Saturday, March 28, 2015

Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault

Why I Read This Book
                So, a few months back I was browsing through a used book store, and I stumbled upon Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s Alexander the Great trilogy.  I had never heard of Manfredi or this trilogy before.  But I thought: “Well, it’s high time I read up on Alexander the Great, and I like historical fiction, so why not?”  So I bought Manfredi’s Alexander the Great trilogy, and read and reviewed all - three - books on this blog.

                But as I was reading Manfredi’s trilogy, I looked up a few reviews on-line, and there were several indications that I was reading the wrong trilogy.  Many people mentioned Mary Renault’s Alexander the Great trilogy as the gold standard against which Manfredi’s trilogy failed to measure up against.  For example Game of Thrones author G.R.R. Martin, wrote:  It takes a certain amount of hubris for any novelist to tackle the life of Alexander the Great, knowing that his efforts will inevitably be compared to Mary Renault’s classic and enduring treatment of the same materials, but that is just what the Italian historian, archeologist, and jouralist Valerio Massimo Manfredi has done....If it fails to match the power and the poetry of Renault’s, well… very little does.

                Or several reviewers, who also unfavorably compared Manfredi's trilogy to Mary Renault.  To take just a couple examples: The writing was entirely lacking in any sort of poeticism or complexity, especially when compared to the Alexander Trilogy by Mary Renault.

                With my interest officially kindled, I resolved that when I was back in the United States over Christmas, I would track down a copy of Mary Renault’s Alexander the Great trilogy.  Which I did.  And here I am reviewing the first book.

Alexander the Great Overkill?
For anyone keeping track of my reading list, I suppose the obvious question is: "Isn't this a little bit much on Alexander the Great now?" After all, I've just finished one trilogy on Alexander the Great, plus Philip Freeman's biography of Alexander the Great (which I read to supplement the historical fiction), and now I'm embarking on another trilogy."Aren't you getting a little sick of Alexander the Great?" someone might ask me.

And the honest answer is: yeah, a little bit.  But after seeing Mary Renault's trilogy so highly praised, I decided I had to give it a try.  Plus, another reason I wanted to read Mary Renault's trilogy is because the last book in the trilogy, Funeral Games, tackles something neither Freeman nor Manfredi cover: the descent of Alexander the Great's empire into warring factions following Alexander's death.  And I'm really looking forward to learning more about that period.

However I'm not up to Funeral Games yet, and this first book in the trilogy, covering Alexander's boyhood up to his father's assassination, is material I've already seen covered by Manfredi and Freeman.  It's slightly boring to retread it again, but at the same time, it's also kind of fun to see a different spin that a different author puts on the same events.  And that, after all, is the fun of historical fiction.  So on the whole, I'd say I'm still enjoying myself with Alexander the Great reading.

The Review
One of the reviewers I quoted above already mentions this, but Mary Renault does write in a very poetical way at times.
Not all the time.  There are sections of the book where the drama is pushed forward by sparse narration.  But there are a lot of other descriptions in this book that are perhaps more poetical than prose.
Readers will probably differ in how much they appreciate these poetical descriptions.  For my part, I admit to struggling with them a bit.  But no doubt this will differ from reader to reader, so I'll quote a typical long descriptive section of the book (something that I struggled to keep focused on), and you can decide for yourself how appealing this prose sounds to you.

The mild summer day declined to evening.  On the salt lake of Pella fell the shadow of its island fort, where the treasury and the dungeons were.  Lamps glimmered in windows up and down the town; a household slave came out with a resined torch, to kindle the great cressets upheld by seated lions at the foot of the Palace steps.  The lowing of homebound cattle sounded in the plains; in the mountains, which turned towards Pella their shadowed eastern faces, far-distant watch fires sparked the grey.
The boy sat on the Palace roof, looking down at the town, the lagoon, and the little fisher-boats making for their moorings.  It was his bedtime, and he was keeping out of his nurse's way till he had seen his mother, who might give him leave to stay up.  Men mending the roof had gone home, without removing their ladders.  It was a chance not to be wasted.
He sat on the tiles of Pentelic marble, shipped in by King Archelaos; the gutter under his thighs, between his knees an antefix in the shape of a gorgon's head, the paint faded by weather.  Grasping the snaky hair, he was outstaring the long drop, defying its earth-daimons.  Going back he would have to to look down; they must be settled with beforehand.
Soon they gave in, as such creatures did when challenged.  He ate the stale bread he had stolen instead of supper.  It would have been hot posset, flavored with honey and wine; the smell had been tempting, but at supper one was caught for bed.  Nothing could be had for nothing.
A bleat sounded from below.  They had brought the black goat, it must be nearly time.  Better now not to ask beforehand.  Once he was there, she would not send him away.
He picked his way down the long spaces of the ladder-rungs made for men.  The beaten earth-daimons kept their distance; he sang himself a song of victory. From the lower roof to the ground; no one was there but a few tired slaves going off duty.  Indoors Hellanike would be searching; he must go around outside.  He was getting too much for her; he had heard his mother say so. (p.33-34) cetera.   To be fair, not all of the passages are quite that slow moving.  (Mary Renault can also speed up the action when she wants to).  But a fair amount of the prose is like this.
Of course some people will love those descriptive passages.  (In fact, based on all the high praise this book has gotten, it's fair to say many people have really loved those descriptive passages.)  So although they tried my patience at times, perhaps that's my fault and not the book's.  Perhaps I was just not the ideal reader for this book.

