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Concourse 2

Teaching reading: the essentials


Almost all lessons require the learners to read at some point.  Often, this reading is used to introduce some lexis, to kick-start a discussion or focus on a grammar point.  However, reading skills in themselves should also be a central focus for a lesson or series of lessons.
Much of what follows assumes you have followed the guide to what reading actually is.


Using reading texts: TALO vs. TAVI

TALO and TAVI are terms coined by Johns and Davies (1983) and mean:

TALO: Text as a Linguistic Object
In this approach a reading text is used purely for language input.  It may contain, for example, grammatical items which form the target of this part of the teaching programme or lexis in a particular field of interest to the learners.
The approach involves mining the text for these language items (with most of the hard digging done by the teacher, usually) and then focusing on them for further clarification and practice.  Examples of tasks using texts for this purpose will include activities such as:
Find and underline all the words in the text to do with crime and divide them into three lists: person who does the crime, the crime and the verb
Find all the ways in the text where the writer is recommending what should happen next.  Make a list from strongest to weakest suggestions.

This is not using the text to develop reading skills, of course, except incidentally.
TAVI: Text as a Vehicle for Information
In this approach, the text is being used to develop the strategies that learners need to deploy to unlock the writer's meanings and attitudes.  The theory is that this approach will lead to the development of cognitive strategies which learners can then use independently to access the meaning of any text they encounter.
It is a TAVI approach that is considered here because we are concerned with language skills rather than language systems development.


The aims of a reading programme

Before we go on, can you make a note of what you believe should be the target of a reading programme in terms of enabling our learners?
Click here when you have an answer.

The aims of a reading programme are to enable our learners to read:

All of the following can be done with paper-based materials and internet sites.  In fact, scanning is a key skill when accessing internet sites because it is here that people are most often looking for explicit information.
Wikipedia articles are very useful for these exercises if chosen with care and sensitivity to the interests and levels of your learners.



The aim of these skimming exercises is to train students to follow simple skimming steps.  These are:

  • Read the title.  It's often a short summary of what's in the text.
  • Read the first paragraph.  It often sets out what questions are to be answered in the text.
  • Read the first line of each following paragraph only.
  • Read the last paragraph completely.  It often summarises the whole text.

You can't just tell people to do this; we have to train students and give them the skills they need to succeed.
All these exercises and tasks should be done with a clear time limit set for their completion.  If you don't do this, learners will often fall back on trying to read and understand every word.  The intent is to force them to skim the text for essential information.

  1. Matching exercises:
    On the board / projector put 4 headlines or titles, three of which would be suitable for a set of three texts.
    Set a short time limit to match the headlines / titles to the texts.
    Hand out texts to everyone in the class.
  2. Multiple choice exercises:
    Use a longer reading text of at least 5 paragraphs.
    Prepare 4 alternative summary sentences for each paragraph containing the paragraph's main idea.
    Set a time limit to match the correct summary sentences to the paragraphs.
  3. Topic sentences:
    Prepare a text by removing the first sentence of each paragraph except the first and last paragraph.
    Hand out the text and the topic sentences separately and get students to match topic sentence to paragraph.
  4. Raising awareness of text structure and where to look for information:
    Find a text (or write one) which has a clear structure with signposts such as Firstly, Secondly, In summary etc. and also has a clear first line which addresses the content of the text.
    Chop the text up into paragraphs and get the students to work together (with the usual time limit) to put the paragraphs in the right order.



The aim of these exercises is to give the learners the skills they need to follow these scanning steps:

