Is there a place for romance in the ELT classroom? — Penny Hancock
While some teachers may have reservations about using romances with students, either for reasons of sensitivity, or because they consider the genre of less relevance to men than women, the romances in the Cambridge English Readers series can indeed be used successfully. They offer a surprising number of opportunities for language extension, which should be of equal interest to both male and female students.
There will be few students from any walk of life who will not be familiar with the romantic genre, whether it be romantic fiction in a first language, film or even childhood fairy stories. Familiarity with a genre makes for an accessible read.
However, familiarity with a genre is not enough alone to capture the interest of a diverse class of students. A good romance, like any work of fiction, needs a good story, and above all, characters we can identify with. It would be condescending to expect students to enjoy a predictable story line. Just as care has been taken to ensure the stories do not equate a low language level with limited life experience, so has it been taken to ensure the stories do not equate the accessibility of genre fiction with simplicity of plot.
In other words, while the romantic themes touched upon remain firmly within the genre, other issues and ideas are embedded in the story lines. The romances in the Cambridge English Readers series will appeal to students who are interested in human relationships in all their complexities, the way people interact and communicate, with all the accompanying misunderstandings, outbursts of feeling and hidden desires. Discuss the implications of the title and the cover photographs, and the blurb, before choosing a romance, to ensure that these themes have whetted the students' appetites to read on.
Having chosen a romance as a class reader, one of the first exercises teachers might like to try, is to ask what students' expectations of a romantic story are. At lower levels, students may just like to come up with the names of well known romantic stories or even songs, in their own languages. Ask what these stories have in common. Students can then look out for ways the characters and plots in the readers differ from the conventional stories they have discussed. For example, although we normally expect the heroine in a romance to be a sympathetic character, Stephany in Just Good Friends is harder to like. Also, there is no happy ending. Instead, as in real life, certain things are left unsaid, and Max and Stephany's futures remain uncertain.
At higher levels, teachers may like to use the romances in the Cambridge English Readers series as vehicles for discussion about other issues regarding human relationships. For example, when I wrote A Love for Life I was interested in exploring the preconceptions we have about men's and women's emotions. Rod is able to put himself in other people's shoes, while Leah seems incapable of doing this.
Students may like to discuss whether the opposite, more archetypal model is more often true, or whether now that women are taking on higher paid roles in the workplace, there is now room for men to express their softer sides. Students can discuss whether the desire for a child felt so strongly by Fanella, is instinctive or a result of social expectations, whether it is right that a single woman should be allowed to adopt a child, and whether this should be true for single men, too. I also wanted to explore whether men can take on jobs that remain, even today, firmly in the female domain, and to consider the underlying hostility they may receive as a result. (When Rod is accused of hurting a young child in his class, it belies a lack of trust amongst the parents in a man's ability to do the job as well as a woman.) Students may be interested in comparing the different cultural attitudes towards these themes.
The characters are real people with real feelings who talk to each other about how they feel. Students can write short descriptions of some of the characters in the books, including their feelings towards them. Comparing reactions in this way can give rise to some lively debate.
While the vast majority of readers of romances may be women, the romances in the Readers series should appeal to men as well. The heroes, like the heroines, are complex characters, with problems and ideals of their own. For example, in Just Good Friends, Carlo is a man committed to his family, who wants to remain faithful, but who falls prey to the artful charms of Stephany. Max is looking for a serious relationship with Stephany. Both men are duped by her superficial nature. In a way this story turns the traditional expectation of a man as a cad and a bounder on its head. Students may like to discuss whether we judge a woman in this role more harshly than we do the traditional man, and if so with what justification?
In A Love for Life, men may identify with Rod, who, in trying to keep together a job, a marriage and a reputation, hits hard times and loses his direction. They may like to consider the pros and cons of taking on another woman's child, of adoption versus having their own children, of career versus becoming a house husband.
The Readers offer endless opportunities for exploitation in the classroom. However, within all this, it must not be forgotten that the Readers are written primarily for students to enjoy, and with the aim of increasing their grasp of English at their own pace. Once students are engrossed in a good read, don't be tempted to interrupt their flow! After all, avid reading, above all, is what we are hoping to engender in our students, and hopefully, this is what the romances will help to achieve.
What's in a story?
How can extensive reading of original readers help students to learn English? Cambridge English Readers have the primary aim of getting students involved in the story, and only secondarily of 'teaching them language'. This is what makes them effective.
One way of getting students involved in the story is to read part of the first chapter, for example, of my level 4 reader The Amsterdam Connection. The story is a thriller and the first chapter ends with a dead body. The students can work in pairs and answer some questions about the chapter set by the teacher in advance. Instead of reading the story yourself, you could play the excellent CDs that accompany the readers. They are very well read and give the students some variety.
