Monday, January 31, 2011
Teaching Reading Skills
Last year I spent two weeks in Libya at Al Fatah University working with final year graduate students who would become English teachers; and who actually already were English teachers, working as Teaching Assistants in the English department. I decided to spend one lesson each on speaking, vocabulary, writing, reading, and grammar. We’d spend the first part of the lesson working on the skills themselves, I figured, and the second part of the lesson talking about how to teach that skill.
When we got to the reading lesson, I asked the prospective teachers if they thought there were such things as “reading strategies.” In my experiences with SE Asian students, I’ve noticed that often students think reading means nothing more than decoding words and then learning a ton of vocabulary. The Libyans knew a lot of the right answers—skimming, scanning, reading for main ideas, reading for details, making inferences; and they could trot definitions of these right out.
As practice, I gave them a chapter of a reading book I’d recently written, Building Academic Reading Skills 1 (University of Michigan Press, 2009). The level of the readings themselves were below these students’ proficiency level, so I assumed they’d have no trouble applying the strategies.
Wrong. Each reading (two per chapter) in the book begins (after some warm-up questions for the topic) with a Predict, a Skim, and a Scan exercise. But, as soon as they started with the first Predict question, which directed them to look at the title, they started reading intensively. I stopped them, and in a few cases had to ask them to turn their papers over. The skimming and scanning were even harder. I watched one student, who had in fact provided me with the very correct definitions of skimming and scanning when I’d asked, actually pick up his pen and start moving it along under each word, underlining some, circling others. “Ahmed,” I said (not his real name), “you’re reading every word, aren’t you?” He looked stricken. “Yes, but I can’t help it! I just must read everything!”
We stopped the class and talked about what was happening. I recognize that I was extraordinarily fortunate to have students whose listening and speaking levels, as well as their reflective abilities, were high enough that they could talk about what was going on in their heads. Ahmed, as it turned out, was a literature aficionado; and normally one doesn’t skim or scan a novel or short story. However, these students were also struggling with the reading section of the TOEFL and with their own academic reading for their graduate school courses. We had a nice discussion about different types of reading approaches for different types of texts, and since every student in the class admitted to having difficulty getting through the amount of reading they had, understanding the texts, and remembering what they read, they promised to at least try the strategies I was proposing.
On to the next text. This time, they got through the Predict, Skim, and Scan exercises without reading intensively (though I admit to standing behind Ahmed and whacking him on the shoulders with a bat whenever I thought he was succumbing) (that is, a rubber toy model of the animal, not a piece of sports equipment; our readings were both on bats). Now came the moment I both anticipate and dread as a teacher—when I’ve recommended something that I’m 85% sure will work for the students, but can’t in my heart quite guarantee. But, oh, happy day! Yes, after students read intensively and did the exercises, they all said that they had found that the intensive reading went faster and that the exercises were easier to do (and yes, I knew from previous classes that if they had not found a strategy useful, they would have happily said so). Ahmed in fact stopped by my office later and asked for more short texts to practice these strategies on.
Pre-reading strategies are a bit like the first two steps of process writing (brainstorming and organizing), I find—most students see them as steps that take more time; and yet, applied correctly, they actually make the process more efficient. A good reader saves time not just by being able to move through the text more quickly but by being able to understand it and remember it better.
My take-away from this experience is that as teachers we need to explain the purpose of reading strategies and not just teach how to apply them; and that further, these explanations need to be repeated, re-affirmed, and re-proven. In addition, students need opportunities to practice the strategies over and over again. It’s not enough to skim in Chapter 2, scan in Chapter 3, and find some details in Chapter 4. When I wrote the next level in the Building Academic Reading Skills series, then, I made sure that I had students apply the strategies over and over and over again, and that I provided frequent short explanations of the intention and value of these strategies.
Whatever textbook you use for teaching reading, or if you select your own texts, I recommend a similar approach: practice the skills that you’ve taught over and over, with each text. Don’t assume that because students have (for example) scanned once, they’ll automatically scan every new reading from now on. Skimming and scanning and making inferences and so on are skills, and skills take practice. Students will see an improvement in their reading ability over time, as they apply the skills again and again.This article was previously published in the Think Tank section of ELTNEWS.com: The Website for English Teachers in Japan