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Four Secrets for Reading in the ELT classroom 


Andrea Sarto is the author of Football Forever, a NEW Dominoes graded reader available now. He was born in the UK but has lived and worked in several different countries as an English-language teacher, trainer and editor. By his own confession, he probably reads too much.

I have this habit when I start a book.

Maybe ‘habit’ is the wrong word. It’s more of a strategy. First, I have a really good look at it – judge it by its cover. Next I’ll read the first line, word by word. Then I’ll read the first chapter, twice. Sometimes I’ll read it more than twice.

Why? Basically, it’s because I enjoy it. I want to savour it. It’s such a treat to tune yourself into a new story – the style, the sense of place and character that the author is creating. That’s why I take it slowly. It’s all about anticipation. You never quite know what’s going to happen.

In this respect a graded reader is no different, especially when it’s an original story. Encouraging students to read in English can provide massive benefits to their language learning. There are so many academic studies which prove just that … but how exactly do we do it? What’s the secret?

Secret # 1

First, and most importantly, it’s about the topic. I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in everything under the sun. Some things I sort of like, but other things I’m really passionate about. If you can find out what your students are passionate about – be it football or music or vampires or time travel – then that’s half the secret. Because there’s bound to be a book or text in English about it.  And that book or text is going to tell you something else about your passion – something you didn’t know before. In that sense, English is just a conduit for students to find out more stuff about what they like (and the world it’s part of).

Secret # 2

The second secret is getting the level right. Who wants to read with a book/device in one hand and a dictionary in the other? OK, fine if we encounter the odd word we don’t understand – it still happens to me and I’ve been learning English for over forty years! But students want to lose themselves in the experience, and they can’t do it if they keep tripping over words they don’t know. So the book needs to be of a slightly lower level than the students’ own language level. It’s not rocket science. (There are books about rocket science, too, though.)

Secret # 3

Thirdly, it’s about taking it slowly, or rather in stages. We need to help students to find a way in … or a way out if it comes to that. Only the bravest can plunge in without any preliminaries; the rest of us like to take our time. And here’s where my ‘habit’ comes in. I’m about to spell out one tried-and-tested approach for using graded readers inspired by it …

So you’ve assembled your library of graded readers. (Incidentally, most publishers do a deal where you can get a collection of topics and levels for a discount instead of buying them one by one.) Here’s what you do next:

  1. Spread them out face-up on a large table (or do the equivalent digitally with thumbnails.) Ask students to choose a reader based on the title and picture on the front cover alone.
  2. Tell students to read the back cover blurb for homework. They can use a bilingual dictionary if necessary – who cares as long as they’re reading! Ask them to make a note of where the story takes place (setting); who the main person is (character); and what happens (plot).
  3. Get students to read the first line of Chapter 1 three times and Chapter 1 itself twice.
  4. At this point, if they didn’t enjoy it, they can STOP. But they must promise to do two things if they do decide to give up. The first is to tell you why (in English). The second is to take a different graded reader from the library. They can also stop this one after stage 3, to be replaced by another book, but this third one they must read through from start to finish, i.e. stick at it!
  5. Tell students to write a short summary (in the past or present tense) of what happens in Chapter 1. You can do all sorts of things with these summaries: error correction; peer dictation; gapfill, etc.
  6. Repeat the process with the next few chapters. If students start to copy each others’ summaries, do some comparison work in class and talk about the importance of original work vs plagiarism!
  7. Before students read the final chapter, get them to predict what’s going to happen (in the future) and how the story will end in terms of setting, character, and plot. They then read to confirm their prediction – even changing what they wrote to reflect what they read.
  8. After students finish the book, get them to give it a ‘star rating’ from 1–5. Decide as a class what the star ratings stand for, e.g. 1 = Don’t waste your time! 2 = Probably not for you; 3 = Give it a go; 4 = Definitely recommended; 5 = Out of this world! (If they want to write a review or give a mini-presentation about it, don’t stand in their way!)
  9. At the end of the term or year, do some project work. Tell students to calculate the most/least popular titles (and do a basic graph to show it), to interview each other about their favourites, to write follow-up chapters as a story chain, look for common ground between stories in order to draw up a list of If you liked this, then try … etc.
  10. Go back to stage 1 and start over. After all, the funny thing about reading a good book is that it makes you want to read another. And then another. That’s Secret # 4, by the way!