Reading the first chapter to them is a good way to whet the students' appetite for what comes next. Another way of getting students into a book is 'choose and tell'. Students choose an original reader they like the look of. They then go back to their seats and tell their neighbour why they've chosen it. Was it the cover picture, the blurb on the back, the colours...?
The activities above are ways of getting your students into reading, which can be a challenge sometimes. Have you tried using chapter headings to do this? A good activity is to get your students to look at the chapter headings in a reader and come up with alternative titles.
Try this speaking activity. 'Why you should read this book' is about getting students to give short, one-minute presentations on the book they've just read, trying to sell it to their classmates. In this case again, less is more. Ask students to make it 'short, snappy and memorable'.
You could also dramatise part of ^ , where my protagonist, Kate, is lying on the floor injured. Take the part of Kate, lie on the floor and groan, while students try to find out as much as possible about the story by asking you questions. This activity can be used to get students into a story too.
What's in a story?... Incredible potential for creative learning and teaching.
Stephen Krashen claims that 'when second language learners read for pleasure, they can continue to improve in the second language without classes, without teachers, without study and even without people to converse with' (Krashen 1993). But how can we get our elementary students to read for pleasure?
I think one of the main issues about reading and elementary students is that of confidence. They think 'I couldn't possibly read a book in English' or 'I haven't got enough grammar, enough vocabulary...' Unfortunately, we teachers sometimes think that too. We also tend to equate 'simple' with 'boring'. What if a book was so clear, so simple and so exciting, that students could just pick it up and read it?
It's this aspect of stories which has the power to 'hook' your students, keep them reading and keep them learning.
Here is a short extract from my Level 1 reader The Big Picture. Vocabulary items, such as 'locker', have already been introduced in pictures. My hero, Japanese photographer Ken Harada, has been kidnapped.
The car stopped and the fat man pushed me out. I didn't know where I was. I couldn't hear the city. Now I was very afraid.
'You're not going to kill me, are you?' I asked.
The fat man said, 'No noise, OK?' He pushed me into a house. It was cold. Then the fat man looked in my jacket. 'Where's the film?' he asked.
'What film?' I asked.
'Ah!' he said. 'What's this?' He found the key. The key for the locker at Tokyo Station. I didn't speak. Then he smiled.
'I know what this is,' he said. 'It's a key for a Left Luggage locker in Tokyo Station. Tell me the number now, or you're dead.'
'It's number 42,' I said. The fat man put something over my mouth. I couldn't speak. He tied my arms to the chair with ropes. I couldn't move. Then he left me.
You can see that the language is simple but exciting; it has the elements of a real story.
Our elementary students could read this and enjoy it, but how do we get them into the story in the first place? Building their confidence is crucial. I have a number of activities that I use to entice students into reading. One that I tried recently was playing the audio CD of the first chapter of Just Like a Movie, my other Level 1 reader. I gave the students two or three focus questions before listening. The CDs are very well read and offer a variety of voices, and the students really enjoyed listening to them.
I always find that if there's a good 'hook' at the end of the first chapter, it's actually very hard to get students to stop reading. When they reach the end of the first chapter, I give them the question: 'What happens next?' and ask them to come up with three ideas with their partner.
Here is a short extract from my Starter level reader Dirty Money that you could use for a prediction activity. Sandy and Joe have just moved to a small town in Canada. Everything is very peaceful until Joe hears a noise. Simple language sets the scene clearly, creating the feeling of a beautiful place which is in danger of being disturbed.
'Tomorrow,' says Joe, 'we can have lunch by the water.'
'Mmm.' Sandy smiles.
Joe looks at Sandy and smiles too. 'Thank you for the tea,' he says.
Then Joe hears a noise.
'What's that?' he asks.
'What?' Sandy asks.
'Listen,' Joe says.
'Is it Dan? Is he working on his house?' asks Sandy. Dan lives in the next house.
'No, that isn't Dan,' says Joe. He walks over to the window. He sees nothing. Just the mountains and the flat blue water. But he can hear the noise. A new noise.
Joe looks up. He looks around. He looks up again. Then he sees it. On the mountain near his house he sees a big machine. It's making a noise: Drrrr! Drrrr! The machine is taking trees down. Behind it there's another big machine. It's digging a hole in the ground.
'Look at this!' Joe says to Sandy.
'What?' Sandy asks.
Near the machines is a big white sign. On the sign, it says PAN GLOBAL.
'What is it?' asks Sandy.
'I don't know, but I'm going to look,' says Joe. He opens the door and runs to the mountain.
Joe stands in front of one of the big machines. The driver sees him and stops.
'What do you want?' the driver asks.
'What's this?' asks Joe. He looks at the big hole in the ground. 'What's Pan Global?'
The man smiles. 'It's a mine,' he says. 'There are diamonds under here!'
