27th December 2016

Teaching reading: why it's important for TEFL teachers

By James Pengelley

Why teach reading?

  • EFL teachers in Hong Kong don’t have enough time to teach reading.

  • Reading is about so much more than comprehension questions.

  • Reading is a chance to learn a language the way all languages are learned in the beginning.

  • Reading is a skill that allows independent learning.

So why don’t we do more of it?

Many students (and teachers) feel that reading is a task that equates to inefficient use of classroom time.  Some students feel they aren’t learning English in order to improve their reading ability.  Others simply feel they don’t respond to traditional, quieter reading tasks.

Fair enough. But there is so much more to reading than this. 

As we will see, reading develops a whole range of language learning processes, it does the work of many teachers combined into one place, it provides a stable source of language to work with and it is very easily adapted into highly interactive and communication-driven tasks. And if you’re not convinced yet, using reading texts can actually help you cut down on your lesson planning time.
So what is it about reading that makes it such an useful tool?

1) Reading is a source of input

There are few people who argue more in favour of using reading to learn a language than Stephen Krashen (http://www.linguisticsgirl.com/the-input-hypothesis-definition-and-criti... ).  His theory of second language acquisition is centred around the input hypothesis: that acquisition of a language (that is, the unconscious process of taking on board new language and linguistic knowledge) occurs primarily through masses of input and exposure.  Not only that, but that input must be comprehensible to the student.  He argues that the ideal conditions for this require the difficulty of input (i.e. a text) to be i+1 – or in other words, at the level of the learner and then just a little bit harder.

So, the argument goes, texts are useful teaching tools because they provide exposure to language and often, this is natural, authentic and contextualized – three key parameters that, when fully aligned, maximize the power of any text for language learning.

2) Printed texts are permanent

In addition to providing natural and authentic language models of language, reading texts have one huge advantage over other texts: they are printed.

Consider what a learner encounters when listening to a passage:

  • The speaker articulates their ideas
  • The sounds from the speaker’s mouth move through the air and reach the ear of the listener
  • The sound waves enter the listener’s ear
  • The listener must now try to reconstruct a series of sounds into individual words > phrases > sentences > text.
  • If any of this process is interrupted, the source of information (i.e. the text) is gone. The only option the listener now has is to a) ask the speaker to repeat something, or b) ask the teacher to replay the text.  Sometimes, neither of these are possible, and so the listener must try to make inferences about possible meanings they may have missed.
  • In contrast to this, when a reader encounters difficulties with a reading text, they typically go back to the start of the phrases or section that cause difficulty, and read it again. As many times as they like.
  • This means reading texts:
  • Can provide a sense of security for learners
  • Can be easier for teachers to work with, especially in identifying the source of miscomprehension
  • Allow students more time to consider and work with language
  • Lend themselves well to being cut up, reorganized, stuck on the walls of the room, matched etc….all tasks with kinaesthetic elements to them

3) Reading texts are great tools for vocabulary development

Just imagine if you could prepare your students to deal with unfamiliar words so that when they encounter them outside of class, they have the skills to achieve greater levels of comprehension.
Just imagine if you could exploit one main task for a series of other language features and get 2 tasks out of one.

Imagine if you could plan activities that didn’t just focus on individual words, but contextualized phrases, collocations and natural usage of key language.

Well, using reading texts can allow you to all of these things, with a bit of planning and practice.  First of all, helping your students to deal with unfamiliar words is a key skill.  So next time you’re focusing on reading, why not follow up a detailed reading stage by:

  • Asking students to identify any unfamiliar words
  • Then ask them to identify the whole unit of meaning in which those words occur.  So if they identify the word “tragic”, the whole unit of meaning might be “a tragic loss of life” or “a tragic outcome for…”
  • Then help the students to identify other linguistic cues around the target phrases that might help them guess the meaning. Try asking questions like “is it positive or negative”, “does the picture show something that is easy to survive or not?”
  • Once students have identified these phrases and been supported to understand them, give them additional practice at applying and personalizing them by writing discussion questions or sentences that are true or false.

4) Reading is linked to speaking

Do you ever ask students to read aloud during reading tasks?

If so, why?

This is a fairly common approach to teaching reading skills and literacy in early childhood education because it allows the teacher to identify where students are having difficulty decoding the words written on the page.

This gives us a clue as to what is actually happening: the words written on the page are converted into an auditory signal by your brain.   This is one of the reasons why phonological awareness is linked to successful outcomes in reading and spelling.

However, for the majority of cases, in an ESL context, we aren’t teaching students how to read, we’re helping the students develop skills to achieve comprehension of a text.  These are very different things.

Extensive reading has also been shown to have a positive impact on fluency development. 

5) Reading gives students more time to themselves

Pair them up.

Have students work in pairs.

Give them one between two.

These are some of the most common mantras you hear when learning to teach.  The rationale of this is to maximize opportunities for communication, and to get students to build rapport by helping each other.

What it doesn’t account for is that sometimes students just want to try things out on their own. Often (but not always) reading is a good example of this.  As the process of achieving initial comprehension is entirely personal (i.e. my brain processes information differently to yours) then there is a clear rationale here to give students a bit of time alone to work through any reading text before having them jump into interactive, communicative tasks. Sometimes, it’s just nice to mix things up a little.

6) Reading is an easily integrated skill

Reading tasks provide multiple opportunities for increasing student-student interaction.  The most most common ways of communicatively exploiting reading texts are to use them as models, where the text that students read is an example of a text students are expected to produce later in the lesson (i.e. student read a letter or a dialogue, and then go on to practice creating one themselves), or as a stimulus, where students read a text and then use ideas in the text as the basis for generating their own ideas, responses and discussions.

So as you can see, these lend themselves to integrating reading with speaking or reading with writing to maximize the mileage you can get out of a single piece of material, and help students to make more sense of the language they’re using in production.

7) Reading texts can be graded flexibly to your learners

Of course, not all texts are suitable for all learners.  Many agree that an understanding of 90-95% of the vocabulary in a text is necessary to achieve effective comprehension. But there are many techniques teachers can employ to support learners with unfamiliar vocabulary which you can employ with your learners:

  • Glossing unfamiliar terms involves providing a short list of definitions and examples for students
  • Simplifying complex vocabulary items and complex sentences into simpler ones
  • Using increased redundancy by adding additional adjectival, descriptive clauses (using which/who/where/that) and using less pronouns and lexical range
  • Shortening texts so that they contain less irrelevant information, and more information that is central to the task you give the learners.

James Pengelley contributes to the TESOL team as a CertTESOL/DipTESOL trainer as well as one of EFA's digital content managers.  He holds a Cambridge DELTA, Trinity TYLEC and is currently completing a postgraduate diploma in teaching (secondary).  He has made multiple contributions to English language teaching publications, including the English Australia Journal, The British Council and the International House Journal of Education and Development, which you can read here.