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How to enhance reading comprehension of non-fiction academic texts

Reading notebookEsther Geva and Gloria Ramírez will be presenting webinars on 11th and 12th May where they will be discussing how to enhance reading comprehension of non-fiction academic texts.  You can find out more and sign up here.

In today’s Information Age, we are flooded with unprecedented amounts of written information, which needs to be processed quickly and effectively. In secondary school, English as a second language (EL2) teachers have the responsibility of preparing their pupils for post-secondary levels of schooling and for the workplace in today’s information economy. Language teachers face the challenge of helping their EL2 students develop sophisticated reading skills.

A solid EL2 reading instruction program is grounded in empirical evidence that can help us answer questions of what, why, and how for successful teachers of EL2 in contexts where English is the dominant language of the society, as well as in those where it is a foreign language. For these reasons, we will consistently make links between research and teaching throughout this webinar.

We will present detailed summaries of important classroom-based research on different aspects of EL2 reading. We will also provide Classroom Snapshots and Activities. Classroom Snapshots demonstrate the different concepts and how they work with different EL2 learners and different EL2 teaching situations  for teaching EL2 reading. The activities will offer you opportunities to interact with the presenters to gain a better understanding of issues and topics that are addressed in this Webinar.

We will begin by inviting you to reflect on your current beliefs about reading comprehension in both first language (L1) and second Language (L2). Then we will provide a general discussion of the complexity of reading comprehension, and highlight the main factors that are involved in EL2 reading comprehension. This will be followed by a discussion of the different skills needed to extract meaning from text, with a special focus on how to enhance reading comprehension of non-fiction, academic texts. You may find that some of your beliefs are just that- beliefs.

The last part of this Webinar is devoted to individual differences. We examine the challenges that different EL2 readers may experience depending on their age, the characteristics of their L1, their prior experience with reading in their L1 and L2, and the type of text they are reading. For example, we will examine issues related to EL2 reading of adolescent immigrants who have solid reading skills in their L1 and adolescent immigrants who had little formal instruction. The Webinar will end with a brief discussion of the possibility that some EL2 learners are also challenged by a learning disability and require additional program adaptations.


Bottom-up decoding: listening

female earMark Bartram has been a teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer for more than 30 years. His titles for OUP include Venture and Think English for Italian high school students, High Spirits on Holiday for middle school students, and a Business Result Teacher’s Book. 

In a previous post I explained some of the reasons why we should focus on bottom-up strategies for listening and reading. In this post, I’d like to show how this might work in practice for the skill of listening.

Even learners who have a good range of grammar and vocabulary can struggle with understanding natural speech. And the same is true even for listeners who have a reasonable grasp of the topic and good prediction skills (usually associated with top-down strategies). There could be a number of reasons for this, but one essential reason is that they have difficulty in decoding the “signal” which is coming at them. By “decoding”, I mean perceiving the sounds of English and linking them mentally to words and phrases that they have in their store of language. (Even so-called native speakers struggle with this – for example, the recent case of a man who thought the phrase “as opposed to” was “as a pose to” until he was nearly 20.)

English is often described as a particularly difficult language to understand in this respect, as

(a) the sounds we hear don’t always correspond to what we think is the spelling

(b) certain sounds change when spoken quickly and/or in groups of words. In the example above, the schwa sound at the start of “opposed” could be spelt as an O or an A, and the /d/ sound at the end of “opposed” gets lost (elided?) in the following /t/ sound

(c) it is sometimes difficult to work out where one word ends and another starts, as in “I scream/ice cream”.

Our learners’ stories confirm this: a classic example from my own experience was a B2 level class asking me at the end of a course why I kept talking about festivals, when I had just been giving instructions: “First of all….”

So what kinds of activities would help our learners with this problem? Firstly, learners need to be made aware of these features – in my experience, even high level learners may be unconscious of them. Features might include:  connected speech, including weak forms, elision, assimilation and so on; the use of reference words like it and this to refer back to something mentioned previously (very difficult even for advanced learners); the use of stress to carry meaning (as in “I didn’t want to GO” vs “I DIDN’T want to go”); interpreting auxiliary verbs (“Where did you live?” Vs “Where do you live?”)

Teachers often feel that the practice of these features helps in awareness-building.  That is, if the learners try saying these forms (even if they do not wish or need their own pronunciation to reach “native-speaker” level), they are likely to be in a better position to recognise them.

Secondly, learners need to work on the best strategies for successful listening. For example, it is very important for learners to understand the topic of a conversation, but they often interpret a key word wrongly and mis-interpret the topic. This could be because the word has multiple meanings (a student of mine went through a whole lesson thinking we were talking about people from Poland when in fact we were discussing the coldest parts of the Earth) or because the word is close in sound to another (eg track/truck). Students can be asked to listen to snippets of natural speech and choose between different words (“did she say track, truck or trick?”), or different meanings of the same word (“is she talking about a party as in a celebration or a political party?”).