For students who are ready for Level 1, Just Like a Movie is a thriller set in Toronto, with the first chapter ending on an interesting note that provides good material for a prediction activity.
Here are some more 'enticers':
1. If I have an assortment of readers, I often use 'choose and tell'. This involves the students coming to a desk at the side of the room and choosing a reader that they like the look of. Then they go back to their seats and look at the front cover, the blurb on the back, the pictures inside and the first page. Then they tell their partner why they chose it. Was it the cover picture, the pictures inside, the colours?
2. Matching titles with the descriptions from the backs of readers. Can you match the titles and 'descriptions' of these Level 1 readers?
You can make this activity a little more dynamic by giving half the students a title and the other half a description. Each student has to find his or her 'other half' as quickly as possible. After the matching exercise, ask students to choose which reader they'd like to read.
To sum up, there are three simple things you can do to help your elementary students enjoy extensive reading:
Krashen, S 1993 The Power of Reading Eaglewood Colorado: Libraries Unlimited
Would you like to know a way for your learners to improve their English enjoyably and effectively without you having to do any work? How about a way for learners to learn on their own, in their own time, at their own pace, without teachers or schools? How about a way of autonomous learning that beats being taught?
Sounds subversive, doesn't it? Or too good to be true. Yet there is now a substantial body of research which supports these claims for extensive reading. The benefits of encouraging our learners to read for pleasure are now a matter of fact, not belief. Pleasure is the key word here. We are not talking about having a class reader, useful as that may be in its own right. We are talking about students reading books on their own, books that they have chosen to read for enjoyment, in or out of class. Certainly a class reader can be the springboard for many useful language activities, but in this short survey of current classroom research we will focus on reading for pleasure.
A good starting point for looking at research into extensive reading is Stephen Krashen (yes, him again) and his book, The Power of Reading. Krashen reviews research studies worldwide and comes up with this typically understated conclusion:
When [second language learners] read for pleasure, they can continue to improve in their second language without classes, without teachers, without study and even without people to converse with.
(Krashen 1993 p. 84)
So where is the evidence? Krashen summarises studies comparing the achievements of students who received traditional reading comprehension classes with those who simply read on their own. His conclusion is that in 38 out of 41 comparisons (93%) those students who just read did better than those who were taught reading. Pretty convincing though the research was done on students learning their first language, not an L2. What Krashen shows here is what Christine Nuttall in Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language calls 'the virtuous circle of reading'. Successful reading makes successful readers: the more students read the better they get at it. And the better they are at it the more they read. Contrast the vicious circle of reading failure where lack of success (often associated with forced reading) leads to lack of interest in reading.
What about the primary second language classroom? Warwick Elley has reported on 'book floods' in the primary classroom in Fiji and Singapore (Elley 1991). In Fiji in 1980/81 the research involved 500 nine to eleven year olds in 12 schools (eight experimental and four control). The control schools followed their normal audiolingual classes while the experimental schools used 250 largely illustrated story books with students either reading for pleasure for 20–30 minutes a day or having a 'shared book experience' with their teacher who read aloud and discussed the books with them. After two years there were extensive tests and in Krashen's words the experimental groups were 'far superior in tests of reading comprehension, writing and grammar.'
In 1985 in Singapore a similar study of 3000 six to nine year olds was carried out by Elley over three years and Krashen summarises his results thus: children in the experimental classes 'outperformed traditionally taught students on tests of reading comprehension, vocabulary, oral language, grammar, listening comprehension and writing.' Elley himself says:
In contrast to students learning by means of structured audiolingual programs, those children who are exposed to an extensive range of high-interest illustrated story books, and encouraged to read and share them, are consistently found to learn the target language more quickly.
(Elley 1991 p. 375)
Perhaps the most striking finding is the spread of the effect from reading competence to other language skills — writing, speaking and control over syntax.
(Elley 1991 p. 404)
The two significant points here are that reading improved all the language skills and that these experiments contrasted using a textbook with reading programmes.
However conclusive these results may be at primary level, what about at secondary level? Can we do away with the secondary textbook, or were the primary results something to do with child development? We stay in Singapore and look at a project called PASSES reported by Colin Davis in ELT Journal in 1995. The project was very straightforward and involved 40 of the weakest secondary schools in the country. PASSES included a number of components of which extensive reading was the most significant. In each school students read silently for 20 minutes a day and had an extensive reading lesson a week for more reading and talking about the books (which could also be borrowed for home reading).
After five years (1985–90) the project was assessed by checking the schools' English Language examination pass rate and it was found that these 'weakest' schools now had results above the national average. Colin Davis concluded:
Pupils developed a wider active and passive vocabulary. They used more varied sentence structure, and were better at spotting and correcting grammatical mistakes in their writing and speaking. They showed an overall improvement in writing skills and increased confidence and fluency in speaking.
