Lessons Learned While Managing My First Book Club

Holly Marland, Kansai Gaidai University, Hirakata, Japan (formerly at Konkuk University, Chungju, South Korea)

Marland, H. (2011). Lessons learned while managing my first book club. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 2 (1), 32-38.

Paginated PDF Version

Introduction

Extensive reading has become a popular way to promote language development. I had long wanted to introduce my students to pleasure reading as a means to improve their English, but because I was only teaching conversation courses, I saw no opportunity to do so. However, last semester, I decided to start an extracurricular book club, and it has been one of the most rewarding projects I have ever undertaken. The club was successful on many levels including the promotion of learner autonomy. This article is about the steps I took and the lessons I learned in the process of managing my first book club during one semester at a university in South Korea.

The book club included five Korean university students between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two. The results of a diagnostic test provided by Pearson Longman placed them on an intermediate reading level (level 3 and 4 for Penguin graded readers). Krashen describes the importance of finding an appropriate reading level by stating, “Pleasure reading is made comprehensible by the reader’s own selection of passages and texts, and by the rejection of reading material that is too difficult. The success of pleasure reading thus depends on the reader’s willingness to find material at his level and reject material that is beyond him.” (Krashen, 1982, p. 164)

I wanted to introduce the members to pleasure reading in hopes that they would continue the practice on their own. I wanted them to learn that reading did not have to be an overwhelming and frustrating task as it had been in their high school and college literature classes, where they had to pore over the classics and other difficult texts. Instead, reading in English could be a fun hobby and lead to what Krashen states is essential for acquiring a language: a regular and copious amount of language input; “The second language student needs massive amounts of comprehensible, interesting reading material, enough so that he can read for pleasure and/or interest for an hour an evening, if he wants to, for several months” (Krashen, 1982, p. 183).

In addition to promoting learner autonomy via pleasure reading, I wanted to start a book club that the members would ultimately manage by themselves in my absence.

Recruitment the Easy Way

Getting a book club up and running is not as difficult as you may think. In fact, if you are willing to volunteer your time, it should be quite easy. You may even find that others are eager to help.

To get started, I simply paid a visit to the language institute on the university campus where I teach. There, I introduced myself to the desk clerk and explained my idea for starting a book club. The next day I met with the supervisor and answered a few basic questions – among them, “Why are you willing to do this for free?” I explained that I wanted to learn more about Korean university students and to experiment with ways to help them enjoy language learning in a social setting, outside of class. Recognizing the value of offering free services to their students at no cost to the institute, the staff agreed to assist me in my efforts. Within one week, the institute staff had recruited five motivated college students with comparable English abilities.

If I had it to do over, there is only one thing that I would do differently: I would start recruiting as soon as the semester begins. The more time you have with the club members, the better. Even a sixteen-week semester goes by quickly.

Setting Up One Step at a Time

Although the next stage of the process was much more involved, it was also more exciting. Knowing that most college students in Korea have had little or no opportunity to read for pleasure, much less discuss a story book in English, I was eager to introduce the club to graded readers. At the first meeting, we introduced ourselves, and I shared my vision of what a successful book club would look like. Next, I gave members a level test, and we began the process of selecting our first book. I also gave them a handout which explained “discussion roles,” but more on that, later.

I explained to the members that first and foremost, I wanted them to have fun. Therefore, it was necessary to select books that would be relatively easy to read, and that the group could discuss with confidence. It was also equally important to come to a consensus on interests so that we could select topics and genres that appealed to everyone.

Before the first meeting, I bought a handful of graded readers to show to the group. I had also identified a few websites so that we could view more titles online. Although both ways are acceptable, I found having actual books to share with the club to be more practical and engaging. I gave the members some time to examine the colorful covers and leaf through the pages. I even had them compare a light-weight graded reader to a heavy classic novel and asked them to choose which one they wanted to read. Guess which one they picked?

