Improving Reading Skills in the Language Classroom with Mini-Sagas

Seminar Paper, 2012
20 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Mini-Sagas in General
2.1. The Origin of the Genre
2.2. Characteristics of the Genre
2.3. Chosen Samples for Mini-Sagas

3. Why Use Mini-Sagas in the Language Classroom?
3.1. Mini-Sagas and Reading Skills
3.2. Mini-Sagas and Integrated Skills
3.3. Mini-Sagas and the CEFR
4.Sample Tasks and reflections
4.1. Cloze-format to Improve Reading for Gist and Reading for Detailed Comprehension
4.2. Jigsaw- Task to Improve Intensives Reading
4.3. Raise Language Awareness through Reading Mini-Sagas
4.4. Mini-Sagas and History
4.5. Mini-Sagas and Creative Writing

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Mini-Sagas (Macha Pumphrey, Huntingdonshire Writers' Group) A Mini-Saga is a story of exactly fifty words, no more, no less. It should tell a complete story with a beginning, a middle and an end.

It should make a point, have some drama or some psychological truth in it.

It must, in fact, be a saga in miniature (Proges 7).

The new developed genre of Mini-Sagas is, sadly, not really popular outside of the United Kingdom. This realization leads me to introduce Mini-Sagas into a language learning environment like schools for example. The following paper deals with Mini-Sagas as a new and innovative genre for writers and readers. Up till today not many attempts have been made to design tasks which involve Mini-Sagas as a text-stimulus. Outside of the annual competitions which take place in the UK, they seem to have been forgotten in schools outside Great Britain.

Firstly, the primary aim of this paper will be to explore the possibilities connected to Mini­Sagas according to their learning and teaching potential with the main focus on improving the learners' reading skills. The tasks were designed by me, based on several teaching handbooks concerning teaching English as a foreign language. As I was given the opportunity to try out the tasks in practice and to improve my original approach by including helpful suggestions concerning the strengths and weaknesses of the tasks, the paper should provide the reader with an evaluation and discussion of the mentioned tasks. Furthermore, it should describe the usage of Mini-Sagas in the language classroom according to their advantages and how the students can benefit concerning reading as well as integrated skills. The first paragraph will give a detailed overview of the basics of the genre Mini-Sagas and describe the main characteristics of the text type, which are needed to understand the genre and the presented tasks.

2. Mini-Sagas in General

2.1. The Origin of the Genre

Originally, a 'saga' is an Old Norse prose narrative. Uncertain to experts, it is said that sagas originated from Iceland or Norway during the Middle Ages. Sagas tell stories about fantastic adventures of legendary heroes. In modern days, a book or a film portraying the history of a popular family is also referred to as a saga (Proges 7). In 1982, Brian Aldriss, a British author, invented the genre of 'Mini-Sagas' which are sometimes also called 'brian', after the creator. Generally, Aldriss was looking for a relaxing writing activity next to his time-consuming work. In that same year, the Telegraph Sunday Magazine discovered this new pastime and brought Mini-Sagas into focus by organizing a competition for writers, which was a huge success. Almost 50.000 writers sent their pieces of written work to the magazine. Regarding the huge number of participants, also BBC Radio 4 got interested in the genre and well-written pieces, identified as 'Commended' or 'Highly Commended' were broadcasted (Proges 165/166). From 2001 onwards there were no competitions anymore, but Aldriss and some of his colleagues, e.g. Salman Rushdie, as well as political figures such as Princess Margret published an anthology with a vast variety of Mini-Sagas, named The Book of Mini-Sagas (Proges 167). The genre was inspired by Ernest Hemingway, whose Six-Word Short Story (Baby Shoes could be a good example of the fact that a story sometimes flourishes because of its unsaid features and the white spaces between the words which stimulate the reader's imagination. A short form, like the Mini-Saga, requires a lot of creativity as well as economical thinking, expressing as many ideas as possible in exactly 50 words: getting the most out of the least is the challenge of the genre (Leith, This way of economical writing is often also referred to as précis-writing, "the art of giving a concise and lucid summary of [...] prose and poetry [...] in clear and vigorous speech" (Evans I). Having given an overview of the origin of Mini-Sagas, the next topic at hand will be to characterise the genre.

