Jeremy Harmer reviews different aspects of teaching.He starts by outlining the fundamentals of teaching reading skills.
Why is reading important?
Getting students to read in English is vitally important for a number of reasons: firstly, reading is a necessary skill for many, if not all, foreign language learners. Whether they are faced with tourist brochures, instruction manuals, medical textbooks or even fiction, many students will have to be able to read effectively. But reading in the foreign language is also important because it shows the written language in action. And on top of that, frequent reading exposes students to the language in a way that, if successful, helps them to acquire language itself, either consciously or subconsciously.
What is good reading material?
Not all reading texts or activities are necessarily good for students, however. We need to consider both what they read and how they read it.
Most teachers would not give beginner students a novel by Ernest Hemingway or even a ‘blockbuster’ by Jilly Cooper to read. There would simply be too many words which the students could not understand and they would give up disheartened. On the other hand, some of the reading passages which those students do have put in front of them are so simple and so unlike real written English that they may not be very useful either, because they are so obviously not authentic, not like the real thing.
The reading texts which we give students to work with, then, must appear to some degree authentic, even if they are specially written for students. And they must be at a level which the students can cope with, even if they do not understand every single word.
Just about any kind of reading material is usable in the English teaching classroom. Students can be shown menus and timetables, application forms and E-mails. They can read poems and narratives, newspaper articles and advertisements, letters and postcards.
What the teacher chooses to show the students will depend on four things: the students’ future needs, the students’ interests, the teacher’s interests and the textbook they are using.
What different kinds of reading are there?
There are many different kinds of reading. We can scan an article or a timetable for the particular piece of information we want. We can skim a play review to get a ‘general picture’ of the reviewer’s opinion. We can read in a leisurely way for pleasure, or we can read a set of instructions in order to perform a task. We can also read aloud for others. All of these reading activities are valid, of course; the job of the materials designer and the teacher is to match the activity style to the type of reading.
Matching text and task is a vital skill for teachers. Except in surreal comedy you would not expect someone to read a train timetable for pleasure, just as you would be unhappy if students insisted on skim-reading a poem by Keats which they were supposed to be studying.
As a rule we can say that students benefit by reading for general comprehension first, and looking for details later (though of course this would not be the case for an airport announcement board, for example). If the first task the students have to deal with is relatively simple, then their anxiety is decreased, and they can approach the more difficult tasks that follow with confidence.
Understanding the message of the text is not the only use for reading material, however. We also want our students to see how texts are constructed. What language is used to give examples or make generalisations? What language devices do writers use to refer backwards and forwards? How are humour and irony conveyed and what kind of lexis signals conditions and contrasts, for example?
When students understand paragraph and text construction they have a better chance of understanding text meaning.
What do teachers have to do?
In order to make the reading experience a success for their students teachers need to do a number of things: they need to choose the right kind of text (as we have said), but they also have to get students engaged with the topic/task and allow them, even provoke them, to predict what they are going to read.
Teachers have the ability to make potentially boring texts interesting (and vice-versa!) by the way they introduce the task. They will probably not do this by saying ‘Open your books at page 26 and answer question 1 by reading the text’. It is much more likely that students will be engaged if the teacher has aroused their curiosity about what they are going to see through provocative statements or questions, looking at pictures or predicting.
One way of getting students to predict is to let them look at the text but not read it. Does it have a headline? Then it’s probably from a newspaper/magazine. Is there a picture? What does that tell you about the subject matter? The subject is ‘Sleep’: what would you expect to find in the article? Then, when the students start reading, curious to see if their predictions are right, they are engaged at least at some level.
Lastly, and most importantly, teachers have to tell students how to read. Explain that ‘you don’t have to understand every word; just try to get a general picture of what the writer is saying’, if that is what you want the students to do. Tell them to only look for the specific information they need if you want to give them scanning practice.
What happens when it’s finished?
Reading texts contain a great deal of language, topic information and lots of other information (in accompanying photos or maps, and through the layout of the text). It would not be sensible, therefore, to get students to read and then forget the text and move on to something else. On the contrary, reading practice should be part of an integrated teaching/learning sequence. The reading text might be preceded by a discussion and then, after the reading has taken place, used perhaps as a stimulus for a role play or letter-writing. If the reading text contains (the possibility for) dialogue students can be asked to act it after ‘acting training’. If it is controversial they can be asked to ‘reply’ to it by writing to a newspaper. Part or all of the reading text can be used as a model for student writing.
It is important to plan a text-related or follow-up task to come after close reading has taken place. The students will have invested effort and time in the text. Don’t waste it!
Make sure that:
• the reading text is the right level for the students
• the reading topic has some chance of engaging the students’ interest
• the students know what kind of reading they are going to do
• the tasks suit the text and vice versa
• the students are involved with the topic, the language of the text and, where appropriate, the text construction
• there is both an introduction and a follow-up to the reading text.
Jeremy Harmer is a teacher trainer and materials writer. He has worked extensively in the UK and Mexico and led training sessions all over Europe, Latin America and the Far East. His books include The Practice of English Language Teaching and the forthcoming How to teach English as a Foreign Language, both published by Longman.