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Strategies for ‘swimming’ safely in a text

Boy swimming underwaterFollowing on from his previous post about not drowning in a text, Peter Redpath, co-author of Incredible English, now suggests strategies for moving learners from the shallow to the deep end of a reading text.

In my last blog post I used the image of a swimming pool to represent a reading text. A swimming pool is full of water and a text is full of language: it is possible to drown in both! In this post I’d like to stay with that image and think about how we can take the learners from the shallow end to the deep end of the text. I’d also like to ensure they are never in danger of drowning in the language.

My teaching aim is to develop different swimming strokes or reading strategies so that they learn to move comfortably through the water/text.

What are the reading strategies that competent readers bring to a text? They can:

  1. Predict content. We don’t usually read a text without some idea of its content.  A headline or a title or pictures usually gives us some idea about the content of the text.
  2. Skim a text for an overview of what it’s about.
  3. Scan it and pick out specific information or detail.
  4. Read from beginning to end of a selected passage, drawing out the author’s message and intention.
  5. Read carefully to understand how that message has been constructed and the language used.

In points 1, 2 and 3 my learners are in the shallower end of the swimming pool. In 4 and 5, they have moved into the deep end. (You may have noticed that I have dropped the terms extensive and intensive reading. Do you use these terms or something different? Leave a comment and let me know).

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Reading, not drowning!

Girl in swimming pool with t-shirt and gogglesFollowing on from his previous post about reading aloud, Peter Redpath, co-author of Incredible English, teacher trainer and ELT consultant, considers how to encourage successful reading in language students.

In my last blog post I questioned the value of reading aloud around the classroom. I suggested that the main aim for this seemed to be spoken pronunciation and not reading skills. In this blog post I would like to think about how you can get children aged about 9 and above to read successfully in a foreign language.

Let’s start with an image. Think of the reading text as a swimming pool. A swimming pool is full of water and a text is full of language.  If I’m not careful and throw my students in at the deep end (for example, by getting them to read aloud word by word), my learners may drown in the language. I want them to dip their toes in the shallow end and then, as they grow more confident, move them towards the deep end.

To begin with they need something to aim for: an objective or task. The tasks I set will guide them into the water at the shallow end and gradually move them to the deep end.

To complete these tasks successfully they will need to read efficiently. In other words, they will need to use reading strategies. These strategies are the swimming strokes, which will help keep their heads above water so that they don’t drown in the language of the text.

Before teaching the strategies or swimming strokes, I need to make sure basic  pool safety, or methodology, is in place.

1. Task before text

Most of the time we need a reason to read. We infrequently read a text with no purpose – without a reason. To give our pupils a reason to read I need to set a task. This for me suggests a logical order to my procedure: they need to know what the task is before they read the text. Have you noticed that some coursebooks put the task or questions after the text? They often seem to be dictating a procedure of text before the task, which I think is in the wrong order! What do you think?

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The Thrill of Discovery: Reading to Learn

Six year old girl reading on the floorAhead of his talk at IATEFL 2011 in Brighton entitled ‘The Thrill of Discovery: Reading to Learn’, Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, shares how he came to learn that students will be motivated to read in a foreign language if allowed to discover for themselves the thrill of reading.

My first experience with encouraging students to read was with a class of 10-year-olds in Portugal.  28 students walked around 4 tables full of different simplified readers. Their objective was simply to choose one to read, a much more difficult task than I was aware of at the time. One student, Eduardo, summarised the feelings of the class succinctly and directly: “Why should I read in English when I don’t even read in Portuguese?”

A good question. I realised most of them were doing this because I had asked them to, because they trusted me. I looked at Eduardo and told him he didn’t have to read if he didn’t want to. Surprised, and not really believing me, he sat down and waited for the bell to ring, putting me to the test. I walked around the room answering students’ questions, asking what they liked to watch on TV. I figured this would give me an idea of what would interest them.

A few minutes, Eduardo at my side. “Teacher,” he said, “this book is about football. Can I take this one?” When I said yes, he was obviously surprised that a book about football was acceptable. He walked away with the book. I knew that he was now worried about being able to understand it in English. Eduardo was not known for being a good student in general, and even less so in English. I left him alone, keeping an eye on him from a distance. Minutes later he was at my side again. “Teacher, did you know that Pele was only 17 in his first World Cup?” I told him I didn’t. Eduardo proceeded to tell me a lot of other information about football. By the end of the class he decided he would try reading the book.

Eduardo went on to read many other books that year and nearly 20 years later I still remember what I learned about motivating students to read – simply let them read. Let them discover the thrill of learning and the sense of achievement in reading in a foreign language.

Carl Rogers said “we cannot teach another person directly; we can only facilitate his learning.” Reading allows teachers to facilitate their students’ learning. It reinforces classroom learning, as the vocabulary and grammar of our syllabuses, are all there. More importantly, all those verb tenses, adjectives, nouns, and adverbs are there with the purpose of communicating information. The language appears in a context, it is a means to an end and not an end in itself. After all, we don’t normally go to a bookshop and choose a book to read because it has great examples of the ‘present perfect’.

Reading is also a great motivator to learn English. It exposes students to different worlds and different experiences, and it allows them to share these experiences with each other. More importantly, in my view, reading gives students a sense of achievement. It shows them the result of the years they have been studying English. In designing activities to accompany students’ classroom reading, I always make sure that my activities do not interfere with the magic that is reading. The aim of my activities is not to motivate students to read – the books will do that – it is to help them share their reading experience.

Eduardo taught me that, and I still remember the smile of satisfaction when he finished a book and the sense of expectation as he browsed the bookshelf for another.

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