Category Archives: Books I enjoy!

ONE TWEAK AT A TIME: REFLECTING ON FANSELOW’S TEXTBOOK FOR EFL TEACHERS – 2. Read and Look Up!

This is part two of my second blogging challenge, in which I experiment  with and reflect on some of the small changes recommended in John Fanselow’s “Small Changes in Teaching, Big Results in Learning” .  These challenges are a way for me to keep honing my teaching skills.

New constructions
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I had heard of “Read and Look Up” before encountering this book, but never tried it in class. The rationale for having the students not recite a text mechanically while reading it from the page is clear and simple, that wasn’t what stopped me from trying it. It’s intuitive too, I can feel it on myself – a person can’t really focus on  comprehension and process the vocabulary, syntax and content presented in a text while focusing on reading aloud, particularly in a foreign language. It’s perfectly possible to read aloud from a page nicely without understanding what you have read.

What I hadn’t understood at all before reading Fanselow’s explanations and suggested activities is that reading a sentence (or two) silently, pausing and then looking at someone  before saying the words is not simply an exercise in memory and parroting! Now that I had something concrete to “hold on to”, I started trying some of the variations presented in the book , inventing additional variations along the way to suit my own students.

Having a ladder helps!
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The “Advanced” Student – An Individual Lesson

10th grade student, top-level, hard of hearing, but in a quiet, one-on-one setting, can hear fairly well with her hearing aids. She speaks clearly too.

I gave the student, whom we’ll call R., an unfamiliar text written as an opinion essay on whether high school should be required to volunteer in the tenth grade or not. I had no idea if the activity I was going to try was suitable for such a strong student as R. ,but this was a text I had wanted to use in any case. I gave R. no explanations, just asked her to read to herself a sentence or two, turn over the page and say what she read.

R. did as I asked.

She replaced some words with others as she spoke.

I was delighted!

I praised her, explaining that replacing words was wonderful and told her that I wanted us to examine together what exactly she was doing.  I pulled out scrap paper and a pen and asked R. to begin again and wrote down every word she said. The situation amused R. –  she was speaking and I was the one writing furiously.

We paused after every two sentences (more or less) to compare what R. had said with the original text. We noted which words she had replaced with others and whether they meant the same as the original or not. If not, I suggested other words she could have used. For example, she said “In the beginning” instead of “At first”, which is great. When she said “the experience has donated  far more to me” instead of “contributed” we discussed the difference between the two words.

Then R.  read (with page turned over, remember?) two long sentences verbatim. She hadn’t replaced a single word or omitted a single one. R. then looked at the text and asked:

” I used the words in the text. I don’t know other words to use here.  Can you tell me?”

Needless to say, I was happy to oblige.

Look up!
Naomi’s Photos

“The Struggling Learners” – Individual Lessons

12th grade students, hard of hearing / Deaf students who use sign language in addition to speech, their speech is not always clear, all have additional learning disabilities, poor language skills in their mother tongue.  These students are practicing for the writing section on their upcoming “Module C” final exam, which for them is a very simple, informal letter, 35-40 words long. It is a difficult task for them.

I gave each student a sample letter we had used in class before.  The students are already familiar with the format – their final exam is in three weeks! Once again I first had the student look at the text, flip over the page and then read aloud. The texts are short! I wrote what each student said and then we compared it to the original. But then (following Fanselow’s suggestion) I added stages.

Each student received the text again with a blank space instead of one word in each sentence. They had to look at that text before flipping over the page and reading aloud complete sentences. Once again I wrote what they said and we compared what I wrote with the page with the blank spaces.

Then I gave the students the same text again with more blank spaces.  They looked at it and repeated the process. When we compared the results to the page not one student asked for the original complete text, they didn’t need it.

There are two blank spaces missing after the word “almost”, which got cut off in the photo.

Finally I gave the students a blank page and had them write a complete letter on their own.

It’s interesting to note that I hadn’t expected any of the students to replace any words, as their vocabulary is poor.

But they did. A little bit.

I’ve told these students repeatedly to choose adjectives they remember so as not to use the dictionary much on this section of the exam – they really don’t have time. But some students are “stubborn” – one student always wants to write that her boss is mean but can never remember the word “mean” and has to look it up. Today she simply replaced the word “mean” with “nice”!

