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Between Laos, Australia, and a lonely island – Lao teachers enter the worlds of “Walkabout” and “Robinson Crusoe”

As already mentioned in our first post, we – Tasja Reule und Anna Hajek – started reading “Simplified Readers”1 with our teacher-students in the Beginner and Elementary classes at the Lao-German Technical College (LGTC). It was a most interesting experience to dive into other worlds together, and we would like to share this with you.

Everything started with the fact that we had four days off, due to a holiday favourably following our two monthly vacation days. Therefore, our lessons were cancelled. However, we did not want our classes to be completely unattended during this time, so we gave our student classes vocabulary to study for homework. Now we only needed to think about how the teacher classes could use this time efficiently as well.

 

New material, new opportunities

As it happened, we had just finished re-sorting and extending the Lending Library at the Lao-German Technical College (LGTC) by the “Simplified Readers” and “Audio CDs” which had been donated in great numbers to the AfC foundation via Prof. Martin by Ms Angela Bauer-Seekings (Pearson Deutschland GmbH). Ms Bauer-Seekings had accompanied Prof. Martin on parts of her “Fact-Finding Mission” to various Lao institutions in the spring of 2017 and decided to support the project thenceforward.

Johannes Zeck, who was also doing work at the LGTC when we arrived back in February, suggested we give the teachers the Simplified Readers to read at home during our days off. No sooner said than done. We designed a “book launch sheet” and relocated our lessons with the Beginner A, Beginner B, and Elementary class to the Lending Library. There we gave our classes a short guided tour through the extended English shelves and introduced them to our new additions, the Simplified Readers.

For the Beginner classes Anna selected all Level 2 Readers, and Tasja took the Level 3 Readers for the Elementary class. We spread these books out on a table and let the teachers take a look around. Every teacher was to choose a Simplified Reader to read at home and some of the teachers even borrowed two of them. Additionally, the teachers could borrow the respective audio CDs which were available for some of the Readers in our library.
Afterwards, each teacher received a book launch sheet and we went through it together.

Having given all these explanations, for us, the German teachers, everything seemed to be clear. This was a naïve assumption, as it turned out later. We had not overlooked the veiled warning which Prof. Martin had posted in her reply to our weekly report announcing this enterprise, but we wanted to try it anyway.2

 

The awakening

After our vacation we started our classes and had planned that each teacher could present his or her Simplified Reader to the others.

Prof. Martin had been the one who had made sure the Pearson donation of Readers would go to the Lending Library of the LGTC, but she had also warned us that reading a whole book in English as homework, no matter how easy, or “easy”, or short, would not work in this oral culture, it would also overtax the teachers, and that it would be better to read the novels together with the teachers in class-time, aloud.

She turned out to be right. We were happy about the fact that all the teachers took the homework seriously and started reading the books at home – some had even finished reading their novel – only they did not understand the content. For example they copied sentences of the first page onto the Book Launch sheet instead of summarizing the content. They also reported to us that they did not understand the words and the meaning.

You learn best from your mistakes, right? Happily, this entire “Teaching English in Laos” project is designed as a learning experience for everyone involved, for both German and Lao teachers and students (and teacher educators), so we had to find a new approach with the books. We changed our plans, checked back with Prof. Martin, and instead of continuing to work with the course books Straightforward, which had been at the focus of the teacher lessons up until then, we read the Readers together in the following few weeks.

Robinson Crusoe

For the Beginner classes, I – Anna – had chosen Robinson Crusoe. I had read the Reader myself at school in grade 6 and liked it very much. The main plot takes place on an island, with fruits and animals, mountains and palm-trees – all things that are also known in the Lao normal course of life.
At the beginning I asked them to look at the book cover and we made a list of English words describing what can be seen. This was a good pre-reading activity, as the learners already got an impression of the setting and the main characters this way.

List of words we collected:

  • man
  • bird
  • beach
  • tree
  • gun
  • water/sea
  • sky

Then we started reading, paragraph by paragraph. One teacher at a time read aloud and afterwards we clarified the words and meaning and summarized the paragraph.

Structuring is important

I divided the board into three columns in every lesson.

Since the story is written in the simple past, all irregular or unknown forms of this tense were collected in the first column and the teachers matched the appropriate verb in the simple present tense. This way we used the book to refresh and consolidate some basic English grammar as well.3

The second column was used for all words unknown to the teacher-students. We clarified the words together, either through explanations, drawings, gestures/facial expressions, or with the help of an online translator or English-Lao dictionary. Most teachers wrote these words down in their notebooks with the Laotian translation.

