Train ESL students to speed read – Eye Movement

This is the second in the series of techniques to help students develop and practice their reading skills. Here’s the first post on the difference between ‘reading quickly’ and skimming.

Students generally read left to right, or right to left (if their L1 is Urdu or Arabic). Skimming a text involves reading from top to bottom, and then from bottom to top, and then top to bottom again. Open up an unfamiliar text on the screen (a news or blog article perhaps) and skim it quickly to decide (a) the genre (b) what it’s about (c) whether you’re interested in reading it or not. Pay close attention to the direction in which your eyes move while skimming the text. I’ve done this experiment multiple times with peers, friends, and students and found the following:

  • we read the headline or title (if there is one) word-for-word.
  • we gather contextual clues from the picture and the caption
  • our eyes wander over the text for organizational details such as sub-headings, bold, italicized or boxed text
  • we snatch keywords from various sections of the text to get an idea of text flow

All of the above only takes a reader reading in L1 about five or so seconds, depending on the length of the text. With students, I often give them an unfamiliar text in their own L1 and bring their attention to these details in the first or second reading lesson and then ask them to replicate the same process while reading in L2. Raising awareness of the automatic eye movement while skimming in L1 helps learners in translating the same skills to reading in English.

Next up, I’ll talk about a little trick I learned on a recent workshop on reading. This one really helps in tricking the brain to skim rather than read the text word-for-word.


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