We can help our students to become better readers by developing the subskills they need to prepare for the text, decode it and interpret it. 

Samantha Lewis

The Reading skills section on LearnEnglish Teens helps teenagers to improve their reading skills for their school studies and English exams. There are activities for a range of levels from A1 to C1. Find out more about CEF levels here: 

Here are some activities you can use with students before, while and after reading a text.

Before reading
There are lots of activities you can do before students read a text to help enhance their comprehension, such as ones that activate the students’ schemata or background knowledge, arouse their interest in the topic or prepare them linguistically.

1. A carousel of ideas
This activity helps Ss find out what they already know about a topic and encourages them to share ideas about topics before they read a text.

Before Ss read a text, choose four topics that relate to the text that would be useful for Ss to think about before reading.

Take a large piece of paper and divide it into four triangles by drawing diagonal lines from opposite corners. Write one of the topics in each of the triangles in the centre of the piece of paper.

Four students sit around the piece of paper and are given a time limit e.g. one minute. They write as many ideas as possible relating to the topic in their triangle. When the time’s up, they rotate the piece of paper and have another minute. This time, they read the ideas already written down and add new ones to it. After a minute, they rotate the paper again and add more ideas. Repeat one last time until all Ss have written in each triangle. They then read all the ideas in each triangle.

2. Ideas continuum
This activity helps Ss think about how much they know about a topic and share ideas with each other.

Draw a horizontal line on the board. At one end write ‘I know a lot about this’ and at the other end write ‘I know very little about this’.

The teacher says topics or ideas that relate to the text. Ss decide how much knowledge they already have about the topics and write them on the line in their notebooks, so if the topic is Australian animals and the student knows quite a lot, they write ‘Australian animals’ towards the ‘I know a lot about this’ end.
Students compare their existing knowledge and those who know a little about one of the topics find someone who knows more than them and they tell each other what they know.

3. Sneak preview
Show the text on the IWB or with the projector for just 20 seconds. If your classroom is low tech, students can open their books and look at the text for just 20 seconds. The idea is for them to get as much information as possible in a short space of time so they scan the text for key words that include the most important information.

Alternatively you could show students a few key words from the text, headings and accompanying visuals and they guess their relevance in the text.

4. Words and pictures
Show students images related to the text and students work together to write down all the words they can see in the images or related to the images. Then they swap their piece of paper with another group and write synonyms or related words in a different colour next to the other group’s words. This activity helps predict words that might appear in the text and extends students’ vocabulary.

5. Peer pre-teaching vocabulary
This is a communicative way of pre-teaching tricky but essential vocabulary. Make a list of words that appear in the text that students need to know in order to understand the text. Write simple definitions for the words and cut them up on individual slips of paper. Divide the students into three groups: A, B and C. Give each group a list of the words they need to understand e.g. if there are nine words altogether, give three different words to each group. Put the nine definitions around the classroom. One student from each group has to go and find the correct definition for one of the group’s words. S/he brings the definition over to the group and they all write it down. Another student goes to find the definition for word 2 and another for word 3. When the three groups have their three definitions, make new groups of three with an A, B and C student in each. They teach each other their words and all students make a note of the words and definitions.

The final stage is to check that all students understand all the words with a quick team game that reviews all the new words.

For ideas on how to deal with unknown vocabulary in a text see:

While reading
Depending on the type of text, students will need to use a variety of reading subskills. Here are some activities you can use to develop the different subskills.

A: Scan Reading
When we scan for information our eyes move quickly around a text from side to side or up and down. We don’t read all the information on the page but look for specific pieces of information that we need. Such information could be a number, date, time, place, name or price. Working on scan reading skills lends itself to exploiting authentic materials such as leaflets, posters, tickets, timetables, flyers, what’s on guides or menus.

1. Noticeboard quiz
Put the authentic materials on a noticeboard and divide the students into teams. One student from each team comes up to the board and the first student to find the answer to a question you ask gets a point. Alternatively you could get students in groups to write a quiz for another group based on the information on the noticeboard.

2. Remove a sentence
This activity helps students think about text genre and the likely content of each type of text. Using the same texts as above, remove one sentence from each text. Students look at the removed sentences and predict which text they think they have been removed from. Then they scan the noticeboard and check their predictions.

B: Skim Reading
When we skim a text our eyes follow the text from start to finish. One of the aims of skim reading is to encourage students to read a text quickly and comfortably in order to get an overall understanding of it.

1. Time limit
Set a realistic time limit for your students to read the text and give them a general question to answer before they read. A typical task could be to choose the best title for a text. To help choose a realistic time limit, time how long it takes you to read the text comfortably and add a bit more time, depending on the level of the students. You could ask students to raise their hand as soon as they know the answer to the task. This is an unobtrusive way of seeing how quickly each student reads the text and which students need to increase their reading speed.

2. Confirm predictions
After a pre-reading prediction task students skim the text and confirm which of their ideas from the pre-reading task are mentioned in the text.

C: Intensive Reading (for detail)

1. Student-generated questions
Students work in pairs or groups and write a few comprehension questions based on the text. They must know the answers. This is a great way of reviewing question forms and helping students write questions correctly. Then, they give their questions to another group and answer the other group’s questions. Finally, they give their answers to the original group who correct them. Students love correcting each other’s answers.

2. Student-generated true and false sentences
After reading the text, students work in groups and write two true and two false sentences about the text. They give their sentences to another group who have to decide which are true and which are false, and correct the false ones. Finally, they give their answers to the original group who correct them. Again, they love correcting each other’s answers.

3. Colour the text
For any intensive reading task, I encourage students to colour or highlight the part of the text that gives them the answer. This trains them to always look for justification in the text to support their answer and helps you see which students are able/not able to find this information in a text. This is a technique they can be encouraged to use in a reading test or exam.

4. Read and tweet
Asking students to summarise a text is a useful skill as it helps them to pick out key information and to develop paraphrasing skills. Students highlight the key information in the text with a coloured pen. A short written summary could take the form of a tweet. To summarise a longer text, ask each group of students to summarise a different paragraph from the text as a tweet. Then collect the tweets, put them on the board and the students read them all and decide which order they go in. Rather than spending lots of time counting a maximum of 140 characters, you could give them a maximum number of words e.g. 25 words. The same activity could be done orally.

After reading
After reading a text, students can integrate the skills by talking or writing about it or could focus on specific language in the text.

This is a fun activity that works with texts with a lot of action. In groups, students act out the text. If necessary, one or two students could be narrators.

Choose two or three of the characters in the text and students imagine what they would say to each other and carry out a roleplay. This is a good way of developing creativity and imagination as the dialogue goes beyond what is in the text.

A typical vocabulary activity carried out after reading a text is ‘Find the word in the text that means...’. Students look for words in the text for these synonyms or definitions. This activity can be taken one stage further by asking students to replace the words in the text with the synonyms and make the necessary changes to the syntax and grammar. This helps students develop their paraphrasing skills.

Take a paragraph from the text and take out examples of a similar word type, e.g. all the verbs, articles, prepositions or personal pronouns. Give the students the missing words and they put them back into the text in the right place.

For extra reading material and activities to use in class see:

The ideas and activities above will help your learners develop their reading subskills in class and also provide them with the strategies they need to enhance their extensive reading for pleasure outside the classroom.

Find out more about developing reading skills in our teacher development module Engaging with reading – skills development.

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