How to teach reading skills – from theory to practice
How to teach reading skills
This article is concerned with how to teach reading skills. It includes two main parts. The first part presents a theoretical background that deals with a definition of reading and the skills involved in this activity. The second part describes the procedures, techniques, and strategies used before, while, and after the students read the text.
- Concept defining: what is reading?
- Schema theory
- Cognitive processing: Top-down vs bottom-up processing
- Intensive vs extensive reading
A dictionary definition of reading goes like this:
“[Reading is] the action or skill of reading written or printed matter silently or aloud.”
The above definition is deficient. It does not mention that reading has a purpose. We usually read for a purpose. For example, people read to follow instructions, to find a specific information, to get the main idea of a text, to be entertained, etc.
In addition, many things are involved in the reading process. To start with, we proceed to read a text, not like a tabula rasa; we are not empty vessels. Readers have prior knowledge that helps them fill the gaps while reading a text.
Reading is a process of constructing meaning from written texts. It is a complex skill requiring the coordination of interrelated sources of information” (Anderson, Hiebert, Scott, & Wilkinson, 1985, p. 6. Cited in Stanley, 2007.)
Readers actively make sense of the text. This is exactly what schema theory contends.
Schema theory tries to explain how readers utilize prior knowledge to understand and get new information from the text (Rumelhart, 1980). The theory claims that written text does not carry meaning by itself. It only guides readers to retrieve or construct meaning from the structures or patterns of this prior knowledge. These structures are called schemata (singular: schema).
A text about transportation, for example, would trigger our schematic knowledge about the different types of transportation:
Hot air balloon
In addition, before reading a passage about airports, as readers, we know that:
- Airplanes can fly.
- They have wheels that they can land on.
- They can take passengers to different places.
- They have wings that make them fly.
- You have to check in before boarding…
Schema theory is closely related to two other important notions, namely top-down and bottom-up processing.
Top-down vs bottom-up processing
Top-down processing refers to the use of background knowledge to predict the meaning of the reading or listening text. For example, readers develop hypotheses about the content of a text, which they have to confirm or reject while reading. The uptake of information is thus guided by an individual’s prior knowledge and expectations.
Bottom-up processing, however, relies on the actual words or sounds. That is, students construct meaning from the most basic units of language, including letters, letter clusters, and words.
Teachers who encouraged bottom-up processing, emphasize the decoding skills. They are not concerned with guiding learners recognize what they, as readers, brought to the understanding of the text.
To use the metaphor of the wall, with the top-down processing, you see the wall as a whole; you are not concerned with the different bricks that constitute the wall. By contrast, with the bottom-up processing, the focus is on the bricks of the wall.
The interactive model
The interactive model (Rumelhart, 1977; Stanovich, 1980, cited in Abraham, 2000) stressed both what is on the written page and what a reader brings to it using both top-down and bottom-up skills.
Teachers who adopt the interactive approach acknowledge that there is an interaction between both the text and the reader in the reading process.
When both top-down and bottom-up techniques are used consciously by learners, they become effective strategies to get the most of a text.
Intensive and extensive reading
A distinction is made in the literature between two forms of reading: intensive and extensive reading.
Intensive reading involves the deconstruction of a text. The aim is to get as much information as possible. By reading intensively, we are concerned with every detail related to the text. The learner is encouraged to deal with vocabulary and grammar activities to get a closer understanding of the text.
Extensive reading, however, refers to simply reading as much as possible, without concerning oneself with every detail. Occasional unknown words are not supposed to get too much attention because focus is on the overall meaning. That is to say, extensive readers look up words only when they deem it absolutely necessary to their understanding of the text.
How to teach reading skills In the classroom
Following the above theoretical background, while teaching reading skills we, as teachers, should respect certain fundamental principles.
Principles of teaching reading
According to Nation (2009), teaching grammar should follow specific principles that help boost the reading skills.
1. Reading is a purposeful enterprise
Training students to develop their reading skills should be done to fulfill a range of purposes:
- To search for specific information through skimming and scanning activities.
- To learn and gain knowledge about different topics
- To be entertained
- To react to a text and have a say about its content.
2. Appropriateness to students’ level
Reading activities should be appropriate to students’ level of language proficiency. Teachers should use simplified texts that are slightly above their level.
3. Vocabulary knowledge
As far as vocabulary is concerned, students should:
“read with 98 percent coverage of vocabulary in the text so that they can learn the remaining 2 percent guessing from context.” Nation, 2009, p. 6
4. Integration of skills
Reading activities should integrate other skills. Smooth incorporation of speaking, listening and writing activities are highly advised. These activities should be assigned at the pre, while, or post-reading stages.
5. Reading skills
The focus should be also on developing reading skills such as phonemic awareness, spelling practice, vocabulary learning, and grammar study.
