Reading is a dying art, they say, but I think what they are referring to is the reading of literature. In fact, people are processing more and more information off the page and on the web – much, much more so than we did in the past. Students of ESL are confronted with a vast amount of reading material on the internet every day but are we, as teachers reigning supreme in the ESL classrooms, preparing our students to confidently and efficiently interact with the plethora of reading material available to them?
Do we teach or test reading skills?
In my first couple of years of teaching ESL, I grew very comfortable doing reading and listening skills lessons – much more than when it came to teaching writing and grammar. For the most part, I ignored explicitly teaching speaking and pronunciation although every lesson obviously included some speaking and pronunciation work.
So much so, that when it came to being observed by managers, I invariably chose to teach an easy reading or listening lesson – learners spent plenty of time engaging with the texts, working in pairs and groups, there was always some vocabulary that could be culled from the text to showcase my strength in CCQing and drilling, and the lesson was rounded off with a chunky speaking task at the end: all elements of a receptive skills language lesson and communicative teaching were easily checked and the observer, students, and I all went home smiling for the rest of the evening.
While doing the Delta in 2012, one of the tutors posed an interesting question – In our classes, do we teach reading or do we test receptive skills? That got me thinking – all those easy-as-pie reading lessons I taught following the basic formula (set context – activate schemata – gist task – scanning task – detailed reading task – wrap up with speaking and maybe some language analysis) – how effective were these in teaching my students to read more ‘fluently‘, more quickly, with better comprehension, and how well did the tasks accompanying the reading (usually from the course book) prepare my students for reading outside the classroom?
Most ESL teachers have come across this question before – In our classes, do we teach reading or do we test receptive skills? – either from having attended workshops, webinars, or pondering it with fellow colleagues in the Teachers Room. On the CELTA, teachers are taught to test / practice reading skills as a means of developing them rather than teaching these skills explicitly. This is akin to doing lots of gap-fill activities to practice the present perfect but never graduating to freer practice of the target language. In the end, students become used to the pattern of reading comprehension questions asked (surface reading tasks such as T/F, gap-fills, underlining the right choice etc.) after a graded, coursebook-style article, but still remain woefully unprepared to efficiently read emails, online news, classifieds, social media posts, adverts etc.
So what is the difference between teaching reading and testing it?
From personal experience of “teaching” reading in my first few years as an ESL teacher, and from conducting teacher observations in the last 2-3 years, I’ve found that most teachers don’t teach reading, we test it.
We test reading, I believe, when students are expected to answer a set of questions which have only one valid answer. The teacher sets a time limit and students get busy trying to answer these questions. At the end of the activity, the teacher conducts peer or whole class feedback, and students mark their answers as right or wrong. The conscientious teacher may go back to the text and encourage students to find sections of the text which they found difficult to understand and answer questions from and occasionally, there may be some discussion about why students found these questions difficult to understand.
But how does this help learners develop and practice real-life reading skills? When we give learners a time limit of a minute to ‘read the text quickly’ and answer the gist question, how many of them know how to read the text quickly? When we give learners five minutes to answer the T/F questions, do they know how to find these answers?
Most teachers throw their hands up in despair and say they have to give students more time because students can’t read fast enough, or that students try to read every word rather than looking for the answers quickly.
Teaching reading skills
So what can teachers do to make the leap and start teaching and developing reading skills?
Firstly, I think we need to reconsider the nature of texts we use in the classroom to teach reading. Most of the texts in the course books are significantly different from the nature of texts students actually need to read. I asked my students to take pictures of what they read in English everyday and share these on our classroom Whatsapp group. Some of the things students took pictures of were instruction manuals, business emails, Twitter feed, online news portals, Tripadvisor reviews, gadget reviews, recipes, make-up blogs etc. If this is what students are mostly reading, why are we giving them one uninteresting, graded, inauthentic material ELT publishers continue to churn out?
Secondly, I believe it’s time to reimagine the types of questions we pose to our learners too. Most course books seem to favor T/F, gap-fills, traditional Q&As etc. which really only prompt surface reading of the text. More authentic while-reading tasks would be:
a. sorting information – making lists, categorizing etc.
b. summarizing and relaying information to someone else (in spoken or written form)
c. identifying new, interesting, unusual, funny, contradictory-to-personal-opinion information
e. asking further questions (what questions does the text raise in your mind)
Last but by no means the least, I think it’s really important to explicitly teach the skills of skimming, scanning and detailed reading. While some may be able to transfer these skills from their L1, for others, it doesn’t come as naturally. Teaching skills explicitly may seem counter-intuitive (like teaching the parts of speech when teaching sentence structure – yeah, I’m anti-grammar for the most part) or daunting (how does one teach these skills explicitly) but with a few tricks up your sleeve, and consistent practice, your students will be able to develop and practice the distinct skills of reading. This explicit practice helps, in turn, in the transfer of these skills outside the classroom – which is after all the aim of all teaching.
Check out these strategies I use to teach students to read quickly:
In upcoming posts, I’ll write about practical activities I use in class to develop reading skills. Stay tuned.