Examinator Column: Building Reading Skills

by David Petrie

When asked to read, learners often bend their heads to the page and focus intently on the text, word by word, in an attempt to build meaning from a bottom up perspective – from letters to word to sentence to paragraph and from there, eventually, to text.  This is obviously quite time consuming and in an exam context, a singularly inefficient approach.

Coursebooks offer strategies and approaches to particular exam reading tasks. These are useful ways of training the learners in how to approach these tasks, but they do not always stop the learners from taking an “eyes down” approach to reading the text. Indeed, some learners still attempt to read and understand the whole text before attempting any questions or tasks that go with it.

What follows in this column are four activities that I have used with classes to help them access texts in a slightly different way, which draw learners’ attention to the way that texts are organised and how ideas are presented within texts, and which hopefully help them get to the information more quickly.

Text Mapping 

This helps learners demonstrate understanding of the text as a whole, by asking them to think about the content and purpose of the text on a deeper level, and by helping them to extract the main ideas of a text and see how it all fits together.

Activity:  Learners divide a piece of paper into a table or grid that has the same number of boxes as the text has components or paragraphs.  For example, an article with a title, a subheading, a by-line and six main paragraphs would require a nine-box grid.  The learners then map the text by putting the genre features (such as the title) and the key content areas of each paragraph into each box, paraphrasing and summarising where possible.  The grid then becomes a quick reference guide for locating information in the text, but can also lead to a discussion on how paragraphs in the text relate to each other – for example whether paragraph five acts as a counter-argument to paragraph four.  This not only helps build text access skills, but also can act as a useful model for text organisation in learner writing.

 Text Deconstruction

This helps learners to identify the purpose of a text or the writer’s intent in creating the text.  It is difficult to develop this as a skill because it largely relies on learners having had exposure to multiple texts and text types, which is not always the case (particularly with younger classes).  Activities that develop critical thinking skills are useful in such circumstances.

Activity:  Before learners encounter a text, ask them to answer the following questions:

(1) When and where might you read this?  This asks the learners to relate the text to a non-classroom context and to think about how they might encounter the text in normal life.

(2) What is the source of this text?  This asks the learners to think about who published the text (and consequently why).

(3) Why might you read a text like this?  This asks the learners to think about the reader’s purpose in looking at the text – boredom and “I wouldn’t” are perfectly acceptable answers!

(4) What are your top three takeaways from this text?  This asks learners to think about what they have learnt from the text – what new ideas or perspectives they have encountered, or actions they need to take.

(5) What might you do with this information?  This asks learners to think about whether they need to act on the information, store it or share it.

(6)  Who might you share this information with?  This asks learners to relate the text to their normal lives and the people in it – who they know who needs to know what they have learned or who might be interested in reading the text themselves.

Learners can compare their ideas in pairs with whole class feedback following later.  The purpose of the questions is to try and engage learners with the texts in a wider context than the lesson or the exam, but this does not preclude doing more exam style tasks afterwards.

Ideas into Action 

Distinguishing the main points of a text from subsidiary ones.

This activity helps learners to distinguish the main ideas of a paragraph or text from supporting ideas, examples or counterpoints, and to develop the ability to identify these components of a text.  Drawing learners’ attention to signposting phrases such as “for example” or “this means that” can help them to identify key phrases.

Activity:  The teacher needs to read through a target text before the class and identify the different functions that are used in the text, e.g. stating the main idea / exemplification / comparison / summation, etc.  During the class, write these functions on the board as a list.  Ask the learners to nominate different actions to associate with the functions, e.g.  main idea = touch the top of your head, exemplification = stand up (the wackier and weirder the actions, the more memorable the activity).  The teacher then reads the text aloud and asks learners to perform the actions as they hear the functions.  Once the inevitable chaos and hilarity has subsided, along with a certain amount of teacher clarification and correction during the process, the teacher gives out the text and asks learners to find examples from the text for each function and to identify any functional exponents (like “for example”) that signpost the functions.  With a younger / more energetic class, you could then read the text again (or read a different text) and ask learners to perform the actions again for consolidation.

Reading Races

When completing questions that ask learners to retrieve specific information by scanning a text, it is important to remind learners that they do not need to understand the text in order to answer the question.  In essence these are key word recognition tasks, though in some instances it might also require learners to identify paraphrase.  Learners therefore don’t actually need to read the text, they just need to find the information.   This activity removes the “reading” element and focuses on getting to the information as quickly and efficiently as possible.  Reading races are not a new idea, but I’m afraid I cannot recall where I came across them first and so the credit for the idea will have to wait to find an owner!

Activity:  Before the class, develop a range of questions that relate to your target text along the lines of:

  • What is the fifth word on the twenty-sixth line?
  • How many times is the word “however” used?
  • What are the three words that follow the word “Panama”?
  • How many synonyms for “learn” can you find?

The learners work in pairs or small groups and compete against each other to find the answers the quickest.  One way to do this is read out the question and to ask learners to write the correct answer on the board, awarding points to the winner.  A variation is for the learners to write down their answer on a slip of paper and show it to you – then you can award points for first, second, third place and so on, thus giving slower teams something to keep them in the game.  A more sedate version would be to put all the questions on a handout and wait for teams to be the first to give in a completed set of correct answers.

Author’s Bio: David Petrie is Director of Studies at IH Santa Clara and a teacher trainer with IH OTTI. He is DELTA qualified and has a MA Applied Linguistics & TESOL. Professionally, his interests lie in the area of teaching exam classes and ways of using technology in teaching. He blogs about this and everything else ELT related at www.teflgeek.net.