Effective Reading in Exam Classes by Jeanette Corbett
in the EFL classroom
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
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
· Post Reading to check comprehension
· Follow up activities linked to the text and integrating
other skills in a natural response to the text.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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,
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
the first page of the article
the lesson plan
to the articles index