(Davis 1995 p. 330)
Very convincing evidence — and note that here reading supplemented the textbook rather than replaced it.
But what about adults? Is there any evidence there? Inevitably less because adults are often outside formal education and are therefore less likely to be experimented on. However there is one fascinating, and controversial, study into vocabulary acquisition for us to look at. This is the famous Clockwork Orange Study of 1978 by Saragi, Nation and Meister. Briefly the experimenters gave a group of American adults copies of Anthony Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange and asked them to read it in their own time and return a few days later for a comprehension test and a literary discussion. The key thing about the novel is that Burgess's teenage characters use an invented (although heavily Russian based) slang called 'nadsat'. There are 241 'nadsat' words in the book, repeated on average 15 times. This extract gives the flavour:
I opened the door of 10–8 with my own little klootch, and inside our malenky quarters all was quiet, the pee and em both being in sleepland, and mum had laid out on the table a malenky bit of supper
However, when the readers returned they were given a multiple choice vocabulary test on the 'nadsat' words rather than comprehension questions and literary discussion. The results were stunning with scores of between 50 and 96% and an average of 76%. These adults had learnt the new words from context, without trying to, just by reading.
There have been attempts subsequently by Krashen and others to replicate these results in an L2 context with limited success. Others have criticised the relevance of the Clockwork Orange study by pointing out that the 'nadsat' words are set in English syntax. The latest challenge comes from Horst, Cobb and Meara (1998). They report an experiment where 34 university low-intermediate students in Oman were read aloud to by their teachers as they followed the printed text of a simplified version of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge. On conclusion the students were given a 45 item multiple choice test and a 13 item word-association test which showed that from the 21,232 words in the book the students had learnt on average only five words which were new to them. They therefore conclude that extensive reading is not a time-efficient way for learners to acquire vocabulary. It is my view, however, that the methodology of the experiment may have influenced the result. Being read to aloud in class is not the same as reading in your own time at home and more significantly there is a massive cultural gulf between the students and the background of nineteenth century English society. Contrast the gripping nature of A Clockwork Orange and its modern relevance. You must draw your own conclusions.
One further study is worth mentioning as it links extensive reading with successful examination results. Gradman and Hanania (1991) report that extensive reading was 'a strong predictor of TOEFL scores'. This is something that teachers preparing students for FCE and CPE have always known intuitively but it is nice to see it proved through research.
And that is where we came in! Research shows that extensive reading works. But how are we going to get this keyboard obsessed, video-game playing generation to start reading? As a teacher commented to me 'They don't read in their own language. How on earth can I get them to read in English?' In the following sections we will look at how to organise a reading programme and share ideas from successful teachers around the world for activities to enable our students to benefit from the secret of reading.
While extensive reading is a familiar part of the ELT repertoire, extensive listening has received much less attention. Articles by Ridgway and Field in English Language Teaching Journal Vol. 54/2 April 2000 offer conflicting views. Tony Ridgway puts the case for treating extensive listening like extensive reading, and argues that 'in listening, working from the text, or texts in general, may be a more productive way of approaching comprehension than working from the notion of 'strategies'. John Field, in reply, argues for the explicit teaching of listening strategies and the use of authentic listening materials.
Audio recordings of readers offer us a graded resource of extensive listening material, but are they authentic? 'Real' English is made real by context and response, and speaker intention matches listener response in recordings of graded readers. The writer's aim is to produce entertaining and thought-provoking stories at a level where the learner of English can understand them. The aim of the actor who records the story is to use his/her voice to bring the characters alive, while the aim of the student listening is to understand and enjoy the story. Thus there is complete congruence between the writer/speaker's intentions and the listener's response. Authenticity!
So how can we use reader audio CDs in the language classroom? To find out, the Studio School in Cambridge took part in a small piece of action research with interesting results. When provided with multiple copies of readers and CDs teachers largely preferred not to use them in class, citing time pressures and the essentially individual nature of reading as reasons. But once the multiple copies of CDs and readers were made available to students for use and home loan in the self-study centre the take-up was considerable.
Interviews with a group of enthusiastic users of reader CDs were carried out and responses stressed the effect of listening on pronunciation, and the flexibility CDs gave to listen anytime, anywhere. A typical student response was : 'sometimes when you listen, you know... you feel like a real story in front of you, you know,...some stories you imagine'.
An in-service session a few months later with teachers produced ideas for introducing extensive listening into the classroom as a 'taster' to encourage further individual use. These ideas for 'listening for pleasure' included playing a chapter a week as a radio serial, playing short extracts to arouse interest, playing extracts from a story five minutes a lesson and offering 'genre' corners, where students choose which genre they want to listen to.
Research projects to quantify the effects of extensive listening in the way in which extensive reading has been researched are needed. In the meantime we can say that those who agree with Ridgway have a much-needed resource, and that those who agree with Field may wish to consider using reader CDs to teach listening strategies.
