TeachingEnglish
Reading for information: Motivating learners to read efficiently

This is the first in a series of four-articles which propose a four stage methodology for teaching reading.


What is efficient reading?
What happens when you read a book, a newspaper or magazine for information on a topic that interests you, or when you are reading as part of a course of study? If you are a good reader you almost certainly don't read every word carefully. You read with a purpose, and as your eye skims over the page you take from it whatever you need, predicting what is likely to come next and adjusting your predictions as you go along.

We want our students to learn to read like this in English. We want them to be able to skim through pages on the worldwide web identifying relevant information with speed and efficiency. We hope that one day many of them will read quickly and efficiently enough in English to use the language as a medium of study at university level or beyond. More and more schools and Ministries of Education are interested in Content and Language Integrated Learning (Clil), recognising the importance of learning a language, in our case English, as a means to studying other subjects more effectively. If we want to encourage this kind of reading in the English language classroom we need to provide a reason for reading and we need to recreate the circumstances in which readers operate in the real world outside the classroom. I am going to look at a task-based approach to reading which will enable us to do this.

Providing a context and a reason for reading
First we need to provide a context. When we read in real life we usually have some expectations about what we are going to read. Perhaps we know quite a lot about a topic and we want to check on a few details. Or perhaps we have just heard about something and are curious to know more about it. We rarely set out to read something without knowing anything at all about the topic and without having any expectations about what we are going to read. So in the classroom we need to provide learners with a context. Before they begin to read they will have some idea what it will be about and what to expect from it.

Secondly we need to provide a reason for reading. Sometimes in our reading we are looking for very specific information. We may have certain beliefs which we want to confirm or perhaps to reconsider. Or perhaps our curiosity has been aroused by a newspaper headline or the title of an article in a magazine, and we want to satisfy that curiosity. We should try to put our students in the same situation when they approach a reading. What exactly do they expect to get out of the reading? What gaps in their knowledge do they want to fill? What expectations do they have which they want to check against their reading?

Let's set up a reading activity like this for learners. One which provides a context and a reason for reading. Let's start by asking the question: Are sharks dangerous to humans? The fact that we start with a question is interesting in itself. It provides one reason for reading: to find an answer to the question. But it may be that some of our learners know the answer already. We can begin by asking them to work in pairs or groups to answer the question on the basis of their general knowledge. Then we can lead a class discussion to share the results of this pair/group work.

My guess is that they will answer the question by saying that some but not all sharks are dangerous to humans. They may even give examples. But it is also likely that their discussion will raise more questions than it answers. Which sharks are dangerous? Are most sharks dangerous, or is it only a small minority? How big are sharks? Where do they live?

Let's move on to provide a questionnaire which will focus on some of these questions:
Here are eight statements about sharks. Say whether each one is true or false.

  1. There are nearly two hundred different species of sharks.
  2. The smallest sharks are about 20 centimetres in length.
  3. Most sharks are less than a metre in length.
  4. The biggest sharks are around 6 metres in length and weigh up to 2000 kilograms.
  5. The biggest sharks are the most dangerous of all.
  6. Sharks are found in rivers as well as in the seas and oceans.
  7. Only about two hundred people are killed by sharks each year.
  8. More people are killed by dogs than by sharks.

We will go through these questions to make sure they have been properly understood, but without giving any clues as to the answers, then we will ask learners to discuss the questions in pairs or groups. Finally we will review their answers and find out how many pairs or groups answered true and how many answered false on each question. And what is the answer to the big question? Are sharks dangerous to humans?

Priming before reading
Let's review what has happened in our lesson so far:

  • We have introduced a topic and provided a context by getting our learners to engage their own knowledge of sharks.
  • We have provided a reason for reading in two ways. First we have aroused their curiosity. It is quite likely by now that they are eager to know whether the eight statements given above are true or false. Secondly we have probably aroused a spirit of rivalry. Some pairs or groups will have offered one answer, others will have offered quite a different answer. They will be anxious to know who is right and who is wrong.
  • We have covered most of the vocabulary which the learners will come across in the reading which is to follow. We will have done this in two stages: first in discussing the general question: Are sharks dangerous to humans?; and secondly in introducing the statements and making sure learners have understood them.
  • Learners have had a good deal of language practice centring on the topic to be covered in the reading. We have had pair/group discussion and general class discussion led by the teacher.