Another important point is how we check comprehension. John Field and others have rightly criticised materials for focussing too much on assessing comprehension as opposed to training learners. But if our comprehension activities focus on the features above, then we can assess how successful our skills training has been. For example, we might ask learners “why does the speaker stress DIDN’T?” or “what does these refer to in John’s last sentence?”. This will help learners become aware of issues they had not previously been aware of.

We said in the previous post that we should not ignore top-down strategies, partly because the kind of knowledge and schemata that we activate before learners listen help to compensate for the various hurdles they face (not least, the poor quality of some recordings). Also, prediction and activation activities are usually fun, and motivate the learners into the listening. But top-down approaches will only take you so far: learners need to become skilled at decoding as well.

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

This article first appeared in the January 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.


10 attack strategies for teaching the text in Business English

Business woman reading reportAhead of his webinar on the same topic (click on Adult > Teaching the whole text in Business English), Business English expert John Hughes shares his top tips for approaching a piece of text in Business English or ESP.

If you are teaching Business English or ESP students, then analysing a text from their place of work is an invaluable part of determining their needs. You can also turn such texts into classroom materials which will help them to read and possibly write similar texts. It’s a fundamental skill for any teacher of Business English or English for Specific Purposes.

When I first look at an authentic text, I analyse for it ten features and decide which ones are most prominent and lend themselves to classroom exploitation.

1. Visual clues

The first thing we notice about a written text is any kind of accompanying image. For example, it might have a photograph, a chart, a graph, a map or even a table of figures. This will often act as a useful point of focus for students as it helps them predict what the text will be about.

2. Shape and layout

I also look for a shape or layout to the text type. Texts with an overt shape (typically formal texts such as letters and reports) help students to recognise what kind of text it is, which helps build their schema before reading. It also allows for exercises which draw students’ attention to the conventions for layout or to how the writer organises the content.

3. Overt title

A text with an overt title is like a text with a good photograph. You can use it with students to make predictions about the content of the text. In business texts, an overt title might be title to a company report or the title to a set of instructions. In emails, a clear subject line is the equivalent to an overt title.

4. Overt openings

Some texts don’t have overt titles but they do use opening sentences or phrases that indicate what kind of text it is and its purpose. A phrase like ‘I am writing to inform you…’ suggests that we are about to read a semi-formal letter from someone we haven’t met before or don’t know very well.

5. General meaning

Before any further textual analysis, I see if the text lends itself to reading for gist so that I can set some general gist comprehension questions. This is particularly necessary if the text doesn’t contain an overt title or overt opening (see 3 and 4).

6. The writer and reader

With some texts it’s useful to ask students to identify the writer and reader. For example, in the case of a departmental report, students can say who wrote it and who received it. With less obvious texts such as an informal message from a social media site, students might need to speculate who posted the text and why.

7. Detailed information

Having analysed the text for its general purpose and meaning, I start preparing comprehension questions to help students search for and understand more detailed information within the text. This is especially true of long texts.

8. Fixed expressions

Having understood the content of the text, I can start to analyse language which students might be able to use in their own writing. Formulaic texts often make use of fixed expressions. For example, reports might include expressions such as ‘The aim of this reports is to…’, ‘Please refer to figure 8.1…’, ‘It is recommended that…’.

9. Lexical sets

Texts that are related to very specific areas of industry may not fit into a typical pattern or fixed expressions but they will usually have their own specific lexis. For example, within a text related to shipping you might come across terms such as lading, container, pallet, abatement, in bond and ship demurrage. Once you identify a lexical set, you can create vocabulary exercises to help students with them.

10. Grammar

As with lexical sets, certain texts might contain frequently-used grammar. For example, in the recommendations section of an internal company document you might see the it is +passive form structure commonly used; i.e. it is recognised, it is recommended, it is advised… Help students to discover this grammar in the text and identify its form, meaning and use.

So those are my ten strategies for attacking a text in Business English or ESP. Do you have any more to add?


Decoding skills: a neglected part of listening comprehension?

Rachael Roberts, a teacher, teacher trainer and author, discusses the often neglected use of decoding skills in listening comprehension.

When you sing along to a song, are you sure you’ve got the right words?

Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody contains the line, ‘Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango?’, but it is often misheard as ‘will you do the banned tango?’

The Police, actually sang ‘When the world is running down, you make the best of what is still around’, not ‘you make the best home-made stew around.’

Amusing, but the point is a serious one. When we listen, there are two sets of processes taking place simultaneously:

1 Meaning building or top down processes

  • Drawing upon knowledge of the world, topic or culture.
  • Understanding literal meaning
  • Selecting relevant information
  • Recognising redundant information
  • Connecting ideas
  • Making inferences

2 Decoding or bottom up processes

  • Identifying sounds
  • Working out where words begin and end
  • Dealing with unknown words
  • Recognising where clauses and phrases end
  • Making use of sentence stress
  • Recognising chunks of language

Over the last few decades, there has been much more emphasis on the first set of processes. We are all familiar with activities where we activate students’ knowledge about a topic, encourage them to make predictions and select or reject the information they hear in order to answer comprehension questions.

