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Reading for information: Motivating learners to read efficiently

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

Reading for information: Motivating learners to read efficiently - reading article - guest writers

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.