Monday, August 30, 2010


Once the most formidable task, i.e. that of selecting the correct reading passage, has been accomplished, half the work is done; the rest is, as the saying goes, plain sailing. However, navigational skills are still vital; so what are some of the tricks of the trade? Although an attempt shall be made here to provide a straightforward explanation of how a teacher should go about dealing with a reading task, it must not be forgotten that none of the theory provided will truly fall into place until it is practiced in class. This requires patience and a willingness to learn for without these qualities, a truly great teacher cannot exist.

First things first: sell it to them!

A good teacher, like a good salesman, needs to sell the reading passage to a group of – in some cases actually hostile – students. The teacher is, however, in an advantageous position: he is armed with the correct weapon: a text with potential that the students, although they don’t yet know it, will love. Over enthusiasm on the part of the teacher should be curbed here and that insane longing to hand out the text and tell the students how much they are going to love it should be pushed to the back of the mind. In order for the students to really play along, they need to discover that the text is interesting which means the teacher has to wet their appetites first. It is at this point that an active imagination and creativity come in handy for there is no one magic sales pitch; in fact there are as many different kinds as there are texts. This brings us neatly to our first problem: a lot of people think that all this is a waste of time and go straight for the jugular with disastrous results; working with that wonderful text with so much potential becomes like pulling teeth. The teacher leaves class not being able to fathom how such a text could possibly engender so much yawning, rowdiness and pleas to leave early. The teacher only has himself to blame though. Ten or fifteen minutes spent whipping up enthusiasm would have done the trick, and students would have been surprised to find the lesson over. Taking this unnecessary shortcut will negatively impact the teacher and in turn the quality of the lesson as well as the teacher himself also becomes more engaged while working the crowd; it is, to my mind, one of the most truly enjoyable parts of the lesson.

Texts and introductions; some examples

Preparation the night before means the teacher has to put his thinking cap on. Luckily, today there are many more avenues to explore thanks to technology: YouTube, the internet, music, pre reading questions… the sky is the limit. For instance, let us imagine that the text being read is the bbc text “The truth about torture” – an old favorite with which you can’t go wrong. The text is an argumentative one imparting the views of torturers as to the inevitability, in some situations, of torture as the only and quickest way to get information. The text lends itself to a decent reaction essay when all is said and done too. One of the methods of torture described is water boarding, in accompaniment to The Beatles’ famous song “A yellow submarine”. What the teacher can do is ask the students what use music can be put to. They will come up with a lot of answers but they will not think of torture. Then, the students should be given the opportunity to listen to the song, which is a very happy, carefree one in case you don’t know it. Then and then only must the text be produced; one minute into the text and they will see exactly what use the song is put to, and the teacher will have successfully sold the text to the students. After this point, all my classes have always cooperated like lambs and actually lost track of time despite doing a whole manner of activities they might, initially, have felt to be boring. Let us look at another example: say, for the sake of argument, that the text being read concerns the effects of war; a very popular topic. What I do here is introduce the students to two famous war poets: Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brook. I have two of their most evocative poems on tape read by two good actors. The effect of listening to and working through the poems just enough, mind you, for the students to get a feel for them is profound. One would have to be made of stone not to be moved by Sassoon. The beauty of this introduction is that two birds have been killed with one stone: the students have also been shown that they can understand and enjoy some poetry! Any text concerning the effects of war follows nicely from here. Another sales pitch that works well is posters, pictures or websites shown via a laptop and projected onto a screen. Imagine that the reading passage is the one referred to in part one of this paper titled “Chad Kidnapping Angers Sarkozy”. With a text like this, an appropriate website full of pictures of malnourished or starving children works fine. The pictures could be discussed, how far students would be prepared to go to help these children could be determined – with the teacher egging them on to save the poor children – and then the text with all the suspicions surrounding it could be produced. Failing a laptop, posters or pictures will also do the trick. The obvious conclusion to be drawn here is that teaching aids involving a surprise factor are very useful at the start of a lesson. A word of warning though: it is very unwise to get into a rut with introductions; the lurking zombie mode should not be forgotten. This is also true for the unhealthy obsession with pre reading questions, which have now become a basic ingredient in the recipe of how to tackle reading. To reiterate what was said earlier, novelty and the resulting excitement is the key.

Keep them guessing; suspense is good!