I imagined that level-testing would be the least favorite activity of the evening, so before our first meeting, I sent an e-mail forewarning the members about the test (no one likes pop quizzes, especially outside of class!) I explained the importance of the activity, and despite a few sighs and complaints, the members complied and quickly finished the task. To lower anxiety, I suggested that they refrain from writing their names on the answer sheets. Fortunately, the multiple choice test included only 30 questions, and within 20 minutes, they were all finished. When I checked the tests after our meeting, the results indicated that they would all read comfortably on an intermediate level 3 or 4. I decided to start them on level 3 because I thought it would ensure easy reading and give my new reading companions the confidence and enthusiasm to start some lively discussions.

Once the level test was out of the way, it was time to begin our search for a good, entertaining book. To keep it simple, I wrote several genres on the white board (adventure, crime / mystery, cultural and social issues, auto / biography, ghosts / horror, romance / historical, etc.) and asked each member to choose three. I then went around to each member, asked for their choices, and put a check by the genres each time they were chosen. The activity, which turned out to be quite lively and full of discussion, not only allowed us to choose an appropriate genre, but it also gave the members a chance to learn more about one another. As it turned out, they all liked romance, comedy, and mystery. A new bond was starting to form!

The next important task, selecting a book, fell on me. We were all eager to get started, so it was important to get the order in as soon as possible. However, there were so many books to choose from that the members were overwhelmed. When I suggested that I make the final decision, they expressed deep relief. In the future, I will suggest three books, and let the group chose from them. Offering too many options can cause indecision and anxiety.

Our First Major Hurdle

A problem emerged when we tried to order our books. We were told that Pearson Longman was out of stock in Korea, and that we would have to wait a couple of weeks to receive our copies. Luckily, we had an internet-savvy member in the group who showed me that surfing the web was our best bet for finding graded readers quickly and even at a discount. Within three days, our copies arrived at my office. This is just one example of how group members can contribute to the management of the club – sometimes they are more capable than the teacher. Unlike me, the members were very tech savvy and native Korean speakers, very important attributes when trying to run a book club in Korea.

Entering into Lively Discussions: A Shared Responsibility

Things were off to a very good start; however, to lay the groundwork for lively discussions and equal participation, we needed to assign discussion roles to each member. At the end of our first meeting, I had asked the members to read a handout which summarized the five roles that they would take turns playing during our discussions together. I had learned about discussion roles in an article by Mark Furr (Furr, n.d). This article had inspired me to experiment with book clubs.

At the end of Furr’s article, you will find printable worksheets for each role: the discussion leader, summarizer, passage person, word master, and connector. These worksheets served as the club members’ weekly homework. Once assigned a role, each member simply completed the worksheet on his or her own, in between meetings. This exercise helped them organize their thoughts in written form, before meeting with everyone else the following week.

Once the members were introduced to the concept of discussion roles, we spent the rest of our eight weeks together reading and discussing two books. Our first graded reader was based on Richard Curtis’ Notting Hill and the second on Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. It took us four weeks to cover each book, and each discussion lasted around an hour. We covered three to four chapters at a time.

Giving a role to each person is an excellent way to get everyone to participate. It helped to create a sense of shared responsibility, and resulted in some very interesting and lively discussions. It was exciting to see everyone participating – especially the more introverted participants.

For our first discussion, I played the part of discussion leader in order to offer some role-modeling. After that, I sat back to observe, provide feedback, and answer questions related to role playing as well as vocabulary and cultural issues. I tried to limit my talking time to encourage participation and turn-taking. Apparently, however, I wasn’t always successful at doing this because one evening the discussion leader playfully told me to be quiet. I was a bit surprised at first, but quickly saw this as a very good sign. She was confidently doing her job and taking responsibility. It was a memorable moment of success.

Since there are film versions for both Notting Hill and Sense and Sensibility, I was able to add more variety to our meetings. Before reading the first chapter of each book, I showed them the movie trailer to arouse curiosity and build excitement (movie trailers are easy to find on YouTube). After completing each book, we had a movie night and watched the films together. This required no effort on my part as the members gladly volunteered to obtain the movies.

