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Concourse 2

Teaching reading: aims and approaches

glasses on a book

There are two other guides to reading on this site and the following assumes you are familiar with the content of those.  They are:

  1. The guide to what reading skills are
  2. An essential guide to teaching reading

Both those open in new tabs so simple shut them to come back here when you are done.
This guide recapitulates some of the information in the essential guide to teaching reading.  It does not cover topics such as skimming, scanning, intensive and extensive reading skills so you will need to refer to those guides if the terms are unfamiliar to you or you would like to be reminded of what they really mean.  It also assumes a fundamental knowledge of what reading skills are.

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 can (some say should) also be a central focus for a lesson or series of lessons.


Using reading texts: TALO vs. TAVI vs. TASP

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.
Tasks typical of a TAVI approach to reading are, for example:
Is the writer strongly or only weakly opposed to tolls on main roads?
What does the writer say about his childhood in general?  Did he have a normal childhood in your opinion?

It is a TAVI approach that is considered here because we are concerned with language skills rather than language systems development.
TASP: Text as a Springboard for Production
Using texts in this third way may involve a good deal of TALO use first because the text may be used as a model to analyse before the learners embark on constructing their own texts following the same generic staging and using similar circumstances and verbal processes.  Such a procedure would be typical of a genre approach (new tab) to teaching writing skills.
This approach to reading texts may be much simpler, using the text purely as stimulus for discussion, role-play or a speaking activity.  Texts are frequently used this way in conversation-driven classes typified by, e.g., Dogme.
Typical tasks in a TASP approach might be, for example:
Circle the paragraphs which set the scene of the story.  Put a box around the complication in the story.
Underline the verbs phrases which refer to actions and highlight the verbs which refer to relationships.
Make a note of the three reasons the writer dislikes piped music.  How far do you agree?  Talk to your group to see how much agreement there is.

These are all methodological issues, of course, to do with how we use a text.  It is also important to consider what is called the Context of Situation and that involves understanding the topic of the text (i.e., the Field), who wrote the text, to whom and for what purposes (i.e., the Tenor) and how the text is transmitted (i.e., the Mode).
So, before diving in to the development or teaching of reading skills using a text, it is worth taking a bit of time to alert the learners to these three aspects of all texts.
This can be done by having a simple form to fill in, by questioning and elicitation or via a short discussion among the learners.
Something like this works well:

Before we start to read the text, look at it quickly with a partner and see if you can answer these questions.
What is the subject?  
Who wrote the text?  
Why did they write it?  
Who does the writer think will read the text?  
Where does this text come from?  

and takes about 5 minutes to do for most texts.
If you would like to learn more about what effect the Context of Situation has on how language is used, read the guide to an introduction of Systemic Functional Linguistics.  That guide opens in a new tab and also contains a questionnaire you can use with learners for all skills work, not just reading.


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?
If you have followed the simpler guide already, this is just a memory test.
Click here when you have an answer.


Authentic texts

The first aim of the teaching programme is to allow learners access to authentic texts.
There are two kinds of authenticity to consider:

Text authenticity
It is quite arguable that once a text has been brought into a classroom and presented to learners in some way, its authenticity has been compromised because it is not being used for its original purpose.
Teachers may decide to highlight parts of the text for language analysis (TALO) and this means that authenticity is reduced.
Teachers may decide to alter or shorten a text to make it more accessible in terms of meaning (TAVI) and this, too, reduces its authenticity.
Teachers may decide to focus only on parts of the text which serve as models of the staging of information (TASP) and leave out portions so this, too, reduces authenticity.
Any authentic text which has been tampered with will no longer be authentic.
Learner authenticity
This refers to the use that the learners are putting the text to.  For example, a travel brochure is written to inform and persuade prospective customers of the advantages of a particular holiday destination.  Once it has been brought into the classroom it could be used
    to identify positive adjectival phrases (TALO)
    as way of practising scanning and skimming skills (TAVI)
    as a model text for learners to write their own texts about somewhere they know well (TASP)
All of these mean, of course, that the use to which the text is put is no longer authentic because the readers are not the writer's intended audience and are not reading for the same reasons.

(For more on authenticity and some discussion of authentic, quasi-authentic, semi-authentic and contrived materials, see the guide to authenticity.)

The aim of a reading programme will consider both types of authenticity but it need not do so from the outset.


Grading the task

The lower the level of learner, the more difficult it is to use authentic materials, of course, but grading the task rather than grading the text can be a productive approach.  It does, however, mean that learner authenticity is considerably reduced.
For example:


Grading the text: removing blocks to comprehension

Grading the text, and thereby reducing its text authenticity, is the other obvious route.  Here's an example (from Wikipedia) of a section of a text with the possible blocking items highlighted:

elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, and relocated to Memphis, Tennessee with his family when he was 13 years old.  His music career began there in 1954, when he recorded a song with producer Sam Phillips at Sun Records.  Accompanied by guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, Presley was an early popularizer of rockabilly.

Note that rockabilly is not a blocking item here because Presley's music is well known and the class should know what it sounds like.  If they don't, why are you using this article?