6. Reading strategies
A reading strategy is a conscious plan that good readers adopt to understand a text. By becoming aware of these purposeful strategies, learners may get full control of reading comprehension. Accordingly, teachers should train learners to acquire reading strategies such as:
- Setting a purpose,
- Asking questions,
- Connecting to background knowledge,
- Paying attention to text structure
- Guessing words from context,
- Reflecting on the text and reacting to it.
7. Text type
Gaining knowledge about text type is another area that learners should be trained at. They should be able to differentiate between genres of texts: emails, reports, stories, newspaper articles, scientific texts…
8. Reading a lot
Learners must be also encouraged to read a lot. Extensive reading helps them become fluent and develop speed at reading different texts, a competency much needed for academic success and in students’ future careers.
How to teach reading skills
How to teach reading skills depends on which objectives the teacher aims at developing in his/her students and on how lesson plans are structured. To this effect, teachers must take decisions about the objectives of their reading comprehension lesson. For example, the following objectives guide teachers in teaching reading skills:
- Reading for gist?
- Reading for specific information?
- Reading for detailed comprehension?
- Developing speed reading?
- Training learners on specific reading strategies?
- Inferring meaning from context?
- A combination of the above goals?
How to teach reading relies also on the way the lesson is structured. In fact, any reading lesson plan should include three stages:
- Pre-reading stage
- While reading stage
- Post-reading stage
According to the constructivists, we construct new knowledge by relying on our prior knowledge. Being able to decode the information from the text is insufficient. Teachers should encourage learners to utilize their own world knowledge and worldview to make sense of the text. This knowledge, which is often referred to as schema (see above), is the essential condition for the process of construction of meaning.
Pre-reading activities are an essential part of the reading lesson because of the following:
- They help students be more prepared for what they are about to read.
- These activities help learners anticipate the topic of the reading.
- Formulating expectations about the content of the text help learners prepare themselves for the kind of language, vocabulary, and even grammar that might be used in the text.
- These activities create the need for reading the text to know more about a topic.
- By creating the need to learn more about the topic, these activities increase students’ motivation.
Teachers must activate students’ knowledge about the topic of the text they are about to read using the following activities:
This may be done following this process:
- In groups, students brainstorm ideas relating to the topic of the text.
- All members of the groups contribute to the generation of ideas about the topic.
- All ideas are to be accepted.
- The teacher sets a time for the brainstorming process.
- After generating enough ideas, groups organize their ideas and form sentences.
- Finally, they share their ideas with the whole class.
This procedure can also be done as a whole class activity.
This may be done as follows:
- The teacher prepares contrasting opinions about the topic of the text, or simply provides a quote related to the topic of the reading.
- Students work in groups to discuss and react to these opinions or quote.
- They then write a short report to be read by the representative of each group.
- Groups react to each other’s opinions.
Here is how pictures can be used as a pre-reading activity:
- The teacher provides pictures related to the topic of the text.
- In groups, the students work together to make sense of the pictures and guess what the text will be about.
- The representative of each group takes turns presenting their ideas.
Another alternative would be to:
- Provide a series of pictures representing a series of events in the text.
- The students work in groups to put the events in the correct order.
- They then try to write a short paragraph about what they think the text will be about.
To prepare students for the topic and vocabulary of the reading activity, the teacher may use the Pictionary activity:
- The teacher creates a list of vocabulary terms or concepts relevant to the current topic or unit.
- The teacher asks one student from each group to come to the board.
- The student gets secretly the first word or concept from the teacher.
- The student draws a picture representing the term or concept.
- The teacher sets a short amount of time for the student’s group to guess the word or concept.
- When their group correctly identifies the word or concept within the time limit, they get a point.
The teacher can prepare the learners to predict what the text will be about using different elements of the text:
- The teacher raises the learners’ attention to only the title, the subheadings, the pictures, and/or the illustrations accompanying the text.
- They have a discussion in groups to predict the topic.
- Groups report their predictions.
KWL chart (Know, Want to Know, Learned)
KWL chart is an excellent reading strategy to guide learners through a text. KWL stands for Know, Want to Know, Learned. The aim is to elicit learners’ prior knowledge of the topic of the text and set a purpose for the reading activity. Here is how to proceed:
- Students draw a chart like the one below.
- They start by writing everything they know everything they already know about a topic on the K (Know) column.
- Students then list questions about what they want to know about the topic in the W (Want to Know) column.
- During or after reading, students answer the questions that are in the W (Want to Know) column and record them in the L (Learned) column.
|K (Know)||W (Want to Know)||L (Learned)|
Cloud of words
This is an excellent activity to prepare students for the topic of the text and the vocabulary they are going to encounter.
- The teacher provides the title of the text.
- The learners work together in groups to make guesses about the topic.
