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  • Writer's pictureTom Garside

How to make in-class reading more engaging

As one of the four language skills, reading is an essential part of second language study. However, it is commonly misunderstood by teachers and learners, meaning that the reading activity performed in class often doesn’t work as intended. If not planned appropriately, reading tasks can be unengaging and lack real purpose. This article looks at some important considerations when teaching reading

Reading is not a linguistic activity

The first misconception about reading is that it is a linguistic activity. Although it is called a language skill, this does not mean that it is purely language based. Comprehension is linguistic, as it focuses on understanding of grammar and vocabulary, which are key elements of decoding a written text. However, the way in which we read works independently of the actual language on the page.

The skill of reading itself is in fact a metacognitive skill, and focuses on the ways in which we strategically gather the information presented on the page, not just sat the comprehension level, but in terms of the ways in which the information is organised. Different kinds of Text are structured in different ways, to help the reader to process the information as it is read. Writers use introductions, topic sentences, ideas presented in a specific order, and techniques such as repetition, parallelism and tone to communicate with readers in different ways. These aspects of a written text are above the level of the word and grammar meanings in the sentences, so work beyond the linguistic level of comprehension.

Reading activity should not be a test of literacy

A common reading activity is for students to read a text out loud, sentence by sentence, perhaps student by student. This is a good way of testing literacy (whether a student can recognise the words correctly, shown by their ability to form them into a similar message in speech as is intended by the writer). However, after a certain age or low level of study, it is unlikely (but not impossible) that a group of learners simply cannot read, so this type of task usually lacks a purpose beyond ‘can you say these words?’, which is not in itself a helpful way of developing reading skills in students.

Reading activity requires a purpose

Whatever we read, we read with purpose. Reading is an intentional activity, so we have to want to engage with a text in order to think about the messages it contains. Whether it is to find out specific information (perhaps from a website or reference book), to find out the best bus or train to catch (on a timetable), or simply to kill time while waiting for something (by browsing through the newspaper or reading the book you carry with you in your bag), reading outside the classroom has purpose. It follows that when we aim to develop reading skills in learners, that reading activity should also have purpose.

A purpose for reading should be built into reading tasks, and it is the specific purpose of a task that can make it more engaging for learners to perform it. Some good ways of setting purposes for reading are:

Setting any comprehension or other questions before reading: If you ask questions after students have finished reading, then it becomes a memory test rather than an engaged reading task. If students can’t remember the information form the text, they will just have to go back and read again, making the initial reading task redundant.

Setting reading tasks for specific chunks of text: Ask students to read the first sentence or paragraph, and asking them to predict what information they will meet in the rest of the text (prediction tasks), asking students to read a single paragraph and asking them how it relates to the previous paragraph, or what its main idea is. These specific questions about different aspects of a text get students thinking about the organisation, writing decisions and communication of information, which give a task a true reading skills focus.

Using reading as a ‘springboard’ into other language or content work: Get students reading a summary of a topic before going on to study more about that topic and the language ewe use to talk about it. Read about a cultural tradition in a country, and then present a tradition from their country in the same way, or read about an event in the past and then retell another event from the past using the same past language. This way of ‘reading for grammar’, or ‘reading for vocabulary’ makes a good, top-down reading task to increase critical thinking with texts in class.

Reading doesn’t have to be an individual activity

Perhaps the most engaging way of leading reading tasks is to design in a communicative purpose. Rather than ‘reading together’ by having students reading out loud one by one, communicative reading activities encourage learners to read and share ideas and language from a text in real communication. There are several different ways of adding communicative purpose to reading:

Creating an information gap’: Rather than having all students reading the same thing and discussing the ideas in the text, why not split the text into pieces and have different students read different sections of the text. This creates an ‘information gap’ between the students, which can be filled through peer sharing or questioning about the details that they are missing (found in their partners’ sections of text). The only way for all students to get all the information about a text is for them to come together and tell each other the part that they read.

Split reading: Split reading involves different students (or groups) reading different, but related texts on a subject. Three groups might read three different texts about different types of holiday, for example, and then have to interview each other about the holidays that they read about. The text may contain the same information (price, destination, length, activities, etc.) about each holiday, and students can complete a table or list of notes by interviewing students from other groups.

Jigsaw reading: In this variation on an information gap task, different students have individual paragraphs from a single text. They need to work together to find the correct order for the text, by using any linking language or transitions between paragraphs, or by thinking about the organisation of information that they read. This is a true test of understanding text structure, especially for more formulaic texts such as academic essays, written instructions or recipes, where there is an expected order to the chunks of information (the pieces of the reading jigsaw puzzle) that need to be arranged in the right way.

Gapped texts: Another way of creating an information gap is to present the students with two versions of the same text, though with different keywords removed. Students need to work together to find the missing information from each others’ texts without lookout at them (this is important), and by asking content questions to find the answers. For example, if a country name is missing in their text, as in the sentence “He lived in __________ for five years before moving to Spain”, the student would need to form a good question to find out the missing information, and ask that question to their partner to complete the text in each case. This is a good mixed practice of reading skills, question grammar and transformation of ideas from the text into appropriate content questions.

However you teach reading in class, make sure that you do it with purpose, and incorporate student communication where possible. Find an opportunity to create an information gap, and students will be more engaged in finding out more about their texts, practising real reading skills along the way, and they will go beyond simple comprehension of grammar and vocabulary. This will give them the skills to be more fluent and active readers of a range of texts, both in and out of the classroom.

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