Hooked on context: the essential element for developing reading skills

Receptive skills are the means by which we interpret written and spoken language. Reading is one of the ways we do this.

In order for learners of English to be able to understand simple written texts (short sentences, short articles, newspaper headlines, etc.) or longer texts, complex thinking processes need to be developed and practiced.

Students need to activate their existing knowledge of the language and the concepts that are described in the text.

But…why do people, learners in particular, need or want to read?

We could say that there are two main reasons for reading: (1) Because they have to process lots of information that comes in front of them while learning the language e.g. texts, exercises, holiday leaflets, signs, websites, newspaper articles and (2) because they might want to read something e.g. the lyrics of their favorite English songs, stories or novels, English subtitles on TV and films, the news bulletins, e-mails, messages on social media. All of these have a context.

An identifiable context will enable your learners to grapple with the more complex texts, identify, apply, analyse challenging vocabulary, tackle tricky new grammar and deal with what is going on in a text. They will be confronting different writing styles, content and levels of challenge.

Learners need to develop their reading skills to: (a) identify the topic of any text, (b)  get the general idea of a text, (c) gather specific information, (d) do in-depth reads for more detailed analysis and (e) interpret longer texts with more complex concepts.

Our role is to facilitate our learners’ skill development in these areas and help them figure out each step of the learning process. Straightforward enough? But how is this done and what do we have to take into account? Here is 1 tip for making reading lessons more effective.

Set your context

Surprisingly, context is something that many teachers in my experience often forget (at best) or discount completely. I have seen lessons without a context, those where context changes and those with a misconceived perception of what context actually is. As my colleague and mentor Tom Garside says, ‘the value of a strong context cannot be underestimated …’ a context provides a frame of reference for learners to connect with new language; it provides a hook and means that learners are not being provided with language as I say ‘in a vacuum’. Context does more than this; it activates learners’ +background knowledge (schema).

With a strong context, the foundation is set for providing the optimum learning opportunity. Many teachers, believe it or not, find that identifying and setting a context one of the most challenging aspects of planning and delivery of a lesson. Set it well and the range of language learners can use appropriately suddenly becomes more accessible but set it poorly and that’s where even with the best intentions, lessons don’t go well and learners start to give those blank looks.

You’ve already probably chosen your text for your reading lesson, so here’s your starting point. What’s the text about? From here, identify a suitable context setting stimulus; this could be a video, an audio, a set of images … from which the context can be recognised.  Set a task; promote that all important meaningful communication and activate schema. Give your learners some focused guiding questions to think about and then discuss as a group or in pairs. Examples of guiding questions might be:

Who are the people?
Where are they?
What are they doing?
Have you ever … ?

Notice that the last question gets the learners to bring their own experiences into the lesson. Personalisation engages the learners and there is a rationale that there is a better opportunity to learn when it can be related to personal experience. Personalisation is one aspect of a learner centred lesson and can be a powerful tool for facilitating learning.

If your learners are able to engage with a context and activate their existing schema relating to the context then they are going to have a better chance of developing their gist and detailed reading skills. Without an identifiable context, even the most straightforward tasks connected to a reading text are going to be much more challenging than need be. Why? Because they can’t engage with it and have nothing to connect the task to. Engaging with a context with an element of personalisation and discussion (which facilitates peer learning) can also add to the learners’ schema in processes known as schema refreshment and schema reinforcement (Cook, 1994). All this is happening before your learners even start reading! Let them do it and give them a chance.

In setting an identifiable context that learners can engage with they will be able to more effectively manage tasks for skimming, scanning and detailed reading and thereby develop their reading skills. Remember though, the context needs to stay the same throughout the lesson. This sounds fairly obvious, but teachers do switch context when they haven’t paid attention to their planning.

If you want to have your learners more engaged with reading and you want to have tangible evidence of development of your learners reading skills, think about context.

Cook, G, 1994, Discourse and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press

If you're looking for more teaching tips and advice, come and join some of our regular CPD training workshops held every month online and in our Hong Kong training centre.

About the Author

Sean Martin

Over the last 10 years Sean has worked in a variety of TESOL settings in Hong Kong, from teaching academic English to secondary and tertiary learners. He has also taught professional adults of various nationalities to develop their English skills across a range of commercial sectors including law, aviation, hospitality and leisure. In addition to his work at EfA as a Trinity CertTESOL tutor and delivering CPD workshops, Sean works with the University of Sunderland on their English for Academic Purposes programme. He has academic interests in sociolinguistics and its application in the classroom.

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