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Reading and elementary learners
When confronted with a reading text, particularly one that's authentic, or semi-authentic, it's easy for them to think; 'I haven't got enough grammar or vocabulary' or 'I can't read English.' There's then a danger that I tune into their fears and give them material which is easy but boring.
If we address this central issue of confidence by using the classroom techniques discussed below, we can help our students to 'attack text' in a way which will help them to become better readers. This article, then, is not so much about what I give elementary learners to read, but how I ask them to do it and the principles underlying those ideas.
- Encouraging learners to help each other to construct meaning
- Levelling the task appropriately so that it's achievable
- Teaching, not testing
Encouraging learners to help each other to construct meaning
I want to look at each of these principles with a view to the pre-reading stage and the reading task (comprehension) stage.
The key to really building learners' confidence in reading is to prepare them effectively to read. This means 'warming them up', engaging their interest in the subject of the reading text, but also pre-teaching the words they will need to really understand and enjoy the text. Here are some things I do with learners in groups or pairs before they read the text itself.
- Does the text you have chosen have pictures? If so, you can photocopy them and distribute them into groups of learners. If not, perhaps you can draw something from the text on the board. Make sure that it will intrigue them. In either case, give them some focus questions. What is it about? How many people are in the story? Let the learners think, share and answer.
- Write the headline or title on the board. Ask the learners to work in small groups and think of 5 words that may come up in the text. When they have done this, 'secretaries' can come to the board and write up all the words. Then the learners scan the text and see how many of the words are in the text. Which group got most words right?
- Write the title on the board and ask the learners, in groups, to tell simple stories on the subject of the title. Again, they read the text and find out how it's the same and how it's different.
Here are some ideas I use for motivating my students during the actual reading stage:
- Select some simple sentences from different parts of the text and write them on the board. Learners put them in the correct order and predict the story in groups
- (Variation on the idea above) If it's an action story, get learners to act out or mime the sentences in groups.
- Give students the first and last sentences of the story. Groups come up with the story in the middle.
Similarly, learners can work together once they have read the text. Task types which I use to get my students working in groups are:
- Learners read and then act out the story.
- Jigsaw reading. Each group has different information from a different part of the text and they must tell other students about the part of the text they have read. This way the learners construct meaning from the text collectively.
- Learners read and prepare some true/false questions for the other groups.
This latter activity not only empowers the learners, as they get to write their own questions, but it also helps you to see the areas where they may be having problems with meaning.
Levelling the task appropriately so that it's achievable
It is of course helpful to choose a text which is intrinsically interesting for my learners, because then they will be more motivated to read. Find out what your students like, and then look for suitable reading material. I often find my material on the Internet, or in pop magazines and newspapers.
Choosing really interesting material may mean that the text I'd like to use is slightly above the level of my learners. The key is to set a task which gives my learners a sense of accomplishment, and that doesn't necessarily mean understanding every single word.
If you level the task appropriately, the learners' reading level will improve little by little, and they will start to understand more of these texts. Here are some low-level tasks which help my learners with their 'text attack skills.' They range from beginner level to upper elementary.
- Finding information about characters from the text and putting it next to the name of the right character.
- Putting pictures depicting events from the text in the right order.
- Putting cut up paragraphs or segments of the text into the right order.
- Finding the mistakes or differences between a text and an illustration.
Teaching, not testing
This brings me to the principle that developing reading skills in my learners is not about testing them, but about helping them to become better readers.
It's clear that the group work outlined above relies on this principle. If I allow learners to help each other to construct meaning, then we are focusing on the development of skills rather than testing individual students' reading ability.
Another important point here is in setting the task in advance of reading, so that learners know exactly what they are going to do. The key teaching skill is focusing the learners on the task, rather than the text as a whole. One way I've found of doing this is really spending time on the task before reading, and then giving the learners a strict time limit when they read.
Here are some other things I do as a teacher to teach, not test:
- Avoid asking 'how many did you get right?' to individual learners.
- Avoid giving marks for reading tasks.
- Give students ideas about how to read for gist, for example 'Now, read quickly and find the answer to the question on the board. You just have two minutes.'
In conclusion, if we encourage learners to help each other to construct meaning, level tasks appropriately so that they are achievable, and not use reading as a form of testing, the chances are that our learners' confidence will be enhanced and they will become better readers.
Sue Leather, Freelance trainer and writer