Because it is set in a time and culture completely unfamiliar to the club members, Sense and Sensibility demanded extra preparation. In addition to the movie trailer, we spent one of the meetings exploring the life and times of Jane Austen, by reading a short biography about her and talking about some photos that I had found of one of the houses in which she lived during the early 1800’s. (I found all of this material online by simply doing a Google search.)

Looking back, I realize I should have devoted more time to reading and discussing Sense and Sensibility. Never again will I be deceived by the length of a graded reader. Sense and Sensibility is rather thin and only seven chapters long, but the story is rather intricate – involving several characters and places. Therefore, breaking the reading and discussion sessions into three or four parts instead of just two would have been better.

Furthermore, I would have encouraged each week’s summarizer to prepare a time line for that week’s assigned chapters. At the end of three weeks, it would have been interesting to put the time lines end to end in order to review the entire sequence of events. This would also help to keep track of the relatively large number of characters.

After three months together, our last meeting took place off campus at one of my favorite places for gathering, a cozy café. There, we mostly talked of our future plans, but I also passed out a questionnaire for them to fill out regarding their experience in the club. The year 2011 will find me living and teaching in Japan, and two of the club members will leave Korea to study abroad in the U.S. and Canada. Will the Internet help to keep us in touch? Will any of the members start book clubs of their own at some point in the future? I don’t know, but what I can confirm is this: we had a lot of fun socializing together, and I succeeded in sharing the joys of reading for pleasure. This experience has encouraged me to continue seeking ways to promote language development in book clubs.

Tips for Managing a Book Club

1. Getting Started

Consider volunteering your time. You may not have the opportunity to teach extensive reading in one of your classes, but you can gain professional experience by running a book club outside of class.

Ask for help. An on-campus institute may be willing to help you find students on a comparable language level.

Start recruiting as soon as the semester begins.

2. Selecting Appropriate Books

Use graded readers. This way, members are reading text that is easy enough to talk about.

Use a diagnostic test. Use the first meeting to identify an appropriate reading level.

Let the members decide. Have the club reach a consensus on favorite genres and topics.

Don’t give too many options. A long list of book titles may lead to indecision and confusion.

Have sample books on hand for the members to look at and review.

Be ready to make the actual book selections yourself. Initially, members may be reticent to select an actual title, and may want you to do it for them.

Don’t limit yourself to ordering books from the publisher only. There are many book vendors on line. Ask a tech-savvy member to order the books from one of the numerous bookstores online.

3. Entering into Lively Discussions

Assign a discussion role to each member. Have them switch roles for each meeting to encourage shared responsibility and participation.

Strike a balance. Model the discussion roles for the students when necessary but limit your talking time so that the members get ample speaking practice.

Manage your time wisely. You will need more time to cover stories which include a large number of characters and places.

Use videos. Movie trailers for film versions of the book can arouse curiosity and build excitement. You can also watch the entire film version as a fun culminating activity.

Activate schema. Give background information on the author, period and setting – especially if the story is set in the distant past or an unfamiliar culture.

Introduce graphic organizers. Tools such as time lines and mind maps can help members follow intricate plots and recall characters and events.

Notes on the Contributor

Holly Marland earned her master’s degree in TESOL at the School for International Training (SIT) in Brattleboro, Vermont. From March 2008 to February 2011, she taught in the General Education Department at Konkuk University in Chungju, South Korea. In April 2011, she will start teaching in the Intensive English Studies program at Kansai Gaidai University in Hirakata, Japan. Ms. Marland has lived in the U.S., Japan, Korea, Togo, Colombia, and France. As of 2011, most of her teaching career has taken place in Japan (5 ½ years) and Korea (4 years). She has taught kindergarten, elementary, junior high, and high school students. She has also worked as a teacher trainer. However, most of her experience has been at the college/university level.

References

Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Retrieved from http://www.sdkrashen.com/

Furr, M. (n.d.). Why and How to Use EFL Literature Circles. Retrieved from http://www.eflliteraturecircles.com/

Resources

You can access printable copies of level tests and Pearson Longman’s helpful guide for choosing a book according to genre at http://www.penguinreaders.com/pr/teachers/index.html

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