Using Dreamreader for Academic Discussions

Recently I taught a discussion course aimed at students majoring in English. Since I had never taught this kind of course before, I was unsure of where to start. After watching some videos from other teachers that detailed their approach to discussion, I decided to build a course that best-suited my students.

I had two major problems to start with. The first one was that the students were incredibly busy and I needed a way to keep them engaged and coming to class while keeping expectations realistic without being too low. The second problem was that I had students of varying levels in the course. Some of them were of high proficiency in English while others had problems holding basic conversations. I was worried that the higher level students would be bored or that the lower level students would be left behind.

My first task was to decide on the structure of the course itself. Knowing that my students were very busy and not knowing what kind of topics they were interested in, I went in for a “bubble” approach. Very simply, a bubble-designed course is one where each lesson is self-contained and does not feed into the other lessons. Also, homework is very minimal in the course. I was dealing with students who had part-time jobs, clubs, and an unusually high level of homework.

I decided that each class would be focused on a different reading from dreamreader.net. The students would read a different article each class, attempt the quizzes, study some vocabulary, and then answer some opinion questions based on the reading. After that, we would sit and discuss their answers together. We would repeat the process for the next class. This had the unexpected benefit of providing students with a predictable routine that they reported as comforting in their evaluations when the semester finished.

I dealt with the issue of varying levels of abilities by trying to level out the playing field before I gave the students each article. I gave the students a short introduction to each at the start of class. I also activated their schemata by posing questions about the general topic area that the article was based around. I tried to make these questions as relevant as possible to the students’ lives and I gave them leeway to talk as much or as little as they wanted. I also provided students with some keywords from the article translated into Japanese to ease the burden of decoding the language as they read. I really wanted them to be able to focus on the content of the article and to think and answer in English.

The class was largely successful in meeting my expectations. However, I did have to adjust the level of reading difficulty downwards from high intermediate to intermediate level early in the semester. I noticed that the students were spending a lot of time trying to understand the article’s content rather than thinking of their own responses. I also had to allow the students to speak a little in Japanese to talk about more abstract ideas that they had a hard time expressing in English. Occasionally, I also used a newspaper article to add more flavour to the article for further discussion. Overall though, the atmosphere in class was very positive and even the lower-level students were noticeably relaxed after a few classes.

The students were very eager to talk about contemporary issues that mattered to their lives. They seemed to enjoy the articles that dealt with issues like Environment. Some requested specific topics to discuss near the end of the semester – such as Peace & Conflict. I was very surprised by this positive reaction and I intend to try and incorporate these materials into my other courses in the future. Next time, I might use lower intermediate or even beginner articles to give the students more time to think and talk about their answers. It would also be a very good idea to let the students bring in their own articles for discussion too.

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