#IATEFL – What are reading skills? –They’re not (only) what you think

reading process

Rachael Roberts will be joining our line-up of authors speaking at this year’s IATEFL with Caroline Krantz for their talk, ‘Cracking the code of English’. Today she joins us to preview that talk, focusing on decoding skills most useful for reading English as a language learner.

When we talk about reading skills, what usually comes to mind? Prediction, reading for gist, reading for specific information and skimming and scanning?

If you’ll forgive the clickbait style title of this post (I couldn’t resist), the fact is that there’s a lot more to the skill of reading than this.

Let’s start by looking at these commonly referred to skills, and then look at what else we could (and should) be teaching our students.


Students are very often encouraged to use the title of the text, or any accompanying pictures to make predictions about the content. There are good reasons for teaching students to do this; the idea is to activate whatever students may already know about the topic and help them to start creating a context. Without context, comprehension is much harder. Think about those moments when you turn on the radio and have no idea for a few moments what is being discussed. It only starts to make sense once you realise what the basic topic is.

Reading for gist

This doesn’t mean telling the students , ‘read the text to get a general idea of what it’s about’. That is never a very helpful task because it doesn’t give the students any reason to read, or any orientation to the topic or context. A gist question should mean that the students have to read the whole text, though not necessarily very thoroughly, in order to answer the question. For example, students might choose which title or picture most closely matches the content of the text. The idea is for students to get an overview of the text, which can help them when they return to the text to find more detailed information.

Reading for specific information

In contrast, reading for specific information means setting questions or a task which require the students to read the text much more carefully. This isn’t really a skill so much as a way of testing comprehension.

Skimming and scanning

These two words sound nice together, and make a memorable pair, but most people are a little vague about what they actually mean. Skimming has some crossover with reading for gist, because they are both about getting an overview. However, I would suggest that skimming and scanning are more properly called strategies rather than skills. They were originally both methods of speed reading. Skimming strategies are often taught as part of EAP (English for Academic Purposes) because these students have to read a great deal of content in English. So students may be taught, for example, to read just the first line of every paragraph, as this is often the topic sentence, which contains the main idea of the paragraph.

Scanning is a way of reading text quickly by only looking for specific bits of information, and not reading everything. For example, looking at the index or contents page of a book to find a specific topic you’re interested in, or picking out the figures in a text to see what the results of a piece of research were.  Again, this strategy can be particularly useful in academic contexts.

Understanding that we read different texts in different ways, using different strategies, is very important for learners. The way we read a novel on the beach is very different from the way we read a legal contract. We probably read the novel much faster, with more of a skimming/gist approach, whereas we are likely to read the contract carefully and slowly, checking that we understand the details. Students reading in a second language often fail to transfer these different ways of reading across from their first language.

Teaching reading skills

However, while looking at different ways of reading, and different reasons for reading,  is important, to what extent are these traditional reading activities actually helping students to read more effectively or fluently? Aren’t we mostly just giving them practice and/or checking their comprehension?

A reading lesson usually goes something like this:

  1. Set the scene/pre-teach vocab/elicit predictions.
  2. Read for gist (hopefully by setting a suitable gist question)
  3. Read again to answer for detailed comprehension questions.
  4. Discuss the content/focus on language in the text.

By encouraging students to predict and to read for gist first, we are perhaps helping them to develop their top-down skills- using context and their previous knowledge to make sense of what they are reading. However, there is a lot more to the reading skill than this.

According to Grabe and Stoller (2011:23) in each and every two seconds of reading fluent readers:

‘1) focus on and access 8-10 word meanings

2) parse a clause for information and form a meaning unit

3) figure out how to connect a new meaning unit into the growing text model

4) check interpretation of the information according to their purposes, feelings, attitudes and background expectations as needed

5) monitor their comprehension, make appropriate inferences, shift strategies and repair misunderstanding, as needed.

6) resolve ambiguities, address difficulties and critique text information, as needed.’

Fluent reading means that readers must be able to carry out all of these reading comprehension processes simultaneously and very quickly.  Just like driving a car, some of the processes taking place simultaneously must be automatized. If the reader is struggling to decode the words, or understand how the words fit into the sentence, or how the sentence fits into the discourse as a whole, their working memory will become overloaded, and they won’t be able to hold onto the overall meaning of the text.

So helping students to develop their reading skills must, I believe, include specific and conscious work on bottom up or decoding skills as well as top down skills, such as predicting.

