World Book Day - Reading and Studying Fiction in the ESOL and EFL Classroom

Written by: Mike Turner



Time to read 7 min

To celebrate world book day on the 4th March, this blog focuses on reading and studying fiction in the ESOL and EFL classroom – and you’ll find lots of ideas below. After you have read the blog, check out the excellent world book day website for hundreds of other ideas and fantastic resources.

The Love of Reading

The first thing to say is that studying fiction should feed into our enjoyment of it. If it doesn’t, then we are doing something wrong. Done well, analysing fiction increases our wonder at the stories and characters brought to life by our favourite authors. It opens our eyes to the creative choices made by the writers and reveals the infinite possibilities of the form.

I have always found a great starting point with my students is to share reading experiences. Here are a couple of activities you might like to try:

Activity 1: Student Bookshelves

Ask students to draw a bookshelf of their favourite books. Have them write their names on the completed pictures and stick them around the classroom walls. Encourage them to discuss with each other. If some students are not great readers, you might allow them to include other things on their shelf pictures, such as video games or dvds of their favourite movies. However, each student’s shelf should include at least one or two books.

Activity 2: My Life in Books

With older students, talk to them about books that have been important to you in your life. Then have them create a timeline of books that link to important moments in their own lives. For example:

  • bedtime stories their parents always used to read to them;
  • the first books they read themselves;
  • the first books that made them really laugh;
  • the books that helped them during a difficult time;
  • the first book where they really related to the main character.

Learner Training

Before you launch into studying a set text with your class, I’d always advise doing some learner training. We often ask students to analyse fiction, without giving them the tools they need to do the job. We sometimes assume that students are born with an innate ability to analyse a text, without being taught the mechanics of how to do this. Over the years, most of us have developed into sophisticated readers, and we have been exposed to a wide variety of text types and writing styles. It is easy to forget this. The aim of learner training activities is to:

  • help students identify different linguistic and literary elements.
  • bring them into contact with a range of different writing styles and genres.
  • help them understand the ways in which writers can structure their work.

Let’s start with structure. Knowing the difference between story, plot and narrative is really a ‘base camp’ for students studying novels, short stories or plays. Given this, it is amazing how many students have not been taught this – even undergraduate students in literature courses. This Exploring Fiction: Story, Plot and Narrative document is one way of explaining the differences to our students. Here are some learner-training activities you can try:

Activity 3: Re-plotting

  • In groups have students choose a well-known story.
  • Ask them to draw, on separate sheets of paper, 6 to 10 images, each showing an important moment in their chosen story.
  • Tell them to mix up the images, so they are in a random order.
  • Now have them write or re-tell the story in the new order. This activity not only teaches students about non-linear narratives but also gives them practice in using a variety of tenses in order to fulfil the task.

Activity 4: Re-writing

Doing some simple writing activities with the students is a good way of getting them to understand the stylistic choices that writers make. Have them try some of these exercises:

  • Re-write a passage using a different narrator.
  • Re-write a passage using a different tense.
  • Re-write a passage using a different grammatical person.
  • Re-write a passage using a different style of language.
  • Re-write a section of dialogue as reported speech; or reported speech as dialogue.

Get students to discuss what differences these changes make for the reader. You can refer back to these exercises when you are discussing your set text.

Activity 5: Jargon Buster

As well as understanding the basics of how fiction can be structured, it’s useful to have the students learn some technical vocabulary. Without this vocabulary, students will find it difficult to articulate their ideas without using long and clumsy paraphrasing. Use your favourite vocabulary practice activities, such as word and definition matching activities or ‘Taboo’. I have created a list of Literary Terms that might be useful for your students to know. Once students start to become familiar with the terms, have them practise identifying and labelling examples in a text. Being able to identify and name literary features is something relatively mechanical they can be taught to do before they start having to think about the text more deeply.

Activity 6: Text Analysis

Now students know a bit about narrative, and have some jargon, get them to do some close reading of text excerpts and analyse some of the formal elements. You will need some short passages from different books. (A quick tip: I usually search for some books l think they will like on Amazon, then copy and paste into a document, passages from the ‘Look Inside’ previews). Some questions for students to think about:

  • Who is the narrator, and do we trust him/her?
  • What tense has the author chosen?
  • Is the text written in the first or third person?
  • What kind of language does the author use (formal, informal, colloquial)?
  • How would you describe the style? For example, a simple style: short sentences, straightforward vocabulary, lots of conjunctions, not much figurative language.
  • Are there any interesting images, symbols, similes or metaphors?
  • Is there any dialogue?
  • Did anything else stand out for you?

Okay, learner training is over. So, let’s move on to think about some ways of studying a single extended text together as a class.

Pre-reading Activities

Activity 7: ‘Reading Forwards’

Good readers ‘read forward’ by making predictions about the text. This reading forward happens at many levels, including thematically and structurally, but also at sentence and phrase levels. Try some of the following:

  • Choose some keywords from the text and stick them around the room. In groups, ask students to make predictions about the book based on the keywords.
  • Ask students to make predictions about the book from its cover image, blurb and the information on the book flaps, plus any chapter or section titles.
  • Divide the class into groups. Make photocopies of a page from a section of a novel. Tear vertical strips off the right-hand sides of the photocopies and hand out the torn texts. Have students work together to reconstruct what they think is missing. Have them open their books to the chosen page and compare it with their reconstruction. Have them discuss what they think will happen in the rest of the chapter and then read on together.
  • Alternatively, photocopy a page and use a black marker pen to blank out sections. Photocopy the blanked-out version and hand this out. This is a more controlled version of the above activity because you can choose what content (and how much) to blank out. It is also relatively quick to create different versions for different abilities.

Reading Activities

Here are a couple of things you can encourage your students to do while you read together in class:

  • Give out some blank file cards to the students. Tell them to note down questions based on the text as they read. Collect these in and use them for a quick revision quiz.
  • Teach students how to annotate text and encourage them to do so as they read. In addition to underlining or highlighting important words or quotes, suggest a simple code they could use. It shouldn’t be anything too complicated, but it is useful for them to have some simple categories of notes. For example:
Th Theme Im Imagery
S Simile M Metaphor
Ch Characterisation Refers forward
Refers backward ? Question to self
! I don’t understand Sub Subtext

Post-reading Activities

When you have done a reading session with your students, why not try some of the following?

  • Before the lesson, choose 20 unique key words from the section of the text you are going to read. Make up some sets of cards - one word per card - using the chosen keywords. After you have read the text section with the students, have them close their books. Get them to work in groups to place the words in the order they appeared in the text.
  • Have students create a collage based on the book, using images and words cut out of magazines. Alternatively, they could create a mood board.
  • Have students complete a task as one of the characters in the book. It is really important that students are able to justify what they have written, based on evidence from the text. In essence, what information did they find and what inferences did they make about the character from clues provided by the author? Examples of tasks:
    • Download and complete a job application form
    • List three favourite films/websites/holiday destinations
    • Complete an online dating profile

That’s about it, I think. However, there is one final resource you might like to check out. I’ve been asked by a few schools what kinds of initiatives they could try to help encourage students to read more widely. So, I’ve spoken to some teachers and done a bit of online research. The below School Initiatives document summarises some of the best.

Enjoy World Book Day – and lose yourself in a book!