The ABC of a graded reader: David and the Great Detective

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As teachers, we would all like our students to read more and read better in English. I often ask my students what they are reading for pleasure and they always amaze me with their experiences: some read thick historical novels, car magazines or books about physics. Others love reading biographies, poetry or young adult fiction. Of course there are always some students who claim to ‘hate’ reading. Both groups of students are interesting for the teacher. Every teacher would like the non-reader students to experience the joy of reading and equip them with the power of gaining knowledge through reading. As for the students who are already avid readers in their own languages, we would like to show them the fun of reading in English. Often they exclude this as their level of English doesn’t allow them to read the books that interest them, and that is where graded readers come into the picture.

Let’s see how graded readers, and in this post specifically illustrated readers and graphic stories can assist us in transforming our students into good readers in English. We will walk you through the crucial question of using a graded reader and highlight its most important features by showing you details from our elementary level (CEFR A1) reader, David and the Great Detective written by Martyn Hobbs and illustrated by Lorenzo Sabbatini. The reader belongs to a series of 12 graphic stories about 6 English teengagers called the Westbourne Kids (all readers in the series are either CEFR level A1 or A2).

The benefits of using graded readers in the classroom

There are three important benefits of using graded readers in the language classroom: story-based teaching, multimodal learning, and interactive engagement. First of all, each reader gives us a story which contextualises the vocabulary and the grammar structures in focus. Through stories we create memories, illustrate the situation and the wider context of the events. Plus we already ‘know’ about stories and have been taught (by our family, neighbours and teachers) though stories since we were born. Secondly, graded readers – especially graphic stories in the Helbling Readers Fiction series – are multimodal texts, combining written, spoken and visual modes. These stories are an interesting combination of illustrated short stories and cartoons. The parts with more action and dialogue are presented through the cartoon spreads, letting the reader experience the fast-spaced verbal and visual aspects of a real-life conversation. The illustrations help the readers visualise the scenes and their atmosphere. When we are working with these pages, it is important to pay careful attention to the images. Apart from these written and visual features, each reader comes with a complete dramatised audio recording, which expands the story experience with the sound effects, real dialogues and narration. Thirdly, these readers engage not only the reader but also the language learner in your students. The before and after reading activities help the students prepare for reading and then consolidate the new vocabulary and grammar structures they have learnt.

Apart from these explicit teaching benefits, there is an important implicit message you send when you are using graded readers in the classroom: reading is valuable and it is worth your attention and time. When students see that you dedicate time to reading – even just 10 minutes on a regular basis – they will see that reading is just as an important part of language learning as grammar or speaking practice. Through the shared reading of a graded reader you are creating a community experience and memories you can then refer back to in your teaching.

Before the first lesson

If you are a newcomer to the world of graded readers, here are some tips for you.

1 The right level and the right topic

We should not confuse not liking a book with not liking reading. It is a good idea to select a number of readers at the right level for your group and then ask them to pick the one they like. Also, there is a difference in what your students are able to do with your help in class and what they can manage to do and read alone. Students should be able to read the book independently, which means that they should be able to comfortably understand most words and expressions in context and that they should be familiar with all the main structures used. Check the back cover of the reader you have selected to see the right level. It is often a good idea to get students reading slightly below their actual level, that way their confidence is boosted and they can get into the spirit of reading for fun.

Helbling Reader levels.

2 How many copies should we have?

In an ideal world every student should have their own copy before you start reading the book. However, if it is hard to manage, you can also use one reader for reading pairs, this way students can share the book in the classroom and do the activities in their exercise books.

3 When should we read?

Decide how much time you can dedicate to language work and how much time you can have for actual reading. We recommend one lesson to become familiar with a reader and reading the first page of the story. Then, there are a number of possible ways to continue reading the story. Students can read it at home in a given period of time, or you can dedicate 10 minutes in each lesson to reading the story, or you dedicate one lesson a week to reading the story or you combine a mixture of reading at home, talking about the reading then reading in class to consolidate. Depending on the language proficiency level of your students and how well they work independently, you can either set the After Reading exercises as homework or do them in class together.

