assembly call for new elections?" and so forth. Such questions call for scanning, inferencing, and other reading strategies, all contextualized and focused on the news article in front of us. We can also explore our opinions, speculate on future developments, etc., if the class seems interested in extending the discussion. At times, we may cycle back to the previous stage of meaning clarification if someone encounters a comprehension problem that interferes with the discussion.


At some point, it will become apparent that the article has been sucked dry. I then give the students a few minutes to skim other articles; I invite another student to nominate one; and the cycle is repeated. In a typical 50-minute hour, we may cover three to five articles, depending on their length and potential to generate discussion.


Second Hour of Class

After a 10-minute break, we turn to the other sections of the paper: sports, business, features, and the like. Class proceeds as before. The students' individual interests often become more apparent here, and there is a certain amount of good-natured competition as various class members try to make sure that the business stories or the entertainment features are not slighted. One article on monetary exchange rates is proposed by a business major from Taiwan, but after we have read only two or three paragraphs I notice some of the music majors rolling their eyes. I ask them what the problem is, and one replies, "This is really too boring!" I raise an eyebrow in the direction of the business major who requested the article, and he admits that even he is not terribly fascinated with the topic, now that he has seen a bit more of the article. We agree to scrap this story and let a music major choose the next one.

If the students run out of suggestions before the end of class, they know that I will subject them to an article that interests me. The O.J. Simpson trial is prominent in the current news, with at least one news item every day devoted to this real-life soap opera. The students are sick of the whole thing, and in order to prevent me from taking them through another article about O.J.'s DNA or SUV, they work hard to find their own material. This has become a running joke which we all seem to enjoy.

When the second hour of class comes to an end, I collect the newspapers so I can take them to a Writing teacher who uses USA Today for an occasional activity in his own class.


Third Hour of Class

It's time for a major change of pace, and even a change of venue. The students and I spend our 10-minute break walking to the Library, where we all take seats in the Curriculum Collection room and prepare for an hour of Free Voluntary Reading. This area is packed with books of all kinds for public school use. My students are permitted to bring anything they want to read, but it is convenient for all of us to gather here because there are so many books close at hand that are within the students' reading abilities. Most do in fact choose books from the Curriculum Collection; they do not seem to find it at all demeaning to read "children's books," especially because I myself have chosen a book rated for 7th and 8th graders. It's my firm policy always to model the kind of reading I expect my students to do, and I set an excellent example by going straight to the shelf that holds my chosen book and taking it to my place at the table, where I open it and start reading.

I have been reading this book for several days now, although it is fairly short and very easy reading. Why have I not finished it yet? The reason becomes apparent when one of the students brings her book over to me and points to a paragraph that she is struggling to understand. It turns out that she is the victim of a vocabulary confusion, mistaking one word that she doesn't know for a similar word that she does know. The misidentified word is crucial to the sense of the paragraph; once the confusion is cleared up, everything is fine. By the time she is back in her chair, another student is asking for help. He has chosen a fantasy novel that appears to be suitable for older teenagers with a taste for this kind of literature; the vocabulary, style, and content are all beyond my student's experience. We discuss the situation quietly and he decides to try a different book. He finds one that interests him and settles down again. Soon a third student comes to me with a question. He is reading a western and has no idea what "Yer dern tootin' I'm mad! I'll settle his hash!" can possibly mean. I translate this into standard English and suggest that he may want to resign himself to only partial comprehension of the dialog in this book. Otherwise, he seems to be happy with his choice and is doing well with it.

Only a few minutes of class remain now, and I still have no idea what's going on in my own book. However, the students don't know this, and it doesn't matter anyway; I'm not really here to catch up on my reading, after all! I open a folder and distribute copies of a "Personal Reading Checklist" for everyone to fill out. This takes very little time; it asks them a few questions like:


What is the title of the book you read today?

How many pages did you read?

Was the book too hard? Too easy? Just about right?

Did you find it interesting?

List a few useful words or phrases that you found in today's reading and would like to remember.

This is purely for their own use. I recommend that they keep their checklists in a folder as a way of tracking what they've done, but this is entirely up to them.

And that's the end of my daily routine as a Reading teacher.


Postscript

Some teachers, reviewing what I've written here, may be thinking that I scarcely worked at all when I taught FS Reading. Where were the long hours that should have been spent preparing lesson plans, writing quizzes, or grading homework? However, I would submit that I worked very hard while I was in class. I had to think on my feet (even while sitting down), since I never knew from one minute to the next what my students would want to read, or how they would understand it, or what questions they would ask. I had to be alert and mindful at all times.

Some might also ask, "How does this constitute a reading class? Where's the syllabus? What were the students actually learning, anyway?" My answer would be that they were acquiring English and developing reading skills. Rather than working systematically from point to point in obedience to a master plan drawn up in advance, my students were exploring each new instance of authentic English as it came their way. The sheer volume of reading that they did over time guaranteed that they would encounter a representative sample of written English; the variety of activities that we pursued guaranteed that they would practice many different strategies for reading and processing information. Listening to me read aloud gave them extensive demonstrations of how written English is "chunked" and pronounced. Reading silently during Free Voluntary Reading gave them extended opportunities to read at their own pace and for their own purposes. All these experiences were overflowing with comprehensible input. All in all, I would describe this multifaceted approach to reading instruction as a very effective, practical, and enjoyable way to help ESL students improve their reading proficiency.

These efforts were rewarded when the students took the Reading Assessment at the end of the four-week period. The average gain score on the test was 16 points (corrected for guessing), or 4 points per week. When the same test was administered (pre- and post-test design) to students in a respected standard (non-FOCAL SKILLS) university intensive ESL program, the average gain was only 8 points over a 6-week period, or 1.3 points per week. My students progressed three times faster than the comparison group.

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