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‘Read the text quickly to get the general idea, don’t focus on the details now’, ‘Don’t use the dictionary while you are reading, instead, try to understand the meaning from the context’…
Do these sound familiar to you? Despite our advice, some students still try to look up unknown words. Of course it is not easy for students to comprehend a text that includes language and vocabulary above their level. When this is the case, the pleasure of reading is taken away. So, what can we do to help them improve their reading skills?
Text Selection and Tasks: In order to be able to comprehend a text and guess the meaning of unknown words, research indicates that readers need to know 95% of the words in a text (Lui & Nation, 1985; Laufer, as cited in Alderson, 2000). However, this does not mean we should disregard authentic texts. Van Duzer (1999) proposes that the ultimate goal of teaching reading should be to facilitate a sustained, uninterrupted, silent reading without help, even if texts are unfamiliar and authentic. Bearing Duzer’s suggestion in mind, if our aim is to have our learners focus on the gist of the text, it would also be worthwhile to choose authentic or unfamiliar texts and employ with easy tasks, like skimming, which do not require detailed understanding. On the other hand, if our aim is to practice inferencing or summarizing skills, then it would be advisable to meet the above criteria- that 95% of the vocabulary should be familiar to the students- so they do not over-rely on word level cues and struggle with reading the text. In short, we should choose texts according to the reading skills we aim to practice in class.
Establishing a Purpose: In real life, we read texts differently for different purposes. For example, we may skim an article to get the author’s overall message, or we may scan a TV guide for a good film to watch. In reading classes; however, it is the teacher who assigns texts and it is the teacher who has the purpose for reading in mind- not the student! Haven’t we at least once experienced a situation where we lost our purpose of reading and realized that we did not remember much of what we have read? Therefore, when planning a reading lesson, one suggestion is to explicitly state the purpose of the reading, or to ask our students why one would read such a text; and then set the tasks.
Real Life Tasks: The difficulty of a reading task is primarily based on the activities designed. Thus, it is important to design tasks by varying the question types and the activities according to the type of the text as well as paying attention to its communicative function (Grellet, 1981). For instance, if students in pre-intermediate level are asked to read a travel guide, it would be highly artificial to plan exercises requiring detailed comprehension. This would discourage the students and prevent them from developing reading strategies adapted to the true purpose of their reading.
Preparing for the Reading: Prior to the knowledge of the language, readers need to have some schematic knowledge (general world knowledge, socio-cultural knowledge, topic knowledge, and formal schemata) in order to understand and to interact with the text (Alderson, 2000). The more knowledge readers have of the content and of the type of the text they are reading, the more familiar they will be with the language and content they expect to find. If the material is relatively difficult, we could start the reading lesson by preparing the students for the text so as to facilitate familiarity, which in turn, could help them decode a text. Some strategies that can help are previewing and predicting.
Previewing and Predicting: Previewing is a skill used to quickly find out what a text will be about before reading it by looking at the illustrations, the table of contents, headings etc. Predicting, on the other hand, involves using cues in the text to guess what is going to come next. Students can be asked to use illustrations, vocabulary or grammatical structure (bearing in mind that we are not front-loading and overusing the text) to guess what is coming next. Employing these strategies before reading can help students think of what the text will be about before reading it; getting them engaged to the text in this way can subsequently aid comprehension.
Some example activities for practicing previewing and predicting skills:
- First, ask students make assumptions about the content of the text and remember to always give them a real purpose for reading. For example, ask them to quickly read to see whether their predictions are mentioned. By doing so, you can help them generate their background knowledge as well as to engage students into the tasks followed.
- Have students examine the title or the front page of an article and tell them to predict what it could be about. Ask them to write down their predictions (or share with whole class) and then ask them to read to see whether their predictions are mentioned. This strategy can help students interact with the text, which gives them the opportunity to read with a purpose.
- If you use graded readers in class, have students look at the book cover and at the pictures. Generate some discussion about the story. (Follow up with the aforementioned strategies to set a purpose for reading).
- If you use a text with pictures (you can provide with some if the original text doesn’t have any), have them look at a picture of the text and ask them to make assumptions about what they will read. (Follow up with the aforementioned strategies to set a purpose for reading).
- Display the text using peep-holes and ask students what they think the text could be about. . (Follow up with the aforementioned strategies to set a purpose for reading).
- Have students read the introductory paragraph of the text and ask them what might be mentioned in the text. Or, if it is a story, stop reading part way through and ask the students to guess what will happen next. (Follow up with the aforementioned strategies to set a purpose for reading).
- Have students write some specific questions that they think might be answered in the text. When they read the text in detail, ask them to try to find the answers to their questions.
Getting into the Reading: Having done some prediction activities, ask students to read the text quickly to check their guesses. Whether their predictions are right or wrong is not the purpose here. The ultimate aim here should be to have them interact with the text, which in a way helps them read with a real purpose; as a result, leading them to actively engage with the text.
From General to Detailed Understanding: “Gradually, as students read more fluently and get the general understanding of a text more easily, a deeper and a more detailed understanding of the text can be worked toward” (Grellet, 1981, p.6). So, once students have received a global understanding of the text, we should move towards a more detailed understanding. This is where we could ask our students to identify the main ideas, summarize the main points, infer the author’s message, reflect upon the ideas in the text, and so on.
Alderson, J.C. (2000). Assessing Reading. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Block, E.L. (1992). See how they read: comprehension monitoring of L1 and L’ readers. TESOL Quarterly 26(2).
Grellet, F. (1981). Developing reading Skills: a practical guide to reading comprehension exercises. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lui, N. and Nation, I.S.P. (1985). Factors affecting guessing vocabulary in context. RELC Journal 16(1).
Van Duzer, C. (1999). Reading and the Adult English Language Learner. National Center for ESL Literacy Education, Retrieved March 15, 2010 from ERIC digest.