Choice dilemma solutions: tips on choosing books for language learners

How did you choose books when you were a teenager? Compulsory reading lists, optional reading lists for the summer, book presents, book recommendations from friends and family?  How do you choose what you read now? Do you spend hours browsing in bookshops or do you read  book reviews and ask for recommendations?  Do you judge a book by its cover? Or do your friends share their favourite books with you? Do you always read the same genre?

The art of choosing

Imagine this scene. A person walks into a bookshop and, overwhelmed by the number of books on the shelves asks the assistant for advice: ‘I’d like to buy a book for my grandchild/niece/nephew/child/friend…’ Next question from the assistant: ‘How old is the child?’ Answers given, person directed towards the right shelf. But the story never ends here, there are over a hundred books on a shelf. How would anyone know what to pick? If they have time, they start browsing the books: the right book will look nice, will feel nice to touch, (it will probably smell good), and the text and the illustrations will be balanced to give us an engaging multisensory experience. The customer selects the friendliest-looking books, asks about the plot and the characters, picks one which he or she would also like to read, pays for it and leaves with a happy smile. The fundamental element of the scene is that the assistant is a well-read person who knows the books in the shop very well. Just like a teacher should know the books (classics, graphic stories, original stories, magazines, poetry collections, short plays) he/she selects for their his or her students. Or should we really select books for our students?

One of the main principles of Extensive Reading is the learner’s freedom to choose what they want to read. What does it really mean and how does it really work in practice?

In her TED Talk ‘The art of choosing’, Sheena Iyengar points out two important aspects of making choices:

  1. We approach the idea of choice from different perspectives in different cultures. In some cultures people are more likely to accept and even prefer if choices are made for them, and this factor can be beneficial to their performance because these choices create a sense of community and harmony.
  2. Too many options do not necessarily guarantee better choices as we can be overwhelmed by choice.

Does this imply that selecting books for our students can also be a good solution? It may be the case that some students simply do not feel comfortable about picking their own books because they are not used it, you live in a culture where choices are made by communities. Maybe they come from a family where making conscious choices about books is not a usual practice. What practices should you follow?

Tips on choosing

It is usually worth browsing the comments thread in professional blogs, and as I was reading the article ‘Does reading (and learning a language) require two brains?’ on Jeremy Harmer’s website, I came across the ’extensive reading program’ which is part of the English for University Students language course at the Swansea University. Neal Evans talks about their approach to choice in the comments:

‘rather than being predicted on choice it is predicated on need which fits our EAP background. It is a cornerstone of our teaching and assessment and with all the demands on EAP programmes this in itself is evidence of something working. I am just not quite sure what? For some students it is the launch pad for greater autonomy and choice as they start to borrow regularly from the library. Mostly it just provides access to those harder to reach students and stimulates student (and teacher) motivation, interaction and production in a project style way.’

Based on their success and experience, the question of choice can be approached from a very pragmatic perspective. There are other practical outcomes of giving book recommendations instead of encouraging students to choose anything that they come across in a library or bookshop. As Jeremy Harmer says in the comments on his blog post, ‘If we only read what we think we want to read, how will we ever read anything else?’

Just like the bookshop scene suggests, there are many factors we need to consider when choosing books, and the teacher also has to think like a good bookshop manager who is trying to find the best titles for his/her customers. Of course a teacher also has to consider learning outcomes and appropriate themes for the classroom. Let’s see some other principles to follows. Remember, giving your students a selection of books does not mean that you don’t let them to choose. Also, once in a while you can ask them to read a specific book you personally think would interest them. Variety is the key, and I think getting personal book recommendations can open up unknown worlds for your students. Remember to always ask your students for feedback on your choice in order to help you the next time you are offering suggestions.

Five factors

We have collected five factors to consider when choosing books with language learners.

1.The right language level

Students should be able to read the book independently. This means that all aspects of the text – language, content and context – are carefully controlled in order to ensure the reader can follow the story smoothly.

2. The right topic

If a student complains about a book or just does not seem particularly interested, offer them a new title. Never  confuse not liking a book with not liking reading at all.

When you offer a selection of titles to your students, remember to include various topics. As Richard Day and Julian Bamford point out in their article ‘Top Ten Principles for Teaching Extensive Reading‘, another principle of Extensive Reading is that ‘students should be free to stop reading anything that they don’t find interesting’. If they do not like a detective story, offer a historical novel or an original story to them.

 3. The right length

If you are reading a story in class, short stories can be the solution, for example by Edgar Allan Poe or Katherine Mansfield. Also, check out the Helbling Short Reads titles in our Red Series for A1/A2 levels. These stories will be short enough for a lesson or a double lesson, and they will give you enough time to focus on short intensive reading tasks if you would like to concentrate on a certain language structure.

 4. Text and illustration

Language learners usually need visual and audio elements to start a successful reading experience. This way reading can become a multimodal experience, and the invisible learning benefits become more effective. Young learners and teens often feel more engaged if the book contains illustrations that support comprehension and add another level of understanding to the story.

5. Original stories, graphic stories and poems

We love the classics, but many students might feel more connected to an original story written by a contemporary author, set in places they might have visited or would like to visit. Original stories and graphic stories provide great reading materials for every learner. Check out some original fiction titles for A1 and A2 levels, and some more original fiction here for A2 and B1 levels. Don’t forget about poetry!

Worksheets to help

Finally, here are some classroom and book club practices to help you with your book choices

Judge a book by its cover

To see some examples, try our worksheets:

Here you can download the answer key to both worksheets:

Follow these steps to work with the book covers:

  1. Read the first sentence or page.
  2. Read the blurb.
  3. Ask your students to recommend books to each other.
  4. Pick one or more class readers together – your students can make their own group choice.

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