How can we turn our EFL learners into skillful readers? Here are 7 points to consider when teaching reading in the language classroom
- Teaching reading strategies
When we read in our first language we deploy a variety of skills depending on the nature of the text. We use different techniques when reading a train timetable, a newspaper article or a job advertisement. In our native language this process is mainly spontaneous and we seem to be somehow unconsciously trained on how to approach each text type. Our background knowledge also helps us understand what we read. We use the information stored in our brain in order to decipher the meaning from the text.
Just as we don’t read everything in the same way in our mother tongue, the same thing counts for the TL. When preparing a reading task for our EFL learners we need to keep this in mind. Our main focus should not be to test reading but to teach this skill and introduce our learners to the different strategies they can deploy when reading a text in the foreign language depending on its nature and the purpose of reading.
It is important to keep in mind that reading basically means comprehension. It is successful when it establishes understanding. Our number one priority in the EFL classroom for this skill should thus be to train our students and provide them with the appropriate input and practice in order to turn them into skillful readers in the TL. The teacher’s goal should be to instill the knowledge and the reading strategies that will enable his/her students to read in the TL with ease and to successfully extract all the information they want from the reading passage.
When people read in a language other than their mother tongue, they seem to forget all about the different reading techniques they normally use in their L1. Foreign language students in particular may tend to pause many times during their reading and overuse their dictionaries in order to look up all the unknown terms they encounter. It is thus crucial to help them realise that by doing so they are losing focus and are distancing themselves from the initial purpose of the reading task.
Our ss need to receive adequate practice on how to easily grasp the main points of a text (skimming) and on how to detect and extract specific information from a passage (scanning). They need to be trained on how to deduce meaning from context, on how to use clues in the passage to understand what the writer is suggesting. Training them to read for gist and read for specific information will help them in their future development, not only in their language exams but also in facing real life situations in the TL.
2. Brainstorming-active involvement
In order to facilitate reading in the EFL classroom and to make sure that our learners understand what the purpose of the activity is, we first need to trigger their imagination and activate the relevant ‘schemata’ in their brains. Using realia and visual stimuli in the pre-reading stage can be very useful in arising our learners’ interest. We need to make them predict what follows, to help them make guesses about the topic of the text and give them a reason to read. This brainstorming during the lead in stage will attract the learners’ attention and will thus foster their motivation.
Giving clear instructions is also crucial at this point as our learners need to know why they are reading the text and what they should focus on. Teachers should also consider pre-teaching some key vocabulary that could facilitate the reading process and help their ss focus on the overall aim of the reading task.
Let us also keep in mind that reading may be a receptive skill but our learners should not be viewed as passive recipients when focusing on a text. We need to make them actively involved in the process, not only in the warm up stage but also in the actual reading part. They need to be the discoverers and the ones who control the flow of the activity.
3. Text and task authenticity
The input our learners receive from reading is an invaluable source of new lexis, which they will start absorbing and hopefully adopt in their writing and speech, turning the passive vocabulary they have acquired into active. As a result, intensive training on reading in the TL and a variety of input are both very important. We need to make sure that we use a variety of authentic materials from different sources, ex brochures, the web, newspaper articles, magazines, books. The selection of these texts should be handled with extra care and caution. Their authenticity needs to be verified and the lexis and grammar each passage contains should always be carefully checked.
Along with authentic texts we should also focus on creating authentic tasks and grade them based on our classroom’s specific needs. Variety kills boredom and motivates learners. Teachers could step away from the reading activities suggested in their coursebooks and use innovative exercise types to accompany each reading passage (hands on materials/ cut out paragraphs/reordering/giving a title to each paragraph, etc.).
Let us keep in mind here that reading is not just an individual process. Group work or pair work could be very beneficial when it is combined with reading. We need to encourage collaboration and student interaction and allow our learners to share their ideas, build knowledge together and combine their skills to finish the task.
4. Choosing the appropriate material based on our learners’ level and needs
Is the language used in the reading passage of the appropriate level for my class? Can my learners guess the meaning of the unknown words from the context?
It is important to answer these questions during the planning stage of the reading activity. We can read and absorb the information really fast as long as what we read makes sense. The text we choose needs to be meaningful to our learners and have some cohesion. If our ss have to work on a difficult and confusing passage that contains too much information that they cannot grasp or decipher from the context, then they stop ‘absorbing’ the knowledge. They can easily get perplexed and demotivated. We thus need to make sure that the reading passage and its accompanying tasks are appropriate for our learners and match their level and needs.
5. Thinking time
Keeping the right balance between giving them enough time to process and absorb the information they get from the text, but at the same time having our learners learn to obey and stick to certain time limits is important. Again this will depend on the purpose of the reading activity, our students’ needs and what we want to achieve. In exam oriented classrooms for example focus on obeying the time limit could be useful in preparing the ss for the language exams they are going to sit.
6. Intrinsic motivation – Reading for pleasure
Instilling the ‘reading bug’ to their learners may be one of the greatest achievements of language teachers. We need to make them want to read in the TL not because they have to but because they want to. This starts in the language classroom by choosing interesting texts, relevant to their age, level and needs. Texts that focus on topics that might trigger our learners’ interest will automatically boost their intrinsic motivation and will turn reading in the TL into an enjoyable process.
We must encourage our ss to lower their inhibitions and to learn how to embrace the foreign language text without any fear. Our ss need to start feeling confident enough to read in the foreign language and be motivated to do so.
To achieve that, we need to influence them, to give them a reason to want to read. We could suggest websites, articles, literary texts, anything that might seem interesting to them and they could read in their free time. Once our learners have adopted reading in the TL as a habit, they will gradually start building their TL vocabulary. Through extensive reading they will receive input related to spelling and the use of grammar in meaningful context and will eventually start thinking in the target language. The idea of an exchange library in the foreign language classroom where ss can borrow books they can read in their free time is also very useful in boosting reading for pleasure in the foreign language.
7. Positive feedback
Giving encouraging feedback to our learners is essential especially when it comes to reading. One of our main tasks as educators is to lower our students’ inhibitions and increase their motivation. We can achieve this by complimenting our students on their efforts and by providing constant support and helpful advice in this challenging task of reading in a foreign language.
Some useful links:
- The British Council has posted a very interesting article on the benefits of extensive reading:
- Cambridge University Press also hosts an article on the use of graded readers in the EFL classroom