The other big negative for me was there was way too much focus in this book on Alexander's relationship with Hephaistion.
Some historical context is perhaps in order here.  According to Wikipedia, Mary Renault was one of the first 20th century writers to write sympathetically about romantic love between two men, and this made her a popular figure in the emerging gay rights movement in the 1970s.  (Fire from Heaven, although not the only work of Mary Renault to deal with love between men, was written in 1969, so you can imagine it was pretty far ahead of its time back then.)
However, those of us with a low tolerance for mushy romance, whether it be homosexual or heterosexual, will find all the scenes of Alexander and Hephaistion gazing into each other's eyes a little bit tiring.

To quote from one of them:
He looked deep into Hephaistion's eyes, as always before a confidence.  As always, Hephaistion felt as if his midriff were melting.  As always, it was some moments before he could follow what he was being told.
"...who were in other cities and escaped the siege, have been begging Father to have Stagira restored and the citizens enfranchised.  That's what this Aristotle wants.  What Father wants, is an alliance with Hermeias.  It's a piece of horse-trading.  Leoidas came for politics, too.  Old Phoinix is the only one who came for me."
Hephaistion tightened his arm.  His feelings were confused; he wanted to grasp till Alexander's very bones were somehow engulfed within himself, but knew this to be wicked and mad; he would kill anyone who harmed a hair of his head.
"They don't know I've seen this.  I just say Yes, Father.  I've not even told my mother.  I want to make my own mind up when I've seen the man, and do what I think good without anyone knowing why.  This is only between us two.  My mother is entirely against philosophy."
Hephaistion was thinking how fragile his rib cage seemed, how terrible were the warring desires to cherish and to crush it.  He continued silent.  (from p. 144-145)

That's just a few paragraphs, but that scene continues for two more pages, and these kind of scenes are all throughout the book.

Mary Renault defends her portrayal in the author's afterward at the back of the book, citing a lot of evidence that Alexander and Hephaistion were probably more than friends, before finally concluding. "No physical relationship is proved, and those whom the thought disturbs are free to reject it" (p. 374).
In other words, Mary Renault spends a lot of time talking about the love between Alexander and Hephaistion, but always stopping short of portraying a physical sexual relationship.

This would be quite clever, were it not the same approach that everyone else seems to use.  Oliver Stone's movie also hinted quite strongly at love between Hephaistion and Alexander, without ever explicitly showing a sexual relationship.  So did Manfredi.  At a certain point, I get tired of all these ambiguous portrayals, and wish some author would just have the guts to go one way or the other.  I could go for either portrayal at this point:  either full on homosexual lovers, or just plain old heterosexual bros. I just want someone to have the courage to choose one.

...but of course I'm being unfair, because I'm judging Mary Renault's 1969 book against material that all came after it.  At the time, this pseudo-homosexual portrayal was no doubt quite shocking.

So, those are all my complaints about this book.  Now onto the positives:

The Positives
One of the really great things about this book is how three-dimensional all the characters are.
I appreciate this all the more after coming out of Manfredi's trilogy, where quite often Alexander's companions were just a list of names that followed him everywhere.  Mary Renault, on the other hand, knows how to write characters.

Aristotle, for instance, is not just a supporting character to the saga of Alexander the Great.  He's someone portrayed with his own motivations and ambitions.
Alexander's great antagonist Demosthenes is in many ways the villain of the book.  And yet, he is not simply a mindless antagonist to  Alexander's greatness.  Mary Renault shines the spotlight on him for several pages, highlighting his motivations, his insecurities, his jealousies, et cetera.
In this book, you really get to understand all the characters and what they want.
(It's worth mentioning here that this isn't easy to do.  In fiction, the author has the luxury of creating their own characters whole, and thus can always give the characters personalities consistent with their actions.  In historical fiction, the actions of the characters are already pre-determined, and the author has to go back and give realistic motivations to explain what is already a matter of record.  Not everyone can make these historical characters fully come to life as real people, but Mary Renault has done an excellent job.)

There is also a very rich portrayal of the ancient Greek world.  Mary Renault, a classicist who has written many books on ancient Greece, knows the world of her characters very well.  Before writing her trilogy on Alexander the Great, she had already written on book on the Peloponneisan War (W), and one book on the aftermath of the Peloponneisan War (W), and she weaves in these rich historical details about Athens and Sparta in with her story of the rise of Macedonia.
(After having read this book, I feel like I really want to read more about ancient Greek history.  I probably want get to it anytime soon, but Mary Renault creates the feeling of such a rich world that I feel the desire to learn more about the Peloponneisan Wars.)

Well, those are all my thoughts on Fire from Heaven.  I'm off to the next book in Mary Renault's trilogy next: The Persian Boy.

Link of the Day
We Are All...Fill in the Blank

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Link: Play for advanced ESL Students: Sherlock Holmes and the mystery of the Aquilla Diamond

I found this useful as a fun last-day-of-class activity for my advanced students.