  • Having a question or questions to answer firmly in mind before starting to read.
  • Think about what the information is that you need.  Is it a name, a number, a place? etc.
  • Skim the text to get an idea of its structure.  If there are subheadings in the text, read them carefully.
  • Run your eyes along the text looking ONLY for the kind of data you need.
  • When you find a candidate sentence, read it intensively to extract the information.
  1. Descriptive texts:
    Find a text which describes a person or a location and contains data such as names, numbers, places and dates.
    Hand out the text face down to the students.
    On the board / projector put up questions one at a time such as Where was he born?, When did he die? What was his wife's name? etc. and get the learners in a race to turn over the text after each question to find the answers.  You can also read out the questions, of course, but it's useful to have them written down because it focuses the learners.
  2. Narrative texts:
    Short stories or diary entries are useful for this exercise.
    Proceed as above but this time the questions refer to the sequence of events in the story such as What happened after he left the army?, Where did she go when she left her husband? etc.
  3. Information texts:
    Hand out something like a TV guide magazine, a local information newspaper, a holiday brochure etc.
    Set questions as above but this time focusing on the sorts of information your students might realistically need: times of TV shows, prices, venues etc.


Intensive reading

Intensive reading is done for full understanding of (usually) a short text.  It is what we do when, e.g., we have scanned a text and found the section with the information we need so the following can be combined with scanning (above).
The skills involved in being able to infer the meaning of unknown words are crucial in this area so if you haven't already been there, look at the ideas in the guide to teaching vocabulary.

  1. Synonym matching:
    Select some key vocabulary from a reading text and invent synonyms.  Be careful to keep the word class consistent and make the synonyms easier than the items in the text.  For example, if the words in the text are incandescent with rage make sure that your synonym is a) an adjective and b) easier to understand.  Choose, therefore, something like extremely angry rather than burning with ire.
    Learners need to scan the text to find items which match the word class they are looking for and then read intensively to locate the precise meaning they are looking for.
    For a little more on the perils of synonym tasks, see the guide to synonymy.
  2. Multiple-choice exercises:
    These are frequently used in examination of reading skills.
    Select questions which force the learners to focus on key parts of the text to read intensively.  Don't try to test everything.
    Make sure only one answer is correct but ensure that the 'wrong' answers are not daft.  If the learners can dismiss any of the alternatives because they make no logical sense, you aren't developing intensive reading skills.
  3. Spot the error:
    Focus on particular word classes for this task.
    Remove, say, 10 adjectives from a text and replace them with adjectives that make no sense.  So, e.g., if the original text had He was absolutely delighted with the beautifully cooked meal replace it with something like He was absolutely horrified by the beautifully cooked meal.
    The task, obviously, is for students to read the text intensively and spot the non-sequitur expressions, replacing them with something more logical.  At the end, they can compare their suggestions with the original text.
    This kind of task can also be used to focus on grammatical non-sequitur items by replacing, e.g., Even when he was on holiday last year he would check his work email every morning with When he was on holiday last your he may check his work email every morning.

extensive reading

Extensive reading

Reading extensively for pleasure is a great learning aid (see the first part of this section for more) so the more we can encourage it, the better.
The issue here is often one of level.  Many learners (and their teachers, regrettably) assume that lower level learners are unable to read extensively in English but there are actually a number of resources that they can access, not least the large number of commercially published graded readers.  Here's a list of some frequently used resources:

Related guides
teaching reading for the in-service guide to the area which is more detailed
pages for learners click through to reading exercises or reading lessons.  You can incorporate the materials into your own lessons
inferencing for some help with how we figure meaning from context and co-text
synonymy for more words with similar meanings and the perils of assuming they are the same
teaching vocabulary for the in-service guide to teaching meaning
reading for the guide to what the skill involves

Take a short test.

Johns, T. and Davies, F., 1983, Text as a vehicle for information: the classroom use of written texts in teaching reading in a foreign language, Reading in a Foreign Language 1/1:1-19.

References you may find helpful include:
Alderson, J C, 2000, Assessing Reading, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Bamford, J & Day, RR (eds.), 2004, Extensive Reading Activities for Teaching Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Grellet, F, 1981, Developing Reading Skills, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Hudson, T, 2007, Teaching Second Language Reading, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Nuttall, C, 1996, Teaching reading skills in a foreign language, Oxford: Heinemann English Language Teaching
Sanderson, P, 1999, Using Newspapers in the Classroom, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Urquhart, AH & Weir, CJ, 1998, Reading in a Second Language: Process, Product, and Practice, Harlow: Longman
Wallace, C, 1992, Reading, Oxford: Oxford University Press