A Path to Promote Reading Comprehension Part 2: Towards the Goal of Literacy Independence

Mari Nakamura

Hello colleagues, 

We have now reached the final leg of our journey in our exploration of the field of literacy education for young EFL learners. It has been quite an inspiring and enlightening journey, having some great contributors, such as Chiyuki Yanase, Cynthia Akazawa, Laura Macfarlane, Lesley Ito, and Ruthie Iida, and exchanges of insights and practical ideas on our Facebook page. In this final article of this series, let me share an approach I take to promote literacy skills and independence in older children, from ages 10 to 15. 

The same way I do with my younger children, I adhere to these five key principles to keep older students engaged and motivated: skills integration, interaction, gradual release of responsibility, discrete use of the first language, and personalization. Please refer to the previous issue of this column for a detailed explanation of these principles. 

Once I decide that a group of children have become used to the routine of Reading Race, which is also described in the previous article, and have developed confidence in sharing their responses to literature with their peers and me, I let them move onto the next project, Reading Spy. This two-year program for fifth and sixth graders is similar to Reading Race in that children choose a book to read at the beginning of each lesson, read it at home, and return it in the following lesson. The main difference between Reading Race and Reading Spy is that in the latter program, children show their responses to what they have read in a written form. 

In the first four months of this program, each child receives a size A5 reading record sheet, either Story Spy or Non-Fiction Spy, for each book he or she checks out. Each sheet shows the following questions. 

Story Spy

  • Who is in the story?
  • Where is it? 
  • What happened?

Non-Fiction Spy

  • What is the book about?
  • Copy your favorite part. 
  • What do you think of this book? 

These sheets also have a section for children to note some key words from the books and their translation. Usually they write from one to three words they have looked up in a dictionary. 

These forms help each child show their comprehension without the pressure to write a cohesive piece by themselves. Each week, I check all the children’s writing while they are picking the next book to read, and give them oral and written feedback. In the first month, we spend about 20 minutes of the lesson time on this project, but it becomes smoother and quicker over time. A benefit of this project is that it allows me to adjust my expectations and feedback depending on each student’s proficiency and needs. As the project proceeds, they gradually learn how to add details to support their claims and to express the connection they have made between the text and their personal experiences. 

Having worked on this project for several months, children become ready to write a book report on their own. My students get overjoyed when I tell them that they don’t need these forms anymore because they are now independent writers. This is a big milestone in their literacy journey. 

Typically, they write several sentences to summarize the content and share their response to what they have read in their notebooks. I read all these book reports, either in class or after class, and give them written feedback. As the main aim of this program is to give children opportunities to read books for meaning and to share their response with me and their friends, my feedback is mostly on the content and it is given in English. I correct grammatical errors when a certain error is recurring frequently in basic grammar such as subject-verb correspondence and tense, which I consider to be important for this age group to learn.  

Reading Spy is a mandatory program for all the children up to Grade 6. However, once they reach Grade 7, I make it voluntary. This is because the main part of my lessons for junior high school students has a strong focus on reading and writing, and they work on the same cultural reading textbook every week, with which they improve reading comprehension, expand vocabulary and respond to text through speaking and writing. To my surprise, all the students keep on checking out books every week in spite of their busy lives. Many of them check out two or more books even before their school tests! They say that it is fun and refreshing for them to read these books between studies. 

I do not ask them to read the text aloud or to use a dictionary anymore because they have become fluent readers by now. So, at this stage, my reading program takes the form of Extensive Reading. Most of the students write a book report every week on a voluntary basis. From their reading behavior and book reports, I can see that they are reading for meaning and pleasure. 

Once every few months, the students make Book Report Posters. They pick one of the books they have read, and create a size A4 poster to recommend the book to their friends. The aim of this project is to give them opportunities to express their ideas in a creative manner, to share them with their friends in a relaxed atmosphere, and to feel a sense of accomplishment. It also helps them improve their writing and presentation skills. 

Here are several ways to use the posters to improve multiple skills in an integrated manner: 

  • Students form pairs and share their posters with each other. They discuss the books and their response to the stories. 
  • Students form pairs and do the activity above. Then they switch partners and repeat it with two new partners. Each time they work with a new partner they feel more comfortable and confident in sharing their ideas. This builds speaking fluency and confidence. 
  • Students exchange their books and posters, and give written feedback to their friends. Then they have a brief discussion time. 
  • Students do presentations using their posters. The audience gives comments and asks questions to the presenter. 

I record the presentations using a video camera, put it on Youtube with the “unlisted” setting, and send the link to the students with some comments. They watch the video at home, brush up on verbal and non-verbal skills, and do the same presentation again in the following lesson. 

It is truly rewarding for me to see my students grow up to be autonomous learners who enjoy their literacy experience in English by engaging in the activities described above. I have been making an effort to improve my literacy program over the years, and it will never cease to evolve. By the time this article is published, I may have already made some minor changes! I am sure that you are always working on professional development and never stay the same as well. Why don’t you share your experiences and innovation in this column or on the JALT Teaching Younger Learners SIG Facebook Page? http://facebook.com/groups/jshsig/