Preparing Intermediate Students to Tackle Authentic Texts
by Alex Case - 3
How, then, can we help improve our students' reading strategies?
Each strategy will be examined in turn:
- skimming for general idea
- scanning for specific information
- ignoring or guessing unknown language
can be split into two parts: reading quickly and reading efficiently.
For sheer speed, methods that can work in the classroom are
setting of time limits, races etc. In Advanced Masterclass
(5), there is an attempt to provide students with tips on
the actual technique of 'speed reading'. I did not find this
particularly successful in changing students' (or even my
own) reading behaviour, but my attitude to exercises such
as this tends to be that as long as the texts used on these
learner training subjects are interesting in themselves, it
is worth a try. Other activities to improve speed, whilst
focusing more on comprehension as well, are activities where
students must read and react quickly to the text, such as
computer adventure games. My experience as a CTEFLA trainer
and observer has also reinforced for me the importance of
a single, well-chosen skim question for texts used in class.
I find this is something in which the Headway books, for example,
are especially weak- invariably providing between 3 and 5
questions to answer from the first reading of the text. Finally,
the simplest and most useful tip can be to make students put
their pens down when reading.
A popular task is to give even very low-level students a text
and ask them to scan it for easy to find information such
as numbers and names. Whilst this is useful practice, I would
argue against using a text in this way without later doing
more detailed comprehension tasks as this is more likely to
point out how little they understand rather than how much.
Something that seems to have been almost entirely ignored,
possibly for logistical reasons, is the idea of 'scanning
a publication'. Thinking of how someone tackles a newspaper,
for example, they are much more likely to flick through the
whole paper looking for a specific article than they are to
scan through a single article looking for specific information.
The only activity I know of this type was designed more with
the motive of textbook familiarisation (6)
Tackling this has two purposes: helping comprehension and
stopping students becoming daunted by authentic texts. The
point was made earlier that students may often not be aware
that they still have to do this in their own language. A difficult
text in L1 ( e.g. 'Don Quixote' for Spanish speakers) should
provide plenty of examples which can be more or less guessed
from context. It should also be pointed out that it could
also provide some that cannot. I have before now finished
reading a book in a foreign language in which a piece of vocabulary
occurred several times, looked it up in a dictionary and found
that it meant something completely different to what I thought.
When using a text in class, if such language cannot be ignored
either, it is precisely this which should be pre-taught.
Practice activities for handling unknown vocabulary can include
cloze exercises, guessing of possible meanings of nonsense
words etc. In the research for another article in DevelopingTeachers.com
(7). I also found that looking at word chains in a text could
help. The teacher should also ensure that if students ask
for explanation of vocabulary they should as much as possible
be lead through the process of guessing it. Even with the
most unguessable word, students should at least be able to
divine what part of speech it has.
The point was made earlier in the essay that students expect
to learn vocabulary from reading, and reasonable use of the
dictionary (or the teacher) can certainly help with this.
Generally, though, students tend to use these excessively.
Activities where students are allowed to look up a specified
number of words only can certainly help them with prioritising.
Three to five words seem a reasonable number.
The principles on which I have based the activities above
have been common currency for some years and texts as old
as New Cambridge English Course 3 (8) certainly took these
into account. Very up-to-date texts such as New Headway (9)
and Cutting Edge (10) generally deal with reading in a very
modern and systematic way, and my approach to these has generally
changed over the years from a rejection of certain activities
given into an understanding of their importance. Examples
of these are vocabulary activities and text organisation.
The chief question in dealing with book readings from texts
such as these has rather become one of prioritising- one Headway
reading can often have enough (usually useful) activities
for a two hour lesson. My own major objection, then, would
be the lack of original ideas for practising these skills.
Activities such as the 'mazes' in New Headway, for example,
where students choose options and read cards with the consequences,
would seem exactly the kind of idea where students could react
quickly to the text, thereby building up reading fluency.
Understanding of reading in L1 and L2 has increased a lot
over the history of EFL teaching, most especially in the area
of reading strategies. Whilst the conclusions on these are
generally uncontroversial and well-known, a real understanding
of them by the teacher can change the way the material used
is viewed and even lead to new ways of helping students practice
the skills they need, most especially those making the important
jump into the world of authentic materials.
seminar 'Reading Aloud' Alan Maley, Oxford House, London,
(2) seminar 'Stories in Language Teaching' Andrew Wright,
TESOL Spain March 2000
(3) 'Reading'- Catherine Wallace, OUP
(4) Article 'Curriculum Innovation, Teamwork and the Management
of Change' K.Jennings and T.Doyle- Included in 'Challenge
and Change in Language Teaching' editors Jane Willis and Dave
(5) Advanced Masterclass CAE- T.Aspinall and A.Capel, OUP
(6) Seminar- 'Making the Most of your Coursebook' International
House Madrid May 1999
(7) Article- 'Discourse
Analysis, Advanced Learners and the Cambridge CPE'- Alex Case,
developingteachers.com Dec 2001
(8) New Cambridge English Course 3- M.Swan and C.Walter, CUP
(9) New Headway Series- John and Liz Soars, OUP
(10) Cutting Edge Intermediate and Upper Intermediate- S.Cunningham
Alex Case is working as Senior Teacher (Materials and Teacher Development) and a freelance EFL writer in Tokyo, after working in Turkey, Thailand, Spain, Greece, Italy and the UK. He is also Reviews Editor of TEFL.net and you can comment on this article and other TEFLy things on his blog- "TEFLtastic with Alex Case" (www.tefl.net/alexcase)
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