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Notes so far:

*The students and I are really enjoying this.

* In the next post I’ll share my “Read and look up” experiences so far with pair work.

* In Fanselow’s book the teacher isn’t the one doing the writing but for now, at least, that tricky with my students who don’t hear each other well.

* There are more elements to the method in the book.

 

 

 

Saturday’s Book: “Imperium” by Robert Harris

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This book tries to be a combination of a historical account and a modern courtroom thriller.

I enjoyed it up to a point.

I’m interested in history, the Roman Empire is certainly a fascinating subject and Cicero’s unlikely rise to power is truly  a worthy subject. However there’s a great deal of detail designed to make the book sound like an episode of Boston Legal (or some other modern show about a law firm)  and by the last third of the book I found it tiresome. That probably says more about me than about the writer’s skill, I’m less interested in the back room wheeling and dealing   for votes. Shorter would have been better.

Nonetheless, I can see myself reading more of the author’s historical novels. He certainly makes a world long gone seem real.

Saturday’s Book: “Alias Grace” by Atwood

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Do you know how sometimes you feel sorry when you reach the end of a book you are reading and ” miss” the characters for a while?

By the time I finished reading Alias Grace I was glad to say goodbye to the characters and to have them out of my life.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe it’s a very good book. Atwood’s writing is, as always, riveting. I though it was incredibly skillful how she took the information available from printed sources about this true murder case / trial and filled in the gaps so convincingly. The characters she depicts seem very much alive, as is the period in which they lived. Sad times, unfair times, in which there was  scant attention given (if at all) to a great number of people’s well-being.  That’s putting it extremely mildly.

I’m glad I read the book but also glad I have finished it and can move on.

Saturday’s Book: “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah

Now you see a bench but…
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… does it still look like a bench now? Naomi’s Photos

This is audiobook number two of the three books I am treating myself to and it was an EXCELLENT choice as a book AND as an audiobook.

Trevor Noah is a brilliant narrator of his own tale. Trevor knows how to employ different accents and make his characters sound differently. This is the kind of book you want as an audiobook.

Noah combines his memoirs of growing up as a mixed race child in South Africa before and after Apartheid ended (hence “born a crime” – white father, black mother, it was illegal!) with historical information and background. From his unique perspective as a child who moved in different circles (he spoke 4 languages!) but didn’t seem to belong anywhere, he takes care to point out how different groups of people viewed the same events, situations or concepts.

South Africa’s borders are not Noah’s borders. He connects his personal childhood experience to a much bigger picture of our world in general. As a language teacher I would love to teach in class the chapter in the book where Noah presents the advantages of knowing four languages. Knowing languages is really a superpower – it lets you connect to people but also allows you to perceive others from a totally different perspective. This knowledge helped Noah deal with complicated situations – students could relate to that.

Hmm… I guess there is a disadvantage of having heard this book as an audiobook. I can’t quickly flip through the book and tell you which chapter it was that I’m talking about. You will just have to read the book yourself!

Saturday’s Book: “The Last Days of Night” by Moore

Illuminate!
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So how would you like to “meet” Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Nikola Tesla, Alexander Graham Bell and J. P. Morgan? Or “see” the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as it is  being built and “visit” the new Metropolitan Opera (it seems the old Opera House wouldn’t accept the likes of Rockefeller and Vanderbilt so they needed a new one…)?

I did!

Well, not exactly. But it feels that way!

I treated myself to three audiobooks, and this historical legal thriller is the first. The excellent narrator was able to make each character sound a little differently, which added another dimension to the book. The book is rich with details and background information and in many parts its quite easy to imagine being a fly in the room, with a front row seat to the legal battle.

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Make no mistake – while there’s a lot of fascinating history here, this is  a legal thriller in the tradition of any of those courtroom dramas series you happen to favor on T.V. It turns out there was a huge dramatic battle over who and how the USA would become a country with electricity. The lawyer (whose eyes you are peering through as the story unfolds)  is young and dashing and of course there’s a love story too…

It’s certainly a good choice for an audiobook as the drama makes listening to it rather energizing – I got a great deal of cooking done while listening!