- Then, the teacher provides a cloud of scattered words (relevant and irrelevant words to the text)
- They try to identify which ones of these words the learners will find in the text (they may use their dictionary).
Videos are an excellent tool to create a context for the reading activity and to bridge the gap between listening, writing, speaking and reading skills.
- Choose a short video related to the topic of the reading.
- Set a purpose for students while they are watching the video. For example, ask a focus question, or ask them to complete a chart while they are watching the video.
- After watching the video, students work in groups to agree on their answers.
- After correction, students may have a discussion about the video.
While reading activities
While-reading activities are activities that help students focus on text features and its comprehension. In addition to guiding students towards a better understanding of the text, these activities aim at:
- Connecting students prior knowledge with the content of the reading,
- Helping them gain new knowledge,
- Training them to deal with similar text in the future.
The following are a few examples of while reading activities
Skimming the text to check predictions is a while-reading activity that is an extension of some pre-reading activities. Skimming can be defined as reading a text quickly to get a general idea of the passage. Students do not have to read everything. Skimming involves among other things:
- Reading the title, the headings and the subheadings.
- Reading the introduction or the first paragraph.
- Reading the topic sentence of each paragraph.
- Looking at pictures, charts, or graphs.
- Paying attention to italicized or boldface words or phrases.
- Reading the concluding paragraph.
Scanning refers to reading in order to find specific information such as a name, a date, or a number. This is a technique used when one is interested in finding specific information quickly.
- As a teacher, you may want to ask your students to scan a text to find answers to (a) specific question(s).
- With these questions in mind, your students read the text to attempt to find answers to only these questions.
- They may ignore irrelevant information.
- Students may use headings and any other clues that will help them identify which part of the text might contain the needed information. In other words, they will have to read selectively and skip through irrelevant sections of the text.
Most textbooks include comprehension questions that students have to answer while they are reading.
These comprehension questions have different forms:
Pronominal questions or WH-questions begin with who, what, when, where, how, why, etc.
- These questions test both writing ability as well as reading ability.
- These questions can be literal or inferential. Inferential questions are more difficult to answer.
- The answer to pronominal questions might be one word, a phrase or a full sentence.
- If the aim of the teacher is to test comprehension, spelling mistakes, as well as grammar mistakes, may be tolerated.
Instead of questions, students answer commands such as:
Yes/no questions require short answers. These types of questions are easy to answer and do not require a high level of writing proficiency skills. Learners have a 50% chance of getting the correct answer.
Like yes/no questions, there is a 50% chance of getting the correct answer in true/false exercise.
- Learners decide whether each sentence is true or false according to the text.
- They may be asked to justify their answers from the text.
- The learners may be asked to rewrite the false sentences making the necessary changes to make them true.
Four choices are provided. So the leaner, has 25% chance of getting it right. This exercise is difficult to make, but it is easy to correct. Incorrect choices must be possible (partly correct) and not stupid.
Asking learners to complete sentences is an excellent way to assess comprehension. This type of exercise can take different forms from easy to difficult:
- The sentence to be completed can be taken as it is from the passage and the missing words:
– may be copied from the text
– the students must use their vocabulary knowledge to complete the sentence.
- The sentence to be completed is not taken as it is from the passage and the missing words:
– may be copied from the text
– the students must use their vocabulary knowledge to complete the sentence.
|The sentence||Missing words||Missing words|
|Taken as it is from the text||From the text||Students must use their vocabulary knowledge to complete the sentence|
|Not taken as it is from the text||From the text||Students must use their vocabulary knowledge to complete the sentence|
Graphic organizers help students construct meaning and visualize how ideas fit together. Scolastic has some interesting ideas for using graphic organizers as learning tools that can be used with any text.
Text type and structure
- Identifying type of text (i.e. email, newspaper article, scientific text…)
- Identifying topic sentences and the main idea of paragraphs.
- Distinguishing general from specific ideas.
- Identifying the connectors (however, moreover, thus, etc) to see how ideas are linked within the text.
Vocabulary and grammar work
Reading is a great opportunity for vocabulary and grammar practice, which contribute, to a better understanding of the text. Here are some examples of these activities.
Provide a list of vocabulary words from a reading passage and have students sort them into various categories:
- Parts of speech,
- Semantic fields (e.g. food, means of transport, banking, branches of government, etc.)
Other vocabulary activities consist of:
- Matching synonyms or opposites;
- Filling the gaps with the appropriate words from the text.
Many grammar points are directly related to the meaning of the text. Students can be encouraged to notice the grammar structures used to convey meaning through activities such as:
- Identifying verb tense
- Identifying verb patterns (verb + infinitive or gerund..)
- Distinguishing passive from active structures.
Post reading activities
Post-reading activities help learners summarize their learning, get a deeper understanding, and organize their thoughts and ideas. Here are examples of these activities.