Decoding skills

Whereas top down skills start from the reader and what the reader already knows or understands, bottom up or decoding skills start from the text. At the lowest level, students need to recognise alphabetic letters and then the words formed from these letters. Clearly, recognising and understanding written words is a key part of reading, even though we would usually deal with it under the heading of vocabulary. According to Paul Nation, in order to understand a written text without any assistance, students need to comprehend 98% of the words. So, if we want to work on developing reading skills (rather than using the text as a way of introducing new language) it is important that students aren’t getting stuck on too many unknown words.

Assuming that students recognise and understand enough of the vocabulary, the next layer of difficulty comes in putting those words together, understanding sentences, how those sentences fit together, and how what we are reading links with what we’ve already read. This is an area where there is huge potential to help students, and yet, outside academic reading courses, it is rarely a focus.

This is why I was so excited to work on Oxford University Press’s new series, Navigate. In this series, there is a clear syllabus and focus on these kinds of decoding skills. At lower levels, this might be understanding conjunctions or pronoun reference. At higher levels, we also focus on understanding complex sentences, ellipsis, paraphrasing and so on.

If we don’t focus on these kinds of skills, we are only teaching students part of what they need to know in order to improve their reading skills, and most of our focus is on testing comprehension rather than teaching.

This post was originally published on Rachael’s blog, elt-resourceful. Don’t miss Rachael and Caroline’s talk at 4.25pm on Thursday 14th April at IATEFL Birmingham.


Reading for pleasure – Activities to get students involved

Teenage Girl ReadingContinuing the Reading for Pleasure series, Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, looks at ways of involving students in the reading process.

So, we’ve started our class library. Students have the books and many have begun reading them. In an ideal world, my students would now go on to read a variety of stories, sharing their experience with their friends, while effortlessly improving their English. Like I said, in an ideal world. In the real world of my classroom, most of my students are looking at me with a look that says, “Okay, we’re reading. Now what?” There is the expectation to do something with the reading. And I need to meet that expectation to keep them involved and motivated.

In my classes, I use the first lesson of each month to introduce an activity they can do based on their reading. The main aim of the activity is to keep them involved and share their reading experience with their friends and family. You can find 10 of these activities on the Oxford Big Read website, so I won’t explain how to do them here. However, there are some important underlying features in these activities that are crucial for the reading experience to also become a learning experience.

Let’s take the first 2 activities from the Oxford Big Read as examples of this. The first is based on the whole class and the second is based on students working individually.


“Why are we playing Bingo?” they ask me. It’s a good question. As I am a firm believer that teaching should not be a secret, we discuss why we are playing Bingo.

First, playing Bingo involves all the students in the class, even those who have not yet started reading their book. Everyone can participate, some by saying words from their stories, others by simply writing them in their Bingo card. Without preaching to them about the value of reading, I am saying to all my students, “If you want to, you can do this!”.

Second, each student reads and understands based on their own ability and interest. There are no wrong answers. Maria may decide to say “love” in relation to Tom Sawyer because that is the part she liked, or simply because that is the last part she read. One student in my class said “adventure” simply because it was on the cover. I wrote the word on the board, the students wrote it on their Bingo card and the activity continued.

Third, playing Bingo creates a certain curiosity about the different stories.

Students become curious about what others are reading based on just words. A word like “dragon” or “murder” will raise a few eyebrows. This may lead students to talk to each other about the stories outside of the classroom. In this context, playing Bingo is just a means to another end.

Finally, playing Bingo reinforces the positive reading environment I want to create around the class library. The activity associates reading with fun and enjoyment, going against their original perceptions. As the first activity in our class library, Bingo encourages the more hesitant and sceptical students to start reading, showing them how they can participate.

Discussing this with them helps them to see that there is more to Bingo than simply playing a game.


The first individual activity I ask my students to do is to make a poster for the story they are reading. Making posters reinforces the features I have mentioned in playing Bingo, but it goes further.

First, the language for the posters is in their stories. There is little need for the teacher to intervene. Whether based on a sentence or around 10 words, students refer back to their stories to find the language they will include in their posters.

Second, displaying posters reinforces that their work is for their friends to see, not simply for the teacher to correct. This will emphasise that they are sharing their reading experience with others. Becoming fully aware of this will lead them to be more careful about spelling and grammar mistakes. They will browse through their books to help them get it right and thus reinforce language learning.

