Whether organised independently, as a stand alone course or by incorporating it in your regular classes, a book club can really help your students learn a second language in a less formal, more relaxed setting.
Participating in a book club in their second language allows students not only to develop skills such as reading comprehension, speaking and writing, but also use their imagination, expand their vocabulary, get to know their classmates better and feel more comfortable around them. It also grants students the opportunity to improve at aspects of language learning not immediately associated with book clubs such as pronunciation and intonation. Below are some tips on how to organise a book club suitable for your second language learners.
Choice of The Text
You don’t necessarily need to use a graded reader: you can also pick a novel or a collection of short stories you believe would not be too difficult for your students to follow. A book for children or teenagers could be a good starting point for your first book club. In English, there are novels for young adults such as The Giver by Lois Lowry, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins whose topics can be interesting also for adults. In other languages there will also be a range of texts interesting to the age group of your students.
Students will read a set amount of pages on their own at home before each book club meeting. If you are worried the text you have chosen might be too difficult for them, especially if they are not used to reading in English, Spanish, French, or whatever language they are learning, you can use some strategies to make the task more achievable. For instance, you can allocate only a few pages to read a week (or every two weeks, depending on how often you decide to organise your book club).
You may also want to tell your students they don’t need to look up every single word in the text: general understanding of the story is what they should aim for. During the meetings, they will be given the chance to look more closely at new vocabulary and practice it throughout the different discussions.
Furthermore, as a teacher you will be available for answering any questions they might have. If you have chosen a collection of short stories, such as Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, you can ask students to read a story per meeting so that, once the whole book has been covered, you can have a final encounter on the differences and similarities between stories.
You may want to organise a preliminary lesson to introduce the book and its author to your class.
To set the tone of the book club you can group students in a ‘creative way’. You can, for instance, make your own set of book pair cards by writing on a post-it note a well-known fictional character’s name (such as Harry Potter) and on another the name of their friend in the book (such as Hermione). You can give a card per student and ask each one of them to find the person with the card which best matches theirs. Then the new pairs (or small groups) can sit with each other and work together on the tasks you have prepared for the encounter.
Playing some background music could be an effective way to set the mood and introduce the genre of the book you are going to read together. To activate students’ background schemata you can ask them to brainstorm the key elements of stories in general (i.e. setting, plot, characters, problem and solution etc.) and of the specific genre taken into consideration (i.e. for mystery short stories: typical characters such as detective, missing person, murderer etc.).
Presenting the writer’s life to students can be a way to make the book sound more appealing and approachable to them. You can prepare a worksheet with some interesting facts about the author and ask students to guess within their pairs or groups which sentences are true or false. Afterwards, while you go over their answers with them, you can expand the information on the worksheet.
In general, over the course of this first lesson you can talk students through all the facts about the book which you believe will help them follow the story better, such as the period of time it was published in, the story behind its publication (if relevant) and its structure (i.e. if it is divided into parts, if its chapters are numbered in an unusual way etc.).
For each book club meeting you can prepare some questions for your students to debate about first in their pairs or small groups and then all together as a class. You may want to move from more objective questions to more subjective ones. For example, you could ask them to talk about the setting of the story and even look for specific passages in the text which describe the world of the book. They can also discuss about the protagonist’s physical appearance and personality, the relationship between characters and the events which have happened so far in the plot. Then they can give their opinion on a character and its behaviour and speak or write about what they think will happen in the next section of the book (or if it is a short story, a few months or years after the ending of the story).
It would be helpful to spend some time during each book club session on new vocabulary. You can organise simple vocabulary activities such as giving students a list of words and asking them to work in teams to find their synonyms in the pages they have read before the meeting. You could conclude each encounter with a drama activity.
Whether your students are adults or teenagers, shy or extroverted, acting out parts of the book would help them personalise the text they are reading. You can start by dividing students into groups and giving a scene to act out per group. Students do not need to learn their lines by heart. During their ‘performance’ in front of the rest of the class, they can hold on to their book and read it out loud. You should make sure to give them enough time to practice pronunciation, stress and intonation. You should also monitor the class to give support and suggestions. Some groups will find it easier than others to stand up and play a role. An idea to make everyone feel relaxed and at ease is to introduce each drama activity by showing the class clips from movie or stage adaptations of the book, if there are any.
After you and your class have finished reading your novel or collection of short stories, you can run a final meeting in which students have a chance to personalise the text they have been carrying with them for weeks. In groups, students can come up for ideas for their own movie adaptation of the book. They can cast the actors they want, move the setting to a different period of time or location, and make any changes they feel necessary. Furthermore, they can be assigned the roles of journalists and characters. The journalists can question the characters on their choices throughout the story and can ask indiscreet questions about their new lives after the book.
Students can also participate in a talk show (i.e. The Jerry Springer or Oprah Winfrey Show) as presenters, characters, journalists and writer of the book. The talk show is a space where students can for example complain to the author about passages they did not like in the story. Of course, the student interpreting the writer might need a good imagination (and sometimes extra help from the teacher!) for coming up with answers to the journalists’ questions. If they are still not satisfied with the fictional author’s replies, students can write an alternative ending for the story, a letter from a character to another, and a scene from a different perspective.
What is important to keep in mind when organising these final activities is that students need to be offered a chance to react to the story, play with it and even change it so that it can stick in their long term memory.
All these different approaches can make the text come to life in a meaningful way, and will enhance your students' learning opportunities.