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Bottom-up decoding: reading

The importance of content rich texts to learners and teachersMark Bartram has been a teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer for more than 30 years.

In a previous post, we looked at some of the areas we might explore when training our learners in bottom-up strategies for listening. In this post, I’d like to do the same for reading.

(We take it as read that reading fluency depends on the learners’ general linguistic competence. So all of the following discussion assumes that any training programme will also include work on building up this, especially vocabulary.)

It was suggested previously that top-down approaches (where the learners use their knowledge of the world to help understand a text) can provide enjoyable ways “into” a text, especially for the reluctant or weaker reader. These might lead into useful work on sub-skills such as skimming and scanning.

Bottom-up approaches, on the other hand, encourage the learners to develop their ability to understand the text at a deeper or more intensive level. These are designed to help learners “decode” the text in front of them and, crucially, to give them transferable skills to allow them to comprehend the next text they read.

Certain types of activity will be appropriate for all levels, even if the actual language items will differ. These might include work on referencing within the text. For example we ask learners to underline a number of pronouns like it/they or demonstratives like this/these in the text and then work out what they refer to. Ideally, the referent will not always be the most recent noun in the text! Another area is conjunction: we might blank out a few conjunctions in a text and ask learners to suggest a suitable conjunction (or choose between options) for each space. The learners should also explain their choice, as this encourages them to explain the relationships between different parts of the text.

Other activities will depend on the reading level of the learners. Early readers will work more on building up fluency through work on word recognition, and recognising correspondences between spelling and sounds, eg that “ph” is pronounced /f/. Developing readers might focus on ellipsis (sentences with missing words) eg identifying the missing words in “They’re going to write a blog  and post it on their website”1 or paraphrasing/lexical variation, as in

Some education specialists recently put on a festival to encourage children to make mistakes! Yes, it’s true. The experts were worried that young people are not creative and innovative enough for the modern world.

The learners look for examples where the writer has used synonyms to describe the same thing (specialists/experts, children/young people).  The aim here is not primarily to extend the learners’ vocabulary (though this may happen incidentally) but to train them in looking for such variations in future texts.

Advanced readers, especially those in academic contexts, might concentrate on decoding complex sentences. For example, let us imagine that learners are working on a text which contains this sentence:

Developed countries, like those in Europe and North America, waste around 650 million tonnes of food each year and so do developing countries.

The activity might involve the learners answering these questions:

1. What is the verb? (answer: waste)

2. What or who is doing the wasting (or, with learners who have the necessary terminology, “what is the subject of the verb?”)? (answer: developed countries)

3. What do they waste? (answer: 650 million tonnes etc)

4. What does the word “so” refer back to? (answer: the verb “waste”)

5. How could you make this a sentence on its own? (answer: developing countries also waste food)

Learners should recognise that these questions form a process:  locating the verb is a good way to start decoding a sentence, followed by subject and then (if there is one) the object. As the sentences the learners encounter become progressively more complex, this skill becomes more automatic.

Another example might be summary words (very common in academic writing). In the following text, learners might be asked to say what “this process” refers to.

As early as the sixteenth century, English had already adopted words from around fifty other languages, and today the figure stands at over 120. But how did this process happen?

Finally, they may be asked to look for words and phrases that demonstrate the writer’s stance towards the information they are describing. Modal verbs, sentence adverbs like significantly, and “think and report” verbs like claim) can be noted and interpreted.

Even when a text (for example, in a coursebook) is being mainly used for other purposes such as grammar work or discussion, the teacher can always introduce the ideas above, just by asking learners “What does the word ‘they’ in line 22 refer to?” or “Why does the writer use the verb ‘confirm’ rather than ‘say’? How would the sense change if she used ‘claim’ instead?” and so on. These kinds of questions only take a minute or two, but focus the learners’ attention on important details in the text that top-down activities may skip over.

To see bottom-up decoding in practice in the classroom, watch Navigate author Rachael Roberts’ video demonstration here.

This article first appeared in the February edition of Teaching Adults newsletter. If you’d like to receive more articles like this and resources for teaching adult language learners, sign up here.

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Strategies for teaching IELTS: Part Three – Get ready for exam day

webinarpicStephen Greene is a teacher, teacher trainer and materials developer with nearly 20 years’ experience. He has taught people of all ages and abilities all around the world, including in Taiwan, Poland, Rio de Janeiro and the UK. He joins us on the blog today for his final article in a series ‘Strategies for teaching IELTS’.

In the first article in this series, I discussed some things to consider at the very beginning of an IELTS course, and then in article two I explored how to tackle some of the more problematic parts of the exam. Here, I will look at some strategies you can use at the end of your course to make sure your students are as prepared as possible for the exam day.