[In an effort to keep track of useful materials--so I can find it again when I need it--I'm going to start including links to stuff that I've had good luck with using in class. I'm going to index it, along with my own materials, over here and here.]

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Comprehensible Input in Young Learner Classes

[This is a professional development seminar I led on Comprehensible Input.  The blog version of this consists of the text of the talk I gave (below) and the PowerPoint Presentation slides (embedded into blogger below—after the text of the talk, but also available on Google: Drive, Slides, Pub).  I’ve also got a number of footnotes, addendums, and disclaimers to add to this, but I’ll put all of those down at the bottom of this post so as to avoid cluttering it up too much.]

                With apologies, this professional development seminar is going to have a bit of an editorial edge to it.  I’m going to argue that in our young learner classes we should minimize our use of grammar focused lessons and increase activities that give our young learners exposure to language.  Now, I suspect I may be preaching mostly to the converted here, because I suspect most of you are already doing this, and perhaps you’re doing it with better activities than I am.  So just bear with me here as I work through the theoretical justification for this, and then hopefully we’ll have time for everyone to share their own ideas at the end.
                This professional development seminar is going to be in two parts.  First, I’m going to give the theoretical justification for why young learner classes should be based on comprehensible input instead of focusing on grammar points.  Then, I’m going to suggest a variety of ways in which teachers can provide their students with comprehensible input.

                So, first off, the section on why we should focus on comprehensible input.
                To begin with, I want to talk about the differences between young learners and adult learners, and what ideally a young learner class should focus on.

                It’s commonly believed that young learners are faster than adults at learning languages, but actually this not true in all situations and across all criteria. 
                There are two different situations.  The first is in an immersion environment.  So, for example, this would be when immigrating to a foreign country like America or Australia, or something.  When moving to a foreign country, in a total immersion environment, adults actually start speaking the foreign language faster than children do.  (Lourdes Ortega, p. 16-17)  

                Adults will start to try to speak the foreign language almost immediately, but a child will have a long silent period in the new language, lasting several months.  During these several months they will only listen to the new language, but will not attempt to speak it themselves.  Or possibly they will speak only in one word utterances or use memorized phrases, but not attempt to construct their own sentences until they have been in the country for several months. (Stephen Krashen, Tracy Terrell p. 35-36). 
                Why is this?  Well, it appears that adults are able to use various meta-cognitive skills and meta-linguistic knowledge to initially learn the language more quickly than children.  In other words, adults possess much more of an ability to try to consciously learn the rules of the language, whereas children don’t have as much cognitive ability to, on a conscious level, try to analyze the language and figure out its rules.  Instead, children pick up a language subconsciously, much like we all learned our first language.  But this means they get off to a much slower start, and have a much longer silent period than adults.  However, once they do finally start speaking the language, they do eventually catch up to and surpass the adults.  So after 10 months, the initial advantage of the adults is beginning to disappear, and after 5 years’ time, the children have surpassed the adults in fluency (Lourdes Ortega, p.16-17).

                Now, all of that is in an immersion environment, where they are actually living in the country where the new language is being spoken.  In a foreign language classroom, which is what we do, the younger learners not only start out slower than the adults, but they actually never fully catch up to them—or at least, studies show that even after 5 years studying in a classroom, children are still behind the adults (Ortega, p. 17). 

                Why this is isn’t exactly clear.  Obviously one reason might be that there just aren’t enough hours of exposure in a foreign language classroom to equal the hours of exposure a child gets in an immersion setting.  Another reason is perhaps that the way foreign languages are traditionally taught, with an emphasis on grammar rules, tends to be something adults are better capable of dealing with than children.

                Lourdes Ortega says, “This [the ability of adults to do better than children in foreign language classes] may have been in part an artefact of instruction or tests that demanded cognitive maturity and involved metalinguistic skills, because adults may be able to use cognitive and metacognitive abilities and strategies to learn many aspects of the L2 [foreign language] initially faster.” (p. 17)

                In other words, adults probably have better strategies for dealing with grammar exercises, and if the foreign language classroom focuses primarily on grammar, that’s going to advantage adults rather than children.  Or, as Krashen says:
                “Most adult students differ from children in that they have a greater ability to consciously learn grammar rules,” (p. Krashen, Terrell p. 61).

                So, what are the strengths and weaknesses of young learners? 
                Their weak points appear to be deductive grammar exercises—that is, when they are given a grammar rule and asked to practice it. 
                “Deductive methods are more effective for older students (adults) [than for children]” (Krashen, Terrell p. 36).
                And of course, the more complicated the grammar rule is, the more young learners will struggle.  So, for example, reported speech, which is actually taught in many of the young learner textbooks, asks the young learners to do a number of very complex transformations.  When students are asked to transform a question into reported speech:  

                “What are you doing?”
                She asked me what I was doing.

                So the student has to:
                Identify the auxiliary verb “are”,
                Transform it into the past tense “was”,
                Invert the order of the subject and the auxiliary verb from question order to statement order,
                Change the pronoun from “you” to “I”, and
                Change the punctuation from a question mark to a period

                And this is something the young learners are going to struggle to do.  And, those of you who’ve taught reported speech in young learner levels correct me if I’m wrong, often not one student in the class can correctly do these transformations.

