Making the reading process visible to learners

Earlier this year Manoel Monteiro from IH Coimbra in Portugal spoke for IH at TESOL Spain. In his talk 'Making the reading process visible to learners' he explores activities teachers can use to encourage reading and raise engagement among learners. Here Manoel tells us more about his talk and the experience. 

The first time I attended TESOL Spain was back in 2016, when I was working in the Basque Country. It was incredible to see so many respected professionals sharing experiences and discussing the changing needs of the Iberian ELT market. Currently based in Portugal and just a few hours away from Salamanca, I was very fortunate to attend the conference again, this time as a speaker. I must confess I was quite nervous when I stepped into the room, but also incredibly excited to see a full house!

My talk focused on less conventional activities that teachers can use to develop their students’ reading sub-skills and highlight what is involved in them in a playful and challenging way. I believe reading is sometimes not fully explored in class due to lack of time, interest or an excessive focus on comprehension. Conversely, when we visually convey to learners the dynamic nature of reading, their levels of engagement tends to rise as they are given a voice and considered active participants in the process of meaning-making. The principles I have in mind when preparing or selecting reading activities are:

  1. Noticing: students should understand that different text types are read differently in relation to the reader’s purpose, with one or two sub-skills usually prevailing;

  2. Raising awareness: learners should be encouraged to think about the sub-skill itself in a comprehensible way, according to their level;

  3. Activating: responding to textual input through speaking or writing at each stage as much as possible – before, while and after reading.

The first activity I presented focused on scanning. When I was working in England during the summer, I prepared an excursion lesson for Canterbury because I wanted our learners to know more about the city before visiting it. Initially, I found a short paragraph and wrote some comprehension questions. However, I knew students would be pretty bored if I asked them to “read the text and answer the questions”. Instead, I generated a word cloud and students discussed in pairs, using modals and relevant functional language, what the actual answers could be. As they immediately engaged with the task, we mentioned the importance of question words and the “rapid fire” aspect of scanning, which involves training your eyes to find specific information – a name, place, or date for instance. After this, students were much more inclined to read the actual paragraph and check their answers.

The next activity, done with C1 learners but adaptable to every level, was a tweak to an otherwise dull gap-fill task. I showed my students a couple of paragraphs and told them to predict together which words could complete the gapped collocations, and also identify their part of speech if unable to come up with an educated guess. Adding a degree of challenge, I showed them a word cloud (yes, I love them!) with possible answers including red herrings (e.g. one of the correct answers was “acronym” but the cloud also had the word “abbreviation”). In small groups, students were then challenged to find possible collocations as fast as they could, monitoring their processing of detail when transitioning between word cloud and text as needed. By doing so, they clearly demonstrated their ability to reflect not only on meaning but also syntactical and morphological aspects of lexical items. As a follow-up, we discussed other possibilities that were not in the word cloud and students used them in personalised questions to consolidate learning.

Another activity addressed awareness of skimming. I blurred two paragraphs that had been copied onto an Activinspire slide with red ink. Then I used the software rubber to draw some hearts (Valentine’s Day was around the corner!) and reveal some of the text, asking students to speculate what it was about. Then I drew arrows through the hearts, happy faces and other things to slowly reveal more and more of the text, with students adjusting their predictions accordingly. The aim was to highlight the role of skimming in top-down processing, as students realise they do not have to read the whole text to understand main ideas. Furthermore, once they tackle more complex tasks such as using bottom-up strategies to deduce the meaning of unknown words, it is essential to consider both co-text and context. Another activity I did to demonstrate this included a newspaper headline and five photos. I revealed the headline little by little and students took turns guessing which picture represented the actual news, changing their mind every time a new word was included. This highlights the importance of chunking in reading and looking at certain keywords as collocations instead of separate words.

Apart from practical aspects, I told participants about a time when I helped a B2 First learner there and then as she gave up reading a short passage due to not knowing what “contributed” meant, which really intrigued me as this is a Spanish cognate. However, this particular student spoke Basque nearly all the time at school and home, which might have had an impact on her level of Spanish proficiency. By looking at the parallelism drawn between sentences by the word “likewise”, starting from the second and moving back to the first, and focusing on the words she actually knew, the student managed to deduce the meaning of two harder words (“herald” and “demise”) as required by the task. This successful learning experience highlights the non-linear nature of reading in detail, in which our eyes move back and forth across sentences striving to make meaning. This led me to believe that in order to better help students build their confidence, teachers should start from what learners already know and not the opposite.

If you were inspired by any of these activities and want to try them out with your groups, the presentation slides can be found on my blog, I would love to hear your feedback. A big thanks to IH Coimbra and the Speak for IH Programme for allowing me to attend TESOL Spain. See you next time!