Train ESL students to speed read – Obscure the margins

This is the third 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, and the second one on raising awareness about eye movement in speed reading.

A lot of students find it difficult to focus on keywords or move their eyes from top to bottom and bottom to top because they are so used to reading texts word for word. This is especially true if the text is perceived as challenging and students feel the need to understand it word for word.

To give the brain an additional impetus to skim and NOT read word for word, ask students to fold in the margins of their text so as to hide a little bit (half an inch or so for an A4 size paper) of the text on either side. By removing the beginning and ending of each line of the text, we are quite literally (I think the use of the word is quite justified here) forcing or tricking the brain into reading only the keywords and forcing top-to-bottom eye movement.

Next time, I’ll talk about a cool technique called mapping the text to divide long texts into more digestible chunks.

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.

Train ESL students to speed read – Reading quickly vs. Skimming

When I observe teachers delivering reading lessons, they often hand out a page of dense text to their students, set a gist task, and set a time limit of anywhere between 30 seconds to two minutes. For a scanning task, time limits are often too generous, allowing students to read every word of the text which defeats the purpose of scanning. And yet, invariably, students let out a collective groan when the teacher sets a time limit. “Teacher, need more time!” is the most common response. And the teacher says, “Read the text quickly!” 

Here’s what I’m thinking sitting at the back of the classroom:

  1. Do students know how to read quickly?
  2. Can they read the assigned 200 words in 30 seconds?
  3. Do they know they don’t have to read every word of the text for the given task?
  4. Has the teacher taught them skimming, scanning and speed reading in previous lessons?
  5. Have students been taught scanning skills, in case these haven’t been transferred from their L1?
  6. When reading for detail, are they aware of strategies to deal with unknown vocabulary?


Teaching Reading and Developing Reading Skills

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. (more…)

Read FT, NY Times news articles for free!

A lot of permium websites have started charging for content. Most offer up to ten articles for free every month, after which one must subscribe to the site to continue reading articles. However, there is a way of reading these premium articles for free. And here’s how:

1. Go to your favorite news website: NY Times, FT, or Economist.

2. Choose a story you want to read. Copy the headline.


IELTS – What should you read?

There’s a LOT of material on the internet related to IELTS and it’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost in a maze of websites.

For an exam such as the IELTS, it is important for students to read on a variety of topics. However, this does not necessarily mean reading everything on the internet. I advise my students to bookmark two or three websites and visit them everyday. I recommend bookmarking:

1. The Economist: This news site is often a source of texts used in IELTS Reading exams. A lot of the topics you will come across are common topics for IELTS Speaking Part 3 and IELTS Writing Part 2. Even if you read only one news article a day, spend time underlining / highlighting useful vocabulary, looking up its meaning and usage (See how to learn IELTS vocabulary). (more…)

Developing Vocabulary for IELTS

OK. So you know that vocabulary is important for IELTS. But really, did you know it is THE most important factor in increasing your band score? So what do I mean by vocabulary? Good vocabulary does not mean big words. In fact, quite the opposite. Having a good vocabulary means using:

  • Collocations e.g. bar of soap, utterly stupid etc.
  • Common phrasal verbs e.g. ask around, break down etc.
  • Fixed and semi-fixed expressions eg. little did I know, all of a sudden
  • Less commonly used words and phrases e.g. interpersonal skills, broaden my horizons, human existence

So how does one go about developing a good vocabulary that can enable you to get a better band score? Here’s what I tell my students: (more…)