These things make up what I think of as the Priming stage of the reading lesson: getting learners ready for reading by providing a context, a purpose and necessary language input. It is important to note that even though this is a preparatory stage there has been a lot of student participation and that all of the language used in these activities has been used with a purpose. Learners can now go on to read the text.

I hope that by now like the students your curiosity has been aroused. Are there really two hundred species of shark? Are sharks found in rivers as well as in the oceans? Are dogs more dangerous than sharks? To find the answers read the text Are Sharks Dangerous to Humans? at end of article.

After learners have finished reading you will be in a position to lead a class discussion on the text. Check the answers with them. How many answers did they get right? Have they learned anything else from the text? Is there anything else they would like to know about sharks?

We have now achieved quite a lot of language use, finishing with reading and discussion. But there are two things we have not done - two things that we need to do after the reading. First we need to provide a focus on language by looking at some important linguistic features of the text, at the grammar and vocabulary. Secondly we need to do something to make the text memorable. All too often learners read a text and then forget all about it. If we can recycle the text in a way that makes it memorable they will remember not only the content of the text, but also some of the language it contains.

So in my next article I will outline a four stage process. We have looked at a lesson illustrating the first two stages:

  • Priming
  • Reading

In the next article Form focus and recycling: getting grammar I will illustrate the next two stages:

  • Form focus
  • Recycling

In a third article Techniques for priming and recycling I'll look at a variety of techniques which you can use for yourselves to apply the processes of priming and recycling in the classroom, and in my fourth and final article Techniques for form focus after reading I will describe a range of techniques for form focus.

Written by Dave Willis

Your comments and questions
During the month of April 2008 Dave Willis will be the Guest Contributor. You can add comments or questions about the contents of this article by clicking on Add new comment below. Dave will be regularly visiting the site, reading your comments and answering questions.

 

Sample Text used in this article

Are sharks dangerous to humans?
Sharks have been around for hundreds of millions of years. Even before dinosaurs roamed the earth there were sharks swimming in the sea. They live in oceans and seas all over the world. Some sharks live near the surface, some live deep in the water, and others on or near the ocean floor. They are even found in fresh water, sometimes swimming many miles up rivers like the Mississippi in the USA and the Amazon in Brazil.

We tend to think of sharks as big dangerous creatures. We sometimes read about shark attacks in the newspapers, and in 1975 the film Jaws terrified a whole generation of moviegoers with the story of a great white shark which attacked holidaymakers in a small seaside town in the USA. The great white is certainly a fearsome creature. It can reach 6 metres in length and up to 2000 kilograms in weight. It has as many as 3000 needle sharp teeth arranged in five rows, so it can sever a man's leg in a single bite.

But not all sharks are like the great white. The pigmy shark, for example, is only about 20 centimetres in length. There are almost 400 species of shark and more than half of these are under a metre in length. The biggest sharks of all are not at all dangerous to humans. The basking shark and the whale shark grow to around 12 metres, but they are quite harmless, feeding on plankton and small fish.

Only about 25 species are dangerous to people. Of these the bull shark is the one that is most likely to attack people. It swims in very shallow waters where people swim and is much more numerous than the great white, which is very rare. Less than one hundred people are attacked by sharks each year. Indeed you are far more likely to be killed by a dog or by bees than by a shark, and some scientists believe that sharks only attack people because they mistake them for seals and sea lions, the shark's favourite food.

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Comments

Daisy's picture
Daisy

[quote=Dave Willis] We will go through these questions to make sure they have been properly understood, but without giving any clues as to the answers, then we will ask learners to discuss the questions in pairs or groups. Finally we will... [/quote] My learners don't like working in pairs or groups. they find it very difficult. What do you suggest?

Daisy 

Dave Willis's picture
Dave Willis

[quote=Daisy]My learners don't like working in pairs or groups. they find it very difficult. What do you suggest? [/quote]

Hi Daisy,

Thanks for your question. It’s one that worries a lot of conscientious teachers.

