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Developing Effective Reading in Exam Classes by Jeanette Corbett
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Reading in the EFL classroom
Theory
The reading theory model originally centred on the 'bottom-up' approach, supporting the notion that reading should be text driven, focusing on de-coding written symbols to their aural equal. A logical explanation but it does not allow the second language learner to develop their vocabulary as they read nor does it assist in understanding of meaning. (1) This can be contrasted against the 'top-down' model, which emphasises predicting as a means to activating students' expectations but often students are de-motivated if they encounter a large amount of unfamiliar vocabulary.
Not one approach is right for the classroom - the interactive approach (a hybrid of both) appears to be the way forward. This reader driven model incorporates 'schema' to keep the reader active in the process - their knowledge and expectations play a role in their comprehension of the text. I agree by providing students with 'scripts' as a guide they can often guess the meaning of unknown words from the context. Scripts give lower levels confidence to read the text and they will use their background knowledge to assist their comprehension. So then how do we introduce this interactive model into the classroom?


Reading in the classroom
The stages of a typical reading lesson will be:
· Pre-reading to activate their knowledge
· Reading to develop their strategies such as deducing meaning, locating specific information, understanding relations between sentences
· Post Reading to check comprehension
· Follow up activities linked to the text and integrating other skills in a natural response to the text.

I believe pre-reading is an essential process from which schema is activated by students before having their expectations confirmed by the text. With a non-exam class I use a pre-reading stage to generate discussion about the topic, particularly with lower levels. I feel it is necessary to activate their background knowledge to aid them in understanding the text. Activating schema is rewarding in the classroom, many minutes can go by as students discuss the merits of a form of transport or being famous but is it of any use for the Cambridge exam student?
By employing the pre-reading stage in an exam class I believe we rob the student of the ability to effectively interpret the text against the questions to be answered. It gives them pre-perceived opinions as to what they will find rather than allowing them to find the evidence or interpret the inference by the writer effectively - how do we know if in the reading process they will justify a suggestion made by one of their colleagues?
So then if I don't agree with pre-reading with an exam class how do I combat this stage in my lesson? With all my classes I have been developing awareness of text types - I believe this awareness has many advantages for the student: it identifies the text genre and their expectations against their own language, activates their natural reading strategies as the text becomes an article rather than a piece of classroom reading material and it is useful as a tool to activate their linguistic knowledge. As stated by Paltridge text types represent groupings of texts, which are similar in terms of co-occurrence of linguistic patterns. (6) Therefore rather than asking students what they expect the writer to say about transport in Madrid, I prefer to ask students to define the type of text, after which they quote evidence to support this definition. For example in an article the evidence is a headline, the layout and typeface. After which I will ask them confirm what language they expect to find in this type of text. They know what they will expect to see and will read it naturally against their language expectations rather than seeking to find evidence of an opinion that they may have discussed in a pre-reading stage. Also in the Proficiency exam, the texts are supplied without a title - it is important that students can identify the type of text to make use of their reading strategies effectively.
Developing text genre is also important as an additional writing tool. Too often we set a piece of homework such as write a newspaper article about housing, yet complain if students do not produce the appropriate genre. If this knowledge has been developed with reading then it is available to the student when asked to write this type of text. This also overcomes the problem of integrating reading with other skills; the text is viewed as a possible writing model rather than as something anonymous without any usefulness beyond the comprehension tasks completed.

Reading and post reading activities, I believe are important whether done by students in the classroom or at home. I believe the reading skill itself is difficult to assess in a student - too often we judge it on their answers to poor comprehension questions rather than their ability to read effectively.
Though I agree with Rivas in that course-books reflect current theories and incorporate the interactive model in the reading process (6) I question whether the activities reflect a natural reading response to the text type - consistently course-books check comprehension using questions rather than perhaps doing something different. For example imagine the text to be used is a job application letter - the natural response would be a note taking activity rather than the traditional question and answer. Equally as she says herself more high-level skills involving inferring, guessing and predicting is desirable - with this I am in agreement.
I think now, part of the reading problems with advanced students is that during the 'intermediate' years course-books over used simplified texts, a set pattern of questions such as open, true or false which forced students to justify their answer by scanning the text, also the lack of follow up activities which integrated the reading effort with another skill, thus developing defective readers. (4) There also seem to have been an over reliance on in using newspaper articles as a text type in course-books, I wonder too if this has led students to over develop their reading skills for this type of genre, which they then attempt to apply to other text types which require a different type of reading.
With the differing style of writing more reading effort is needed for a narrative text than article - students will readily reach to read a newspaper article in English than a novel because they have become more accustomed to it. If we are to actively encourage reading outside the classroom then we should be introducing different text types at lower levels to develop their reading choice in English.

With the class today we have been working on texts over a period of time (see attached timetable) to develop their reading skills. In order to overcome the problem of exam reading being text driven I have incorporated reading techniques around reader-response texts. Students have read a text, marked it with symbols (agreement, disagreement, something surprising, culturally specific) that we have agreed in advance then discussed the text with their partner. It is a more rewarding form of reading as it is seen as a productive activity - the text is viewed as a whole and they respond to all parts of it. (7) After which they have used the text to improve their reading technique such as defining vocabulary in context, rewording complex sentences and summarising opinions or events in the text based on the evidence.

The lesson today has been planned around their needs, when looking at different text types they identified their problems with narrative texts. At the higher level a student may be a good reader and have developed good comprehension skills, however fail to understand the writer's message. The lesson today though in part contains exam strategies; it also aims to help them understand the message by focusing on the choice of words. Equally though I accept that an exam classroom teaches techniques to pass an exam, we teach English for their future term needs. With this in mind I hope that by looking at a narrative text they will be encouraged to read outside the classroom.
According to Wallace a good reader is someone who is able to draw on the surrounding text, tolerate uncertainty (unknown words), use textual cues to predict what is coming next and be flexible in their response to it (3) - also I hope the students will use these skills in understanding the text.

References

1. Ch.4, Reading: A Discourse Perspective, Language Teaching Methodology, Nunan, Longman, 1998.
2. Developing Reading Skills, Francoise Grellet, CUP, 1986
3. Reading, Catherine Wallace, OUP, 1992
4. Understanding Ideas: advanced reading skills, Michael Swan, CUP, 1976
5. Article: Reading in recent ELT coursebooks, Rosa Maria Mera Rivas, ELT Journal, Volume 53/1 January 1999
6. Article: Genre, text type, and the language learning classroom, Brian Paltridge, ELT Journal, Volume 50/3 July 1996
7. Article: Reader-response theory and ELT, Alan Hirvela, ELT Journal, Volume 50/2 April 1996

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