Field J. 2000 'Not waving but drowning' ELT Journal 54/2
Ridgway T. 2000 'Listening strategies - I beg your pardon?' ELT Journal 54/2
A different kind of reader — Antoinette Moses
From time to time, over the past two years, I have put aside my novel and other works in progress to write short works of original fiction for the ^ series.
The aim of this series is to allow the learner to read a book quickly and with enjoyment. Vocabulary and grammar are simplified, but they are nonetheless subservient to the content of the books.
Readers such as these are used by students and teachers in the classroom — and outside it — for a variety of purposes. There are the obvious aims: familiarisation with the English language, learning vocabulary, and gaining awareness of English idiom and grammatical usage. There are also more subtle reasons: an enjoyable book will allow the learner to read more quickly without thinking too closely about what they are reading, and the learner will read beyond the level of what they are being taught and make intelligent guesses at meaning from context.
An important factor for me in writing these readers is that I may be helping to create a new generation of people who enjoy reading books, as well as helping learners to develop their English language skills. The ability to read an entire book encourages students greatly.
There are differences between writing readers and writing fiction for native speakers, but the creative process is much the same. Content should always precede linguistic considerations. All readers should reflect what students would want to read in their own language. The stories have to be 'page-turners'.
Plot and narrative drive are crucial. This is why genre fiction works so well for readers. Chandler's axiom 'If in doubt, have a man with a gun come in the door' is a useful principle. One reason I enjoy writing readers is it means that I can experiment with different genres in a way that I could never do in mainstream fiction. You can enjoy developing that plot you've hidden away in your desk drawer, or write the science fiction story that you jotted down, but thought you would never have time to write.
But readers are not just plots. As Geoff Dyer comments, 'No one reads Chandler for the plots — Chandler didn't write Chandlers for the plots... The genre's allure is stylistic.' The challenge in writing readers is to ensure that 'simplicity of the language' does not mean 'boring writing'. Style matters at any language level and should not be sacrificed in one's attempt to make the story intelligible. Character, atmosphere and imagery are all important. When students are struggling with a foreign language, they need to be involved with the characters and their world, or they will soon give up on them. Style helps to build the atmosphere.
I believe strongly that you must never write down to a language level, but write up to the level of the student. An elementary language level should not be equated with lack of intellectual maturity. It's not always easy. However, I have written a reader for beginners (with a restricted vocabulary of 400 words) about a serial killer and still managed to include a bit of metaphysical speculation! The language I wrote was simple, but it was structured to fit the character.
Of course, there are classroom restrictions with readers, such as avoiding taboo subjects. However, the pleasure of writing these short fictions far outweighs any problems in their construction. In addition to this, there is the pleasure of receiving feedback from teachers and students who have enjoyed your books.
Writing readers is, indeed, a rewarding occupation that I would recommend to any writer.
Based on an article originally published in ^
We have just looked at the benefits of extensive reading (See What is the secret of extensive reading?) but many teachers also like to use readers intensively. So we will start here with a look at how to use a class reader, when all the students in the class read the same book.
A photocopiable worksheet is available for every title in the series. This contains three sections: ^ , Check your reading and After reading. These may be used in class or by students working alone.
Motivating students to read
Our first aim must be to motivate the students to read. Cambridge English Readers do this in two ways: through specific Before reading activities in the worksheets for each reader, and in the general ^ , which feature universal pre-reading tasks. You can use the Before reading activities on the reader worksheet to get students interested in the book and to stimulate a desire to read.
Supporting students while they read
Secondly we need to support students while they are reading. The reader worksheets offer chapter by chapter tasks in the ^ section to help students reflect on what they have read, and think about what is going to happen in the story.
Follow up work
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the worksheets give you a wide range of post-reading activities to foster creative language use. The general ^ in the Activities section will offer an even wider range of universal post-reading activities.
The full text of every title in the Cambridge English Readers series is available on CD. The recordings of each book are an invaluable resource which can be exploited in a number of ways:
The aim of an extensive reading programme is simple: to get the learners to read as many books as possible. Any activities we suggest must support this aim and not stand in the way of it.
This is not easy if you only have two or three hours a week but a 20 minute session once a week can make all the difference. This is because by doing this you show that reading is important. Start by discussing the benefits of extensive reading (as outlined above) with your students and, where relevant, their parents and, ideally, your colleagues and superiors. It is important to get across the idea that time spent reading in class is not time wasted. At the same time you want to encourage students to take books home to read.
Read a reader yourself — by doing this you give value to the books by showing that you also like them. And by reading them you will be able to talk to the students about them. Take time to talk to students individually about their reading. If students ask you and want to read aloud, listen to them individually.
