Monthly Archives: October 2014

On the teaching of reading comprehension.

I would like to start this post with a question: ‘Do you teach or test reading comprehension in your reading classes?’.

This post is evoked by a comment that was made by a fellow teacher: “I would admit that I never taught reading comprehension. What I was doing was following blindly the questions in the bottom of the reading text.”

I have seen many instances where teaching reading comprehension classes are turned into testing reading comprehension- or a little bit far even from being testing. The teacher would start his/her lesson with a brainstorming of the topic, trying to activate the learners’ prior knowledge. He/she then immediately asks the learners to ‘read the text and answer the questions’ underneath before moving into the correction of the questions one after the other. This seems a very normal process in most of our EFL classes. What makes this far from being a reading comprehension lesson?

  1. I don’t think the teacher is aware of the target reading sub-skill in the lesson.This is manifested through dealing with questions which target different sub-skills, sometimes reading for the gist, sometimes scanning and other reading for details.
  2. This means the students are moving from one unit/text to an other without  being trained on how to apply any one reading startegy in the classroom/exam reading texts, and ultimately in the real-life reading (as a skill).
  3. This entails that neither the teacher nor the learners are aware of the reading lesson’s objective, or target competency. Maybe the only clear objective that can be given is ‘to teach reading’. But, for what purpose?

In the light of the above considerations, it’s recommended for any reading comprehension lesson to target one reading sub-skill. The lesson should focus on training the learners on the use of the target reading comprehension strategy. This means that the teacher is required to select only one reading comprehension skill and target it in the lesson. Again adopting most textbooks the way they are now is very misleading. Neither in ‘the map of the book’ nor at the beginning of each unit is the target reading competency (sub-skill) identified. In the best cases reading comprehension skills are ‘misidetified’ and confusing or crammed together at the top of the first page of the unit in as much the same way they are listed in the national syllabus.

I do get confused when I see ‘read for cause and consequence’ featuring as a reading competency or skill, and I feel dizzy when I read that ‘read and define a concept’ or ‘read a menu’ are considered  reading comprehension skills… It is also unrealistic and anti-didactic to target four or five reading comprehension sub-skills in one lesson. This further proves that the reading lessons in the text are more test-like (and so is the teacher’s lesson if the textbook is followed as it si) than heading towards strategy training.

It is very appreciated if the teacher adapts the passage on the textbook and targets only one reading comprehension skill in his/her lesson. It’s rewarding when the teacher is aware of the skill he/she’s dealing with in the lesson. Only in this way can he/she make the learners aware of the target competency and use appropraite strategies to train the learners on the real-life use of that skill.One final comment in relation to strategy-training, most of the (exam-oriented) textbooks simply tell the to ‘read the text and answer the question’, whatever the question is. Targetting one specific reading skill doesn’t require ‘reading the text’; reading the title, the subtitles and looking at pictures is enough to get the gist of a newspaper article.

  • Have a (critical) look at the reading sub-skills that are targeted in the national syllabus (mind things such as ‘identifying the topic sentence of each paragrpah of the text’, The  Guidelines, 2007:23).
  • Match each sub-skill to the most appropriate reading passage in the textbook or use your own text if you can afford it, providing that it fits the unit theme.
  • No need to tell the learners to ‘read the whole text’. Use the appropriate strategy as is required by the skill.
  • Adopt an explicit approach to teaching reading strategies. Say for example: “for question number XX, you don’t have to read everything (the whole text). Read only the first paragrpah and the last one/ read only the first sentence in each paragraph as you are reading for the gist, we only need the main idea of the text. Time the reading depending on the task/target skill.
  • Recycle the sub-skills as you move along the syllabus. It’s not enough for a skill to be targeted in one unit and then forget about it once for all. Besides, recycling strategies prepares the learners for the exam as they will get into a text that is more or less similar to the exam text by the end of the year (multiple questions targeting different sub-skills).
  • Give less time to the learners as you progressively train them on the strategies that build the skill.

On observing a language class

        Observing an English as a Foreign Language class – or maybe any other language class- is different from observing any other school subject. Two things, among many others, are highly appreciated  in language classes. First, a language teacher has to take into account the fact that language is taught for the sake of being used in real life. Hence, while teaching, all the tasks and activities should drive towards this final objective. Consequently, evidence of the pupils’ learning would be observed only if they can use what they have learnt in meaningful communicative situations. It is indeed boring- somtimes frustrating- to see a teacher emitating exam-like exercises all along the session. True, there are summative exams and the learners should be prepared for that as well, but this should not blind us to the point of ‘inventing’ a boring language lesson. Exam-like exercises should be targetted in part of the practice stage of the language point being dealt with.

        Related to this is that any meaningful interaction activity should normally be conducted in pairs or small groups, more or less the way real-world interactions do take place. It’s ‘dehumanising’ language teaching when you ask students at the end of a grammar, language functions or vocabulary lesson to “give an example”. No problem if that is done while checking understanding of simple concepts or vocabulary items; but as an opportunity for language USE, no one ever asks as to give him/her examples in real life.

        FollowIng the textbooks the way they are now would not certainly lead to achieving any of the above points. It’s highly appreciated when teachers strive to build situations (role-plays, e-mail exchange, information-gap activities…) through which the learners interact and use the language they have just learnt.

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