2.2. Characteristics of the Genre

As mentioned in the previous section, a Mini-Saga consists of only 50 words but, basically, it is not 'mini' at all. It is a shorter short story, which still requires a beginning, a climax and an ending although it must be kept in a short and concise way. Therefore a "story should be conveyed [,] not simply a mood or anecdote" (Aldriss 7). Besides that, the Mini-Saga must have a punchline. A punchline is a final abrupt and exciting ending or a surprising twist. More important is that a Mini-Saga consists of exactly 50 words, 49 or 51 words exclude the participant from any competition. Headlines should only consist of a maximum of 15 words but are not included in the counting process. Due to the word restriction, one should not use adjectives or adverbs; the message has to be kept to the point (Proges 170-171). "With a limitation of 50 words, you shouldn't really find any adjectives. And if you put an adverb in, it is usually because you have chosen the wrong verb." (Aldriss 10-12). The purpose of using only 50 words is that writers do not waste words and play with the readers' imagination, "concision adds mystery to the tale" (Aldriss X). Furthermore, every Mini-Saga should have a setting, a time frame, and characters like any other story. The topic range is not limited, though. Every topic which is considered timeless, up to date or even personal can be chosen (Proges173-174). Stories are always told by a narrator, not by the author. It is also up to the author to decide how to present the Mini-Saga: it can be written in rhymes or prose, the graphical design can be adapted as well. Some Mini-Sagas are also often referred to as 'disguised Mini-Sagas'. This means, that the Mini-Saga could be presented like, for example, an allegory or a satire. But obviously, the form of the depiction should be motivated by the content and the meaning of the story itself (Proges 176-179).The most important aim of the Mini-Saga is its effect on the reader. The reader should reflect upon the content and try to find his/her own path through the meaning of the story. "The Mini-Saga should leave you with the feeling that there is more to come." (Aldriss 10). In the following section these criteria will be applied to several samples of Mini-Sagas and discussed in further detail.

2.3. Chosen Samples for Mini-Sagas

As mentioned in the previous section, Mini-Sagas can appear in many different ways of presentation as well as describe a variety of different topics in various writing-techniques. The following paragraph provides the reader with three chosen samples, which differ completely from each other concerning content, presentation and use of language. This section should basically give the reader a first impression on different techniques which can be used while designing and creating a Mini-Saga and that the ambivalent character of every Mini-Saga should be taken into consideration, especially in the language classroom.

The first example is a Commissioned Story by Brian Aldriss himself. It is often concerned as a paragon for all Mini-Saga writers.

The Lion and the Lamb (Brian Aldriss-Commissioned Story)

The lion lay down with the lamb.

"He's such a vile vulgarian," said Lamb. "I hate him. Damn!

Pity I'm a vegetarian or else I'd eat him whole, this big fatjungle cat!"

Almost beyond control and knowing little fear, he bit the lion's ear.

The lion pounced. That's that! (Proges 52)

This Mini-Saga is a 'quote story': this means that the saga is presented as a dialogic construct, written in rhymes. In this auctorial narrative situation, the narrator is not one of the main characters but observes the situation from an all-knowing position. The Mini-Saga consists of full sentences and dialogues, without using ellipses or listed substantives. Additionally, the Mini-Saga tries to play with different 'sound-effects', providing its own rhythm. The most interesting factor concerning this written piece is that it is a 'disguised Mini-Saga', which means that it presents itself as a fable, even though it is not as elaborated as fables usually are. This is also evident if one looks at the title and the first verse "The lion lay down with the lamb", a combination from a couple of verses deriving from the Bible (Proges 173-180). In the book of Isaiah, these verses are referring to times of total peace on earth, where the stronger and the weaker ones work together entirely (Reagan,

The second example differs completely from the first Mini-Saga presented. First of all, it was written by a student (approximately 20 years old), who is learning English as a second language.

Butterflies (Anonymous EFL Learner)

Johnny's parents never took him to the zoo or circus. They told him that all animals should roam free. On the morning of his first day at school Johnny was found covered in blood. He'd slit his own stomach. Somehow he recovered. "I had butterflies in my tummy," he explained (Proges 32).

