On the tenth day of Geekmas, some blogger gave to me:  ten tricks for reading

Welcome to the teflgeek Christmas celebration!  Themed around the classic Christmas carol – but going backwards, mostly because it’s more like a countdown that way:

12 blogs worth clutching

11 tips for writing

10 tricks for reading

Though strictly speaking, they’re not “tricks” – more sort of activities!

I recently ran a teacher development seminar called “The Reading Teacher”.  One of the things I realised as I was putting it together was that the general approach to reading, at least as is often evident, is as follows:

  • Pre-teach any vocabulary from the text you think they need.
  • Gist reading task – make the students read the text in a ridiculously short amount of time and then answer a question.
  • Detailed reading – let the students take the next 30 minutes to read the text one word at a time and then ask them to answer 6 comprehension questions which demonstrate (a) they read the text (b) limited understanding of six aspects of the text as given in the questions.
  • A reactive focus on any words the students had problems with or didn’t understand.
  • Move on to the inevitable grammar point that’s lurking on the next page with dodgy examples of the form lifted straight out of the text.

And it occurred to me that this might not particularly help…

Scott Thornbury’s recent “G is for Gist” gives an interesting background glimpse on how this structure has come about and his point that most learners already know how to do this in their own languages is a good one.  Though anyone teaching Young Learners may still have some work to do here!  One thing that Scott doesn’t mention (and I haven’t read all the comments, so this might have cropped up) is that a surprisingly large number of gist tasks don’t actually require gist skills.  They might require predictive skills, or scanning skills, or a combination of the two – but not always gist.

In any event – for the tenth day of geekmas – I’ve promised ten tricks for reading, these are more sort of activities that you can use to help learners develop some of the reading subskills (as indicated).

1.  Picture Sequencing  (Prediction Skills).  Give learners a set of pictures which represents aspects of the text and ask them to put them into what they think is the correct order.  Or to generate their own story based on their own sequence of the images.  When learners access the text they can check their predictions and re-sequence the pictures appropriately.  This is particularly good with young learners, whose coursebook reading texts are often accompanied by visual images / comic book style sequential pictures.

2.  Wordle  (Prediction Skills).  Given that wordle (unless you ask it not to) makes the word clouds from the key content words in the text, it’s a nice way of highlighting the key themes, especially if you’re using a text from the internet!  Though if not, you can just type a keyword set in, to mimic the main ideas or themes.  I saw this used to great effect as a prediction task by Anna Pires who used it with the lyrics to Coldplay’s “viva la vida“.

3. Abstract Matching (Skimming / Gist Skills).  Abstract / summary / headline matching.   Ask your learners to match an abstract, a summary or a headline to a text or portion of the text.  Alternatively, you could ask them to write a section heading for the different sections of the text and then ask the class to vote for the best ones.  Turning things into a competition or a race can help speed things up with young learners (older learners as well)!

4.  Personal Reactions  (Skimming / Gist Skills).  A personal reaction to the text works on a number of levels – it doesn’t require great understanding as it doesn’t rely on an intellectual or logical response to the text, but rather an emotional response.  Simple questions like “How would you feel in this situation?”  or  “Which person do you like most?”  or “What would you do?” can help learners access the text on a level that really does take in the whole of the thing, without focusing on the detail.

5.  Find all the _____.  (Scanning).  A competition (or not) between learners to find all the _____s in a text.  This can obviously differ depending on the text concerned, but you could either go with “all the words beginning with W” or you could ask them to find all the names of the different people in the text.  This latter choice (and thanks to Dave Tucker for the suggestion) would also help learners sequence the information in the text, which can be useful for then answering comprehension questions or detail questions on the text.

6.  Bingo.  (Predictive skills  /  Scanning).  Give the learners a piece of paper divided up into nine sections (like a noughts and crosses / Tic tac toe grid) and ask them to write down nine vocabulary items they think will occur in the text (you might want to tell them what the text is about first….).  Then when you give them the text, they get one point for every correct item, ten points for line of three, and thirty points for a “full house” (all their items appear in the text).  A nice way of developing both skills!

7.  What does “X” mean?  (inferring meaning).  This idea came from a seminar I attended some years ago by Monica Koorich.  In it, she substituted key words from the text for an alternate language equivalent (I think she used Hindi) and we were asked to work out what we thought they meant from the context.  Rather than learn Hindi, (assuming you don’t already know it), you could either use Google translate, or you could make up nonsense words instead.

8.  Meaning From Context Grid  (inferring meaning).  Take nine items and write them up in a nine-square grid on the board.  You then group the learners in three teams and ask them to come up with a “definition” for the item.  Each team then writes up a definition for three items.  (I usually sequence the teams’ turn taking as follows:  ABC  /  BCA  /  CAB).  You then give learners the text and they find their items and, based on the context, then have the chance to change their definitions if necessary.  Points can then be awarded for degrees of correctness.

9.  Steve’s starters  (extensive reading).  I was fortunate enough to observe a colleague, Steve Knox, work his reading magic with one of his classes.  Steve is a great believer in the extensive reading theory of reading & language skills development and he had set almost all of his classes up to spend the first ten minutes of any lesson reading.  Learners would have chosen a book or a graded reader from the school library – once chosen the books all lived in a cardboard box under the desk in the classroom.  What struck me most at the time was the genius of the idea as a behavioural routine for young learners!  Steve had essentially created a calming, settling routine at the start of his lessons, that any latecomer would be interrupting.  And that was what happened – latecomers entered quietly, took their books from the box and settled down to read.  At the end of the time, Steve would ask them to discuss (briefly) what they’d read with the people sitting nearby.  That was the other thing I liked about the idea – it so neatly mimics what we really do with our reading in our own languages.  We see something online or in the newspaper – we tell our friends!  We’re reading a book we like (or one we don’t) – we tell our friends.  Ignominiously simple and easy.  Highly recommended.

10.  Reader Diaries / Reviews  (extensive reading).  Again, something that is relatively simple, but easy to incorporate into your classes.  I vaguely recall, from my own schooldays, having to write a page in my English notebook on whatever book I was reading / had read that week.  This is a similar idea.  Slightly different to Steve’s starters in that the learners take the books home and their feedback is more formal / in depth.  Though I suppose it doesn’t have to be.  For teachers who are already working with learner journals, this can be a nice addition.  For those that prefer the blog or wiki – these tools can be used and actually might encourage a debate around the books, where differing opinions occur.  The review idea is perhaps more gradable, as it allows for differing degrees of output & scaffolding.  A nice twist on this is to post the completed reviews around the school and incorporate a rating system, as with Amazon.com, where readers rate the review based on usefulness.