And these activities are useful; they just aren’t the whole picture. A good listener is also carrying out the second set of processes, and these decoding processes can be very challenging for the English language learner.

Decoding is made particularly difficult by all the features of connected speech. For example:

‘Will you do the banned tango’ : the final /d/ in ‘banned’ elides into the ‘t’ of tango, making it sound very similar to ‘Fandango’. Especially if you don’t know what a Fandango is (it’s a kind of dance, not as well known as the Tango).

Good listeners are able to use world knowledge (such as what a fandango is), together with ability to decode. If they can’t decode, perhaps because the speaker is inaudible, they can predict from their knowledge of syntax. Given a sentence like ”When the world is running down, you make the best …… ‘, they think about what it is that the person might make the best one of (though stew is a slightly bizarre choice, even if it does begin with the same consonant cluster as ‘still’!)

Recent research, however, suggests that less efficient listeners have to put so much energy into decoding that they can’t use their meaning building skills effectively. They simply can’t hold onto enough of the meaning to make connections between different parts of the text.

So, as well as providing practice of the top down/meaning building skills, there is a clear argument for more listening activities which focus specifically on developing decoding skills, especially at lower levels, where students have more limited vocabulary.

So, after your usual comprehension work, why not try some of the following?

Sounds and weak forms

  • Minimal pair work (coming back into fashion). Learners listen to two words, e.g. ‘pat’ ‘bat’ or ‘pat’ ‘pat’ and say if they are the same or different.
  • Learners look at a transcript and mark the words carrying the main stresses (either as they listen, or they predict the stresses and then listen to check).
  • Play or dictate short chunks, especially formulaic chunks like ‘What do you mean?’ pronounced naturally, with reduced forms, and ask students to write the full forms.
  • Students transcribe a (short) section of a listening text and compare what they have written with the original transcript.


  • Also using a transcript, students mark ‘chunks’ of meaning, either while or before they listen.
  • Play part of the listening text again, stopping halfway through each sentence and asking students to try and remember what comes next. This is nominally a memory exercise, but it will develop ability to predict based on understanding of English sentence structure.
  • Students look at the transcript and pull out groups of words that often go together (formulaic chunks). Then listen to how they sound when pronounced naturally, and even drill them.

Have you tried any of these activities? Have you successfully used any other decoding activities?

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Happy Valentine’s Day! – Reading Text and Activities for Younger Learners

Heart-shaped box of chocolatesThe following text and activities are taken and adapted from Seasons and Celebrations, Stage 2 Factfiles from the Oxford Bookworms Library, suitable for younger learners.

Activities Before Reading

1. This text below is about St. Valentine’s Day. Which of these things do you think you are going to read about? Circle four words.

Love Money
Flowers Buildings
Horses Cards
Festivals Storms
Answers: Love, Flowers, Cards, Festivals

2. How much do you know about St. Valentine’s Day. Are these sentences true (T) or false (F)?

a) St. Valentine’s Day started in the nineteenth century.

b) On Valentine’s Day people send cards to the people they love.

c) St. Valentine’s Day is 15 February.

d) Chocolates are a kind of food.

e) People often go out to dinner in restaurants in the evening.

f) St. Valentine’s Day is named after a famous Roman emperor.

Answers: a) F, b) T, c) F, d) T, e) T, f) F

Activities While Reading

Read the text below. While reading, answer the following questions.

1. Match the beginnings and endings of the sentences

1. Valentine’s Day started more than…

2. Saint Valentine was a Christian who…

3. Valentine was sent to prison because…

4. When Valentine was in prison, he…

5. People started sending Valentine’s cards…

a) he helped a soldier to marry.

b) in the early nineteenth century.

c) two thousand years ago.

d) lived in Rome.

e) fell in love.

Answers: 1. c), 2. d), 3. a), 4. e), 5. b)

2. Choose the best question word for these questions, and then answer them.

What / When / Who / How / Why

1. _____ was Saint Valentine?

2. _____ is St. Valentine’s Day?

3. _____ do people send to the people they love?

4. _____ long have people celebrated Valentine’s Day?

5. _____ do people write ‘Be my Valentine’ at the end of the cards?

6. _____ was the Emperor of Rome when Valentine was alive?

Answers: 1. Who, 2. When, 3. What, 4. How, 5. Why, 6. Who

14 February is St. Valentine’s Day. This started more than two thousand years ago, as a winter festival, on 15 February. On that day, people asked their gods to give them good fruit and vegetables, and strong animals.

When the Christians came to Britain, they came with a story about a man called Saint Valentine. The story is that Valentine was a Christian who lived in Rome in the third century. The Roman Emperor at the time, Claudius the Second, was not a Christian. Claudius thought that married soldiers did not make good soldiers, so he told his soldiers that they must not marry.

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