Chapter 7

Chapter 7


What reading is

It is a commonplace of teacher education that teachers tend to teach by the methods which were used by the teachers who taught them. In no area of language teaching is this more true than in that of reading. It is probably for this reason that the procedure of reading round the class has been perpetuated, though anyone who considers it seriously, even briefly, in terms of what it contributes to new learning, or of pupil participation, or of communicative function, realises very quickly that it is a singularly profitless exercise.

It may be well, therefore, to begin by looking carefully at just what 'reading' entails in the context of teaching English as a foreign language—see Appendix 1 for a summary.

First it must be recognised that reading is a complex skill, that is to say that it involves a whole series of lesser skills. First of these is the ability to recognise stylised shapes which are figures on a ground, curves and lines and dots in patterned relationships. Moreover it is not only a matter of recognising the shapes as such but recognising them as same or different, and recognising that shapes which are quite different may for the purposes of reading be regarded as the same, as is the case with upper and lower case letters like 'A' and 'a'. Good modern infant teaching recognises the need for training in this kind of recognition and a good deal of time is devoted to the matching of shapes and patterns and in general cultivating the perceptual apparatus necessary for it.

This is, however, in the nature of a low level skill, which becomes increasingly mechanical; where learners are already literate in a language which uses the Roman alphabet, acquiring this skill presents few problems. It is only where learners are illiterate or literate in a language which uses a non-Roman script that difficulties may be encountered.

The second of the skills involved in the complex is the ability to correlate the black marks on the paper—the patterned shapes—with language. It is impossible to learn to read without at least the capacity to acquire language. The correlation appears to be made between elements of the patterns on the paper and formal elements of language. According to the nature of these formal linguistic elements the nature of the skill involved alters. The elements may be complex groups of sounds which might be called 'words' or 'phrases' or 'sentences' or even 'paragraphs', 'chapters', or 'books'; or they might be the most basic elements, the single 'sounds' called phonemes. Readers who learn to correlate larger groups of sounds with the patterns on the paper might perhaps be learning by 'look and say', those learning to correlate the patterns on the paper with phonemes by a 'phonic' method; both kinds of skill are needed to develop efficient reading. Reading speed, for example, probably depends to a considerable extent on the development of the first; reading aloud would seem to depend at least to some extent on the second.

A third skill which is involved in the total skill of reading is essentially an intellectual skill; this is the ability to correlate the black marks on the paper by way of the formal elements of language, let us say the words as sound, with the meanings which those words symbolise.

We have therefore three components in the reading skill; A, the recognition of the black marks; B, the correlation of these with formal linguistic elements; and C, the further correlation of the result with meaning. The essence of reading then, is just this—the understanding of the black marks on paper A-C. A great many complexities have been grossly simplified in this account, in particular it is important to understand that the process is not a straight linear sequence as might be inferred by the symbolisation that has been used. The scope of the recognitions may be large scale or small, and the correlations involve a to-and-fro scanning between the text both as a physical object and as a linguistic object and the meanings which it conveys. The reader clearly brings his knowledge of the language and his knowledge of the world to bear, he builds up expectations, he makes predictions about what is to come and the extent to which his predictions are accurate is one of the factors in fluent reading. Thus most English native speakers faced with a sentence that began, 'The mathematician soon solved the…' would, using their knowledge of the world, of how mathematicians behave and what their work is, and their knowledge of the language, be likely to predict that the sentence might continue with a word like 'problem' or 'equation' and accurate reading would be a matter of confirming the prediction.

The word reading of course has a number of common interpretations. It may mean reading aloud, a very complex skill, which involves understanding the black marks first and then the production of the right noises. Most people, if they are asked to read something aloud, like to have an opportunity to 'glance over' what it is they are being asked to read. In the actual process of reading aloud too they usually find that their eyes are several words if not lines ahead of their tongues. The process is something like A-C-B.

If reading involves only the first two of the components discussed above, A-B, the result is 'barking at print'. It is perfectly easy to learn to read an exotic language in this sense. One can learn to make the right noises to correspond with the squiggles on the page without having the slightest understanding of what the sense of it is.

It must be recognised that reading aloud is primarily an oral matter. For those who teach foreign languages it is closer to 'pronunciation' than it is to 'comprehension'. While it is perfectly proper to try to develop the skill of reading aloud it clearly cannot be done using an unfamiliar text the content and language of which stretches the linguistic capabilities of the learners to the utmost. It requires a familiar text whose content and language are clearly understood, detailed explication and practice of the special pronunciation problems in it, and small group techniques. It must also be admitted that the usefulness of the skill of reading aloud is limited. Few people are required to read aloud as a matter of daily routine, radio newscasters, clergymen, perhaps actors and that is all. To the huge majority its importance is minimal.