Let me say first that you do not have to use pair or group work (let me simply call it PGW for now). All the activities I have proposed can be done in a teacher led format – that is with teacher controlling the class, asking questions to prompt learners’ ideas and commenting on learners’ answers to keep things on track. So PGW is not a necessary part of the kind of lessons I am suggesting.

But there are benefits to be gained from PGW. Let me outline one or two of them briefly:

  • It gives learners lots of chance to use the language. In a teacher led class of, say, 25 learners, each learner gets very little chance to speak English. In a forty-five minute class, for example, let’s imagine the teacher takes up ten minutes explaining to learners what they have to do and generally organising the class. That leaves thirty-five minutes. Let’s say the teacher is speaking for two thirds of this time asking questions and commenting on learners’ answers. That leaves twelve minutes. So each learner will get, at best, less than thirty seconds talking time in each class. But if you divide learners into groups of four and give them a total of twenty minutes group work, then every learner has the chance to talk for an average of five minutes – more than ten times as much. Obviously it’s not as straightforward as that – but I’m sure you see what I mean.
  • The second thing is that in PGL learners have to control the discourse for themselves. In teacher led discourse learners simply answer questions. In PGW they both ask and answer questions, they organise turn taking, they check on how other people are participating, and so on. In other words they get a much richer language experience – they get experience of the way language is used in the world outside the classroom.
  • A third reason is that learners have to make decisions for themselves about the kind of language to use. (There is another comment below which relates to this so I’ll try to say more about this in answering that question.)

But it is asking a lot of learners to expect them to work independently in a foreign language. They need training in how to do this. Let me suggest some stages you can use.

  • Give then time to prepare themselves before they go into PGW. For example you could give them the questionnaire about sharks for homework so they can think about what they might say.
  • Look at half the questions in teacher led mode and ask them to discuss the other questions in PGW.
  • Let them get on with things by themselves. If they see teacher hovering nearby they will worry about mistakes. Move around the class freely, listening carefully but unobtrusively.
  • If you do intervene be as supportive as you can. Make positive comments like Yes, that’s a good point, well done, Lucy and so on.
  • Give very positive feedback after PGW. Point out that they have been doing something very difficult and that they have done really well.

So there are ways you can ease them into PGW. Maybe you have tried all these for yourself. You don’t have to insist on PGW if there is real resistance. Many teachers think that group work is a necessary part of task-based learning. But this is not the case. The important thing is that learners are using the language to express their own meanings, and they can do this in a teacher-led format. But I think it’s well worth trying hard to set up PGW for the reasons outlined above.

Best wishes, and thanks again for your participation,

Dave

Jenny Cheung's picture
Jenny Cheung

The trouble with group and pair work for discussing the questions is that learners use the L1 all the time. Is there anything we can do about this?
Dave Willis's picture
Dave Willis

[quote=Jenny Cheung]The trouble with group and pair work for discussing the questions is that learners use the L1 all the time. Is there anything we can do about this?[/quote]

Thanks, Jenny, for your question. It’s another one that good teachers worry about a lot.

If learners have never been asked to use English independently before they will find it very difficult. It’s not surprising that they slip back into L1. In answering Daisy’s question above I suggested that learners need to be introduced gradually to pair and group work (PGW). If you give them this kind of gradual introduction it will help them to get used to using English in their PGW.

Make sure that learners are well prepared for the task in terms of vocabulary. If they don’t have enough in the way of vocabulary they will begin to use L1 words and may drift into using L1 throughout. So take time at the priming stage to make sure you have given the right vocabulary input. You might leave a list of key words on the board for them to refer to.

Within task-based teaching there is a cycle described as:

TASK - PLANNING - REPORT

At the PGW stage in the lesson I have described learners begin by discussing the statements in their questionnaire. We call this the TASK phase. In the PLANNING phase they are working as a group with a spokesperson who will present the outcome of their discussion to the class as a whole. This is what happens in the REPORT phase.

When they are working in groups in the task stage they probably won’t worry too much about accuracy. They will be speaking spontaneously within the security of a small group. They will be developing ideas as they speak rather than presenting a considered point of view. In the report phase, however, the spokesperson is not speaking within a small group, but to the class as a whole. This places a greater premium on accuracy. And he or she will not be speaking spontaneously but presenting a considered account of the discussion. In these circumstances they will want to speak with accuracy and precision. This is not easy for learners to do, particularly at the elementary and intermediate stages. So during the planning phase they will have a chance to prepare for the report.

