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How English teachers can use e-books in the classroom

By Victoria Boobyer

28 October 2013 - 10:35

Victoria Boobyer is the academic manager of the Anglo European School in Bournemouth and has taught English in Greece, Korea and Vietnam. She recently presented a British Council Teaching English seminar on how to use e-books in the classroom.

Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators."

Stephen Fry

What are e-books?

When I began researching e-books to choose for my school’s iPads, it soon became clear that they come in a wide variety of formats on a number of platforms. Some of the big English language teaching (ELT) publishers offer different formats for different readers in the same series, and these need to be checked for compatibility with the device your students are using before purchasing. The very best e-books now have audio incorporated. The quality of the audio can be excellent with professional voice actors and sound effects. Interactive activities are often included to check comprehension, vocabulary and grammar. Other e-books, however, are simply a digital version of the paper book – like a PDF – and offer no ‘extras’ other than what is inbuilt into the platform, such as a dictionary or note-taking capacity. Fortunately, most publishers offer sample pages to download and it really is worth doing this.

How do I get them?

Some ELT e-books are quite complicated to purchase and then transfer onto mobile devices. Others, like iBooks, Google Play Books and Kindle books, are easy to purchase and transfer. Kindle books can be read on dedicated devices or via apps bought for Android or Apple devices. Google Play Books and iBooks apps are available for Apple devices. Some ELT readers come in the form of apps and don’t need to be read through a ‘reader’. As a general rule, the iBooks, Google Play Books and apps incorporate the extra features but, again, it’s worth checking before buying.

Why use e-books rather than the paper version?

Apart from the added audio, interactive tasks and built-in dictionaries, the great benefit of e-books is the added capability of the device the e-book is on. Smart phones and tablets almost all have some kind of voice and video recording capability, and often they will be able to support a vast range of free – or very cheap – apps, which can change a mainly receptive lesson or series of lessons into ones in which the students take their e-book and interact with it to produce their own creations. These creations, in turn, can easily be stored and shared electronically via email or, even better, a class blog. This is a great bonus, as often a great deal of time and effort is invested in reading an entire class reader (a reading book which has been abridged and the language graded for students).

How can they be used practically?

Students read at different paces. It is impractical to ask them to share e-books – just as it is impractical to ask students to share paper books when focusing on reading the text. When it comes to the productive tasks, however, I usually ask that students share one iPad between two or three students.

We are lucky enough at my school to have interactive white boards or large TV monitors in each room. Students can hook up their iPads to these monitors to share with the class, either at the end of the activity for peer feedback, or after a preliminary phase to receive peer input and allow for amendments. Even if this is not possible, it is easy to swap iPads and for peers to offer input or feedback.

How can I compete with Facebook (and other concerns)?

As soon as digital technology was introduced into classrooms, making sure students were focusing on classroom activities became a concern. The Internet and social networks have exacerbated this concern. Just as a teacher ensures that a learner is focusing on an exercise in the course book, rather than drawing a moustache on a picture of a 1960s singer three pages ahead – monitoring is key. Set challenging tasks that interest the students, and also prepare extra tasks for fast finishers. The sharing of work with peers after certain phases or set times often focuses students. The publishing of work on a blog also motivates students. It could even be that after students have worked hard to create something you allow them five minutes of Facebook time as a reward. Nicky Hockly has written a very useful series of 1-minute guides to mLearning – including one covering teachers’ concerns about mobile learning in class.

Practical exercises: Pre-reading tasks

Just as with a short text from a book, pre-reading tasks are vital to motivate the learner. When motivating a learner to read an entire reader (paper or e-book), this phase is even more important.

Before the learner even sees the book, they can carry out research and tasks which will improve motivation. One way to do this is through WebQuests, classroom-based lessons involving internet research. A PDF containing a webquest can be emailed to the students' mobile devices. The class can have the same tasks or different ones that can later be shared.

Before reading an e-book ELT reader of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, my learner was sent a copy of the 'Digital Frankenstein' webquest that both raised awareness of Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, and focused on the learner's exam preparation needs. The initial scenario was this:

'A new e-book for iPads, aimed at English language students all around the world, is being developed. The book is based on Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein' and, because the e-book is very expensive to develop and also because you are a perfect example of the target market, they have asked you for your advice. You'll get a free iPad with a copy of the book on it as a reward for your hard work!

The e-book needs extra content as well as the 'Frankenstein' story. The publishers have three areas of extra content that they think might be interesting to students, but can only afford to develop two. You will research all three areas and then feedback to the publishers your choice of two that you believe should be added to the e-book.'

