In this series we talk to inspiring teachers who use storytelling to set up creative projects, set up reading programmes, and use the arts and literature to develop their students' language and literacy skills.
We would like to share real examples from real teachers to show how small ideas can make great learning projects. When they share their techniques and experiences, we realise that no matter how diverse our world is, our students are interested in similar questions and enjoy doing similar creative tasks.
This month we talk to Nóra Takács, a language teacher at the Sage Language School in Budapest, Hungary. She graduated as an English language and Speech-Language Therapy teacher from ELTE in Budapest, and started teaching in a bilingual primary school after university. In 2018 she joined the inspiring team at Sage Language School, where she found full support in her approach to teaching, which includes inquiry-based and story-based teaching.
In this interview, she talks about using flipbooks in distance teaching and learning.
Why did you become an English teacher?
My mother is a teacher, and she is my number one motivation. I grew up seeing how she loved being with her students, so naturally, I thought if something is that enjoyable, I would like to try it, too. Also, I was lucky, because I had great teachers. For me, a great teacher aims to create a community and atmosphere where their students feel safe, and can learn and have fun at the same time. Consequently, I was motivated to create communities for kids where they feel good about themselves and are therefore better able to effectively develop their knowledge.
How did your love of storytelling begin?
My mother told me stories every night when I was a small child. I loved imagining the different worlds and characters in them. I think this is the reason why I love reading. While I was at school I used to do story-based camps where the participants were the characters in a story. I loved that we played in our imaginary world as if it were real. It was great fun then, and it is still great fun now as a camp leader.
What made you start using stories in your courses?
At my school, we believe that reading is an essential part of language learning. We do not use course books, and we create the learning materials ourselves. When I started teaching, I knew that I would like to use authentic sources and make reading comprehension fun. Then I decided to use longer stories and graded readers to give a framework to my courses. One reader is often the basis of a series of sessions. For example, when we read Jules Verne’s classic, Around the World in Eighty Days, we dedicated a 3-hour session to each chapter. We used the book to travel around the world with Phileas Fogg exploring the places he visited through different projects. My primary aim is to encourage students to read in English, which may seem to be a challenge, but it is really rewarding and ultimately boosts performance. We usually read the stories together, and then follow up with some comprehension tasks.
How have the past months affected your teaching?
When lockdown started, we had to redesign both our methods and our approaches. We decided to set the students both online and offline tasks to make learning as varied as possible. I knew I wanted to continue reading stories with my groups and when I found the flipbook editions of the Helbling Readers which were made available during the recent periods of lockdown, I immediately realised that they would play a significant role in my new syllabus.
How did you read the flipbooks with different groups?
During this period I usually set reading as homework or an individual task. Since Helbling also provided audio recordings for the flipbooks, I asked my A1/A2 group to listen to the story as they were reading it. I also created vocabulary quizzes on the Quizlet website which the students used to activate vocabulary before reading. I asked them to avoid using a dictionary while reading so they could really get into the story and start reading for pleasure (which is one of the fundamentals of extensive reading).
Do you have any tips for other teachers about using the flipbooks?
To make sure that my students read the chapters, I created online exercises on another website, Quizizz with some easy comprehension questions. You can access some of the quizzes I created here. We also played with new words that came up in the stories, for example 'alley' and 'steal' were new words for my students. They defined these words by connecting them to the events and characters of the story. For example 'This is a narrow street. It is between houses. This is where Dan and Sue met Frank and Leo' (alley), or 'In the story, Frank and Leo do this with people’s handbags' (steal). I also created word search puzzles using various websites and asked the students to explain the meanings of the words to each other.
I organised the reading sessions according to the level of the students: the A2 level groups read one chapter per week, while B1+ level groups read two or three chapters at a time.
In one of my groups, I chose two books as the levels within the group are different. I decided to go for two stories with similar themes: the A2 level students read Dan in London, and the B1+ students read The Albatross. Both stories talk about crime, so I was able to give the students similar follow-up tasks.
How about the audiobooks?
During the past two months we mainly used the audio books as a support to make reading comprehension easier, I think they could also be part of before reading or after reading tasks. Once the students are familiar with the characters, before starting a new chapter, I would get them to listen to a dialogue and decide which characters are speaking.
Audiobooks can also be used on their own, for example, students could listen to a chapter and then write a description of the most important scene. They could also draw how they imagine the scene, and then compare their descriptions or illustrations.
Audiobooks help students become aware of natural stress and intonation patterns in the language. They can also be used to draw attention to the pronunciation of new or difficult words.
I know that you are into reading projects. Can you recommend project-based activities to combine with the readers you have used?
One of my groups read Dan in London. Since Dan and Sue explore London in the story, after each chapter we talked about the famous places they visited. For example, with the help of Google Maps, we planned how they could get from their hotel to the National Theatre of London. We also looked at the London Tube Map and learned how to read it. Another project was in connection with museums. Not only did we browse the website for the museum that Dan and Sue visited in the story, but we also created some pieces of art that could be exhibited in the Tate Modern. All in all, I believe that this story would be an excellent resource in culture classes. It could provide an exceedingly valid framework to learn about London.
What’s next on your teaching plan?
Our language school organizes summer camps, so we are in the middle of planning the materials. Our summer camps usually have a storyline, so we usually include a bit of reading, too.
Thank you for the interview, Nóra!