Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head

Using Graded Readers in Class – Activity Ideas

Graded Readers are a hugely underused resource. Teachers often faced with reluctant, time pressed readers don’t always know what to do with them. Students often see reading almost as a punishment. Readers are not focussed on as heavily by the publishers even, as they bring in far fewer potential sales than course books. But if you employ fun activities and the reading itself is kept in bite-size pieces they can be a great basis for lessons by themselves.

So, I’m going to describe some general activities you can do in class and then, in celebration of the release of  The Tomorrow Mirror (Penguin, out on Feb 21), I’ll make a downloadable sheet specially for it and post it next week.


My interest in Graded Readers began when a language school I was working for made a very brave decision to insert a course between the end of one level and the beginning of the next to improve Skills, using one Reader over a period of a few lessons. It was as if they both realised and cared that students were not really moving up a level in ability just because they’d passed the end of course grammar and vocab test. This is quite radical stuff for a language school and it inspired me to use them in my private classes when I went freelance and then later to write them.

The books themselves come with exercises nestled amongst the chapters and, for Penguin at least, a project idea at the end. These can be used by the teacher or the student during self study. They’re not bad, having written mine for The Tomorrow Mirror I know that they have to fit a certain schema laid down by the publishers, but there are many, many more activities the creative teacher can use to exploit  a Reader beyond a ten minute class filler or homework self study task.

Prediction activities

1 Write quotes from dialogue in the upcoming chapter and get students to predict who says it and what the context might be.

2 Choose a few keywords that won’t ruin the story and get students to predict what role they might play in the story.

3 Write true and false predictions for what happens next. Students discuss them and choose the ones they think will happen and then read to confirm. Another time get the students to come up with these themselves.

4 On slips of paper (everything is more fun when they can move bits of paper around) write character’s names and then objects or significant places from the next chapter. Students have to predict who might do what, with what or where.

(Sort of)** While reading activities

1 Draw up a table with the characters names down the side. Columns can be headed: Appearance, Personality, Likes & Dislikes, Possessions etc as relevant to the story. As they read students add words from the book into the columns to build a character profile. The first time you do it in Chapter 1, you could provide the words and students place them in the right boxes so they get the idea. You can use it to reinforce exact vocab from the book or, to make it more challenging, give them synonyms for words from the text. e.g blond = fair hair, happy = positive.

** Generally speaking, I think this is actually post reading as while reading students should just be sorta, like, you know, reading. Generations of ELT coursebooks have taught us that it should be accompanied by some kind of task, perhaps tap dancing out sentence stress or making origami models of the keywords but how realistic is that to real life reading? Same goes for watching films, thinks I.

Post reading activities

1 Use dialogue quotes and get students to say who said it, to whom, and why.

2 Write keywords onto slips of paper and get students in groups to retell the story putting the words in order.

3 Taboo. Keywords on slips of paper face-down. A student picks up a word and has to describe it by its role in the story and other students guess what it is.

4 Invent thoughts that each character might have had in dialogue quote form and get students to say which character might have been thinking that and why.

5 Write a quiz where all the answers are “who” eg Who tells/told the secret? Who is killed? Who kills someone? Vary active/passive/subject/object questions.

After finishing the book

1 Students prepare questions based on the book to ask the teacher which the teacher has to answer without being allowed to look at the book. Thus students get to give the teacher a grade. They soon realise they can make these questions fiendishly difficult and happily spend a lot of time preparing them. You can do this orally in the hotseat like a TV gameshow or have them write you quizzes which you do for homework and they then mark in the next lesson. Kids especially love this. It can come after a general test on the book if you want to end the course that way. (Often students are primed to judge their success in measurable ways like this and you can keep the questions to comprehension of events or character so it rewards reading rather than vocab learning etc.)

2 Students write and/or perform a scene or a play based on the book. The higher the level the more you can get them to think about things that are told in narrative in the book but might need dialogue to work in the play. Or give different groups different scenes to put together into the whole play.

3 Students set up a chat show and interview characters from the story. Or do it as a magazine interview which they record and then write up.

4 You could get students to write a diary entry for a character but  it’s the thing they’re most likely to be sick of doing for school as it’s the unimaginative English teacher’s constant resort. A much more creative take on this, get them to set up Twitter accounts for the characters or create their Facebook pages. Of course this depends on their ages, school rules, parents, how much you supervise it etc. You can always do it in class and the logins be known only to you.

5 Students create a photostory version of the book taking their own pictures and coming up with the captions.


1 Using the chapter titles, students come up with their own stories. They can write these in full or just prepare the blurb or “elevator pitch”.

2 Research project using the issues that come up in the book.

3 Students write alternative endings to the story.

4 As 1 above but using some of the pictures from the story as a stimulus.

Using the audio version

1 You could entirely replace reading with listening but if you do, it’s best to choose a reader one level below the class’s reading level and pre-teach vocab as necessary so they can enjoy listening as entertainment rather than in a more test like way.

2 Simply play the CD while they read. I think this is primarily to bring it to life rather than to enhance their pronunciation etc although it might perform this function. I used to love Read and Listen books as a child and I sometimes wonder if reluctant readers find it boring because they are not as able to hear or see it in their heads. Imagine if reading for you was always like reading an Academic text, which I suppose (?) you don’t turn into a little film in your head. Some people who hate reading maybe don’t or can’t do this, well, this is my theory anyway.