The remaining column was for the plot. After the learners summarized what happened in each paragraph, I tried to recreate the plot graphically on the blackboard. If a paragraph was very well understood and reproduced accordingly, the teacher showed the plot graphically on the board him- or herself.

When teachers get creative

Once, at the beginning of a lesson, when we had already finished a few chapters in the Reader, I asked the teachers to draw a picture. This picture was supposed to show any scene from the book. In our English lessons at home (in Germany), after a reading sequence, we sometimes include a creative activity like role play, drawing, or doing handicrafts.

I was very impressed by the pictures:

Unfortunately, I left Laos before we could finish reading the novel. But before I flew back to Germany, we wrote a summary of the chapters we had covered so far.

Summary:

Robinson Crusoe lived in England.
He worked on a ship and went to Guinea in Africa.
Then there was a storm and the ship sank.
He woke up on an island and his friends were dead.
He slept in a cave and built a tent.
He ate fruits and shot animals.
He built tables, chairs, and shelves.
He waited for a ship, but no ship came.
He found a parrot and called him “Pol”. Pol was his best friend.
Then he found bones on the beach and saw people who were eating other people (=cannibals).

The teachers were highly motivated to read the novel and worked hard to understand the plot and to improve their pronunciation. I am glad my successor Svea is going to finish reading the Simplified Reader with them.

 

Walkabout

Although our first try to give our teacher-student classes books to read at home on their own failed, we directly came up with another idea. I – Tasja – was under the impression that the Level 3 Readers were a little too advanced for the Elementary class anyway, after the feedback from my teacher-students. Moreover, we had enough copies of the Level 2 Readers, so everyone could have their own copy. Mainly for these two reasons I picked a Level 2 Reader instead of a Level 3 one, and, like Anna, I read the book together with my students in class this time.

I was excited when I realised that the teacher-students were (very!) excited and even more motivated than usual when I told them that we would read one “novel” together.

A new world is about to open

In the beginning, I gave my class an overview of how Readers are structured by shortly browsing through the Readers together: There are pictures every few pages and questions for understanding and working with the book at the end. In the beginning, you can find some sketches of the different Australian animals that appear in the story. For each chapter there are some questions concerning the content, for better understanding, during self-study. 

Furthermore, for better comprehension, I divided the board, like Anna, into different sections.
The biggest column was for irregular simple past verbs besides other unknown words. In the first few lessons I saved two smaller sections on the board for the so-called “personae”, the characters appearing in the book, and the “setting”, so that my learners would remember the character constellation and the place(s) of action. This was very helpful as I noticed. After some lessons the teachers could do this on their own and even insisted on discussing questions concerning these narrative elements with each other.

To give my class a clearer idea of where this narrative is set, I prepared a map: It showed the journey of the children in the story and where the different characters could be found. For better orientation I did not only mark the countries of the story, but also Laos and Germany.4

 

Finally, the adventure begins

Since the teacher-students read more fluently with each following sentence, I let them read out aloud entire paragraphs before passing on to the next reader. After each paragraph we briefly stopped for explaining unknown words and giving short summaries, to make sure everybody understood the content. Either one teacher could help out another because they already knew the word(s) and were able to give an explanation, or they asked me for help, i.e. to give them a short explanation in words, gestures, or via little drawings on the board. Only in some cases we needed to use an English-Lao dictionary for understanding. Sometimes, it was even possible to sketch the ongoing plot on the board with the help of the teachers’ summaries.

After each chapter, we wrote a summary together. At first, this seemed to be a very hard challenge, but the class improved with each try. For practice I asked them to read a specific page range of about 10 pages (which included some pages with pictures for visualization as well) at home and then to write a summary of these pages.

Unfortunately, I was not able to finish reading the book with my class before my departure, either, but my successor Tara was able to smoothly take over.

How to prepare literature lessons

During preparation for a literary lesson or if you are planning to read a book over a certain period with your class, there are several points you should keep in mind.

First, it is necessary to go through the story and deliberate about whether the students’ knowledge in vocabulary and grammar is sufficient to (mostly) understand the story or whether one could think of rewriting some parts in a simpler way. This, of course, depends on the length of the story.

Then it is necessary to plan beforehand how long the period of reading a certain piece of literature should or may take, as well as checking whether there is any specific (linguistic or cultural or literary) preparation that your learner group needs.

You should also consider preparing some follow-up work, to consolidate the new language learned. This may be some music or rhymes, to continue practising the words or grammar structure a bit further. This lexis or grammar may also be at the focus sometimes in the reading lessons.