                Secondly, young learners have less ability to consciously monitor their speech for grammatical accuracy.  They may pick up a lot of the rules subconsciously, but when speaking they will have less of an ability to, say, consciously remember to put an “s” on the end of every verb which has a 3rd person subject.

                Okay, so those are the weaknesses of young learners.  Now, what are the strengths?
                Given sufficient exposure to the language, they are better than adults at mimicking the sounds and pronunciation.  They often have better listening comprehension than adults do.  And, given sufficient exposure to the language, they can develop on a subconscious level a more “intuitive grasp of the language” even if they don’t consciously understand the grammar rules.  That is, if you expose younger learners to enough language, they are better at just subconsciously absorbing it than adults would be (Distance Delta, Unit 2, Focus on the Young Learner).

                So, given all this, it would seem to me that the ideal young learner program would focus less on learning conscious grammar rules, and more on exposing the learners to language.  And then possibly, the curriculum could become more grammar heavy as the students progressed into the adults and developed the cognitive skills necessary to consciously manipulate sentences with grammar rules.
                Or as Krashen puts it:
                “…younger acquirers will tend to have less ability and/or inclination to learn conscious rules.  The amount of homework devoted to conscious learning might therefore vary according to age with adults receiving the most, teenagers somewhat less, and children perhaps none at all. …  Thus a common mistake made in many language courses for children is giving students learning tasks similar to the grammar exercises used by adults.”(Krashen, Terrelll p. 178-179)

                Now, unfortunately, many of the textbooks designed for Young Learners have completely flipped this on its head.  In fact, many of the textbooks for Young Learners are actually more grammar focused than the textbooks designed for adults.  And in many of these textbooks, the Young Learners are actually responsible for learning more grammar points than their adult counterparts.  In my opinion, this is a mistake, and it’s a serious problem with many Young Learner programs.

                Now, there’s some debate about what the intention of these textbooks actually is.  I’ve had at least a couple people tell me now that it was never the intention of the Young Learner textbook publishers to focus on grammar, and if I was focusing too much on grammar in my classes, then that was my own fault.

                Well, maybe it was.  So let me phrase this as neutrally as possible: When you’re teaching Young Learners for the first time and the only guidance you get is to be handed a set of textbooks, there’s a temptation for new teachers to try to take their cues for the lessons from the material that is covered in the textbooks.  “What am I doing today?  Oh right, lesson 13, indirect questions, okay!”  And so you end up teaching these lessons where the whole class is focused on practicing and using one grammar point, and then the next lesson you have to go onto another grammar point.

                At least I know that’s what my first several terms were like teaching Young Learners.

                I would encourage you not to do that, however.  Instead, I would encourage you to design lessons based around supplying the young learners with comprehensible input.
                “Input” refers to the language the students are exposed to.
                “Comprehensible” means the language is at a level the students can understand.  Now, this refers to the basic meaning of the language.  It doesn’t mean they have to understand every word, or understand every grammar structure perfectly, but they’re getting the basic meaning of the message.

                So, what are the disadvantages of grammar based lessons?
                Well, for one thing, lessons focused around grammar points are hitting Young Learners at exactly their weakest point.  So it’s setting up a situation that’s going to be frustrating for both the teacher and the students.

                For another thing, the idea that students should learn a grammar point every lesson, and then hold all these grammar lessons in their memory, and then someday in the future it will eventually all come together and they’ll be able to speak the language, is an idea of language learning that has been pretty solidly discredited 50 years ago.  If the grammar points are all taught as separate entities, they never really come together into any sort of language fluency. 
                Rather, the way people acquire language is through a lot of exposure to it when their attention is focused on message of the language rather than on the grammar points.  This is especially true of Young Learners.  If you can provide them with plenty of exposure to the language, they will either consciously or unconsciously start to notice a lot of the grammar points on their own.  And this, rather than drilling them on a single grammar point, will be the most effective way of building up their proficiency.

                The advantages of comprehensible input, on the other hand, are that the students can learn all the features of a language at once from comprehensible input—not only grammar, but pronunciation, vocabulary, collocations, et cetera.
                But as for grammar, comprehensible input provides the student with all the necessary grammar structures at once, not just one structure a lesson.
                And, students can pick up a lot of language features on their own if they are provided with enough comprehensible input.
                “…research has shown that learners learn a great deal that no one ever teaches them.  They are able to use their own internal learning mechanisms to discover many of the complex rules and relationships which underlie the language they wish to learn.  Students, in this sense, may be said to learn much more than they are taught.” (Lightbown and Spada p. 116). 

                This is true for anyone who acquires any sort of fluency in the language, whether they are children or adults.  There are way too many features of a language to all be learned by consciously memorizing rules.  When you think about all the features of a language, all the verb tense rules, all the pronunciations rules, all the voiced and unvoiced verb ending rules, all the collocations, and registers, and fixed phrases, and pragmatic functions—there’s no way anyone could ever learn this to any degree of fluency by systematically studying all the rules in a certain order.  Most of the language has to be learned by picking up the features subconsciously through enough exposure. 
                But this is particularly true for younger learners, whose brains are more wired for subconsciously picking up the language, and are less wired for studying grammar rules.