The areas of research were: Mary Shelley’s life, the writing of Frankenstein and Frankenstein in film. The PDF contained links to various sites and the research involved watching videos or reading articles about the subject and then completing a written task for each area.

For example:

Your task is to decide which one of the 'Frankenstein' films you would like to see and get a copy of it from your library, if possible. Write an email to your local library to see if they have a copy of the film that you could borrow. At home you have a DVD and Blu-ray player but not a video recorder.

Tell the librarian about: 

  • your research for the 'Frankenstein' e-book project
  • which formats of the film you are looking for, and
  • why you have chosen this movie to watch [120-180 words]

Send the email to your teacher.

Having completed these tasks, the learner had really sound background knowledge and was keen to read the book. A similar webquest or series of tasks can be created around the author or themes or setting of every e-book. Although they take a while to create, they can easily be adapted and re-used once the framework is set up. These tasks can be completed in class or at home for homework, or as part of a blended learning context. You can download the complete webquest for your own use.

Practical exercises: Listening tasks

A whole week of lessons focused on reading can be a little difficult to manage sometimes, especially if your learners are with you for a relatively short time. With e-books, the reading can be substituted with listening for either part or all of a lesson. Some e-books even contain listening comprehension exercises built-in:

Practical exercises: Pronunciation tasks

After reading and/or listening to a section which addresses students’ particular pronunciation needs (it may contain a high number of problem sounds or question forms, etc.) the teacher ensures that all students can see the section of writing by, for example, projecting the e-book page onto a board. The students can then open a speech recognition app such as Dragon Dictation, which is freely available for Android and Apple devices. This app is very simple and requires only one tap on the screen to begin dictating and another to stop. The latest dictation can be deleted and re-recorded any number of times.

Learners can focus on specific words or try to dictate whole passages using the e-book audio as a model. This could be done one sentence at a time (with a time limit of one minute to try and perfect each sentence), and then the iPads passed to the left until the passage is completely dictated. The teacher’s e-book text could then be hidden and the students asked to correct the resulting dictated written text. This would serve to highlight problem areas, but also the links between the spoken and written word. Because this app is free, there is no problem with recommending that students download it onto their own devices and practise at home as much as they like.

Practical exercises: Exam speaking practice

Some e-books contain writing, reading, listening and speaking exercises that tie in with specific exams. These exercises can be further exploited using voice recording apps. It is very difficult for students to appraise their own speaking, as they are focused on specific things at the time and on simply getting it done and over with!

For this exercise, take a picture from an e-book and send it to each iPad being used. I use a free app called Chirp which shares images, URLs and short texts via sound to all iPads within 'listening distance'. The picture – or any series of pictures - can then be added to one of the many apps that allow learners to record their voice over images. Voicethread (Android and Apple) or Talking Pictures (Android) can be used but I use SonicPics for the school iPads, because once the app is purchased (£1.99) there is no limit on the number of free recordings. Explain how the app works either by example or by directing the students to a 'How to ...' video.

Sonicpics is very simple and once the image is added, the learner simply taps the record button. Allow the learner a few attempts and a chance to notice and rectify their own errors before you or their peers offer input. Learners can be encouraged to focus on different aspects of their speaking, or given exam-type grading rubrics and helped to assess their own strengths and weaknesses.

In this example, a student practices Cambridge English First speaking with an image taken from the Frankenstein reader.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XUXjgcq3BTk&feature=youtu.be

Practical exercises: Writing tasks

Turning reading into writing is by no means new, but there is definitely more authenticity in asking students to email you an email task such as the one mentioned in the pre-reading tasks above, rather than writing it on a piece of paper. Revision, error correction and feedback are also easier when the writing is in digital format.

For lower levels, comic strip creation apps are a great way to encourage writing and engage students with the action happening in the e-book.

Import one (or several) screenshot(s) of the e-book images to a good but cheap (less than £1) comic strip creation app such as Comic Strip it! for Android or Photocomic for Apple. Set up the comic so that all the images are in place and all the students need to do is add the text.

Ask the students to add both thought and speech bubbles as well as a box showing sequence. Give an example, if necessary.

This can be the end product and added to the class blog, or can also be the input for further work on, for example, indirect speech, sequencing language, reporting verbs etc.

The few example activities above show how class reader lessons can now easily encompass a range of skills using e-books. The focus must remain on the learner’s language outcomes, and the activities must be kept technologically simple. Also, don't forget that e-book readers are, of course, great for promoting extensive reading too. They are relatively cheap for learners to buy and easy to transport. The added audio, built-in dictionary, grammar and vocabulary exercises as well as comprehension checking all lend themselves to more autonomy and an all-round better experience for students.

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