Ideally you don't! Let the students choose what to read themselves. If you are lucky and your school buys the books, involve the students by letting them choose from the catalogue or by going to the bookshop. If you already have class or school libraries to work with make sure that the students choose what they read. If there is no class library then consider creating one! You can do this by getting each student to buy one (different) book and after reading to exchange them.
Train your students to choose the books they like by getting them to identify level and genre from the cover. Practise looking at the title, front cover picture and blurb to work out what kind of book it is.
Don't worry too much. Every class is mixed ability and any class library will probably have at least three levels. As important as level is content and genre. Someone who likes science fiction will happily read a science fiction book at a level above or below their ability rather than struggle through a (hated) romance at the right level.
Don't! Let the students do it. Give two students responsibility for looking after the books, lending them and getting them back. If you are lucky to have a classroom of your own then you can display the books on shelves. But most probably the class library will be a cardboard box or plastic bag of books that you bring to the class. Spread the books out carefully, with their covers up, on a table so that the students can see clearly what to choose from.
A good way of doing this is to have a card inside each reader for students to put one-word comments on. Don't be afraid to give students prizes for the one who has read the most books in a certain period. Sweets, a free book, or even freedom from doing the homework, all work!
An idea borrowed from the USA is called DEAR time. This stands for Drop Everything And Read. Students need to have a reader with them in class for this to work. Quite simply when the lesson is dragging or it's a hot Friday afternoon just clap your hands and say 'DEAR time'. Everyone, including you, takes out their reader and reads for a few minutes. Then you can all return refreshed to the lesson topic.
What not to do
And now a few don'ts! These are activities which I know don't encourage students to read - I know it because I've done them myself!
Dictionaries are fine for intensive reading and teaching dictionary use is a valuable part of learning to become a better learner. But when students are reading on their own for pleasure dictionaries get in the way. Cambridge English Readers are written within a carefully controlled vocabulary and all new words are contextualised and repeated. By letting students stop to look up the meaning of every 'new' word we are preventing them from using the valuable skill of guessing. It's better to approximate the meaning of a word and then have that guess verified on the word's next occurrence.
Notice that Cambridge English Readers don't have questions at the back. The aim is for them to be read as real books. The Check your reading activities on the worksheet can be done by students working on their own who want to, but it is a mistake to require it. That gets in the way of reading. We want our learners to turn the page and read the next chapter. Similarly, testing students on books they have read is counter-productive. It is not likely to make them want to read another. Would you ever go to a bookshop if you had to complete a test on the book you had just read before you could buy another?
Similarly, writing summaries or book reviews gets in the way of reading. A simple recommendation is a good idea but the time spent painstakingly summarising a plot is better spent on reading another book!
Don't ask students to read aloud around the class.
As noted above some students may wish to read individually to the teacher. But reading around the class is something most students hate; no-one listens to the reader; everyone is preparing the next bit they have to read and the poor students who are reading suffer agonies. On the other hand, for you the teacher to read to the students can only be good news!
Frank Brennan is the author of five collections of short stories in the Cambridge English Readers series: Three Tomorrows, Circle Games, Tales of the Supernatural, The Fruitcake Special and Windows of the Mind.
Frank Brennan: I like the way that a collection of stories is completed in stages as each story is finished. That way of working happens to suit me at the moment. I wanted, also, to write a collection of stories on a particular theme - such as 'discovery' in the Fruitcake collection — so that I could present a variety of ways of looking at that theme. This allowed me to write humorous stories like The Fruitcake Special alongside 'spooky' stories like Finders Keepers while still sticking with the theme of discovery.
FB: Not yet, though I hope to do that sometime.
Q: Do you think short stories are a particularly accessible genre for language learners because of their length?
FB: I do. They are short enough to be read or heard in one sitting while offering many ideas for further discussion. I set out writing my stories with the intention of entertaining the reader and also providing a good basis for discussion afterwards. For example, did Aunt Molly really change or did the hypnotist just bring out her potential? Do you think Maxwell Marvel's tape would have made any difference? Would it be right to play it back to her? There are no right or wrong answers here, it's the talking about it that's important.
Q: Within a short story there is little time to spend on character development, yet you manage to convey very vivid pictures of your main protagonists. Do you use a special technique to achieve this?
FB: I approach characters in the same way that an artist or caricaturist might draw a quick sketch of somebody: I use a few broad strokes that suggest certain characteristics and let the reader's imagination do the rest. Justin in A Fine Wine or Maxwell Marvel in The Real Aunt Molly aren't described in detail but their characters are quite distinct. With the main protagonists I do this too but I emphasise the particular aspects of their character that make them suitable for the story, such as Jamie Russell's wish for power in A Gentle Touch or Chester's vanity in The Book of Thoughts.