Reading may also mean 'silent reading' and this is the interpretation which is most likely for the term. This is perhaps the nearest approach to the essence of reading, the A-C of it. It is obvious that by far the greatest amount of reading that is done in the world is silent. A reading room is a silent room. But the nature of the silent reading skill is far from uniform. It varies according to the use to which it is being put. Some of the uses are (i) to survey material which is to be studied, to look through indexes, chapter headings and outlines, (ii) to skim—particularly when one item of information is being sought in a mass of other printed information, (iii) to gain superficial comprehension, as when reading for pleasure or preparing to read aloud, (iv) to study the content of what is read in some detail, (v) to study the language in which the material is written—this may involve textual study in the literary sense or it may involve the kind of language study that a foreigner may need to do. The depth and detail of understanding, of comprehension, increases as we go through these ways of using reading, in sequence. The skilled reader has developed all of these ways of using reading. It is common for the third, fourth and sometimes the fifth of these to be encouraged in schools, though the first and second are almost completely neglected.

Of these five kinds of reading activity the first three, survey reading, skimming, and superficial reading are sometimes grouped together and called extensive reading. The object of such reading is to cover the greatest possible amount of text in the shortest possible time. A relatively low degree of understanding is perfectly adequate for this, either because that is all that is being sought in any case, or because the material itself is highly redundant—as is the case for example with newspaper reports. The label indicates that those who use it are not concerned with the actual skills involved but with the effects which the employment of those skills produce, that is to say a familiarity, albeit not a very thorough familiarity, with a large body of reading material. It is by pursuing the activity of extensive reading that the volume of practice necessary to achieve rapid and efficient reading can be achieved. It is also one of the means by which a foreigner may be exposed to a substantial sample of the language he may wish to learn without actually going to live in the country to which that language is native.

The remaining two kinds of reading activity, content study reading and linguistic study reading are also often grouped together and called intensive reading. Once again the term indicates that it is not the nature of the skills involved that is of most interest but the results, in this case a deep and thorough understanding of the black marks on the paper. The concern is for detailed comprehension of very short texts. Intensive reading is typically concerned with texts of not more than 500 words in length. The objective is to achieve full understanding of the logical argument, the rhetorical arrangement or pattern of the text, of its symbolic, emotional and social overtones, of the attitudes and purposes of the author, and of the linguistic means that he employs to achieve his ends.

Closely related to degree of understanding is reading speed. Obviously the rate at which material may be covered becomes slower as depth and detail of understanding increase, but there are a number of other factors which enter in here. One of these may be the clarity of the text itself. Another factor is the extent to which the content of a text is already familiar to the reader. Nevertheless it is possible to develop reading speed, and efficient reading involves high reading speeds with high levels of comprehension.

Many people seem to believe that study and slow reading are the same, or at least that in order to study well one must read slowly. It is very important that this belief be undermined. Study involves several other sorts of skill besides reading, and may well involve several different sorts of reading skill. The good student will probably want to make a preliminary survey of what he is going to study, this will lead him to formulate a series of questions about the subject he is studying, he will then read, perhaps partly skimming, partly reading intensively to find the answer to those questions, and when he has recorded the answers he will at some future time revise the material. This sequence of operations describes the well-known SQ3R study technique, and it is clear that there is much more to it than just slow reading. (A fuller description of this technique and much practical advice on the matter of reading quickly will be found in E.Fry, Teaching Faster Reading.)

It should be the concern of every teacher to foster increased general reading speed in pupils. Fluent silent reading is specially necessary for anyone who proposes to venture on to any kind of higher education, and when, as Fry and many others have clearly shown, it is fairly easy to double and treble that speed, it is obvious that the effort to do this ought to be made.

Some relationships, within material to be read

In discussing the complex nature of the reading skill it was pointed out that reading involves correlating elements of language with meaning. The most familiar of all elements of language are 'words' and it must be quite clear that part of what is involved in understanding a text is understanding the meanings of individual words in that text. Thus if a reader does not understand the meaning of a word like fleet he may miss the whole point of a passage which concerns some kind of naval engagement. This particular kind of block to comprehension is so common that it is frequently taken to be the whole story, but it is not quite so simple as that. The failure to recognise a particular lexical item may not be the result of simple blank ignorance of the kind suggested above, it may be much more subtle than this. It may be the product of false association, as in the case of the reader who understands 'concerted action' as something to do with music; or it may be due to lack of knowledge of the limits of derivational morphology as in the case of the reader who understands 'commando' as the men under a particular officer's command; it may be due to a kind of folk etymology as in the case of the reader who understood a 'limpet' to be a dwarf with one leg shorter than the other; or for foreigners especially it may arise from the existence of 'false friend' cognates so that a Spaniard or a Frenchman may understand that a 'library' is a place where books are sold.

Understanding the meanings of individual words is not the end either. The efficient reader needs to be able to understand the patterns of relationships between words the semantic patterns of lexical items. Thus he must learn to observe for example how a series of synonyms can carry a particular concept through a passage (weapons…arms… equipment…), or how a general term is made more precise (The men were issued with their weapons. Each man received a pistol, two clips of ammunition, and a dagger), or how a technical meaning may be assigned to a term so that it may be used as a counter in the development of an exposition (Let us call this first infiltration of the enemy's defences the first wave. Once the first wave is in position…the second wave…).

