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Beginning Again

August 25, 2012

It is another school year, and we begin anew. I taught summer classes and worked on revising the intermediate reading class. Now, I am teaching it. I have taught two days so far. The big change I have made is to teach A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. I want to teach without using a reading textbook which marches carefully and tediously through the different skills or different set of topics. So I abandoned the comfort of a preplanned course outline provided by the textbook and took on this book.

I chose it for a few reasons. First, I like the book. Second, the book is used in high schools; in fact, one of my children used it in high school here. Third, it provides a good overview of science; thus, it has some academic heft to it though Bryson writes in an informal style. Fourth, I thought it would be good for vocabulary building as writers tend to repeat words so students will most likely see many of the words they need to learn such as the academic words several times.

To prepare, I found a .pdf of the book and saved the pdf as a text file, used TextStat, a concordancing program, to analyze the book chapter by chapter, though I only made it through 25 chapters by the beginning of school. I used TextStat to find the more common words that might be difficult for students and common words which have several meanings which I could have students analyze the concordance of. I worked on this for about 8 weeks and did not finish the analysis nor the exercises. As a consequence, I will be working on making activities as we go along.

As I worked on the chapters, I read a few articles. One in TESOL Quarterly changed my approach for the last chapters and have made me go back and re-examine the first chapters. This article by Ron Martinez and Victoria A. Murphy, “The Effect of Frequency and Idiomaticity on Second Language Reading Comprehension” (TESOL Quarterly, Volume 45, No. 2, June 2011) points to the frequency of idiomatic word combinations and how they can affect reading comprehension. As a result, I have searched the chapters, as I said, for these combinations and will include them in the chapter pre-reading information.

I use Google Sites to make simple web pages for the book and each chapter. I have only finished one chapter and plan to have the students help with other chapters. I have worked on chapter 1. I included some video that covers some information in the chapter, questions I took from a guide to teaching A Short History of Nearly Everything, frequent vocabulary that students should know in advance, and phrases that while common are also opaque. My plan involves combining reading and vocabulary skills in the activities, supplement class with a few videos devoted to the reading skills students would normally get through lectures, and work in some projects.

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