Third, displaying their posters will add to the sense of achievement they already feel in understanding and enjoying a story in a foreign language. Seeing their poster amongst everyone else’s will strengthen their involvement in learning English, regardless of whether they are weak or strong students. After all, there is their work being looked at and read by others.

Finally, their posters have a communicative purpose. They are not meant simply for the teacher to correct, but primarily to encourage their friends to read the story. And this encouragement is based on what they liked about the story. There is real student-to-student communication, making the English they use more memorable to them.

The features of these 2 activities will become part of the class library as the activities change. As students’ confidence and self-esteem increase, so will their learning.

Verri will be running a workshop on setting up a class library at IATEFL Liverpool on Tuesday 9th April.


What’s the point of Extensive Reading?

To celebrate the launch of Project fourth edition, Domino author, Nina Prentice explores the relevance of extensive reading in the upper primary classroom.

School is generally about hierarchies and rules. The teacher is the authority on and dispenser of the syllabus. Students are novices. Their purpose is to consume and learn the year’s programme of study and satisfy the requirements of the examination system.

But, if we believe that learning is not just about passing exams, our classrooms need not follow this pattern. We can break the traditional roles of ‘teacher’ and ‘student’ following our set tasks and duties quite easily. All we need is a library of graded readers and the enthusiasm and passion to read extensively alongside our class.

The transformation is astonishing. Discussion and debate become the norm. Students, even those who are less able or confident, participate enthusiastically because when people respond to personal reading there is no right or wrong answer. Everyone has a voice and a right to have it heard.

Extensive reading is the opposite of the obligatory ‘intensive reading’ we practice in school, crawling like snails over texts and leaving inky slime trails of annotation over every page. Reading extensively is about consuming large amounts of texts greedily to know the end of the story, not to dissect the author’s style. It is about choice, freedom and pleasure.

When we read extensively, we forget our dictionaries because we are reading well within our comfort zone. Choosing freely what we read (and rejecting it if we don’t like it) for our personal enjoyment and interest is liberating, motivating and empowering.

Extensive reading also frees us from daily textbook routines. The class library not only allows us to explore language together naturally through our reactions to the books we are all reading but provides a endless supply of spontaneous activities with which to animate our lessons and engage our students.

The class library allows us to share our reading experiences communally. This collaborative approach, where the normal, formal routines of the classroom are set aside, creates an environment where learning happens naturally through discussion, the expression of opinions and even disagreement! Extensive reading is real language in real use and demonstrates that books will always be the best and most stimulating teachers!

Some examples of practical extensive reading activities

Graded readers provide prompts for classroom activities in ways that many textbooks or undifferentiated material cannot.  Books which students have chosen deliberately and are enjoying reading are self-evidently within their competence.  Textbook work can never be quite as accessible or as pleasurable.  Additionally, students are usually excited about sharing their current reading with the rest of the class and less able students gain confidence when they can perform and contribute in the same way as more able classmates. Continue reading


Using Graded Readers with Young Learners: Supporting Reading

Wallace and GromitHaving chosen a reader to use with your young learners and helped them engage with the characters and story through pre-reading activities, David Dodgson now shares some tips on how to support their reading by going beyond comprehension questions and language work.

Kids love reading stories and, in the foreign language classroom, they can be motivating and captivating. However, reading in their second language can also present children with a considerable struggle as they grapple with plot and character development, extended passages of text and new language. There is also the danger that reading followed by standard comprehension questions turns what should be a fun activity into ‘just another lesson’ in our young learners’ eyes. In this post, we will look at some ways to engage the students by supporting them before, during and after the reading process.

Visual stimuli as advance organisers

In my last post, I looked at activities to raise the students’ interest before reading the book so here I’ll share some ideas to use before individual chapters. I’ve always found that one of the best ways to engage children is through video – the combination of moving images and sound provides a context-rich way to display and explain difficult concepts. I’ve been lucky this year in that both of the readers we have used in class had films to go with them: for The Wizard of Oz there is the classic 1939 film starring Judy Garland; and The Wrong Trousers is of course based on the Nick Park animated film of the same name.

I think it’s a waste when the video version of the story is just shown after the book has been finished as there is so much that can be done to support the reading process throughout the story such as showing a relevant clip to set the scene before a chapter. This can be a great help when it comes to pre-teaching specific vocabulary needed to understand the unfolding events. Rather than go through a difficult explanation to teach an unknown word that appears once in the chapter, you can quickly show the class the word in action instead.

Continue reading