If an otherwise authentic text is made inaccessible to the learners because of one or two grammatical or lexical items, the problem can be dealt with in three ways:

  1. Glossing the items in the text with a footnote or inserted comment
    In the example above this would mean explaining the three blockers in a footnote as, e.g.:
    1. relocate (v.): to move your home or a business to a different place (e.g., they are relocating my office to the fifth floor)
    2. accompany (v.): to go with someone or something (e.g., she accompanied him to the bus station and said goodbye there)
    3. popularizer: (n.): a person who makes something well known and liked (e.g., David Beckham was a popularizer of football in the USA)
  2. Pre-teaching the blocking items
    In the example above, this will mean:
    1. relocate: focus on the stem (locate) and use a synonym such as put in a place, elicit the meaning of the prefix re- and then supplying and eliciting examples as above.
    2. accompany: miming being arm-in-arm with someone and then eliciting / supplying examples such as the food is accompanied by a salad, the violinist was accompanied by a pianist, I accompanied the old lady across the street etc.
    3. popularizer: again, word formation, this time suffixation with -ize/-ise (to form the verb from the adjective) and -(e)r (to form the doer from the verb), is the focus once a synonym such as liked by lots of people has been provided for the adjective popular.  Then you can elicit anyone else they know who popularised something.
  3. Replacing the blocking items with simpler alternatives.  This often produces an unnatural text because synonymy is not complete.  (The dangers of using synonymy to explain lexis are covered in the guide to synonymy (new tab))
    In this example, they could be:
    1. relocated = moved
    2. accompanied by = playing together with
    3. popularizer = person who makes something well known and liked

A fourth alternative is to allow dictionary use, whether of mono-lingual or bi-lingual sources.  This can be effective but learners need to be trained in their use or they may start looking up words which are unnecessary for comprehension such as producer in our example.
The focus on blocking items only needs to be maintained.

without help

Without help

The degree of independence which can be encouraged is also, rather obviously, level dependent to a great extent.
Tactics such as task grading and text grading (above) may encourage a feeling of independence in the classroom but true independence in reading occurs outside the classroom.
Much depends on the purposes the learners have for exercising reading skills.

survival skills

Level 1: survival skills

Many learners do not need sophisticated reading skills either because their need for them is limited to surviving in an English-speaking environment or because they will rarely need to access complex written texts.
For these learners, a focus on notices, directories, public information signs and so on is probably adequate.  Such reading texts can be almost wholly authentic and might include:

Texts like these require 100% comprehension but that is achievable because they are almost always short and often accompanied by images.
Here's a small selection:

security sign sign sign
sign sign sign sign
sign sign menu sign

Thousands more of such things are available on the web.


Level 2: a measure of integration

Many learners need slightly more advanced reading skills to attain a measure of independence in social and professional contexts while not needing hugely sophisticated reading skills.
For such learners, the following might be a short list of what's required and, therefore, what should be included in a reading skills programme:

People vary widely and so do the settings in which they function so this list can never be complete.
Only by investigating the needs of learners can we hope to meet their aims and supply them with the strategies they need and familiarity with the text types they are going to encounter and need to access.


Level 3: full independence

Some learners need to function fully independently in terms of reading skills.
These learners will need to:

This is not an easy set of targets but equipping learners with the fundamental skills is a step along the path to full independence (providing, of course, that that is where they need to be).


At appropriate speed

Increasing reading speed is often seen as a kind of Holy Grail of a reading programme and there is little doubt that reading quite quickly is a useful skill.
It is, however, often overemphasised at the expense of reading for adequate comprehension.  There's nothing wrong with reading quite slowly if you have plenty of time and want to understand as much as you can.
That said, as Nuttall (1996:127) has pointed out, there is a vicious circle at work in which poor readers slow their reading rates to try to understand every word and then become frustrated and demotivated to read because it takes so long, so they stop seeking out opportunities to read.
There is a guide for learners with a set of exercises on this site to help them increase their reading speeds linked in the next section.

A number of factors slow readers down: blockage by unknown lexis, complex structural phenomena and so on.
A major factor is applying the wrong strategy altogether, e.g., reading intensively when one should be skimming or scanning.  The solution to this problem lies in better skills training with respect to recognising and implementing the appropriate strategy (or combination of strategies) to deal with a particular text for a particular purpose.  For that, see above.