Q: Do you find that you are writing within a well-established tradition of the short story, incorporating elements of surprise, the supernatural, the twist in the plot, and the question mark at the end of the story?
FB: I think all of those elements are important and I try to use them all. Short stories have to make a strong impression if they are to interest the reader, especially those who are not reading in their first language. I try to get the reader hooked in the first few lines, if I can. For example, in the opening of Brains a monkey can complete a 100 piece jigsaw, while in the opening of Finders Keepers, a respectable-looking teacher is soon revealed as being a thief. I also try a variety of approaches — humour, the supernatural and so on.
Q: It is noticeable that in some of your stories there are sinister people in positions of power, (David Amos in ^ , Mr Dimitri in Brains, Justin in A Fine Wine, Eva De Cruz in Arlo's War) and they are often prepared to abuse this power in order to protect their own interests. Is this something you have experienced directly?
FB: There's nothing like a good bad guy to get the reader interested. Villains are often the most fascinating characters and, in a short story, can be used to introduce the darker aspects of human nature. My own experience of real villains has more to do with looking through the pages of a history book or a good newspaper than anything else. I think most of us have read or heard about sinister people such as corrupt politicians or businessmen - after all, they do exist. I'm interested, too in the less than admirable characters that we might well come across in our everyday lives, not just the larger than life villains. For example, the snobbish Justin, the ambitious Gina Capaldi and the jealous Mr Shaw are all types of people we can recognise and, indeed, might have met in some form.
Q: Counterbalancing this, there seems to be a strong sense of justice and people getting their 'come-uppance' running through the stories (A Fine Wine, A Nose for a Story, Arlo's War, Finders Keepers). Did you set out with the deliberate intention of showing how something positive can come out of an apparently negative situation?
FB: I think that there is probably something of the moral fable about my stories. You can have people receiving their just deserts in literature even if it might not always be the case in the real world. I suppose there is a sense of karma in the stories because people get their 'come-uppance' as a direct result of their negative qualities, for example, Daniel Appleby's greedy arrogance or Harry Chen's dishonesty. It gives the stories a certain completeness that rounds them off, I think. Mind you, future stories might well take a different turn.
Q: At times, I noticed an element of black humour in the stories (^ , The Fruitcake Special). Is this a particular style of humour that you enjoy?
FB: I enjoy humour. You can get across some quite serious ideas with humour, too. In A Nose For A Story the cess-pit image is an appropriate metaphor for the kind of journalism that Desiree Malpen practises. She gets a taste of her own medicine. In The Fruitcake Special the humour is more light-hearted and the scene in the restaurant has a lot of the slapstick about it. So yes, there is black humour but it comes in other shades, too.
FB: As I said, I like to think of a link or theme for my stories, so what could be more universal than the five senses? After all, that's how we perceive the world. It's simple and five stories is a good number to work with - not too many, not too few. My old teacher at school always told us to write descriptions using all of our senses and not just our sight and I remembered him when I was thinking of themes to use. Thank you, Mr Higgins!
FB: I enjoyed writing all of them. It was great to be able to dip into so many different characters and situations, something that may not have been so easy with a single story of comparable length. But that's not to say I won't give it a try in the future.
If you've already enjoyed reading Frank Brennan's stories, try another collection of short stories in the ^ series, Frozen Pizza and other slices of life by Antoinette Moses.
Logan: a modern detective — an interview with Richard MacAndrew
Richard MacAndrew has written several murder mystery stories in the Cambridge English Readers series. Particularly popular are the books in the 'Inspector Logan' series: ^ , A Puzzle for Logan and Inspector Logan.
We talked to Richard MacAndrew about the books, about the central character Jenny Logan, and about his choice of Edinburgh as the backdrop to the stories.
Q: What attracted you to the genre of murder mystery when you started writing for the Cambridge English Readers series?
Richard MacAndrew: I've read crime fiction since I was a teenager and it's what I read most. It seemed a natural place to start.
RMacA: My favourite fictional detective is Nero Wolfe, the creation of American writer Rex Stout. Wolfe is enormously fat and unbelievably eccentric. He keeps a vast collection of orchids on the roof of his house in New York. He only works when he has to and he never leaves his house on business. All the legwork is done by his sidekick, the quick-witted, wisecracking, Archie Goodwin. Unfortunately the stories are difficult to get hold of nowadays. I started collecting them about 35 years ago and I recently managed to track down a copy of the only one I hadn't got.
RMacA: The setting of a story contributes so much to its atmosphere. The great thing about a city is that it can show so many different 'faces': green open parkland, busy streets, grim industrial areas, wealthy residential districts - to name a few. I chose Edinburgh in particular because it's one of my favourite places: it has most of the advantages of a city and few of the disadvantages. I've lived there and, even though I now live in England, I go back to Edinburgh two or three times a year.