The main features of a reader

Although readers are short and user-friendly books, they are packed with features that facilitate learning and engage the students both in the classroom and when they are reading alone. For the first lesson, take enough copies to the classroom and tell your students that you will read an exciting story today. We recommend working with the cover and the Before Reading activities and becoming familiar with the book for this first approach to the story.

The cover

Hand out all the books, and give the students some time to take a look and flip through them. Then, ask them to focus on the cover. Ask them who they think David is and who the Great Detective may be? Then, ask them to read the blurb on the back cover and flick through the illustrations and predict what will happen in the story.

“David dreams of becoming a great detective like David Delgado, the hero of his stories. When thieves take Jack’s bike, David decides to help him get it back. Can David find it and become the detective of his dreams?”

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Before Reading activities

Go to pages 6 and 7 and spend some time on looking at the view of Westbourne, the setting of the story. Walk through the image with the students: the houses on the left side, the factory site in the background and the main street in the foreground. Ask students to name as many things and activities as they can in the picture. Then, move on to pages 8 and 9 and work with specific vocabulary items. Be prepared to use the audio recording, which is available on the Audio CD in the reader or as an mp3 download from e-zone, our educational platform.

The Story and the Glossary

The story is 44 pages long, and half of the pages are illustrations which support the reading experience. A large part of the new vocabulary is represented in the images so students are given context to help with the specific meaning they need to understand. Spend some time reading the first pages together, and give your students the following reading strategies that will help them with learning the language.

First of all, encourage the students to study the illustrations before, while and after reading a passage. The red dots next to certain words are also important as these highlight difficult vocabulary items. When students see a red dot, they can go to the Glossary on page 64 and check the meaning of the word or phrase. When you get to pages 14 and 15, explain that here the frames of the comic strips are read from left to right. When the lesson is over, no matter how far you got with reading the text (either silently or with the help of the dramatized recording), ask students to predict what will happen next.

The Audio recording

Point out that the audio symbol means that they can also listen to the story as they are reading it. The audio helps students with listening comprehension, and it provides a model for the right intonation and pronunciation of spoken English. Audio recordings are also useful if the students would like to read the story at home and they are not sure about the pronunciation and spelling of words.

After Reading activities and Exit Test

There are various types of activities after the story. On pages 56 and 57 you will work on general reading comprehension, followed by Vocabulary (pages 58-59) and Grammar (pages 60-61) activities. There is an Exit Test on pages 62 and 63. We suggest setting the After Reading activities either as homework or as pairwork in class. The Exit Tests can also be done in pairs in the classroom. It is important that the students understand that these are consolidation exercises and their reading is not being tested like in an exam.

Digital resources

You can give your students extra practice for individual work on e-zone, the Helbling educational platform. Under ‘Cyber Homework’ the students will find interactive activities. Results and feedback are given automatically as soon as the deadline fixed by the teacher has expired. These activities are especially useful when you do most of the activities in class and would like to set some individual practice.

Encouraging reading 

There are several ways you can encourage reading in the classroom and motivate students to read out of the classroom.

D.E.A.R. sessions

D.E.A.R. stands for ‘Drop Everything and Read’, an excellent idea which engages students in reading immediately. A session can be 10 or 15 minutes long, and all you need to do is ask students to stop doing what they are doing, grab a book and start reading.

Reading groups

You can form reading groups based on the students interests. Students in groups of three of four can choose books to read by the end of the semester and rotate them in the group. At the end of the semester, dedicate a lesson to discussing the reading experiences of the reading groups.

Reading challenges

Introduce a reading challenge for your students. Here are some reading challenge examples:

  • Read 10 books by the end of the year.
  • Read stories on four different topics by the end of the year: detective, history, nature and humour.
  • Read a poem, a magazine article, a graphic story, a classic and an original story by the end of the semester.

Project lessons

Project lessons invite students to engage with a topic related to the book. For example, in the case of David and the Great Detective, students can do some research and then prepare a poster or a presentation about the most famous detectives in history. Some students can choose only one and talk about them in detail, others can make a list of the top 10 detectives, and others can talk about films about famous detectives.

CLIL projects

Another type of project lesson is a CLIL lesson, in which you integrate another disciplinary content area with language learning. For example, David and the Great Detective is set in Westbourne in Bournemouth, Dorset. Students can explore the map of England, find Westbourne and then learn about the Geography and the History of the area.

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