Imagine if all students were bookworms.
Cuddled up with a book in their target language, tearing through the pages, soaking up vocabulary and grammar…
Unfortunately for language educators, that’s all just fiction for most students.
However, while book reading is beneficial for learners of all types, it’s not the only way to get foreign language students interacting with texts in their target language.
Language teachers can incorporate a wide variety of reading materials other than books into their lessons, which will grab students’ attention, increase their comprehension skills and empower them as readers.
So grab a bookmark. Let’s take a look at the best ways to incorporate non-book materials into target language reading lessons, from pop songs to digital games.
Why Use Materials Other Than Books to Teach Reading?
Even students who enjoy reading in their native language can be intimidated, overwhelmed or simply bored by long texts in a foreign language. It can be near impossible to inspire a love of reading in these students by handing them a book in the target language and saying: Finish this by next week.
It’s helpful to open students up to reading without them even realizing it. Showing them advertisements, song lyrics and other materials listed below that they recognize from their daily lives can help you tap into their interests and spark a reading habit that will carry over into bigger texts.
You’ll also diversify their vocabularies, as these texts generally use slang or quotidian words with greater frequency.
Finding a Balance with Non-book Materials
Shorter, more accessible texts can build student skills and confidence by proving that you don’t need to understand every single word to read successfully in the target language. And if you’re teaching to a classroom, these texts can accommodate different reading paces.
Meanwhile, the same reading strategies you’ve already taught through target language books can apply to other types of texts, such as skimming and scanning, predicting and summarizing.
Think of the texts below as another set of tools in your box, to be used alongside traditional book reading. Students can build confidence and good habits with these materials that will carry over to books and other longer, more involved reading in their target language.
5 Non-book Materials to Teach Reading in a Foreign Language
1. Transcripts of Famous Movie Monologues/Dialogues
Movie scripts are especially useful if you’re teaching English. Due to Hollywood’s global presence, many students, regardless of their backgrounds, will recognize lines from English-language blockbusters. Even if they don’t, just knowing they’re looking at a movie script can spark students to visualize what they’re reading—therefore engaging them with the text—even if they’re unfamiliar with the movie.
You can choose a script excerpt with a length and difficulty that will work for your classroom. Generally a monologue or dialogue that takes two to five minutes to read is a good place to start (for ESL teachers, the poem in “10 Things I Hate About You” and the desk scene in “Dead Poets Society” are useful options.)
You can pass the script out for everyone to read, circle unfamiliar words and summarize. Whether you assign the scripts as individual or group work, the idea is to encourage questions about vocabulary and grammar and ultimately gauge student comprehension. Afterwards, you can ask the budding performers in your class to act out the scenes, to incorporate speaking and listening in the target language.
It’s also easy to tie these lessons into a long-term activity or assignment. For example, you can assign a new scene each week, culminating in watching the movie as a class at the end of your semester.
2. Pop Song Lyrics
Even more so than movie scripts, pop songs have a good chance of being familiar and relatable to your students. And because of their structure and length, they’re especially useful for beginner students.
For students who aren’t ready to dive into a lengthy poem or narrative, a handful of short pop songs can draw them into the process of reading. Pop songs’ repetition and rhyming provide anchors for students as they read, making them less likely to end up lost, frustrated and wanting to abandon the assignment.
I’ve also found that students enjoy the “aha!” moment of suddenly recognizing the song they’re reading. It bolsters their confidence as foreign language readers and adds some energy to the lesson.
Again, your lesson can involve reading and summarizing a handful of songs. Because many pop songs revolve around emotions and personal relationships rather than following a linear narrative, you can ask your students broad questions about what they’re reading. What kind of person is singing and what/who are they singing about? What has happened in the singer’s past and what do they want to happen in the future?
And don’t forget to bring in recordings of all the songs you’ve just read, so that your class can listen and blow off a little steam before moving on to the next lyrics.
3. Newspaper Articles
Reading the news is a tried and true method of foreign language learning that works for nearly every target language. With direct, straightforward writing, predictable structures and essential vocabulary, news articles are an efficient way to teach language basics and help students gauge exactly where their comprehension levels stand.
And it’s not just a matter of language comprehension. By bringing current events into your classroom, you can open your students up to the culture of their target language, and introduce them to conversation topics they might share with a native speaker.
Luckily, articles from major news publications are available digitally, so you can print out each morning’s major stories before you head to class. After your students read the articles, ask them questions to gauge their comprehension. You can start by asking about what events are described, who the key players are and what subsequent events they expect to happen. You should also check with your school, program or institution to see if you can get an educators’ subscription to publications.
For intermediate and advanced students, you can assign long-term projects based on the news, such as having them follow an issue for several weeks and present on it or write their own articles.
4. Print Advertisements
Depending on where you’re teaching, your students will likely already be highly exposed to advertising as a medium. Advertisements surround us in our daily lives. We read them when we’re waiting for the bus, while we’re scrolling through Instagram or flipping through a magazine, whether we’re conscious of it or not.
As a language educator, you may already be familiar with using advertisements to spark conversation in your class. But they can also be used for individual reading assignments. A short assignment might follow this structure: Pass out copies of an advertisement that has five or more words. Ask students to write definitions for each separate word, and then to write what the advertisement as a whole is conveying (what is being sold? how does the advertisement want viewers to feel?). You can also ask them how the words are related to the images.
The key is to introduce them to close reading in the target language in a setting that is familiar and manageable. Meanwhile, reading authentic foreign language ads will help students feel connected to the everyday life and culture of the language they’re learning.
There are many lists of quality print ads available online. With a little bit of research, you can find options that fit your students’ proficiency levels.
5. Text Adventure Games
Also known as “interactive fiction,” text adventure games are dynamic puzzles that give students information and choices via text lines, one after another, as they proceed through the game world.
They immerse the reader in the text, in a way that is impossible with traditional narratives. By requiring choices and interactions, text adventure games make the player the protagonist; the story is about them. This draws students into the act of reading in the target language, and pushes them to seek out context clues, look up new vocabulary and everything else you’ve been begging them to do with book assignments.
Text adventure games also reward students for their knowledge outside of the grading system. They’ll get a sense of pride and satisfaction from successfully completing a game.
There are several resources and databases available online to find text adventure games. Some classroom-friendly examples are available here and here.
With these non-traditional reading materials in your pocket, your lessons will have more variety and your students will get wider exposure to reading in their target language. Used alongside books, these texts will help build good habits and confident foreign language readers.