Reading: the taboo language skill

I think I can read your mind as you are reading the title of the article. "Reading? Why taboo?  Who is it taboo for?" As social media lovers would describe it, the relationship of reading with all three stakeholders is rather complicated and multi-faceted:


Parents  take it for granted that learners should read aloud long texts and translate them word for word in Greek - and derive pleasure from complaining to the teacher if their kid does not know a couple of words.


Teachers  tend to focus on testing reading comprehension rather than helping learners develop word and text attack skills because «there is no time to do that in class». The author of this article pleads guilty as charged for quite a few such cases when he was a young teacher.


Learners  feel familiar with short social media genre texts, accompanied with visuals but feel awe and shock when facing long texts with few or no visuals at all.

What is more, when it comes to reading under time pressure, teachers discover in horror that their students cannot cope because their eye span is not as wide as they assumed. In other words, students reading for pleasure (extensive reading) is not mainstream any more.


Treating it as a taboo issue, most of us will not talk about it. Instead, we will talk incessantly about the challenges of helping learners develop their speaking skills and quite often, we are willing to try a wide variety of speaking activities in class but not many for reading.


Let’s remember together some tips and hints that can help learners develop their reading skills and feel more confident when they open a book or read a long text:


Activate background knowledge


Also known as schematic knowledge or schemata – the Greek word for shape-, it can help students form predictions based on their experiences and relate to parts of the text. If the text is about the environment, you can easily “lead” the learners “in” the text through a discussion on environmental problems in Greece. It can also help learners to brainstorm and the teacher can elicit or pre-teach necessary vocabulary. Once students start reading, they may feel that the text is not as difficult as they thought it would be.


Make the most of visual aids


The paralinguistic features of the visuals appeal to all students irrespective of level and ability. Every student can interpret a photo, a drawing or a map and can form hypotheses about the content of the text. In this way, they have a motive to confirm their predictions.


Check your instructions


Do students know what they have to do with the text? An essay and a travel guide are not approached in the same way. In real life, sometimes we approach texts in different ways. Giving your students guidelines on how to approach it, can make a difference. For example, “What is the main idea of the text? What message does the writer intend to convey to the readers?”


Break the text into manageable parts


A very long text is highly likely to discourage learners. Depending on the class and the learning aims of the lesson, you can divide the text into parts that learners can cope with. Once they feel they have achieved the task and comprehended the first piece, then you can move to the next one. This approach can help learners build confidence and can prevent them from “switching off” before even reading it.


Jigsaw reading


This activity may remind your students of an “escape room”.  Divide the class in two groups. Group A reads part of the text, Group B reads another part of the text. Then, a student from Group A and a student from Group B work together as a pair, to share information so that they can accomplish the task which requires information from both texts. It boosts communication, collaboration and student engagement.



Pre-teach vocabulary


Some teachers feel that they have no time to do this so they proceed with asking students to read the text. Yet, teaching key words can help learners to understand the text faster and build confidence.



Don't overdo it with grammar and syntax


They are both valuable tools when it comes to comprehension. However, they are not the only way to help your learners understand the text. A combination of approaches may have better results and is less likely to put students off reading.


Discourage translation word for word


This is often what parents demand but it will definitely not help them deal with longer passages at higher levels with complex sentences and new lexis.


Discourage reading aloud in class


I once had the opportunity to observe a reading lesson in which students had to read a difficult text. The teachers asked the learners to read a part of the story each and when they finished, she desperately tried to elicit the answers to some basic comprehension questions from students who felt that the B1 level text in their book was more like rocket science rather than a fable. Alas, they remained silent. To the observer, it was clear that the learners had focused on pronunciation instead of text comprehension. By the end of the lesson, their confidence in their reading skills had been smashed into several pieces.


Encourage reading for pleasure (extensive reading)


Graded readers at the beginning and authentic material at a later stage will help your students widen their eye span and feel familiar with the world of books and long texts. It goes without saying that there are more benefits to reap apart from improving their reading skills, in terms of knowledge, culture and broadening their horizons.


  • Integrate reading in your lesson and use it as a springboard to introduce grammar, speaking and writing activities.


Teaching a structure through a text provides context and many examples which helps learners understand it more easily. What is more, in their academic and real life, your learners will be asked to comment on a text or give their own views in detail either in writing or orally.


Final thoughts


For the past 10 years I have been using extensively technology in my class and my students – the vast majority, to say the least – are thrilled. Still, at the very beginning of the year, I always make sure that they are given a guided tour at the school library so that they can be acquainted with the magical word of reading – as opposed to compulsory and much hated studying. I also make sure that creative tasks based on reading graded literature are given throughout the year in the form of projects.


 Facilitating the development of reading skills can help your students broaden their horizons, stimulate their imagination, build creative and critical thinking skills and equip them to deal effectively with an influx of data in a global, digital environment. •




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