It is important that students have at least one full mock before the exam day. Make sure you find some practice tests – such as the free ones which support IELTS Masterclass on the OUP website. When you set up the mock, it’s a good idea to imitate the exam conditions as fully as possible. This will help prepare students for the real thing, and it will give them a sense of how important timing is. Students need to realise that the Listening, Reading and Writing papers take 2 hours 40 minutes – with no breaks in between! When you run the full mock it is a good idea to use the answer papers like the ones that will be used in the exam. When a student is working quickly and misses a question out to come back to it later, it can be very easy to forget about this when completing the answer sheet. This can mean that all of the remaining questions have the wrong responses.

For the Speaking paper, as well as conducting mock tests, make sure students get to watch an example of somebody else taking the test. Outside of language exams, students rarely have a spoken test so many are understandably nervous about what the whole procedure entails. You can find examples of spoken IELTS tests on YouTube.

On the day

Discuss what students should do on the day of the exam. Here’s what I advise my classes:

  • Get to the exam centre early – this gives people time to calm down, find their room, have a bite to eat and make sure they are not rushing due to traffic problems.
  • Use English before the exam – listening to a podcast, reading a book or having a conversation in English before the exam puts students in the right frame of mind.
  • Prepare for a long exam – As mentioned above, students will have to sit in the exam for over two and a half hours, so they should make sure they have had refreshments and visited the bathroom before the exam starts. Candidates can ask to leave the room to go to the bathroom, but this will take up valuable time.

At the exam centre

This may sound obvious, but make sure that students know where the exam centre is and how to get there. In many cities it is possible to sign up for the exam in a different place from where it actually takes place, so point this out to students if necessary.

Go through the regulations with regards to the identification that candidates need to provide, highlighting the fact that they must have the same identification that they provide when enrolling. To ensure a high standard of security, centres are required to take photographs of candidates and scan their fingerprints. Reassure students that all images are dealt with according to the local laws and that there are procedures in place for candidates who might be uncomfortable having their photograph taken in the presence of other people. If you or your students would like more information about the security procedures on the day it is best to check with your local centre. I’d suggest talking about these kinds of logistical things before the very last class, as this will give you and your students the chance to find out the answers to any difficult questions.

I hope you have found this three-part IELTS series useful, and I wish you and your students the best of luck in preparing for the test.

This article was originally published in the September 2014 issue of the Teaching Adults newsletter. To learn more and subscribe, click here


Integrating video content in the EFL classroom with International Express – Part 4

ievideopart4Fancy livening up your classroom with some ready-made video activities? This is the final part of a series of four articles in which Keith Harding and Rachel Appleby share ideas for using the stunning new International Express video material. Each unit of the course features a video directly related to the unit topic. Here, Rachel offers ideas for using the clip from Upper Intermediate Unit 6 – PleaseCycle, which focuses on conditionals.

Before you watch

Try out some of these ideas to get your students thinking before they watch.

1. Discussion

You can focus on cycling from a number of angles, for example, you can think of it as a sport, a relaxing activity, or a method of commuting. Or you could discuss cycling equipment, safety issues, or infrastructure (for example, cycle paths). Find out quickly, open-class, how many of your students…

a. own a bike

b. cycle regularly (why/why not?)

c. participate in biking activities

2. Decide if these statements are true or false:

a. There are more bicycles than residents in the Netherlands.

b. In Groningen (in the Netherlands), the station has ‘parking’ for 1,000 bikes.

c. Spain has over 100 bike-sharing schemes.

d. The ratio between the number of cyclists in a city, and the number of bike-car accidents, is in inverse.

e. An adult regular cyclist has a fitness level of someone 20 years younger.

3. Brainstorm benefits and barriers

Move the discussion more closely to the video content by focusing on the benefits of and barriers to cycling. Put students into two groups: one group brainstorms the benefits, the other the barriers. Elicit 1-2 ideas per group, for example:

Benefits: keeping fit; saves on petrol

Barriers: you may need a change of clothes; lack of cycle paths

4. KWL Chart

Again, before they watch, you could do this with the audio. It’s an idea that works well with most listening or reading texts. Ask students to fill in a “KWL” chart: this looks at “what I know already, what I want to find out”, and – later – “what I’ve learnt”. Ask them to complete the first two sections alone (Know and Want), and then compare with a partner. Then, finally complete the third section (Learnt) afterwards (see exercise 8). This is very student-driven, as they are effectively making their own comprehension task.

5. Check key words

Tell the students they are going to watch a video about a new London scheme which aims to get as many people cycling to work as possible. Before watching the video, check students understand, and can pronounce, the following:

a. workforce

b. initiative

c. portal

d. gamification

While you watch

To maximize the learning opportunities, you need to set tasks for the students to focus on. The following exercise is taken from the video worksheet that comes with the International Express Teacher’s Resource Book DVD. All the worksheets are also available for free here. You just need your Oxford Teachers’ Club log-in details to view them.

6. Multiple choice


After you watch

7. Quick questions

Ask students for an immediate response.

What did they think?

Would they like to be involved in such a scheme?

Would PleaseCycle work for their company? Why/Why not?

How competitive would they be?

Would they encourage their company to register, and log their trips on the app?