The aim of this three phase cycle is to encourage learners to move from an informal to a formal presentation. If you apply this cycle consistently learners will soon find that it is very difficult to prepare something in L1 and deliver it to the class in English. It makes life easier for them if they try to work more or less in English from the start.

Of course there will be occasions when they lapse into L1. This may be incidental – asking for a vocabulary item that they don’t have in English, or sorting out problems to do with the management of the task. This incidental use of L1 really doesn’t matter very much. You shouldn’t encourage it, but there’s no point in making a fuss about it.

If learners insist on using almost entirely L1 there are a number of possibilities. Perhaps it is beyond them to do the task in English. You are asking them to do something too difficult. Or perhaps you have not given enough priming. These are things you can put right next time you use the task with a different class.

But it is always possible that PGW simply doesn’t suit your class. In this case you may have to resort to a teacher led mode. But it really is worth trying very hard to make PGW work before you accept this.

Finally I think it’s important to recognise how much we are asking of our learners. Let them know that you appreciate their efforts. Be positive. Don’t pick on their errors. Pick out things they have done well. Pick out and comment on useful words and phrases that they have used. Positive reinforcement is usually much more effective than negative criticism.

 

It's really useful that you raise questions like this. I'm sure you weren't the only one worried about this problem.

 

Cheers,

 

Dave

jscholte's picture
jscholte

In answer to the question about learners using L1: I find this always happens when the demands placed on their English are too high. If you allow them to speak at a lower level, even in much simpler language then they have been taught and can understand, they will soon get used to using the foreign language, too. There's no other way- if they don't start simply they will never dare use the language they know, however advanced they may be in comprehension and grammar work. Only practise makes perfect.

Dave Willis's picture
Dave Willis

I'm sure you are right. Learners have their own way of simplifying
their language. For example instead of the past tense they will often
simply use the base form of the verb together with a past tense
adverbial:Yesterday I go to cinema. We have to accept this. It
is a sign of intelligent problem solving at work. Even after they have
'learned' the past simple tense it takes time - often a long time - for
them to assimilate this so that it is part of their spontaneous output.
So what are they to do in the meantime? Avoid talking about the past?
Produce language which, though accurate, is so halting and slow that it
places intolerable demands on the listener? Or produce a simplified
version of the language which does the job well enough.

This last
solution is the one preferred by creative language users. I think we
have to accept this as the short term solution. This doesn't mean that
we accept that learners will never produce the past simple. There are
ways of focusing their attention on the form which will help and
encourage them to adopt in gradually into their language. I have looked at some of these in the next three articles, and I am sure other teachers have plenty of ideas of their own

But I think the worst thing to do is get unhappy and depressed about learners doing what learners do quite naturally and, as a result, expecting them to behave unnaturally and adapt their language immediately to include whatever they have been 'taught'. 

talitha's picture
talitha

I've found your article quite interesting and useful. I think I'm going to take into account some of your advice that, so far, I haven't done (as, for instance, to provide a context and a reason for reading).

But reading your articles I've felt some posible problems:

  • Don't you think this process when having a text to read is a bit long to do in one session? (so, can we do it in several sessions?)
  • Your text about sharks is very motivating, but how can we find motivating texts or how can we know if a text is motivating for them?

Thank you!

 

Rocio T.'s picture
Rocio T.

Motivation is the base to learn so the same thing happens when we are talking about reading. Our role as teachers is to give students the necessary motivation to read. How can we do that? As the author of the article says we have to give them a reason to read, that is: to give them interesting topics for them to read.

phe's picture
phe

We are teaching children to be able to operate in the real world. We always read with a purpose and this is what we have to provide our students: a reason to read. When we want to reach an aim, we do the activity more efficiently.

In this article some strategies to develop this idea in classroom are presented and we should use them.  

Teresa85's picture
Teresa85

Thank you for your article, Dave.

I found very useful your strategies to make readers interested in the text. Making true or false statements about the topic to see what they know about it is very motivating for them. They would be waiting to know the correct answer by reading the text. The important thing is to provide the context and purpose to get learners ready to read the text successfully.

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