This Mini-Saga is written in prose and it is basically considered as being an 'action story', with one single sentence of direct speech. The quote itself is also the punchline and the striking ending of the Mini-Saga and underlines the tragic effect of the text. The text itself consists of short and precise main clauses, without further adjectives or adverbs. Moreover, it is interesting that this Mini-Saga plays with metaphors and collocations. So, the reader should be invited to think about the deeper meaning of this Mini-Saga: is it meant to be read word by word without further background-thoughts or could it be a metaphor for life and love? Therefore, this Mini-Saga is a good example in order to understand the genre. Even though, there are only 50 words given, the Mini-Saga tells a whole story, providing the reader with an introduction, a climax and a fabulous ambivalent ending which invites the reader to reflect on the story (Proges 173-182).

The third example is a Commended-Story by a British adult woman, which shows us the wide variety of presentation techniques.

The orem(Miranda Stonor, London SW 12, Commended)

illustration not visible in this excerpt

The following Mini-Saga is only successful because of its graphical depiction and should combine reading with visual effects. The narrator tells the story in a first-person narrative situation; the personal narrator is the main character. Similarly to the second example, this saga is an 'action story', and tells a whole biography in 50 words. Since a Mini-Saga requires that the overall image of the text contributes to its presentation technique, this example provides the reader with an additional visual image for the reflection. Is this Mini-Saga yet another metaphor or just a humorous image of marriage? Pondering upon this issue shows that the Mini-Saga perfectly fulfils the requirements of the genre (Proges 172-180).

3. Why Use Mini-Sagas in the Language Classroom?

As the focus of this paper is on the analysis and evaluation of different sample tasks concerning Mini-Sagas, the aim of the next chapter is to answer why Mini-Sagas should be used in a language classroom. Teachers should ask themselves if the genre improves the students' reading skills and strategies, together with their other four skills (namely writing, listening, speaking and thinking). The following chapter deals with a short introduction to reading skills, integrated skills and the connection between Mini-Sagas and the CEFR.

3.1. Mini-Sagas and Reading Skills

Given the fact that there are plenty of reasons as to why students should read, it appears to be quite a difficult task to fulfil because every teacher knows that in some cases it is not so easy to motivate students to read. Therefore teachers should try to find ways to encourage students to read and awaken their interests. It is important for students to understand that improving their reading skills is also helpful for the improvement of their other skills, e.g. writing. Furthermore, it helps studying various facets of the language such as grammar, vocabulary, construction of sentences and punctuation. It is important for language teachers to find authentic texts and to provide the students with a variety of different topics, which might be of their interest. Moreover, a teacher has to be aware of the different levels of difficulty when choosing a text and should vary between different text-types (Harmer, How to teach English 68-69) Mini-Sagas, in this case, are perfect examples for getting students to read. Their brevity and choice of topics appeal to students. Furthermore, one can choose between varieties of difficult levels (from A2 to C2). Teaching Mini-Sagas is definitely a challenge for both the students and the teacher, but because of their originality they might be even more interesting. One could also add that organizing a Mini-Saga competition, could be of great interest to the students. Moreover, this can inspire students to become more involved in classroom discussions and additionally improve their understanding of the English language.

In order to provide the students with an excellent learning environment, one should not forget the principles to improve reading skills given by Harmer. He points out that "reading is not a passive skill" (How to teach English, 70) and "students need to be engaged with what they are reading" (How to teach English, 70). Therefore, as mentioned before, Mini-Sagas could be an excellent stimulus to engage students. Furthermore, Mini-Sagas require a lot of imagination and further work to fully understand their meanings. Thus, students also have to respond to the text and read it carefully to comprehend the deeper meaning. This also includes prediction and anticipation (Harmer, How to teach English, 70).

Lastly, one should be aware of the several sub-skills of reading to design better tasks for students and choose the right texts.


Excerpt out of 20 pages


Improving Reading Skills in the Language Classroom with Mini-Sagas
University of Innsbruck  (ImoF)
Developing Reading Strategies
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ISBN (Book)
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improving, reading, skills, language, classroom, mini-sagas
Quote paper
Anna Rauch (Author), 2012, Improving Reading Skills in the Language Classroom with Mini-Sagas, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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