Reading can be one of the most fulfilling activities in life, if a person knows what they are reading! That is why reading activities need to be carefully planned and organised with children, above all in a foreign language. Reading is often considered boring by children, probably because it involves activating the brain much more than watching TV or playing a video game and they do not want to make the effort. Reading in a foreign language can be a real effort for children not only because they might not enjoy reading the text itself, but mostly because they really do not understand the text.
Discussions of the reading skill also include activities in which the children listen to the teacher or to a recording and follow a written text. The teacher should always bear in mind that:
if the children do not understand, they will not enjoy and become bored.
If they get bored, they will not listen and if they do not listen they will not learn!
There are many different ways to involve children, although ensuring that they understand is the basis of every activity. This is the reason why a reading activity should have a pre-reading phase, a while-reading phase and eventual post-reading activities.
There are many different types of pre-reading activities for the teacher to choose from. The simplest way to start is, of course, by teaching the key lexis of the story. This can be done by writing the words on the blackboard and translating them into Italian. This is, as I said, the simplest way, but not necessarily the most efficient.
If the children know the story in L1, they will be familiar with the characters and story-line and this will facilitate the understanding of the story in L2. In this instance, the teacher could begin by asking a couple of pupils to summarise the story in L1. Once the teacher is sure that everybody remembers the key characters and the most important steps of the story, the key lexis can be written on the blackboard. Then the children themselves can try to translate the single words or expressions, such as I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down from The Three Little Pigs. If they already know the context, they will have fewer problems understanding the meaning of what they are reading/listening to. Understanding encourages satisfaction, which in turn motivates the children to want to complete the activity. Their attention will be focused and their self-esteem will rise, too.
Another possible activity, provided that the key lexis is not too difficult and that it does not involve long expressions, is to ask the children to illustrate the words creating flashcards for the words or the scenes of the story. The flashcards can then be taped onto the blackboard or wall and referred to when children forget vocabulary or when the teacher decides to retell part or all of the story.
If the children do not know the story in their mother tongue, the teacher may decide to tell it in Italian first and then to ask the children to do some of the activities described above. Alternatively, the teacher may decide to teach the keywords without revealing the plot of the story. In the latter case, retention of the language will be a little more difficult and comprehension activities are particularly useful to help memorisation.
Whether the teacher reads a story aloud or the children read on their own, the important factor is to keep the children’s attention focused. If children already know the vocabulary they will not be tempted to interrupt the teacher and ask for explanations, making following the plot much easier. However, even if the pupils know all the lexis, all the expressions and all the tongue-twisters that are often found in a traditional story, expecting the children to remain focused for a long time is extremely difficult. For this reason, comprehension activities during the reading phase can alter the pace of the lesson and help concentration.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that children should never feel as though they are under pressure. If you ask them to translate a word, to explain a situation or to try and figure out what happens next, always make sure that they are enjoying the challenge. In this way, reading will become a fun and involving activity for them.
When the children already know the plot of the story in L1, the teacher can ask them to predict future episodes of the story in English. They may need help from the teacher but they will find the activity very rewarding.
If the teacher has planned a reading activity to cover more than just a few lessons, a good exercise for children who know the plot could be to invent alternative scenes or endings. It is not important that readings need to be interrupted more than once in a lesson; the teacher should choose interesting episodes in the story and ask the children to use their imaginations and think of alternative endings for the episode. Ask the children to work in pairs or groups and to write down and illustrate their alternative endings. The teacher will have to teach many more new words but children will hardly be aware of how much they are learning as they will be enjoying the activity.
It is also very useful to stop frequently during a story to check that the main elements of the plot have been understood. Children who do not understand key phrases will be disappointed when they realise that a story has finished – Where were they when all the magic happened? Why is the princess kissing a frog? Where did the prince disappear to? It is often difficult to follow the story-line of a fairy tale if the children do not understand the moment when the bad witch casts a spell on the prince! Pre-reading activities are useful for an overview of a story, but always bear in mind that they are not sufficient – keep checking that the children are concentrating and that they comprehend the plot of the story.
There are many activities that can be given to summarise what the children have understood and learned, although often the post-reading language tasks are the most boring for the children. For this reason these activities should be stimulating and rewarding.
One of the most popular post-reading activities is numbering illustrations from the story in the correct sequence. The children can be given photocopies of the illustrations of the story (or photocopies of short passages of the text) and then asked to put them into the correct order.
Another activity can be to ask the children to orally summarise an episode of the story. The first child starts by re-telling the beginning of the episode and speaks until the teacher indicates another to continue. In order to encourage the children to listen when they are not speaking, occasionally ask individual children to repeat a sentence or phrase.
Kids today play a lot with their favourite cartoon character cards so why not ask them to create their own cards? Choose the most important characters of the story and get the children to draw their portraits on a small piece of cardboard. On the back of their cards, ask them to write the features of the character, their powers (if they have any), their weapons and so on. Once all the cards are ready, children can work in pairs asking and answering questions about the characters in the story: they will have a lot of fun and they will want more and more stories!
Another way of focusing the children’s attention on the story is to put on a short play (or sketches) based on the text of the story. With older children, the kids themselves can be involved in writing the script.
Probably, the best thing to do is to bear in mind that reading is a pleasure and therefore children should never be asked to work on boring activities. On the contrary, they should be encouraged to read and read and read, whatever they want to.
Good books and bad books do not exist, there are only books and every story is a new and fascinating adventure, so help your kids enjoy the magic of reading!