RMacA: This may seem strange, but when I started writing I had no clear picture in my mind of Jenny Logan's character. I knew that she was young, and I had a basic idea for the plot. Everything else evolved as I wrote the story.
RMacA: I knew Logan wasn't married, but it seemed natural for her to have a boyfriend. The fact that her boyfriend is a journalist gives her access to useful information not always available to the police. However, it does worry her superiors in the police force that she might let slip confidential information. Logan can see their point, but they're not going to stop her living her life as she wants.
RMacA: Intuition is always important, balanced with an open mind and a degree of rational thought and logic. I'm sure it's true for detectives too. Intuition will help them find suspects; but only evidence will convict.
RMacA: Logan is youth, action, boldness, insight; Grant is age, experience, knowledge, physicality. Despite the major differences between them, they develop a healthy mutual respect for each other.
Q: The structure of a detective story is obviously crucial, if the denouement is to be convincing. How do you go about ensuring that you include exactly the right dose of clues, red herrings and background information about your characters without losing the sense of suspense?
RMacA: Yes, it's a difficult thing to get right and the author is often too close to a story to see its faults. I rely very much on my editors to give me feedback so that I can make improvements. The story that you read is rarely the first draft. Sometimes it's the third or even fourth.
RMacA: The forthcoming Inspector Logan goes back to Jenny Logan's early days on the force in Edinburgh. More recently, I've heard an unconfirmed rumour that she has been investigating some murders amongst the university staff...
If you have enjoyed the 'Logan' series, why not try some other Murder Mystery and Thriller titles?
Ghost stories always fascinate people; the lure of the supernatural is very powerful, and Colin Campbell exploits this to the full in The Lady in White.
Colin Campbell: I think that really these stories are intriguing because of our primitive fears of, for example, the dark or of being alone, and also because of our fears for our own sanity. The stories I like most certainly play on this feeling of, 'Am I going mad or is this really happening?'
Q: There is a clever mix of fact and fiction in the story: the TV producer/reporter/documentary strand and the ghost story strand. Is this done deliberately in order to lead to confusion in the mind of the reader, so that we question whether we are dealing with reality or the imagination?
CC: That is exactly right. We know the protagonist is interested in the world of the unexplained. We also know that he is worried about his family and that he has been overworking. We can believe that maybe all of this is leading him to 'imagine' what is happening and that it's not real. He's not sure himself but he is terrified to even think about the implications for his own life if this is really happening.
CC: The idea grew out of an urban myth I had heard years ago about a car running out of petrol in the middle of a forest and of the man going for help and leaving his girlfriend alone in the car and... I refer to this story in the book. I am fascinated by the idea of the urban myth. How do these stories spread and what is their appeal? I think I understand why we need to localise them. Telling stories about what happened to someone else, somewhere else has less impact than a story that happened to you or to someone you know, in a place you know. What I hope The Lady in White conveys is a sense that this could also happen to anyone because maybe it is happening in the mind and not necessarily in Ireland.
CC: Yes, but also — and importantly for me — there is a guiding theme which runs through the story: the theme of loss. Most of the characters in the story have, explicitly or implicitly, lost someone. The policeman has lost his family in a way that is only hinted at; the Lady in White herself has lost family; there is a memorial on the cliffs in Ireland erected by a family who have lost their son. The idea that really 'haunts' John is of losing his family and/or his sanity. I think the word 'haunt' here is really appropriate. We are used to the word in phrases like 'haunted house', but I suspect it is actually used more to talk about fears or memories that haunt us. In a way I wanted the story to play with the two meanings of 'haunted'. Haunted by ghosts or by fears, or by both? For me, that is the central tension of the story.
^ The Lady in White?
CC: I would like the readers also to be left unsure what the truth is. I think tying up all the loose ends and explaining away everything that happened or that didn't happen, would kill this story or any good ghost story. I think ghost stories are better left unresolved in the minds of the individual reader.
CC: The next story I want to write deals with the issue of memory and whether it is carried only in the brain or indeed in other, or all, parts of the body. It will be a mixture of a thriller, a psychological story and a story of the unknown. I don't want to give away any more than that. but I hope to set it in Poland and... I hope you'll get a chance to read it one day!
Q: The Lady in White achieves the aim of all the books in the Cambridge English Readers series. It appeals to readers who would normally chose the genre of ghost stories for their reading in their own language. Do you read a lot of tales of supernatural and ghosts yourself?
CC: I really like stories where the distinction between reality and the supernatural are explored. I am not sure if you would call them ghost stories or psychological stories, but they certainly keep me awake some nights when I am alone, so I have to be careful when I read them.
CC: Not in the old sense of people covered in white sheets, but there are lots of things in the universe that we can not begin to understand so I wouldn't want to say I don't believe. And certainly, there are places I would not want to be in the dark, all by myself?
What about you...?