10 Myths about Whole Class Reading

Whole Class Reading  (WCR) for the purposes of this post refers to using any modality of reading instruction with the entire class at once, including the various types (yes, plural) of reading instruction detailed in the Reading chapter of TPRS With Chinese Characteristics, which apply (really!) to all languages.

1. Whole Class Reading is boring.

So’s English class.

Oh, wait. That depend on who’s teaching it and how. Sure, if whole class reading is nothing more than the teacher reading a sentence out loud and a student being called on to translate it, causing all the other students to check out immediately, that’s boring. It’s also not good TPRS teaching.

2. Whole Class Reading has to be “fast and easy” like FVR.

Um…that’s why it can be whole class reading. Note I did not say that whole class reading has to be harder than FVR readings. It may be. It may not be. But the converse is not true: FVR reading should not be entering the realm of difficult, and it’s difficult to keep that from happening unless you dictate which books kids should read (thus eliminating the “F” part) or force them to continue reading regardless of comfort  (thus killing the “V” part).

Class readings are mediated by the teacher. Our brains crave understanding. What could be better than a teacher who lets you read in a class activity but is always there to provide support so you can jump on ahead to the next bit without getting hung up and frustrated on a reading that’s really above your level? Mmm. Just like the way Mom would read to a child, if you were lucky enough to have a Mom who did.

3. Class novels are boring.

And FVR books aren’t? There are basically two types of FVR materials: novels written for graded reader use, and materials taken from native speaker literature, like children’s books. The latter are typically way too hard and involve, at best, a lot of skipping or looking up of stuff. The former span an enormous amount of territory, from some that are horribly boring or amateurishly written (there’s no guarantee that just because something is laid out in nice type and has a cover on it, it’s well-written or well-edited, and by “editing” I don’t just mean typos) to those that are valuable for sheltered language and interesting content, whether historical, factual or purely fictional. If you think all class novels are boring, it’s probably time to beef up the stock on the top shelf of that supply closet.

4. Whole class reading takes too long.

Review (1) above. Whole Class Reading is not (1) above. It is a process of reading and checking for comprehension of a text, discussing it, comparing it to other things, laughing at or about it, and so on. In other words — all the good acquisitional stuff that goes on when students get comprehensible input. Not sure how that could ever be “too much time”.

In fact, I’d tend to tell people that if the novel goes fast, they’re not “exploiting” it enough. So often in foreign language teaching it’s “one and done” for readings. Re-reading has enormous value. Taking the time to discuss things has enormous value as well. It’s better to have read one novel and done it well than to have saved that time for — what? How can making kids really confident about a certain amount of language, rather than making them shaky about a lot of language, ever be a bad thing?

5. Whole class reading takes away student choice.

Uh-huh. Because, you know, if students can’t choose precisely what  they are doing every moment of the day, the activity won’t benefit them. Not! There is (or should be) a reason why a teacher is hired and paid a salary to teach a class — and that is that the teacher has a better insight into what will benefit the ultimate goal of a class than a person taking that class would have. That may not be true in every situation, but it is true the vast majority of times when the students are teenagers. Again, if whole class reading looks like (1) above, that’s another matter. But if it’s done, as it should be, as it is by people with training, or people who have taken the time to inform themselves on HOW to teach reading (and you should be reading books by kindergarten and elementary school reading specialists for this one) it will be meaningful and effective.

6. “But whole class reading holds back my brilliant little Snoogywuzzums!”

Adults (both parents and teachers) talk so much these days about helping students learn teamwork. And yet an increasing number of parents want their kids to be catered to. Part of teamwork is realizing that most people in a group have abilities that are different from yours and still managing to get along with them for that finite period of time that you have to. Because that isn’t going to stop when you get out of school.

7. Whole class reading limits the language.

Sure, if you teach whole class reading as in (1) above. If you teach it intelligently, incorporating discussion, there’s no telling what topics could come into any given session. This is a great opportunity for teaching across the curriculum, if one is so inclined (and has a language that obligingly offers cognates to make that easy enough). Or even simply to link to English class. (My Chinese reader “Josh Duyiwuer, for example, links neatly to Cyrano de Bergerac and the film “Roxanne”.) Your English teachers will fall down thanking you.

8. It’s too hard to come up with ideas about reading novels.

Um, I guess you’ve never seen one of Mira Canion’s teacher’s guides, then. They make War and Peace look like a three-fold brochure. Stuffed full of ideas, links, information — everything you could ever need to teach them forever.

Even if you’re teaching a novel without a guide, with the Internet you’re never more than a click away from asking people what they do with a given novel. And I’d be shocked if fewer than ten people leaped to respond. Mostly with good ideas, too. :-)

9. Yeah, but assessing whether or not they’ve read the book isn’t quite…

Quite what? The goal of a whole class reading novel is not to finish the book. In fact, it can be done very effectively without finishing it, building up interest to get the students to read the ending on their own. Our new readers in the Hawaii STARTALK program take home copies of our final class reading book to  finish on their own every summer, and they often get read before the kids get on a plane.

Also, a novel for TPRS class purposes is the sum of its language and related information. People seem to think that if we assess something they will get right, we’re doing something wrong. The purpose of assessment is supposed to be to confirm that they “have” it, not to show that many of them don’t (I’m talking about summative assessment, not formative assessment, of course). So the teacher needs to think about what he wants the students to take away from that novel and test that. Only in exceedingly rare occasions would that be the specific knowledge that Susan doesn’t like Cheesy Tuna Surprise.

10. Maybe our kids just need more of our human attention in class. Maybe they need, in class, to have a more personal relationship with us and with their peers. Maybe they need for us to get more human interaction and less focus on language going in our classes.

Maybe. Or maybe they signed up for Spanish to learn Spanish. And maybe we’re not trained counselors. And maybe teaching a whole-class novel, or targeting input, or doing anything that has any flavor at all reminiscent of the fact that we are teaching in a school setting — maybe those things aren’t totally exclusive of giving our students ‘human attention’ or having a ‘personal relationship’ with them in the first place.

How many adults have a ‘personal relationship’ with someone that is based solely and immediately on Deep Conversations? Let alone Deep Conversations in a New Language? Very few. Most adults find it more comfortable to first get to know a person who might become an intimate friend through non-threatening activities. Simple things. Watching TV. Going to a sports event. Hanging out casually with a group. Or, you know, talking about a book.

Do This, Not That

There is bad whole class reading out there. There is bad teaching out there. That doesn’t mean that teaching is bad, or that whole class reading is bad. We need to carefully separate the essence of the activity (done well) from the perceptions we get from people who are not doing it optimally, before coming to a judgement about whether or not an activity is valuable.

Do whole class reading. Do FVR (assuming you can find books that can be read — I do not really recommend this for Chinese at the early stages unless you have a library of truly in-bounds books available, which is rare; otherwise it becomes a half-hour of hide and seek. “Hey, I spotted a character I know!” And using “readings” for FVR kind of makes it work, not reading a Real Book or Magazine.)  But whichever you do – do it well. If you blog about your experiences, explain up front if you’re new and just trying this stuff out for the first time, so that people don’t take it as The Way To Do Things, or worse, Why Things Don’t Work.


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