Big books for little students (and big ones, too!)

Some of this post comes from on an article I wrote some years ago, published in the journal of the Modern Language Teachers’ Association of Queensland. Permission has been granted to reproduce parts of the article, which is not available outside of the MLTAQ membership.

There is something nurturing and comforting about being read to, that most children instinctively react to positively. Even my toughest middle-school age students were quietened by their first big-book reading experience. In the beginning, however, I had been hesitant to read whole texts (with a new writing system) in the target language to them, mainly because of my own assumptions about how they would react. I tried only because I was looking for ideas, and I had been given a free resource at a conference and didn’t want it to go to waste. But to be honest I thought my students wouldn’t engage with me and the text long enough for the activity to be effective, that they would immediately place the text, with its unfamiliar script, into the too hard basket. In fact, I think I can recall whispering to my colleague at the conference that ‘my students would eat me alive if I tried that with them’.

That first reading session I will never forget. I had been given an A4 black and white master which I had enlarged onto A3 paper and put into an art folio. We sat on the floor in a huddle, looking at a book that had no romaji (English letters) to help them. I read the story completely in Japanese. Students at the back strained their necks to see the crude outline drawings. I didn’t stop to check for meaning, I just let the words wash over the students. No-one complained that they couldn’t understand. No-one fidgeted (and this was a class where students occasionally jumped out windows!). They sat, and they listened. Before the final page there was a prompt for students to draw what they thought would happen on the next page. All of the students made feasible predictions. They wanted to read again. They joined in with me when they could.

Sometimes it’s great to be wrong.

This experience paved my way to create hundreds of big books, to implement them regularly in my classes, and to present at conferences about how to use big books to help students (and many teachers) overcome their fear of teaching, reading and engaging with a new writing system.

What are big books?
Big books are basically just that. Books that are big. They are used for modelled reading, where the teacher reads the story and shows how it’s done. They are also used for guided reading, a process where students and teacher work together to read a story. Big books give students exposure to longer texts, as well as the individual components of language in a meaningful context. While bottom-up strategies are an important part of learning about the building blocks of written language (letters/characters, graphemes, words), if students never see these components being used in context, they remain abstract concepts, and it will be more difficult for them to commit them to long-term memory.

How to source and make big-books
There are plenty of big books available for sale which are created for native speaker children. These books can be great, because they often use simple and repetitive language. They are authentic texts, an important part of communicative language teaching. However they can sometimes be deceptively difficult, incorporating unusual vocabulary and varied grammatical structures which native speaker children have little trouble with. They can also become quite expensive, particularly if you are sourcing from another country. One idea for those on a tight budget is to purchase a cheaper version of the big book, and create your own translated text to cover the original language.

For me, I created many of my own materials. In this way I could incorporate the vocabulary and grammar structures that I wanted students to focus on. I also made sure to include at least some of all three writing systems (hiragana, katakana, and kanji), as well as a few unknown vocabulary items to give students an opportunity to practice their deduction skills. In my earlier teaching days I  created big books in an A4 Word document, and then enlarged them to A3 and presented them in art portfolios. More recently most of my big books are developed electronically in PowerPoint and shown to students on a projector screen. However, I like to go back ‘old school’ on occasion, sitting on the floor and looking at paper. For digital natives used to new gadgets, this simple task can be quite an innovative one!

How to implement a big book reading session
How you choose to deliver the reading session depends on your aims. There are two main approaches.

The first approach is a ‘hands-off’ approach. Read the book through completely in the target language without stopping. You can read twice if you like. Encourage students to jump in if there are any words they can read, or guess from context. At the end of the reading students are given a task to check their understanding: draw a storyboard, write a summary, give an alternative ending, draw a character tree, act out a scene, answer questions, etc.

The second approach is a more ‘hands-on’ approach. Encourage students to read the story, or parts of the story, themselves, and ask them a range of direct-questions to guide them in their reading and understanding. A range of questions are listed below, which encourage students to use  a range of cueing systems that will help them to read through and understand the story.

cues

By modelling these cues and working together, students are also building an arsenal of strategies that they can use when they start to read more independently. Working together can give students a great sense of accomplishment at completing a task that they may have considered difficult, particularly if they have had initial reservations about reading in another script.

Introducing big books, and strategies for reading them, to my young students from their very first language lesson, has helped me to develop classrooms where there was no chance for students to develop any fears or preconceptions about using a different writing system. I also think it helped to bring the students together, sitting in close proximity to each other, and working as a team to help each other out.

For my readers, please see below an adapted and digitised version of a big book for young learners of English and Japanese. Please feel free to translate it into your own teaching language (and please consider sending me a copy to share!).

Resources for teachers
Please feel free to download, edit, and use in your own classroom!

Lets go surfing! English / Japanese
More coming soon…

NB: I recommend YOz font for Japanese big books.

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OVER TO YOU …

*Do you read to your young (or not so young readers)?
*How do you manage students when you read to them?
*What pre- or post-reading activities do you use?
*What big books do your learners love to read?

Add to the discussion in the comments below,
or in our Facebook comments.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
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