3 Play excerpts of dramatic scenes or sounds to make students want to know what happens next. Discuss their predictions.

4 After reading, play micro excerpts and students have to say what was happening at the time. Reveal more and more until they guess it right.

Feel free to add any ideas you might have or things that have worked well for you. Happy Reading!

NB The actual reading part can be done either in class (silent reading) or as homework. For. how not to use reading in class see Mike Griffin’s post and the comments.

PS Also Penguin has a downloadable book filled with suggestions for ways of using Readers as do Macmillan.


12 comments on “Using Graded Readers in Class – Activity Ideas

  1. Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)
    February 17, 2013

    I like the suggestions, Nicola, and definitely pass them on to teachers in the summer program–a place where graded readers (and novels even) are used more frequently. Have you ever heard of the activity novel-in-an-hour? I’ve always thought it would work better on a graded reader than an actual novel, largely for length. I wrote about it here:

    • Nicola
      February 18, 2013

      Hi, Thanks, I read your post and I feel like such a dinosaur but I could just never tear up a book! I like it as a way to break up academic texts though as I feel no duty towards them. But for fiction, I feel like it would negate the reader’s interest in reading the whole thing and cheat them of something that might have just whet their appetite. I might be wrong, maybe people who need to be encouraged to read would be more likely to if they knew the whole story. But I’d hate to know the ending first in most cases.

      • Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)
        February 18, 2013

        I too had a ghastly gasp when first suggested at tearing up a book, but we get over these things if useful. 😉 I do think this is a great way to involve learners in various reading activities that they might not otherwise attempt, especially kids. As for knowing the ending first? It’s just one book… hehehe

  2. @kevchanwow
    February 24, 2013

    Hi Nicola,

    Just wanted to say thanks for a list of ideas I can easily see myself using in class tomorrow. I think prediction activity #4 is going to go down well with my students. They are big on small pieces of paper, especially pastels. And I’m digging sort of while reading activity #1. I like tabling, but haven’t done it with fiction (not sure why), but this is a nice nudge to give it a try and see what happens.

    Congratulations on the publication of your first book. “The Tomorrow Mirror” has been added to the list of supplemental texts to order for our school library for the new school year.


    • Nicola
      February 24, 2013

      Thanks for this! I’m glad I made something so directly useful and I’m chuffed at the supportiveness of your comments. I really appreciate it. Warm glow abounds :))

  3. Pingback: February Round-up | Creativities

  4. linksandanchors
    March 6, 2013

    The photostory idea is a good one. Have you ever seen the super glamorous Italian fotoromanzi published by Lancio?

    Another idea that you could try is to build a simple wiki about the book. Students could collaborate to produce pages about each character, locations and chapter outlines, They could also add glossaries, photographs, translations and links to other sources of information. I’d recommend using a very simple wiki system called or try if you want something a bit more sophisticated.

  5. Carol Hayenga
    September 17, 2013

    I have a number of comments to make about ‘Using Graded Readers in Class’. First, the language school I worked for in Thailand set up a library of graded readers for our students and encouraged them to read on their own. Unfortunately, we didn’t often use them in class, but the library was very popular and sometimes there were few or no books to check out because students had borrowed so many.
    Second, thank you for all the great ideas. I teach Mexican university students at the B2 level and plan to use many of your ideas in my classes this fall. In particular, I want to see if I can adapt them for use with non-fiction articles which my students seem to relate better to than fiction, largely I think because they are primarily engineering students.
    Third, one of your comments in the last section about using audio versions of books struck a real chord with me. You said “I sometimes wonder if reluctant readers find it boring because they are not as able to … see it in their heads.” One of the saddest thingsI have ever heard from a student was almost exactly what you said. During a speaking exam, I was asking students if they preferred to learn new things by reading about them in a book or learning from watching someone else. Unanimously, they opted for watching someone else. As Jesus, a computing engineering student, said “Teacher, when I read there are no pictures in my head.” This academic year my focus will be on helping students improve their reading so there ARE pictures in their heads. Here’s hoping….

    • Nicola
      September 17, 2013

      Thanks so much for this. I really mean it as I am so passionate about Graded Readers and know I should do more to help people use them (I plan to give some workshops at a conference at least once this year and would do more if the publishers were behind me.)
      I’m really happy to hear the students get so much out of your library too. I try to encourage teachers to use them just to get more students into reading which I am sure is a big help to them. But also because what any teacher wants is stuff to “fill” class time and Readers are SUCH an easy, minimum prep way. And maybe a little bit to sell books :))
      I hope TV/films etc aren’t robbing children of the means to build stories in their own heads to see. But I am not surprised engineers would be the type who might struggle to do it, the same way I struggle to look at a load of data and “see” patterns. It’s different skill or innate ability I’m not sure. I hope you manage to give them some pictures as well. I have so many happy places in my head and almost real friends from books, I’d wish that for anyone!

  6. Pingback: Blog Stats – how did I do in 2013? | Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

  7. Sofia Ahumada
    February 12, 2016

    Great ideas, Nicola! I’ll include some of them in a Prezi presentation I’m working on at the moment. I’ll send it to you later!

    • Nicola
      February 12, 2016

      OOOh, thanks! Please do! Where are you presenting? Or who to?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


This entry was posted on February 16, 2013 by in Graded Readers, Teaching English and tagged , , .
%d bloggers like this: