The new draft criteria for GCSE and the PoS for KS3 place a renewed emphasis on longer pieces of reading material and literary texts. But how do we engage pupils in longer texts in a world where everything has become bite-sized, where book pages look like magazines, where everything is instant, short, and comes at us in a scatter-gun approach? I have been drawing on ideas from literacy lessons and thinking about how reading can be integrated in a multi-skills methodology, about how literature in a foreign language, often seen as impenetrable to school age learners, can be engaging and even fun.
1) Break it down to build it up. To get through a whole story I divide the class in to groups and give each group a different section to work on – this could be anything from a few sentences to a few pages, depending on the level. Each group works out what their section is about, and then retells the section in English or the target language, or acts out a scene for the whole class.
2) Make it a reward. In my experience, pupils always find a longer narrative more rewarding than a series of unconnected extracts. A regular slot for ‘story time’ then becomes something to look forward to. Ask pupils to talk about what happened last time to refresh their memories and to work in some oral practice.
3) Provide different versions for different abilities. Generally I prefer to use a target language story aimed at a reading age slightly below the actual age of my class and adapt it myself for different levels. At the highest level I might give the group a photocopy of the original, while at the lowest level I may re-write a section in simple sentences and cut these up for pupils to arrange in the correct order and then retell.
4) Exploit the text to the full. Reading is not necessarily a discrete, receptive skill. I like to get plenty of multi-skill work out of a longer text and I also find that pupils then find the reading more worthwhile. Examples are: retell or discuss the story verbally; write a summary of that week’s episode; create an on-going cartoon story; act out a scene; listen to others re-telling the story; guess what happens next and either tell this orally or write it; create a picture story with captions around the classroom, adding to it week by week until the story is complete.
5) Working with longer narratives provides a great opportunity for putting grammar in to context. Even the simplest picture story provides a context for work on tenses, recounting what has happened, what is happening, and what is going to happen next. Highlight grammar points so that pupils begin to appreciate how grammatical knowledge aids understanding.
For teachers of KS3 French the picture story in Mission: Français puts some of these ideas in to practice. An on-going story is told in five episodes. Each episode is told both as a cartoon strip and as a section of text, so that, according to their ability, pupils can use the pictures, the cartoon captions, and the full text to work out what is going on. At the end of each episode is a range of activities to exploit the story.