                Now this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t focus on grammar at all in Young Learner classes.  Grammar focused lessons can actually help a student learn a structure faster than simply language exposure alone.  But the grammar lessons are going to work best as a clarification rather than an introduction.

                For example, here is the type of grammar lesson we should try to avoid if at all possible:
                * Students are introduced to a grammar structure that they have never seen before.
                * The teacher attempts to introduce the grammar structure (form, meaning, pronunciation) and have the students accurately understand it and be able to produce it all in one lesson.

                I think most of us have been in these type of lessons, where we are trying to introduce a grammar point from the textbook that the students have never seen before and just don’t understand?  And it’s usually a disaster, right? 

                So, here’s an alternative framework which may be more successful:
                *Over many weeks and months, students are exposed to a large amount of input from the language at a level which they can understand.
                *Over this long period of time, students start to notice several features of the language on their own.
                *Students, consciously or subconsciously, begin to form hypotheses about what the meaning and function of these language structures are.
                *And then at this point, the teacher comes in with a grammar intervention, to help clarify exactly what a certain structure is, and how it is used.

                I think this type of grammar lesson, a lesson where the teacher is clarifying a grammar point the students have already had plenty of exposure to, is going to be more successful than attempting to introduce something completely new.
                So, I’m not saying don’t do grammar in a Young Learner class, but try to avoid the temptation to make it the main point of the lesson.  And I know this is hard, because a lot of the textbooks tend to be very grammar focused.  But try to make the main point of the lesson to be exposing the students to the language.  Krashen recommend that the lesson be 80% exposure to language, and only 20% grammar (p.148).  I’m not sure there’s anything magical about that exact percentage.  In my own classes, I try to make sure that in a 90 minute class I spend at least one hour doing language exposure activities and then I might open up the textbook for the last 30 minutes.

                Now, there are two qualifications for ideal comprehensible input. 
                One is that it has to be comprehensible.  Obviously if you’re giving the student input at a level that is much too difficult for them, it’s not going to do them any good.  It’s like turning on a news radio program in a completely foreign language.  You can maybe hear the sounds, but you’re not going to be able to absorb any of the features of the language without understanding the meaning.

                The other thing for comprehensible input to be successful is students have to be engaged with it.  If they lose interest, or completely tune out, then you can give them all the input you want, but they’re not going to absorb any of it.

                Sometimes as teachers we forget how incredibly cognitively demanding it is for our students to process a foreign language.  I know when I used to study Khmer lessons, and my Khmer’s not very good, but I used to take lessons at one point, I could handle about 40 minutes of Khmer lessons before my brain just felt like it was fried and I couldn’t process anything more.
                Or another example: when I lived in Japan I used to attend a church on Sundays.  Now my Japanese was a lot better than my Khmer, so I could actually understand most of the sermon if I concentrated very hard.  But it was such an effort for me that after about 10 minutes my brain would begin to shut off, and then I would just tune out.  So I would sit through a 40 minute sermon, but only the first 10 minutes of it did me any good in terms of language exposure.  If your brain has switched off, and you’re not paying attention to the language, and it’s just going in one ear and out the other, then at that point the input is not doing you any good.

                So, if I’m recommending you spend 1 hour or 80% of your lesson on comprehensible input, but the student’s brain is going to switch off after about 10 minutes, then this is going to be a problem.  When I first learned about the benefits of extensive reading, I was really pushing my Young Learners to do as much reading in class as possible.  But they can’t handle much more than about 15 minutes of it at a time, and they will let you know in no uncertain terms when they have reached their limit.  The Young Learners are not shy about telling you when they are getting bored or burnt out.

                So, the idea then is not to use any one source of input for much more than 10-15 minutes.  And, if your goal is, like me, to use at least the first hour of the class on comprehensible input activities, then the challenge is to find enough varied sources of input so you can have enough short activities that will cumulatively fill up an hour.

So, here’s where it may be useful to pool our ideas, because I suspect a lot of you have your own activities you use.  But here’s what I’ve been using in my own classes so far:
Reading Stories
Watching Movies
Listening to Songs
Reading Poems
Telling Jokes
Reading/ Performing Plays
Students Listening to Teacher Talking Time
Students Listening to Each Other
Students Reading Each Other’s Written Compositions

                In my own classes, I use the first 5 things on this list every lesson.  That is every lesson we read part of a story together, we watch part of a movie together, we listen to one song, read one poem, and I tell them one joke.  And that fills up a whole hour pretty nicely, often a bit more than an hour.  And then I try to squeeze in some of the textbook in whatever time we have left at the end.

                All of these activities are very just broad ideas, and there’s a lot of different ways you can implement them.  For example, last term we had a whole separate professional development seminar by XXXXXXXX on just all the different ways you could use songs in your lessons.  A couple years ago XXXXXXXX did a whole professional development seminar on all the different ways you could use extensive reading in your classroom.  So for all of these activities, in terms of how you want to set it up, what you want to emphasize, what pre and post activities you want to do, there’s pretty much a million different ways to skin these cats, and you don’t have to do it the way I do it.  I’ll just make a few comments about the way I do them, but you can do them whichever way you want.

