Developing Reading Skills – A guest post by Suzanne Goodwin

I am delighted that Suzanne agreed to write this guest post based on a super INSETT session she recently delivered at IH Palermo.

Without further ado, I’ll hand over to Suzanne.


There has been considerable discussion in contemporary ELT about the prevalence of ritualistic teaching, and reading is a case in point. Texts tend to be used in the same ways: either to present language, or as part of a skills lesson that follows a fixed CELTA- framework of lead in, pre-teaching vocabulary, gist and detailed questions. In the first case, we are interested in comprehension because it allows the meaning of the target language to be understood from the context. And while the second case certainly comes from useful principles, by applying it uniformly we may be ignoring an important opportunity to develop much needed reading skills.

Most students have specific reading needs in the language they are learning. They may encounter reports at work, university textbooks, emails, timetables, magazine or news articles, to name a few, and all of these genres benefit from particular reading sub-skills which may or may not be naturally transferred from L1. Ideally, teachers should find out what these requirements are through needs analyses or informal discussion and plan the lesson content and methodology accordingly. However, even when this is not possible, more can be done to ensure that the texts that we use are fully exploited and students develop a text-attack toolkit which they can use outside the classroom.

Try the following activities:

1.   Read the text below quickly (ignore any new words at the moment).

How many examples of genre can you find in 10 seconds?

We are constantly bombarded by written information which we process at some level, from a vroomy glance at the adverts as we walk down the street to a quoogh examination of the reports we receive at work. Each time you check a train timetable, sbokily look at a menu or gawd through the newspaper your brain is making decisions about how to read it based on the text type and why you are reading it. For example, when we finally have time to pick up that novel we’ve been wanting to read since Christmas, we’ll read it carefully so as to follow the developments of the plot. But if I need to find out how to change the date on my DVD player I won’t read the manual from cover to cover, I’ll use the index to find the best page.

2.  Identify any vocabulary you don’t know (this has been invented for you!)

Can you find any clues in the surrounding text to suggest what it might mean?

For example: vroomy is an adjective. It refers to glance, which I know is about looking. In this case, I’m looking at adverts in the street. How do I do that? Quickly? Without concentration?

3.  Underline the three things that we consider when we read.

What implication does this have for classroom practice?


Speed ReadingThe first activity focuses on scanning, or reading a text in order to find specific information. This can be a fun activity to use with texts that are rich in names or numbers, and it accurately reflects how we process certain genres, like timetables or information sheets. If you have an interactive whiteboard, you could display the text, line students up in 2 teams, and have them race to hit or circle the name or number that you call out. Technology also provides engaging ways to practice skimming (reading quickly in order to understand the main idea of a text). For example, you can bring the screen cover down over the projected text so students have to read quickly, or use a PowerPoint animation to make the text appear and disappear at an appropriate speed.

The second task is designed to help students work out meaning from context. Learners benefit from being shown how to do this with an example on the board, with the teacher highlighting important references and eliciting potential interpretations. It can be helpful to use a word which is clearly nonsense or even just a blank space, as students are more likely to be curious and less likely to focus on the fact that they don’t understand. Importantly, they should be reassured that it isn’t necessary to guess exactly the right word. Rather, they should try to grasp the concept and all feasible suggestions should be welcomed. Unlike pre-teaching, this approach can be easily applied to texts that students meet outside the classroom.

Hopefully you came up with ideas similar to subconscious, thorough, cursorily, and flick!

In the final stage, you were asked to look at the paragraph as a whole and, importantly, to consider its implications. When we read, we consider what it is, why we’re reading it, and how we should read it. When we plan reading lessons, we should put ourselves in the students’ shoes and ask these questions in order to devise effective activities that develop appropriate reading skills. This means that the framework of a traditional receptive skills lesson probably won’t be appropriate for all texts, and the teacher needs to tailor the lesson shape accordingly. However, it should involve time for students to reflect and relate what they’ve read to their world, their opinions, and their original reason for reading. It’s the equivalent of you reading this blog post and then deciding whether or not it will affect your teaching practice.

Some people may argue that this idea promotes an overly atomistic view of reading and that, with practice, students will naturally transfer and develop effective reading skills. However, in many contexts learners have limited exposure to the L2 and benefit from being made aware of the tools that they can use to process written information. As teachers, our job is to provide these tools and explain how to use them. Students can then decide whether and when to use them outside the classroom.


Many of these ideas are adapted from Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language, by Christine Nuttall (Heinemann: 1982), which I thoroughly recommend to anyone interested in the subject.

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