8. Return to the KWL Chart

Go back to the KWL chart (see exercise 4) to check and complete part three.

Refer back to the “benefits” and “barriers” lists they brainstormed too.

9. Going into more detail

Before playing the video again, ask students what they can remember about Aegus Media, and Stravel. Both are mentioned in the video. Watch the video again, asking students to take notes about each company. Afterwards, let them compare notes in small groups.

Use the following questions to focus their ideas:

a. What did Aegus Media achieve using PleaseCycle?

b. How was their success measured?

c. What plans are there for Stravel?

10. Create a proposal

Each small group should imagine they are working together at a company. They need to create a proposal to convince the company managers to start using PleaseCycle.


Ex. 2

a. T

b. F: 10,000

c. T

d. T

e. F: 10 years

Ex. 6

1. a

2. c

3. c

4. b

5. c

6. b

7. a


Continuing language learning: the role of L1 literacy in secondary L2 language and literacy development

Frustrated student at work in classroomMany secondary second language learners face numerous challenges as they develop language and literacy in a second language at the same time they are learning subject area content in that second language. Fortunately, L1 academic literacy is not separate from L2 academic literacy. They are both manifestations of a common underlying proficiency. In this post Dr. Marylou M. Matoush, introduces her forthcoming webinar highlighting the ways that academic language and literacy proficiency can be developed through active reading, writing, speaking and listening in either or both languages.

Secondary schools are commonly structured as if all students need the same type of instruction, for the same amount of time, across the same curriculum. While this is far from ideal, it may not seem too problematic in some second language and literacy instructional settings, such as foreign language classrooms, where second language (L2) learners share somewhat similar first language (L1) language and literacy knowledge.  However, the structure of secondary most schools can be very problematic in where diversity reigns.

Many teachers of second languages are painfully aware of the fact that the emphasis on “sameness” built into most secondary schools is at odds with the needs of L2 language and literacy learners, who are remarkably diverse. They know that it is not uncommon to find secondary school settings where L2 learners who have never been to school may be sitting, in at least some classes, among L2 learners who are partially literate in one or more languages, L2 learners who are fully literate in L1 but not in L2, bilingual students who are also fully biliterate, and native English speakers who also display a wide range of literacy development.

These teachers of second language learners also know that there are often notable differences between individual learners who happen to fall in each of those categories. Learners may begin second language instruction with very different first languages. Then, first language and literacy use is gradually mixed with second language and literacy use, in ways that are necessarily unique to each individual.  As learners develop their abilities to use their languages and literacies, the varied effects of cultural backgrounds, life experiences, personal interests, academic background, linguistic understandings, and literacy skills accumulate with each passing school year.

Fortunately, becoming biliterate involves developing an interlanguage that is flexible enough to be useful in various L1 or L2 language and literacy contexts and the process underlying that development takes place in a generalized fashion, although not in the synchronized or linear fashion suggested by school structures.  Therefore, despite considerable diversity among students, academic language and literacy learning that must occur alongside content learning can be grounded in single set fundamental principles:

  • Languages and literacies and the strategies associated with meaning making are interdependent, not separate. Reading, writing, listening, speaking, and viewing are all meaning based ways to communicate and compliment one another. Integrating them enables students to make flexible use of them as they make meaning of academic content.
  • Academic learning in one’s first language and academic learning in one’s second language are also interdependent, not separate or isolated from each other. Instead, they are manifestations of a common underlying proficiency that can be developed and applied to reading, writing, speaking and listening about content in either language. Further, since the use of L1, mixed language, or a student’s developing interlanguage represent varying manifestations of a common underlying proficiency, affording students opportunities to choose among them as they learn academic content enhances L2 academic language and literacy learning.
  • Active participation in actual language and literacy activity serves the needs of all students as they acquire language and literacy, but is particularly valuable for L2 students who may need the active support available from both teacher and peers that collaboration affords. Further, active languaging drives thinking just as thinking drives languaging and literacy. Therefore, carefully designed collaboration among flexibly grouped students can work to create an age-appropriate, cognitively compelling setting and exposure to diverse ideas and perspectives for diverse learners.

The forthcoming webinar will briefly discuss that interdependence among languages and literacies and the transferability of L1 literacy strategies to L2 learning. It will also present specific strategies and techniques that are effective for supporting academic second language learning during active languaging while reading, writing, listening, speaking and viewing.



What are the building blocks of skills teaching?

What are the building blocks of skills teaching and how can these help your learners listen and read for tomorrow?

Take a look at this infographic to find out more.

Navigate Infographic

Navigate is a brand new General English course that takes an innovative approach to reading and listening based on this academic research as to how adults best learn languages. It teaches reading and listening from the bottom up, giving learners the skills they need to understand the next text they will read and hear, not just the one they are reading or hearing now. The course content also has been extensively piloted and reviewed in ELT classrooms across the world, giving teachers the confidence that it really works. Find out more at www.oup.com/elt/yourdirectroute