30th January 2023
Many English language lessons involve reading. Reading can engage students, encourage autonomy and help improve other skills, like speaking and writing. But if done badly, reading can bore students, waste time and create cognitive overload. In this article, I’ll show you five common mistakes TEFL teachers make while teaching reading and how to avoid these.
1. Choosing boring texts
The problem: If students are reading something compelling, they’ll make an effort to think about the topic, guess unknown words, and understand what the author is trying to say. But if students are reading something boring, the opposite is true. You wouldn’t read something boring outside of class (unless you were being paid to read it), so why would your students want to read something boring inside class?
The solution: Choose texts which produce an emotional reaction in your learners. Alternatively, find texts on topics which your students are likely to disagree about. After reading, encourage learners to discuss (or argue) about what was in the text.
It’s difficult to predict which reading topics will interest your students. What is interesting to you might be boring to your students (and vice versa). Discovering what students want to read about can be a language practice activity. Ask students to survey their classmates about each other’s interests, hobbies, home life and work. Alternatively, put students in pairs and ask them to draw a Venn diagram of what they and their partner want to use English for or what they like reading about. Sometimes, just listening to what your students talk about before class (or when they veer off topic during pair work) will give clues about their interests. You can then choose texts which match these interests.
One final note about choosing interesting texts: depending on where you work in the world, there may be restrictions on what is and isn’t acceptable (or even legal) to read or talk about. Choosing an engaging text is important, but not as important as your own safety or job security. If you’re unsure of what’s okay, check with your manager.
2. Tasks don’t match the text
The problem: We read different texts in different ways. When I read the news, I start by looking through the headlines. Then I click on a headline I’m interested in. I keep reading until I either (a) get to the end, (b) get distracted by a link in the text, or (c) get bored and start reading something else. This is totally different to how I read a bus timetable or a product description on Amazon. For those, I would look for specific information, take note of what I found, then stop reading.
Students don’t need to practice skimming a news article for specific information, because that’s not how people (usually) read news articles (or blogs, short stories, magazine articles, etc.) Other mismatches include reading a letter, then guessing who wrote it and why. You might only do this if you broke into someone’s house to spy on them. Similar is reading paragraphs out of order and guessing the order these go in. You might do this if you got a letter which made you angry, ripped it up (neatly), then years later after you forgot the content tried to reassemble it.
The solution: Use reading tasks that match the texts. If students are going to read a blog, get them to do something you would do after reading a blog. For example, after reading a blog you might:
- share something interesting you read with a friend (who hasn’t read the article).
- discuss what you agree or disagree with what you just read (with a friend).
- write and post a comment related to the article.
Or after reading an email, you might:
- take notes on the key information.
- decide what you need to do next.
- write a reply to the email.
If you want students to practice skills like skimming or scanning, you could
- give your students a set of restaurant reviews and ask them to choose the best one for an end of course party.
- show students some product descriptions for different headphones you like and ask them to recommend one to you.
- read through the guide for what’s on this weekend in your city and decide on a suitable class outing (for a given budget).
3. Teaching students reading skills they already have
The problem: Studying another language is a long process. There are so many things to learn. As teachers, we need to prioritize. It’s impossible to teach everything, so what can we leave out? Let’s take a reading skill like skimming (where students read a text quickly for gist). Is this something students need to learn? Well, it depends on the learners. If you’re teaching adults who can already read in their first language, the chances are they already know how to skim, scan, predict, etc. Why? Because they already do these things when they read in their first language. Younger students, who aren’t yet accomplished readers in their first language, might benefit from being taught how to skim, scan, predict, etc.
There are many skills related to reading which students don’t know how to do which we should prioritize. Students often need help understanding complex grammar, new vocabulary, jokes, sarcasm and references to culture.
The solution: Focus on challenges students actually have, not challenges you think they have. To identify your students’ biggest challenges, ask them to read something, then see what they didn’t understand. Help them solve these issues.
4. Reading as group work
The problem: How often do you read with other people? Do you regularly invite friends to crowd around your smart phone and dissect a news article or movie review? Are you reading this blog post right now with a group of colleagues? Probably not. For the most part, reading is a solo endeavor. But asking students to read in groups isn’t just unnatural, it’s counterproductive. If a student is struggling to read something in English, the last thing they need is someone talking to them while they‘re trying to concentrate on reading.
Putting students in groups to read can:
- cause learners to interrupt and distract each other as they’re trying to read. This doesn’t just make reading more difficult, it’s also really annoying!
- allow some learners to avoid reading, by listening to other students’ analysis of the text instead.
- encourage learners to give up when they don’t understand something. Instead of guessing the meaning of a word from context, or sounding something out, students can turn to the person next to them and say, “What’s this?”
- create cognitive overload. Instead of concentrating on reading, students need to simultaneously read, listen, and talk to group mates, all in their second language.
The solution: Do prediction tasks with students in groups. Do discussion tasks with students in groups. But do the actual reading as an individual activity.
If you’re teaching online and want students to interact with a text individually, put them in individual breakout rooms to read the text. After reading, put students in breakout rooms with two or three peers to share their ideas.
If you’re teaching face-to-face, ask students to read in silence. After students finish the passage, they can discuss what they thought of the text with a partner.
5. Reading the text to death
The problem: I occasionally read something more than once. I’ve read my favorite books more than once. I might reread an important email before replying. I might even reread something I’m studying if I didn’t completely understand it the first time. But I don’t recall ever reading the same text five times in the space of an hour. Yet that’s exactly what many teachers ask their students to do. After initially reading a text to understand what it’s about, students then read it again to discover or analyze the language used. Then read it again to underline some new grammar. Then read it again and select an appropriate title. Then read it again to analyze the structure. Rereading gets boring pretty quickly. Even the most interesting text will lose its appeal on the third of fourth reading.
The solution: Use reading sparingly. Texts can be used as either:
- a vehicle for information. Students might read a text and try to understand the information in it. For example, information about learning a new language.
- a way to practice skills. You might ask students to practice a reading strategy using a text (like guessing new words from context).
- a model for the students’ own writing. Texts can be examples of good writing in a specific genre (like a well written email). Students might use this as a model when they try to produce their own writing later.
- a springboard for discussion. Texts can be a jumping off point for a conversation. After reading, learners share their opinions on this topic.
Avoid using a text for all these purposes in the one class. Instead, reuse a text over a series of lessons. One week you might analyze the language in the text. The next week, conduct a class discussion on the topic of the text. A week after that, learners create their own text using the original as a model.
Teaching reading is quite straightforward. Just get students to do what you normally do when you read something. That includes:
- reading something you’re interested in.
- predicting what you read about before you read. (We all do this subconsciously).
- reading in silence.
- reading something once (or maybe twice).
- responding to what you read, like deciding where to go for dinner or how to reply to this email.
Do these things and your reading class will engage students, encourage autonomy, and help improve other skills, like speaking and writing.
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