Furthermore, think of some visual or audio support, such as pictures or hand puppets, to lead into the topic or to support the comprehension of the context while reading. For easier access to the context, it might help your students to have a link to their own daily life now and then, to adjust it with their own experiences and emotions.

Finally, you do yourself and your students a big favour if you have the main characters’ names and maybe even some specific characteristics visible whilst reading.

To encourage the students to think, reflect, and experiment while working with a story, there is a 3-phased stage model (plan-do-review) for story-based work with young (or inexperienced) learners by Jean Brewster and Gail Ellis that we like to use in our lessons back home. Experimenting is focused on listening to the story and participating during the lesson, whereas reflection is concerned with elaborating and personalising the language present, and comparing with knowledge that has already been provided.

Stage 1 “Plan”: Reflection – Pre-phase; work around the story

Stage 2 “Do”: Experimentation – The individual lesson itself

Stage 3 “Review”: Further reflection – Activities within lessons

Stage 1 “Plan”: Reflection – Pre-phase; work around the story
This is an introduction phase in which you can teach important key phrases and words for the following stage. You can provide the context of a certain activity you may have planned so that your students are already familiar with the topic. Please also consider activating your students’ reflection on prior knowledge.
This stage could include activities as followed: A warm up (an informal chat, singing a song, or routine activities), a reflection on the work in the previous lesson (playing a game of the last lesson, practising key vocabulary), and/or information about the imminent lesson aims.

Stage 2 “Do”: Experimentation – The individual lesson itself
The length of this stage depends on the length of your lesson. Each activity circle should go through all 3 stages itself. By this you assure that your students are prepared for a task and thus can execute it; furthermore, you also provide a feedback (Stage3), so they have the opportunity to reflect on their own work.
The students can experience and practise the provided language, especially from the previous task. The teacher will monitor and help if necessary.

Stage 3 Review: Further reflection – Activities within lessons
The teacher will provide material to reflect on the students’ work in Stage2.
This phase can include activities as follows: A rounding-up (summarising the lesson, asking specifically targeted questions), setting homework (research, preparation of a specific topic for the following lesson, finishing an activity), and/or a routine (an enjoyable/creative activity).

These stages do not only apply to story-reading lessons, but you can also operate with these stages in any lesson you are preparing. With this model you provide a transparent framework for your students with which they feel secure, because they get clear signals which stage follows which, with a clear progression from the beginning to the end of an activity, and, of course, the lesson.

 

Conclusion

Retrospectively we can say that reading these Readers was a pleasure for everybody involved. The feedback we received after each lesson was more than positive, which, of course, made us very happy as well.

The teachers were very thankful, first of all, for reading something in English and, secondly, to have someone go through it with them, addressing and answering different questions concerning unknown vocabulary and also textual meaning. Everyone was motivated throughout each entire lesson, from the beginning until the end, and even homework seemed to be welcome.

We hope the teachers will keep their motivation up in reading and and maybe we will get a complete summary or some more drawings by the end of our successors’ stay, who knows?!

 

Text by A. Hajek & T. Reule, with notes by I. Martin

Photos by A. Hajek, T. Reule & M. Keomixai

Audio-recording by A. Hajek & T. Reule

 

References

Images of both book covers: With kind permission by Pearson Deutschland GmbH

3-Stages-Model by G. Ellis, J.Brewster (1991, 21998). Tell it again! – The Storytelling Handbook for Primary Teachers. London: Penguin.
Also available online: https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/sites/teacheng/files/pub_D467_Storytelling_handbook_FINAL_web.pdf (last accessed 15 June 2018)

 

Notes

1 “Simplified Readers” are shortened novels written in simplified language (at different levels) for learners of English, sometimes also called “Easy Readers”.

2 Note by the editor: My hint was only oblique. Each volunteer should have the chance to make their own valuable mistakes, as these will lead them to a fuller understanding of their own intercultural limitations or (Western) preconceptions. I would personally only veto activities or teaching plans that would put the learners in an awkward situation (as far as I could predict those myself, that is).
It is advisable not to pile up several steps or dimensions of learning in one class/homework/activity, i.e. one would only introduce one new item at a time, and practise this long enough until the learners are ready for item 2. Reading a book in English is 3 new items, with a CD it is 4, with a Book Launch Sheet 5, and with the homework of 12 unfamiliar types of questions on the sheet it is 17, and this does not yet include the competencies that are needed for preparing a book presentation in English.

3 There are no irregular verbs in Lao, and there is no past tense form. Lao is not an agglutinating language like English or German, so, instead of inflecting the verb, adverbs of time are added.

4 http://www.freepngimg.com/png/24881-world-map-photos

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