What I learned
Some elements of the KWL chart mentioned above, namely the L (Learned) column, have to be completed after reading the text.
Groups react to the content of the passage. Each group reports to the other groups a summary of their findings followed by whole class discussion.
As a post reading activity, teachers may ask students to write a summary of the main points of a text. Chambers and Brigham (1989, cited in Nation, 2009), report an interesting strategy to help learners summarize a passage. This strategy is called summary by deletion. This involves the following steps:
- Students read the passage and delete all the sentences that merely elaborate the main sentences;
- They delete all unnecessary clauses and phrases from the main sentences;
- They delete all unnecessary words from what remains;
- They replace the remaining words with their own expressions;
- They write a final draft of the summary.
Retelling the story
Retelling the story would help learners to talk about the content of the passage. It is an opportunity for the teacher to integrate the speaking skill within the reading activity.
This is an excellent activity to help learners summarize what they learned and discuss it with other peers. Here is how to proceed:
- Students write down their thoughts on the topic of the passage.
- Then, they discuss with a partner.
- Finally, they share with the whole class.
This activity also encourages interaction and leads to various perspectives and comprehension.
The teacher encourages the learners to translate the content of the text into storyboards, cartoons, or pictures. For example, they have to convert the most important ideas, facts, or events into the form of pictures accompanied with explanations in the form of captions.
After reading the text, the teacher encourages the students to conduct a search quest to find out more about the topic of the text.
Students may use their cameras on their mobiles to make a video about the text. This can take the form of:
- a role play,
- a report,
- interview, etc.
Students may be asked to prepare a presentation about the text. They may use the internet to find documents related to the topic. These documents can be in the form of pictures, movies, songs, poems, etc.
To gain cognitive depth of the vocabulary learned, students have to be encouraged to work on the newly acquired lexical items:
- Students identify the newly acquired words in the passage. They quiz each other on the parts of speech and meaning of these words.
- Students choose 10 words from the text, which they have to use to produce 10 sentences or to write a piece of writing that is related to the topic.
Students work in pairs or in groups.
- They have to prepare questions about the text they have just read.
- The members of each pair or each group will have to answer.
Some Reading procedures
The following are some famous reading procedures that were developed to help learners deal with reading comprehension.
The SQ3R method is a step-by-step strategy for effective reading. It was introduced by Francis P. Robinson, an American education philosopher in his 1946 book Effective Study.
SQ3R stand for:
Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review
Teachers help students use this strategy to do the following:
- Students have first to survey the assigned reading by first skimming through it.
- The second step consists of encouraging learners to formulate questions by converting headings and subheadings into questions to be answered while reading or by asking more general question such as “what is this section about?”
- Then, students read the text and try to answer the questions they generated previously.
- After that, the students must be encouraged to recite the information from memory.
- Finally, the students should review their questions, and see if they can answer them all easily. Otherwise, they should go back and follow the previous reading steps.
Standard reading exercise
Standard reading exercise consists of teaching learners a series of questions that can be used with any text. The questions are meant to train the learners to the most important reading skills, such as predicting, finding the main idea of each paragraph, identifying the writer’s purpose, thinking critically about the content of the text, etc. (Nation, 2009, p. 37).
Palincsar and Brown (1986, cited in Nation, 2009) designed a procedure which they coined “reciprocal teaching”.
In this procedure, the teacher trains the learners to use four main strategies, which could be applied to any text:
- The students predict the content of the paragraph before reading it;
- They make questions focusing on the main idea of the paragraph;
- They summarize what has just been read;
- They seek clarification on difficult points in the paragraph.
Concept-oriented reading instruction (CORI)
Nation (2009) describes concept-oriented reading instruction (CORI) as an integrated strategy approach to reading comprehension (Guthrie, 2003). This involves training learners to use a set of strategies through the sequence of modelling, scaffolding, and guided practice. These strategies include:
- activating background knowledge,
- questioning, searching for information,
- organizing graphically,
- and structuring stories.
This article dealt with how to reach reading skills. Good readers are equipped with strategies that help them make sense of the written passage. These readers rely on their schematic knowledge to deal with difficulties and fill the gaps. In the classroom, teachers should devise activities before, while, and after reading to help learners get the most of the passage. These activities necessitate an integration of other skills in the process of understanding. That is, learners should not only be involved in reading passively. They should also be encouraged to listen to each other discussing the topic of the text, answer questions and react in writing.
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Chambers, F. and Brigham, A. 1989. Summary writing: a short cut to success. English Teaching Forum 27, 1: 43–45.
Guthrie, J.R. 2003. Concept-oriented reading instruction. In A. Sweet and C. Snow (eds) Rethinking reading comprehension. New York: Guilford Press: 115–140.
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Rumelhart, D.E. (1977). Toward an interactive model of reading. In: S. Dornic (ed.), Attention and performance VI, (pp. 573-603). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
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