                Reading stories in class is an activity I picked up from XXXXX, the former lead teacher.  As I got the activity from XXXXX, the students have a book they are working through, and in class you read one chapter a lesson.  Many ESL books come with a CD or audio files, so the students can read the story and listen to the audio at the same time, and that way they’re getting double the amount of input.  Also that way, in addition to all the other benefits of comprehensible input, they are getting input on sound spelling correspondences.
                So, obviously this works best if you can get some sort of a book with an accompanying CD.  However, if I can’t find a CD or audio file, then I myself will become the human audio, and I’ll just read the book aloud for the students.  That’s not ideal, obviously, because I can’t do the voice acting as well as the voices on the CD.  But it’s better than nothing.
                The way I inherited this activity from XXXXX was that it’s only emphasizing reading for its own enjoyment.  So you don’t do any comprehension questions at the end, because that kills the enjoyment.  You just try to get the students involved in the story for its own sake.  That’s the way XXXXXX told me to do it.  For me personally, I often find it hard to resist the temptation to do some vocabulary matching with some of the words from the text.  That’s just my own human weaknesses.  But I make sure any vocabulary sheets I do are before the reading, so the hard work is out of the way before we start the reading.
                Now, obviously this will work best if the story is at a level the students can understand, and if they’re interested in it.  If the story is too difficult for them, or if they get bored and switch off, it’s going to be off less benefit.  The advice I got was, if in doubt, better to go too easy than too hard.  This is where graded readers come in.  A graded reader is a book designed specifically for ESL students, where the language and vocabulary has been deliberately simplified to make it understandable for a student at a low level.  And they’re usually ranked according to level, so you can pick up a level 1 or a level 6 depending on which level you think your students are at. 
                As far as choosing something the students are interested in, that’s admittedly easier said than done.  But something you can do is give them a few different choices, and have them vote on the one they want to continue.  What I often do is on the first day we read the first chapter of 4 different books, and then they vote as a class on which book they want to continue.  The first time I did this, I had them listen to 4 chapters straight, and they got very bored and irritable.  This broke my own rule of limiting only one source of input for 10-15 minutes.  After that, I designed survey forms, where in between listening to a chapter of a book, they had to wander around the room and ask other people what they thought about the book.  And then if you get them up and moving around in between, you can actually get through 4 different chapters from 4 different books, and have them still engaged enough to vote on it at the end.

                Now, the benefits of extensive reading are just enormous.  For example, Alan Maley writes, “Extensive Reading is the single most effective way of acquiring, sustaining and extending a new language, especially in the field of vocabulary.” (Alan Maley, An Inconvenient Truth)  And this has been confirmed by all sorts of studies.  One of the most famous ones was in Japan, where there was a group of students who were behind in English.  They did one semester where they were put into a class where all they did was read books that they liked and then talked about them, and by the end of the semester their English ability across all levels, not only reading but also grammar and listening and speaking, to the point where they had almost caught up with their classmates.

                Now, to truly qualify as extensive reading, the students need to be reading outside of class as well.  But reading one chapter a lesson in class is nevertheless a very good start.
                And if you want to encourage your students to read more outside of class, some teachers I know, like XXXXXXX have designed whole lessons where they take their classes down to the school library to introduce them to the library and teach them how to find books they like.

                So, that’s reading.
                Next on the list is songs.
                I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about songs, because first of all I think most of us are already familiar with using songs in the lesson, and secondly, there are a million and one different ways to use songs, and the way I do it is probably not the most creative.  I just do a simple gap-fill worksheet with songs myself.  But I do make it a point to do one song every lesson. 
                Now, unlike the graded readers, it’s very rare to find songs that are “graded” for ESL learners.  So, depending on the level of your students, it may be hard to find songs where the language of the song itself is comprehensible to them.  But of course in many songs the rhythm of the words is more important than their actual meaning, and the students can definitely notice the rhythm.  In this way, songs can act as a source of input for rhythm, pronunciation, and, if the students are reading and listening at the same time, for sound-spelling correspondences.

                Actually, speaking of sound-spelling correspondences, I’ve been noticing that many of our students are mispronouncing words that they don’t have to mispronounce.  For example, they often pronounce the silent “s” in “island”, the silent “th” in “clothes”, the silent “b” in “doubt”, and many more.  And the pity is, they don’t have to mispronounce these words.  There’s absolutely no first language interference going on here.  They have the phonetic ability to pronounce these words correctly, but they just mis-learned the pronunciation of the words because they only encountered these words in print.  This indicates to me that they’re not getting enough audio input. 
                And the real pity is that once they’ve learned the wrong pronunciation of these words, then it becomes fossilized, and it’s very difficult to correct.  So we should do as much to pre-empt this as we can.
                Any activity in which the students are reading and listening at the same time will help to pre-empt these kind of mistakes—reading stories and listening to the audio CD at the same time, listening to songs and reading the lyrics at the same time, watching movies and reading the subtitles at the same time, listening to the teacher read a poem and following the words at the same time—all of these activities should help the student get a good idea of how printed words are supposed to be pronounced.  So in that respect song lyrics, and many of these other activities, could be a useful source of audio input even if the students don’t understand the meaning of the song as a whole.

