Have you ever wondered what you are actually teaching students in a reading lesson? Have you wondered why the course book gets the students to read the same article several times? Then you are probably not alone, many teachers follow ideas in their course books without really knowing why they are doing it. Here is a simple overview of what we are trying to achieve in a reading lesson:

What are we developing in a reading lesson?

We are developing sub-skills (different ways) of reading to give students strategies in order to make them more autonomous outside the classroom, therefore heightening their exposure to English. The idea is to make students aware that they can read an authentic text that is a higher level than what they would normally expect to understand and still glean something from it. This encourages them to pick up authentic texts that they see in English outside the classroom– more exposure, more practice, more understanding

So why teach reading strategies?

We have been taught to be bad language learners at school. Traditionally in language lessons we are given a reading text that is graded to our level and we are expected to understand every word and grammar construction used – we are tested on this. Therefore, when our students get a text, they feel that they need to understand every word. You will find that many learners will read the text and immediately start underlining unknown words, and then they’ll start to look these words up in a dictionary. This is not only de-motivating, it is ineffective – it is like looking at a painting through a keyhole, they will understand the individual parts, but they won’t understand the text as a whole.

So how can we help? What are these reading strategies?

What would a student do if they came across an authentic text that was above their level outside the classroom? Even if it interests them, would they try to read it? Most wouldn’t, but a good language learner would follow the strategies below:

  1. Look at the title of the text and any accompanying visuals to get an idea of what the text is about before you read.
  2. Think about the topic – what do you know about this topic? What do you expect it to be about?
  3. First read the article quickly to get the overall idea – focus on words you know NOT words that you don’t know.
  4. If you are interested in the text, look back for any words that block your understanding of the text and underline them. (NB: if you are not interested, put it down and pick up something else that interests you more)
  5. Try to understand these words from context first. Look them up in a dictionary if necessary.
  6. Now read the text again for deeper understanding. You will find that you understand much more now.
  7. It would be a good idea to chat about this new information to a friend – even better if you could do it in English.

Using these strategies this language learner would not only have read and understood a text that was much higher than their level, but would have done it in a relatively painless way. This would give them a sense of achievement as well as exposing them to new vocabulary and language forms in context at the same time.

So what should we be doing in the classroom to develop/ teach these strategies?
  • Create interest: choose texts that are interesting for students and ensure they have some background knowledge on the subject. Spend time creating interest in the text before you get them to read it by using visuals, the text title or discussion questions. This activates your students background knowledge on the topic of the text, so that they have an idea of what it is about before they read, making it easier for students to get the overall idea and is therefore more motivating.
  • Always ensure students have a clear reason for reading before they read. This is especially important for the first task to encourage students to read for gist and ensure unknown words don’t bog them down at this stage. If they don’t have a reason before they read they will read for detail, believing they will be tested on it later.
  • Gist activity: during the gist task ensure students are not focusing on unknown words, so don’t answer vocabulary questions at this stage (they shouldn’t be encouraged to worry about unknown words when reading for gist). Write them in a vocabulary column on the board and tell students that you will deal with it later. Deal with this language with the whole class during the post-teach lexis stage. Students should be made aware that they don’t need to understand every word in order to get the overall idea of the text – this is more motivating and will mean that they are more likely to pick up texts outside the classroom. They are also more likely to understand the text as a whole and not just its component parts (remember the painting and the keyhole!).
  • Post –teaching lexis: after students have understood the overall idea of the text (read for gist) they can then be encouraged to look back at language in context (now they understand the context) and try to infer meaning of these unknown words from that context. A definition match is the easiest way to do this, but ensure that students do use the text to help them
  • Detailed reading: now they understand the new ‘blocking lexis’ they can then look back at the text and read again for more details. They should now be able to obtain a deeper understanding and hopefully gain a sense of achievement after understanding a relatively difficult text.
  • Post reading activities – finally, at the end of the lesson, allow students to react to what they have just read. This is not only a natural reaction after reading something you find interesting, but it also acts as a springboard into some useful speaking or writing practice.

Approaches vary and there are arguments on whether you should pre-teach or post teach vocabulary, but if you do follow the stages below for a reading lesson, you will help develop your students’ reading strategies.

  1. Warmer: Create interest in the text and activate students’ background knowledge on the topic.
  2. Pre-teaching: (optional) only Pre-teach lexis that might block students’ overall understanding.
  3. Reading 1: give students a reading for gist activity.
  4. Post teach vocabulary: allow students to infer meaning of vocabulary from context.
  5. Reading 2: give students a reading for more detail activity.
  6. Productive task: encourage students to react to what they have just read, allowing them to integrate new language learn into some useful speaking or writing practice.

Let’s ensure that our students are the ones that pick up that authentic text outside the classroom, making them more effective learners.

Ceri Millward

Celta Trainer, Clic IH Sevilla

Ceri has been teaching since 1997. She began her teaching career in Madrid, Spain where she taught a variety of classes including business English, young learners and exam courses. Here she developed an interest in using drama and visuals in the classroom. After doing the DELTA in Madrid she started teacher training, this took her to Prague, the Czech Republic where she was a DOS and teacher trainer. She later moved to Seville to set up and run a training school in 2005 where she remained until joining the CLIC team in 2008. She has also trained and taught in China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, South Africa, Oman, Italy, Portugal, and the UK. Ceri enjoys working as part of a team, meeting new people and keeping in touch with them throughout their careers.

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