How to teach reading skills to non-readers

reading skills


The time has come for you to teach the so called certificate classes and you’re thrilled and can’t wait to put into practice all those elaborate strategies you have acquired from your university years on how to do everything. This is your moment! You can shine your light on the highway of star teachers. Ha! Wrong approach. Think again! Teaching certificate classes means you will have to go into a classroom of fairly indifferent teenagers who are adept at technology communication, if I may use the term. They chat, they share, they post stories, they upload videos and communicate through symbols rather than words like emojis or quote celebrities’ popular acronyms like YOLO. Do you still think you can attract their attention by having them open their books and start reading a text for which they will have to answer questions afterwards?

By Penny Papagiannopoulou, English Teacher

We teachers of foreign languages have to face the hard work of showing students how to read texts and understand what they are reading about. It is common occurrence that teenagers read without realising what it is they are actually looking at. There is this haste of teachers explaining drills to students expecting them to follow tips and strategies on how to best answer questions on relevant texts. The idea is to follow the 5-6 stage procedure so that the learners answer questions and then go over the right answers with them. Which is this procedure?

  • First read text quickly to get the general idea
  • Then read each question or sentence and underline key words
  • After that go back to the text and locate the answer which should be underlined. Accordingly the omitted sentence must make sense with the information before and after the gap.
  • Having done all that, go back to the question and check its options. There are usually two that could look right, yet it is only one that is absolutely correct. Therefore one further step is needed.
  • Go back to the text and double check that the answer or sentence does not in any way interfere with the discourse and the answer is correct in every little, tiny detail.
  • Last but not least apply the same strategy to the remaining questions keeping in mind that there is always a distractor looming in the dark depths of reading between the lines which can take away one or even all essential to achieve a high score.

The aforementioned is the traditional approach to attempting reading texts with students and, to an extent, it used to be quite effective up until some ten years ago. It started with just a few of the students not being able to fully grasp the ideas of certain texts and we did not take the time to think about it in detail. We did not even consider it a problem. Some of us even blamed the increase in numbers of exam takers which automatically meant that some were simply not ready to sit exams.

However, as years went by we saw that verbal communication and writing skills deteriorated gradually reaching an unprecedented low during the last two or three years. And what does that have to do with reading skills? One could exclaim. Everything! The answer is not simple, yet it all starts with language exposure. Should we stop and face a few facts then we will realise some neglected truths.

A foreign language learner is a person who does a plethora of things within a day. That being said the time left for one to devote to the study of rules and the completion of certain exercises set as homework is limited. Given the fact that the social background operates in the learner’s mother tongue it is highly unlikely that any foreign language skill can be practised or sharpened outside the classroom walls. Consequently the learner is restricted to practise what he or she is guided to do within the school of languages. That alone is just discouraging. People learn by experience. They realise by discovering and the memorisation of sentences is by no means a way to learn. It is a way to memorise and use within a limited time frame. That in turn results in fragmented pieces of information in a language spoken two or three times a week in a confined space being forced to interact with peers and most importantly to provide data to a person of authority who is set to correct every mistake so as to aid someone learn. You can see the paradox, here.

How can learning occur then? Learning results from discovering and following one’s pace. How can something so important be implemented and applied within the limited time of a school of languages? The only answer I was able to come up with was, by reading texts. Texts are used to show students and learners how to pass exams. Despite their role as exam tools texts are essential to learn things. Actually texts are the stepping stones a learner will stand on in order to express themselves both verbally and in writing.

How is that possible? It is quite achievable and within easy reach to teachers. The internet is a powerful tool and technology has allowed millions of people to share information on zillion of matters around the clock worldwide. What I personally choose to do with my exam classes is to find authentic material on the web, print it and share it with them before I start a new chapter. The target topics vary according to the topic of every new chapter of the coursebook. I usually find a related topic that is of current concern to the world such as plastic pollution or epidemic, which is a hot subject nowadays. Finding a topic to share does require a little preparation, however.

Once the topic is selected, then a few words will have to be underlined or made bold. Those will have to be discussed before the first reading.

Pictures can also be printed or downloaded to be shown on any device. Even a smart phone will do. Images can be closely related to the topic but can also be different so as to display the broader uses of certain vocabulary. This triggers memory; thus lexis acquisition is achieved.

A few columns can be made depending on the main ideas of the text. Students can write sentences that have already been prepared or extracted from the text underneath each corresponding column. This can be done after the second reading.

 A few can take the procedure further and play games. Anything is possible. The target is to actively engage learners in actually taking the time to read, think, relate to, even infuriate with something they have not realised before in the foreign language. The process during which a person has felt anything is experience and that is the gain for both the educator and the learner.

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