I understand there is going to be a movie version soon. It doesn’t surprise me in the least. I’m glad I read it before the movie comes out!

 

 

Saturday’s Book: “The Rights of Desire” by Brink

Unexpected!
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And to think I almost didn’t read this book!

I picked it up at the “readers-give-readers” corner at our library but it remained on the bookshelf while I read other books first. Not only had I  never heard of the South African author,  the title and the cover weren’t particularly appealing. It clearly wasn’t what once was called a “10 cent paperback” but the book didn’t appear particularly appealing either.

As they say, appearances are misleading. I’m now ready to read any book by Brink I can find, and I understand he wrote several.

The style of writing had me hooked by page one. The main character is a former librarian and the book is full of references to other books, in addition to moving paragraphs about the degree in which books can make a difference in a person’s life.

The setting is in post-apartheid Cape Town, South Africa, though the story weaves past, distant past (there’s a ghost!) and present. All turbulent times in different ways.

And yes, there is desire, lust, love or lack of it, from different perspectives. Don’t expect any “saccharine coating” here, but there is tenderness along with reality.

A wholly unpredictable book.

I’m so glad I read it.

Saturday’s Book: “Ravelstein” by Saul Bellow

In the same boat
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To start at the end, I now know that this book is refers to a real person and that the book has raised many controversial issues. But frankly, I don’t think the point of this book is to discuss an attack on liberal arts university education in the USA, the AIDS epidemic in the past and lifestyle choices or just to present a very unusual, larger than life character.

I think is a book about friendship.

It is about having a friend who has become an inseparable part of your life, and then having to deal with the empty space you are left with when that friend is gone.

It remind me of the book by Ann Patchett – “Truth and Beauty”.

In both books the friend in question is not an easy friend to have and actually complicates ones life. Yet not being a close friend of this person is unimaginable. In both books the friend passes away.

Saul Bellow’s book is a much slower read than Patchett’s and it’s constructed in a kind of circular fashion. You encounter some events more than once but with additional information. The style only becomes a direct chronological narrative of events after “the friend” passes away.

It took me time to get into this book (and figure out what it is about)  but there’s something about the writing that made want to continue reading, though I can’t say what it was. It is a somewhat strange book but I’m glad I read it.

 

A Book for Teachers: “My name is Leon” by Kit de Waal

Childhood experiences vary greatly…
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I rarely post about a book before I have finished it, but I’m so very excited about this book that I just want to talk about it and so many things related to it!

Believe me, I would have finished reading it by now even though I just started it a few days ago. I was completely drawn in by the end of the first page. It’s just that life gets in the way… There should be “good book days” like “snow days” so that I can stay home and read!

First of all, the writing itself is amazing. The story is told from the point of view of 9-year-old Leon, yet on occasion lets us adults in on what is really happening to Leon before the child himself understands it. Leon lives in early 1980s Britain and is taken out of his completely dysfunctional home and placed in foster care. His little baby brother, who is white (from a different father) is quickly adopted, leaving Leon, who is mixed race behind. The story is moving and keeps the reader completely involved.

It is not an Oliver Twist kind of story. While I haven’t quite finished reading it, this is not a tale of abuse in the “newspaper headline sense of the word”. No one is being beaten, starved or locked in dark cupboards. Issues of economic status, race and welfare do come up, of course.

Actually, I find this to be a book about how children going through difficult family situations need to be heard, listened to. Noticed.

And that’s why I truly think this a book teachers should read. Every teacher has some students who are not having the kind of childhood we would like children to have.

Finally, I’m also excited by the fact that an advanced 12th grade student of mine lent me this book. My students choose their own books for their book reports, (though they must run it by me for approval) and one student brought in this book which she purchased. This particular student has had experience with social services in her life and she liked the book.

I could see this as a book that students could read – it is certainly thought-provoking!

Check it out!

Note: Actually, “Good Book Days” are not a good idea. There are so many good books out there – when would I teach and meet the kids?!

