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Making reading communicative
And these reactions are from my adult students. My young learners' reactions may be even more extreme. "I can read at home, I come to lessons to speak!" more than one of my students has told me. Many students do seem to regard reading as a waste of class time but how many of these students will read outside class without encouragement inside? The aim of this article is to consider a few approaches to making classroom reading more communicative, by which I mean integrating it with other skills work, so that students can see its value.
- Can reading be communicative?
- Strategies I use for communicative reading
- Pre-reading tasks
- While-reading tasks
- While-reading tasks leading into post-reading tasks
- Post-reading tasks
Can reading be communicative?
Communication suggests interaction of some sort, perhaps in many students' minds between speaker and listener. Is reading, therefore, since it is often a solitary activity, a non-communicative activity? Surely not since the reader is interacting with the writer, albeit in a less direct way than speaker and listener. Reading is, of course, just as communicative as any other form of language use and as teachers our aim is to bring out that communicative element. For example by establishing direct communication between reader and writer by exploiting students' written work for reading practice (see below for ideas). Another feature of real reading is that while we may read alone we communicate what we read to others constantly. Talking about what we have read is a rich source of classroom possibilities.
Strategies I use for communicative reading
One of the things to bear in mind when lesson planning is that classroom reading is not the same as real reading. Classroom reading aims at helping students develop the skills they need to read more effectively in a variety of ways (the same variety of ways as they can employ in their own languages, of course). To enable this we plan 'pre-reading', 'while-reading', and 'post-reading' stages. These stages can help us make reading more communicative.
Pre-reading tasks often aim to raise the readers' knowledge of what they are about to read (their schematic knowledge) as this knowledge will help them to understand the text. In our L1 we use this knowledge subconsciously and as a result need to raise it consciously in an L2. This raising of awareness is most effectively done collaboratively. Approaches I use include:
- Tell your partner what you know about the topic
- Do a quiz in pairs to find out what you know about the topic
- Look at some pictures related to the topic
- Skimming the first paragraph for gist and then predicting.
When reading in our L1 we are constantly using our schematic and linguistic knowledge to predict content (both related to the topic and the language itself). In class, predictions can be communicated to colleagues, of course. Some examples of what predictions can be based upon include:
- A title
- Knowledge of the author
- A skim of the first paragraph
- A set of keywords from the text
- Reading the end, predicting the beginning.
- Reading the middle, predicting the beginning and the end.
Although reading is often a solitary activity and the idea of 'reading in pairs' seems odd, reading can be collaborative. Approaches I use include:
Running and reading: this approach especially lends itself to scanning as the idea is to encourage the students to read as quickly as possible in a race.
- Divide the class into student A and student B pairs. Student A sits at one end of the classroom.
- Stick the text to be read on the wall at the other end of the room.
- Give student A a list of questions.
- Student A reads the first question to student B who has to run down the classroom to find the answer in the text, and then run back to dictate the answer to student A, who then tells B question 2 and so on.
- The first pair to answer all the questions wins. (I ask the students to swap roles halfway through so everyone gets a chance to scan).
Slashed / Cut up texts: This is a genuinely collaborative reading approach.
- Photocopy a suitable text and cut it diagonally into four.
- Seat students in fours. Give a piece of the text to each student. They mustn't show their piece to the others.
- Give each group a set of questions.
- The group have to work collaboratively to answer the questions since no one has the whole of the text.
- Groups can compare answers when they have finished.
Using websites: if you have a computer room available this is a very effective way of promoting communication as students can work on a reading task in pairs reading from the same screen.
While-reading tasks leading into post-reading tasks
Jigsaw reading is an old favourite but perennially effective.
- Divide a text into two parts or find two (or three) separate texts on the same topic.
- Students A get one text and a related task, students B get the other text and task.
- Students A complete their tasks in a group. Students B likewise. Compare answers in A & B groups.
- Students get into A & B pairs and tell each other about their tasks.
Creating a class text bank: I encourage students to bring in interesting texts that they have found (perhaps as a homework task using the Internet) which can be submitted to the class text bank. For weekend homework each student selects a text to take away which they then discuss with the student who originally submitted it. This is, of course, what readers do in real life.
Exploiting graded readers: this is a good way to help with detailed reading since this implies reading for pleasure. I have used two approaches:
- Using a class set of the same reader so that everyone reads the same book. This leads into class discussions of what everyone has read.
- Students read different books and then recommend their book (e.g. by writing reviews) to their colleagues.
Exploiting students' written work: I often put students written work up on the walls for the others to read. Tasks can include guessing who the author is, voting on which is the most interesting, selecting some for a class magazine.
As mentioned above, telling someone about what we have read is a very natural reaction to a text. I have already mentioned a few in connection to 'while-reading' (e.g. recommending readers to the class) but other ideas I have used include:
- Discussions about the text
- Summarising texts
- Reviewing texts
- Using a 'follow-up' speaking task related to the topic
- Looking at the language of the text (e.g. collocations).
I would not be exaggerating to say that one of the things that all the most successful language learners I have met have in common is that they are dedicated readers in English. They all recognised the value of reading as a way to develop their language independently of the classroom but equally saw the value of investing class time in becoming more effective readers in English. They were willing to make this investment because they realised that reading could be fully integrated into other skills work and thereby be just as communicative as any other classroom practice.
Patrick Howarth, Teacher, Trainer, Spain