Once introductions are over and perhaps before the students have got their hands on the texts, it is a good idea to read out the subtitle, the few lines in bold following the title or the first few lines of the text and invite comment. Notes concerning the speculation could go on the board; especially if there is a writing task to follow or the text is hard. Only at this point can the texts be distributed. The teacher could continue reading the first paragraph out loud substituting synonyms for key words only. Some words can be guessed from the context and others don’t really matter; this is assuming the level of the text is right. The teaching of ways of guessing key vocabulary, some of which depend on basic logic, should be considered an ongoing process; when it has been going on long enough, the penny will drop without the students being put to sleep by lists of rules and examples. A vocabulary book we used to use, Lexis, did the latter remarkably successfully guaranteeing extreme tedium. In fact, the same can be said for most vocabulary books despite which fact, teachers of all stripes seem to love them. It must be admitted that a desire to meticulously dissect sentences and words is a weakness shared by teachers and students alike. The misconception is that the more thorough the analysis, the more complete the understanding. Sadly for people who devote so much time to such a pass time, the reverse is true: the more we analyze a text, the less we are able to see the complete picture. Not being able to see the forest for the trees, in other words, is the inevitable result, and this is of no help in reading, where understanding the whole text is paramount. Remember the dreaded grammar translation method? What I have just described is its application to vocabulary teaching and should be avoided. Vocabulary is learnt best in the context of a reading passage or a listening exercise; i.e. in context where it should be allowed to float in along with all the joy and excitement engendered by the reading passage provided, of course, the teacher has played his cards right. To get back to paragraph one, which our hypothetical teacher was dealing with, on completing the reading, the students should be asked to summarize the paragraph in one or two sentences, give it a subtitle if it hasn’t got one, find the main idea and then discuss, with the teacher, what they expect will come next. This continual previewing and predicting will prevent boredom, keep students focused and interested and also ensure that everyone is working at a uniform pace; the latter becomes very important in classes where there are differences of level between the students. If there are questions, and there is a question on that paragraph, that could also be done. The teacher can then ask the students to read another section on their own; the length will vary according to the plan of the text, which the teacher will naturally have studied the night before. If, for instance, the next three paragraphs deal with the effects of germ line genetic engineering, they could be asked to read three paragraphs; if only one paragraph is devoted to the topic they should read one. This should be followed by the same exercises stated before. Finding subtitles and one sentence summaries serve the same purpose and can be alternated. Meanwhile, the teacher can start putting the subtitles and the paragraphs they include on the board thus building, for the students, the plan of the text. When complete, the plan will also help the students in their own attempts to tackle similar writing tasks. A few texts covered in this way and the basic reasoning involved in essay writing in general and the ways of writing that type of essay in particular will be painlessly ingested, leaving the teacher to drift happily into a writing task related to the text.

The ultimate reading exercise:

This brings us to the five star reading activity which must round off any reading lesson: the text related writing activity. The students can only truly be said to have understood a text if when all is said and done, they start thinking about where this all leads, what the implications are or what conclusions we can draw. In the case of an accomplished reader, this will be automatic: the brain will start wiring, posing the questions listed above and coming up with answers which the said reader will soon be dying to impart to others. If the teacher has done a good job, the students will have reached this stage as well and as they can’t all be given half an hour each to hold forth, they should be asked to write. This writing activity can, therefore, be very pleasurable to write as well as serving an educational purpose. Because it is enjoyable, learning will also be more successful.

An alternative approach:

The danger of falling into a rut has been mentioned many times before and the same is true for the teaching of reading. This means that alternative ways of tackling a reading task should be explored. One such way is asking the students themselves to write the questions to a text. However, as in anything, preparation is necessary; one can’t just ask them to produce a sheet of paper and write questions if they are to truly benefit from the activity – learn all the skills they would have learnt if the reading task had been tackled the traditional way. What the teacher should do is ask the students to read the text carefully and underline all the main ideas. The text selected for this exercise needs to be shorter than the ones normally read. When this has been done, the students need to be encouraged to formulate questions targeting these main ideas. When doing this for the first time, it is a good idea for the teacher to check the main ideas students find by perhaps producing the list via a laptop. Then, the students could be asked to write their questions in pairs after which the teacher could again produce questions he wrote concerning those main ideas so that they can compare questions. The second time round, two texts can be used with half the pairs working with one and the other half with the other. When the students have completed their work, they can be asked to switch texts and questions and answer their friend’s questions. Lastly, students can check each other’s work from answer keys which they should also be asked to prepare. When all is said and done, the students will have a good outline and summary of the text thanks to having focused on main ideas. As anyone who has ever written questions for a text will know, actually writing questions enables complete in depth comprehension of the text.

There is no rest for the wicked!

It must now have become obvious that teaching reading is, contrary to what some may feel, a very active process indeed. As explained in a previous paper on motivation, the teacher needs to be at the coal face with the students if they are to learn anything. If a more peaceful vocation not involving so much activity is desired, rethinking career plans might be a good idea. I can’t help feeling that it is immoral not do one’s best when shaping people’s futures. Laziness and negligence are, I feel, inexcusable.

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