 

“Frog on His Own” by Mayer & the JOY of Wordless Books

Who will sit here? What will they watch? Story prompt? Naomi’s Photos

This post was going to be a joyous “Sharing -books-with-kids-ROCKS” kind of post, not related to work or the classroom, a suitable post for the weekend. But the teacher in me can’t look at a children’s book without thinking about sharing the joy in class…

Yesterday I stumbled upon a short post praising the use of wordless books in class “Using Wordless Books with English Learners” by Herrmann. It stopped me short, with my finger still on the mouse.

I can’t believe I forgot about this. I haven’t thought about such books for years and haven’t been recommending the use of them.  Wonderful books that tell an entire story in pictures, nary a word in sight.

Total amnesia.

So I went to the bookshelf and found the four books that I own.

“Frog on his Own” by Mercer Mayer was a hit with my own kids and in class. This amusing story of a pet frog having adventures in a local park was very clear to my sons and they enjoyed telling the tale. From a very early age children  know that in “traditional” books their parents are reading the words to them but here it is permissible to tell the tale a bit differently each time, and for the child to “read”  to the parent. This also worked well in class when I taught grades 3-6. Students wrote up the sequence of events, invented the text or the dialogue. Pure educational FUN!

My own sons loved the books “Moonlight” and “Sunshine” by Jan Ormerod much more than the previous one, but I couldn’t take them to class. These books are a gem for parents because of the combination of humor and reality of life at home with a child. Moonlight tells the story of a little girl who doesn’t want to go to bed while Sunshine depicts  the same girl who plays ” the big girl” and looks after herself while her parents sleep in. We loved everything about these books!

However, the heroine of these books is clearly around five years old (okay, maybe first grade, maybe) and there was no way my fifth graders at the time would accept such a book.

Which reminded me why the books were forgotten.

The first three are too childish for high-school…

There’s that pesky age where children refuse anything that might make them seem childish…
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I do have one wordless book considered suitable for older readers “Anno’s Journey” by Mitsumasa Anno but, sad to say, I don’t get it.

The book is highly praised, it is supposed to include hidden storybook characters, visual puzzles, reference to famous paintings and more among the drawings, but I am truly embarrassed to say that  I myself have identified very few. Except for the pages with the windmills, I can’t even tell which parts of the journey are supposed to depict which European country – it could all be the British countryside as far as I’m concerned. Perhaps I need a teacher’s guide for it..

If I can’t narrate it myself, or write clues for the students to read and go on a treasure hunt , I truly can’t bring it to class.

I guess my “amnesia” had a reasonable basis.

So I will now return all four books to the bookshelf, and wait for grandchildren to share them with…

Lost in a Book: “Fall of Giants” by Ken Follet

Not a giant at all…
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Ken Follet knows how to push all the right buttons.

Here’s the thing.  I usually abhor authors who seem to count the number of pages needed to insert regularly something related to affairs of the heart / flesh, particularly in conjunction with a generous sprinkling of “costume drama” (ranging from clothing, buildings and any other comforts of the aristocracy and the rich).

But Follet so cleverly combines those “buttons” with so much fascinating historical information, behind the scenes diplomacy and egoism that affected the lives (and deaths) of millions of people,  that I was willing to forgive the author for just about anything irksome in the entire book.  All 920 pages of it! I stopped reading my magazines – the book was addictive!

The characters are presented in such a  vivid and engaging way, the Welsh mining family and the local aristocracy, the German diplomats, the Russian peasants along with the American contingent. The book follows these imaginary characters along with very real politicians of the period during the years that lead to WWI, through the war years and immediately afterwards. You feel the tension of the arguments and the decisions even though I knew the outcome of some of them.  I’ve read extensively about WWll but realized I didn’t know nearly as much about how so many countries got involved in this war.

That’s not all. The book follows the battle to give women in Britain the right to vote. I had no idea of the influence the war had on that issue and even of the perception of women’s roles. It also brings you right into the heart of the Russian revolution. Somehow I had never thought about how all these things were happening at the same time and what that meant.

In short – I was HOOKED.

This is the first part of a trilogy. The first two books quite literally fell into my lap, without the third. I’m going to wait a while before starting the next one – not ready yet for another world war!

I’ve now started a completely different kind of book. Updates will follow!