                Next on the list is movies.
                Movies are something I’ve done a complete 180 degree turn on over the past couple years.  I used to think that kids these days spend too much time watching computer screens anyway, and I decided that in my class they were going to interact with real people and read real books for once.  But I’ve come around on this one once I noticed the great capacity movies have to fully engage students’ attention.  You notice this on the last day of class, when the Young Learner students are pleading with you to watch a movie for the whole 90 minutes.  These kids can’t concentrate on the reading for much more than 15 minutes at a time, but they’ll happily sit through a whole 90 minute movie during the class.
                I’m the same way actually.  I can’t read for much more than 20 minutes without getting restless, but I can watch TV for hours and hours.  There’s just something about movies where normal attention span rules don’t apply.
                Not only that, but movies are so great for learning a language because of all the visual support built into it.  If you don’t understand a vocabulary word or a particular grammar structure, you have a fair chance of figuring out the general meaning anyway just by watching the visuals, and then maybe you can even learn new vocabulary and grammar from this.
                So, I’ve completely come around on this issue, and decided that maybe 10 or 15 minutes of a movie every lesson isn’t such a bad thing.
                I think ideally you want to find a movie that has subtitles, so the students can read and listen at the same time.  And you want to find something that is interesting for them, so they’ll be motivated to want to understand the English.  Again, maybe give them some choices and let them vote.
                As with all these other activities, there are a million ways to skin this cat depending on how many activities you want to set up around the movie.  Perhaps the best way would just to be to let the students watch it for enjoyment.  In my own case, though, I’ve been unable to resist the temptation to design some worksheets around it .  So after the movie finishes, I’ll pick out maybe 10 sentences of dialogue from the movie—sentences which I think are roughly at about the comprehensible level of my students—and draw their attention to those sentences after the movie finishes.
                Then, for the next lesson, I design a worksheet to help them review that section of the movie from the previous class.  (The transcripts for most movies are available on line at sites like, and I’ve found these to be very useful.)

                Next, poems.  This is an idea I got indirectly from Adrian Underhill in Sound Foundations.  He recommends using poems to teach the pronunciation of English, focusing on things like rhythm and intonation.  I actually don’t do any pronunciation activities around the poems.  In my class we just read one poem a day, and I’m hoping that the exposure to poems will subconsciously help the students to acquire some rhythm and pronunciation.  And even if it doesn’t, then it’s still more good comprehensible input.  (Young Learners especially have a limited capacity to consciously study things like rhythm, intonation, word-stress, and stress patterns, but if they’re given enough exposure to English they can subconsciously pick up a lot of this stuff on their own.)  I - personally - have - had - great - luck - doing - a - lot - of - Shel - Silverstein - poemsThe - students - really seem to enjoy those, and they get a good laugh out of them, which tells me they’re understanding them.  Roald Dahl also - works - very - well.

                And then jokes.  I’ve accumulated a list of 30 jokes to get me through a term of Young Learners, and I tell them one joke a class.  I’d be happy to share them with anyone interested.  Or you can find your own just as easily.  Some of them are riddles, where I write the question on the board, get them to try to guess the answer, and then finally give them the answer if they can’t get it.  Some of them are short stories, which I try to act out or tell with visuals.  Most of them are real groaners, because the puns have to be very obvious for the Young Learner student to get it, but the point again is comprehensible input.

                Another thing you can do is have the students read and act out plays in class.  There are a whole bunch of plays for ESL students already on line.  For example, the British Council has a lot of plays on their website.  I’ve had good luck using their “Jack and the Beanstalk” play with my young learner classes.  Now, this is much more active, because they’re not only reading these plays, they’re reading and acting them out.  But it’s still great comprehensible input.

                Next is teacher talking time.  Now, this is a bit more controversial, because many of us are taught in our CELTA or TEFL courses that teacher talking time is a bad thing, and should be minimized as much as possible.  But I’d encourage you not to take that as dogma, because it’s actually a debatable point.  If exposing students to plenty of comprehensible input in the classroom is a valuable goal, then the teacher can actually be a very good source of comprehensible input.
                As Krashen says: [during a grammar lesson] teacher talk is actually more valuable [than the actual grammar point] !  When we “just talk” to our students, if they understand, we are not only giving a language lesson, we may be giving the best possible language lesson since we will be supplying input for acquisition.” (Krashen, Terrell p. 35)

                But students can not only learn from listening to the teacher.  They can also learn from listening to each other. 
                Students talking to other students has both advantages and disadvantages.  The obvious disadvantage is that the input is flawed, because the students’ speech will not be perfectly grammatically correct.  An advantage, however, is that assuming all of the students are roughly the same level of proficiency, they should do a good job of supplying input to each other that is completely comprehensible to their classmates.  Obviously student to student input shouldn’t be the only source of input in the classroom, but it can be one source.
                I recommend it with one caveat however.  Many of our Young Learner students, particularly the lower levels, are reluctant to speak a lot in English—either because of low ability, or because of the extreme shyness that’s natural around that age.  If you have a class that’s unwilling or unable to produce, you may find a lot of activities that revolve around students talking to each other will either not work, or immediately revert to Khmer, and become a waste of time.  In those classes, I might do less group speaking activities then.  It just depends on the individual class as to how well student to student interaction is going to work.  You may have to feel them out on it.  Also, Krashen makes a good point: “Younger acquirers also tend to exhibit a longer silent period.  A serious problem is thus created by trying to force production before a wide range of listening comprehension has been done,” (Krashen, Terrell p. 179)

