Get on the Thinking Train

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Gavin Biggs talks to Ron Ragsdale about the new series from Helbling

What led you to your ELT writing career?

I have always wanted to be a writer! Combining my work in education with writing stories is a dream job. There are many teachers I know who would love a career in ELT writing – and I’ve been asked many times how to get into it. The answer is quite simple: a love of writing, passion for teaching, an understanding of the industry and naturally a little bit of luck.

I have been writing short stories and poems ever since I was a teenager. When I first started teaching, I tried to introduce fun poems and games to my students. After many years of full-time teaching, and further developing stories and games with students, I took a role with a university publisher as a teacher trainer.

Through my work and teacher training events I met many authors, and developed a good understanding of the world of ELT publishing. I was always keen to discuss my ideas with authors and I was very lucky to have met some brilliant and inspiring people who helped me solidify my ideas before approaching a publisher. I was equally lucky to meet a publisher who absolutely believes in the importance of stories and reading for pleasure in language learning.

Tell me a bit about The Thinking Train, and how you got involved in the project.

The Thinking Train is a six-level, 24-book, classroom-based readers series devised to enhance key thinking and language skills in young learners, while developing a love of reading. It is designed to delight teachers and students with drama and dilemmas, as well as provide a structured context for developing thinking skills.

In addition to comprehensive activities for before, during and post-reading, it also provides project work, exam practise and online games

My involvement began a few years ago. During my work as a teacher trainer I had met Herbert Puchta several times. He later introduced me to The Thinking Train series he had created with Günter Gerngross.

As a strong advocate of the importance of stories in learning, I was immediately taken by the idea of a readers series that encouraged critical thinking, visual literacy and the use of original fiction. When I then discovered that Marion Williams had written the activities – well I thought it was too good to be true!

As a psychology graduate myself, Psychology for Language Teachers was one of my go-to books when I first started teaching. I was later offered the chance to pitch some of my story ideas for new Thinking Train readers. Luckily the publishers, Helbling Languages, and Herbert Puchta, both liked my ideas! Together with Herbert and the series editor Maria Cleary, we then developed our ideas into several books for the series.

“Having original fiction, brilliant illustrations and clear activities 
creates the perfect platform.”

How do you and Herbert Puchta work together?

Creative partnerships can be difficult, and it usually takes a while to find a good flow between the initial excitement of new ideas, characters and adventures with then drafting and re-drafting, artwork briefs and critical thinking activities. There is a huge amount of work that goes into this series.

At the heart of our partnership is a curiosity and love of new ideas. However, I have to say that Herbert and I were lucky enough to immediately have the ability to spark ideas off each other. This creative synergy is essential. We can both take a simple idea and develop it into a story.

The ideas come from both of us equally, then we often take it in turns to develop them into a rough story. The beginning can be a simple idea that forms a series of questions – what would you do if you were lost in the jungle? Why were you there in the first place? How did you get lost? What objects do you have with you? How do your feelings change?

Or perhaps, what if robots could create animals the way we create robots? What kind of creatures would the robots come up with? Why would they do this? What adventures could they have with their new animals? This process resulted in the story The Inventors, which is one of my absolute favourites.

What are “thinking skills”, and why should teachers spend time on this?

Without subscribing to the idea that teachers are responsible for every facet of their students’ development, I think we can all agree that comprehensive language learning and exploration by motivated and engaged students is an experience all educators wish to have.

To use some of Marion Williams’ words in The Thinking Train Teacher’s Guide, the simple philosophy is that, as children progress through school, they need to acquire far more than just factual knowledge. They need to be able to think about the knowledge they acquire to critically question what they read and hear and to assess evidence carefully. We hear on the news every day that the world needs creative answers to complex problems – but when do we have “creative thinking” class in school?

In the long term, students absolutely need to be equipped to face the challenges of a changing and unpredictable world – now more than ever. To do this they will need a range of skills to enable them to solve problems and make intelligent decisions. These skills will help students to face new problems and to find the best ways of tackling them.

In the Thinking Train series, students will often invent dialogues, act them out, mime actions and use drama and role play to practise new language. In a playful way, the stories focus on structuring specific skills such as comparing and contrasting, categorising and sorting, cause and effect, problem solving, decision making, predicting and creative thinking.

So, having original fiction, brilliant illustrations and clear activities creates the perfect platform. We then create a structure on this platform for discussing issues or ideas that arise from the story – this gives learners an authentic reason to use the new language.

Tips on how to best use the Thinking Train materials

The first step is to download the free Teacher’s Guide, which includes an introduction to thinking skills, the power of stories, photocopiable worksheets and checklists for teachers and students.

The second step is to use all the online resources! Each book has an access code for the Helbling Interactive e-zone. Here you’ll find the audio, as well as interactive games. Teachers should definitely spend some time listening to the story (and playing the games!) themselves before introducing the books in class.

I think the key to the materials is the flexibility provided by additional online content and the Big Books versions for group reading. For small groups of younger learners, I think it is wonderful to be able to sit on the floor and crowd round a Big Book and read through the story together.

With that in mind, my 5 top tips are:

  1. Teachers should practise reading the stories out loud to themselves before showing the class – this is a really useful and fun way of understanding the story for yourself.
  2. Look through the Before Reading activities – you can introduce and use some of these ideas as a class warm-up for any relevant class topic, not just the stories.
  3. For younger students, use the Big Books, and read out loud to the class yourself – Students can have one Big Book in pairs and follow the words with a finger for a more language-intensive practise.
  4. Each book has a “Make and Do” activity page – this is a brilliant opportunity to do something practical with the class and help students to follow instructions to create face masks, sand timers, animal robots, origami bookmark monsters and lots more!
  5. For older students, after going through all the activities and projects, have a class read through of the stories. You can go round the class, and each student can try to read one sentence or even one word at a time! If they make a mistake, it’s back to the start of the paragraph!
Images courtesy of Library and Helbling Languages
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Gavin Biggs
Gavin Biggs has been working in education for 20 years, teaching and managing international educational projects with government, academic and corporate partners. Gavin has a degree in Psychology from the University of Exeter and his professional interests include the effective use of stories in learning, and motivational psychology in the classroom. Gavin is now an ELT author and freelance trainer – co-author of the latest Thinking Train classroom reader series with Helbling.