Word recognition skills

If you have followed the first guide to what reading skills are, you will recall that a reading speed of 200 words per minute is the minimum which is considered adequate to understand both the sense of the words and the connections between them.  To attain speeds like these one has to be able to recognise words on sight rather than laboriously decoding them letter by letter or even syllable by syllable.
Sight recognition is, then, a vital preliminary skill which underlies all other reading skills.  It cannot be assumed; it must be taught.
Especially at the early stages of language learning, there are number of exercises which can be used and they are especially suited to computerised exercises (but needn't be done that way with some imaginative use of a data projector or a simple paper-based procedure).
Here are some examples:

For single words:

As quickly as you can underline the word that is the same.  The first one is an example:
time tame time tome tine tune
arrive arrange arraign arrive arrow arrest
break broke brake bread breath break
agree aggress agile agony agree egress

For phrases:

As quickly as you can underline this phrase: make the beds.  The first one is an example:
make the money make the beds make the bed make the bread bake the bread
take the beds rake the bed make a bed take the beds make a friend
make amends shake the ends make the beds get a bed make the beds
get the beds make the beds take the bread make some beds hate the bread

Learners can, of course, do exercises like this for themselves and even make them up for their peers in the class.  Done frequently enough and with as many variations as possible, reading speeds can be quite dramatically increased.
If you would like to try an online test like this for whole short sentences click here.  Be prepared to start immediately – you have only two minutes for eight sentences.
A section of the part of this site for learners contains some more exercises to help learners increase their reading speed and improve their recognition skills.  Click here to go there (new tab).


stepping up the pace

This activity requires an appropriately long text and works like this:

  1. Give the learners the text and require them to read as much as possible in 60 seconds, starting at the beginning.
  2. Now give them another 60 seconds, again starting at the beginning, to read what they have already seen and go on.
  3. Repeat a third and fourth time.

The outcome should be that familiar material is read more quickly each time and learners begin to acquire the skill of skimming over what they are familiar with and moving on to the less familiar.


repeat reading

This is simple exercise:

  1. Get the learners to read, say, a 100-word paragraph and understand as much as possible.  Time them.
  2. Now get them to re-read the paragraph in, say, 75% of the time they took the first time.
  3. Repeat, reducing the time limit again.

In theory at least, this will alert the learners to the fact that reading a paragraph quickly twice is more effective than reading it slowly once.


individual reading-speed targets

Most learners of English fall well below the generally accepted rate of 200 words per minute.

  1. Check the learners' current rate by giving them an appropriate text with a few, but not too many, blocks and allowing them 60 seconds to get as far through it as they can.  At an average of 12 words per line, for example, reaching line 10 would imply a reading speed of 120 words per minute.
  2. Now suggest an attainable reading speed for this week of, say, 10% better than they have achieved.
  3. Require learners to practise, at home or in class, until they have achieved the target rate and test them again.
  4. Set the next target until the reading speed reaches 200 words per minute.

Because each individual in the class will, probably, have a different initial reading speed, this exercise allows for individualised progress because we are discussing percentages rather than absolute targets.



This may seem an odd category to include in the targets of a reading programme but there are good reasons for its appearance here.
Some learners, especially at lower levels, may be tempted to read aloud because it seems to aid comprehension.  It does, in fact, and it has also been shown to aid memorisation and especially affects the short-term memory store.

Vocalisation does, however, have a demonstrably adverse effect on reading speed and comprehension because the effort of articulating each word slows the reader and takes away from the effort that can be devoted to comprehension.
Later, the same learners may no longer be audibly reading aloud but they are subconsciously forming the sounds of what they read in their heads.  This is known as sub-vocalising and everyone does it to some extent, especially when trying to memorise a word or other piece of information in a text.
This is not an easy habit to eradicate.  Without specialist apparatus, with which few classrooms are equipped, it is virtually impossible to detect sub-vocalisation at all.
Raising awareness of its existence and implementing some of the ideas for increasing reading speed (above) can be a great help.


With adequate understanding

The key lies in the term 'adequate'.
For a sports report in a newspaper, 30% may be considered adequate understanding but for the instructions for using a chain saw, anything less than 100% comprehension is potentially dangerous.
There are some classroom strategies:

  1. To raise the learners' awareness of what is required and get them away from a chase for the Holy Grail of 100% comprehension, discuss explicitly what the learners understand by adequate for a range of texts and purposes such as:
    1. finding out the time and gate number for your flight (100%)
    2. reading a short detective story (60% will do)
    3. flipping through the local paper to see what catches your eye (20% is adequate)
    4. reading a summary handout of a lecture (80% is enough)
    5. finding out if an email is spam (10%?)
    6. reading most websites (70% will do, even for this one)
  2. Do not require 100% accuracy in comprehension tests.  Even native speakers only average around 70% understanding in most circumstances.
  3. Make sure that any tasks you set concerning comprehension bear the 70% threshold in mind.  Insert enough redundancy to allow the same information to be read in two places.
  4. Vary text types and reasons for reading as much as possible in a reading programme to alert the learners to what is required to be adequate understanding, bearing in mind text type and purpose.
  5. Set post-reading tasks which are appropriate to the amount of comprehension that is adequate for the purpose and text type.  Requiring 100% comprehension of a sports report, for example, is unreasonable, inappropriate and unfair.
  6. Make sure you focus at some time on TAVI even if your ultimate goal is to use the text as a language resource (TALO) or a model (TASP).

If you want more in this area do the guide to inferencing which discusses reading and accessing meaning in some detail (new tab).

Take a short test.

Go to the in-service skills index

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.
Nuttall, C., 1996, Teaching reading skills in a foreign language, Oxford: Heinemann English Language Teaching

References you may also 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
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