                Another idea for students to provide input for each other is for them to read each other’s written texts.  As with every other activity on this list, there’s many different ways you could go about this depending on what you want them to write about, how they share it, et cetera.  It also depends on whether they read the original text that their classmates wrote, or a cleaned up version provided by the teacher.  Student writing is great because, as with student speaking, it is guaranteed to be at just the right level of comprehensibility for their classmates.  But if you want to provide them with clean input, you can re-type the essay yourself, correcting all the errors, but still maintaining the same flavor and basic level.
                This is obviously quite labour intensive on the teacher’s part, so I only do it once a term.  But it can be great fun as a class project.  I typically get all the students writing on the same task, and then share their writing with each other, or post it on a website where it gets shared with the larger world.

                So, those are all my ideas.  Now, let’s hear what your ideas are.

1).  The text of the speech printed above represents what I intended to say, more than it does what I actually said.  I cut some points out because of time consideration, and also I ad-libbed a bit.

2).  I’ve also edited this slightly for the blog version.  I cut out all references to specific textbooks used at my school, and specific lessons from these textbooks.  Because it would not be of interest to anyone outside of my city, I’ve also cut out references to where graded readers could be purchased in Phnom Penh.  Also, in the interest of privacy, I’ve removed the names of other people from this text.  However, lest I take credit for ideas that were not my own, I wanted to be clear about where I was borrowing ideas from co-workers.  So I didn’t remove the sentences, but just replaced their names with XXXXX.

3).  I’ve borrowed a lot from Krashen here, but I should be clear that Krashen would not agree with me completely on this.  Krashen believes the ideal classroom should focus 80% on Comprehensible Input, and 20% on conscious grammar instruction (as do I), but Krashen believes that the 20% conscious grammar instruction will never aid true acquisition.  Instead, Krashen believes consciously studied grammar rules will exist in a separate part of the brain—the part of the brain that can be called upon to consciously monitor grammar rules (what Krashen calls “the monitor”)—and will never become truly acquired language.
                I, on the other hand, am making the assumption that conscious grammar focused instruction can speed up acquisition if it comes at the right time—i.e. if it comes when these forms are beginning to emerge in the student’s interlanguage.  So I’m taking Krashen’s theory of Comprehensible Input for my starting point, but not for my ending point.

4).  Actually, referring to the above point, I probably shouldn’t have phrased it as if it were my original idea.  I’m fairly sure this is more or less the standard assumption in TESOL these days, although I’m unsure of who to credit it with at the moment.  So I’ll make a disclaimer: if you don’t like it, it’s my own idea.  If you like it, it’s standard TESOL theory, and I’m just borrowing it.

5).  So, the theory here is that Comprehensible Input is the first step to get the students familiar with the grammatical forms, and then conscious grammar instruction is useful only once these forms have started to emerge in the students’ inter-language.
                The obvious problem with this, however, is that the order of grammatical forms studied in the textbook might not match the order of the students’ acquisition.  And even if it did, all the students in the class will be acquiring at a slightly different rate.
                The solution to this comes from Rod Ellis, who recommends that even if students aren’t yet ready to produce certain grammatical forms, these grammatical forms can still be taught for comprehension.
                In the early drafts of this speech, this point was also part of my presentation.  I felt that many of the grammar points in the textbooks for young learners were beyond their current level of acquisition, so I wanted to encourage my colleagues to teach these points for comprehension only, and not push the students to produce them.
                This would have then fed back into the theory of comprehensible input—teaching grammar points for comprehension has the potential to help the students notice these points in future comprehensible input, which in turn would aid in their acquisition.  On the assumption, of course, that any grammatical instruction was in the context of a constant stream of comprehensible input that the students were continually exposed to.  (Otherwise, the students would simply do the grammar exercises in class, and then promptly forget about it the next day.  It’s only in the context of continually exposure to comprehensible input that teaching grammar points for comprehension makes any sense, I believe.)
                However, this point was dropped from the presentation.  It was too much information, I decided, to also include the theory of the order of acquisition (W), and Rod Ellis’s ideas about teaching grammar points for comprehension.  Much better to just stick to one main point.

6).  In the above text, I put in references where I could.  But as this was not strictly speaking an academic paper, I didn’t worry about it when I couldn’t find a reference or couldn’t remember a reference.
                The point about how most language acquisition takes place subconsciously is something I’m fairly sure I read in the past couple years, but I went back through all my old books on language acquisition, and I couldn’t find the reference anywhere.  I included the point in my presentation anyway because it makes intuitive sense to me—there’s just way too many features of language for them all to be consciously studied and memorized.
                The study about the Japanese students improving their English scores only through extensive reading is one that had been anecdotally been making the rounds of our staffroom for a while (among my colleagues who are big advocates of extensive reading).  I actually tracked down an official reference to that study at one point when I was writing this piece on the Benefits of Extensive Reading for my students, but I could not now remember where I found it, and so I left it unreferenced in the above text.

                I’ve also included in my references material from the Distance Delta (Focus on the Young Learner).  This is material that is published in-house by the Distance Delta for their course, and I don’t believe it is freely available to the general public.