There is still much more to come. The efficient reader must have a clear understanding of the grammatical relationships which hold between the lexical items, and he needs to grasp the semantics of a particular grammatical item in a particular context. For instance a sentence like 'We'll change the programme in Bremen', may be spoken in such a way that it is quite unambiguous, but in its written form it may be interpreted either to mean 'We'll change the programme which has been arranged for Bremen', or 'We'll change the programme when we get to Bremen'. This is a question of whether in Bremen is related to the whole sentence 'We'll change the programme', as a sentence adverb, or whether in Bremen is a prepositional phrase acting as a post-modifier of programme.

The good reader also needs to be familiar with the precise meaning of the particular grammatical devices used, structure words, word order, word forms and broad patterns of sentences. (The text says 'The airforce had agreed to create a diversion by bombing the other side of the submarine basin but they were late.' How does this differ from saying 'and they were late'? 'The aircraft were due at 3.40 precisely. At 3.46 the first anti-aircraft gun opened fire.' Why not 'The first anti-aircraft gun opened fire at 3.46'? The consequences of subordinating one clause to another, or choosing one tense rather than another, or relating sentences by nominalisation ('The men disappeared into the night. Their disappearing so silently was quite eerie') and all the multifarious patterns of the grammar in their almost incredible richness are all the proper subject of the good reader's attention.

So also are the patterns of logical relationships within texts. The skilled reader makes use of the information, the signals, passed to him by the lexical and grammatical patterns to discover the architecture of a passage, the framework upon which it is built. He can perceive that this sentence is a generalisation, that this paragraph which follows is one bit of the evidence upon which the generalisation is based. Here, and here, and here are time adverbs showing the temporal sequence of the events in the story, and so on. It is from this general overview that he is most likely to gain an understanding of what the text is really about.

There are three other kinds of relationship which concern written texts. The first of these is the relationship which exists between the author and his text. The skilled reader is aware of the author's attitude and purpose whether he intends the passage to be taken seriously or whether he is writing ironically, or with his tongue in his cheek, or whether he is writing light-heartedly or with humorous intent. The author may be writing something purely descriptive, attempting to encapsulate a bit of experience in words, or he may be attempting to present a narrative, expound a theory or develop an argument. An anecdote may be recounted to support a contention, emotion may be deliberately invoked to cover inadequate reasoning, but at every point the author is using what he writes for some end in human communication and it is essential that the reader should be aware of what this is. Reading a joke as though it were serious exposition is a very radical kind of misunderstanding.

The second sort of relationship concerning written texts is that which exists between the reader and the text. Obviously the author's purpose will be related to the reader's reaction to the text, but there is one kind of reader response which involves a kind of extension of the text and which can therefore be very important for a full understanding of it. It may be, for example, that the text is so constructed that it leads the reader very powerfully towards adopting a particular point of view, or accepting a particular generalisation, or value judgment, yet the conclusion may never be explicitly stated in the text. So the logical implications of a text may need to be explored as well as the syllogisms expounded explicitly in it. To fully comprehend the point of a short story, for example, it may be necessary to imagine what the next incident in the narrative might be and the good reader has the ability to make this kind of projection.

The third kind of relationship which is relevant to the understanding of a written text is that which exists between the text and the culture, in the anthropological sense, of the community in whose language the text is written. The understanding reader is aware of the precise cultural value of verbal expressions. It is not sufficient to know that an expression like Spiffing! means Excellent!, or some such thing, it is also necessary to be aware that such an expression places the user, socially, educationally and temporally. The whole realm of literary allusion and quotation, comes in here. It may be necessary to know who wrote the text, when he wrote it and for whom, in order to understand it fully. Such information is often not derivable directly from the text and has to be acquired from some outside supplementary source. There is, however, something of a tendency among teachers to provide too much of this supplementary information at the expense of paying attention to the text itself and what it says and the priority must always be to ensure that the text itself yields up as much as possible of what is really relevant to its understanding. Knowing who wrote it and when may not be relevant at all.

It is not only the cultural value of words and expressions that is important; the ability to identify the kinds of situation, the topics, the social classes, the geographical regions, and the points in time to which they belong; but the value which the text as a whole may have in a particular society. In order to understand a play like Look Back in Anger by John Osborne, or a novel like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe and to appreciate why they are regarded as important in post-war British literature it is necessary to have at least some idea of the nature of the social changes that took place in the 1950s and 1960s in England and the kinds of conflict that these changes generated. All of this is part of comprehending a text. It is clearly some way from understanding the plain sense and is beginning to approach literary appreciation, but it remains true that even quite ordinary pieces of writing like advertisements offering French lessons at your home may be misunderstood if the cultural context in which they appear is not known.

Finally every reader must make some kind of evaluation of the texts he reads. Until he does this he cannot be said to have fully comprehended them. He has to relate what the text conveys through its vocabulary and grammar and its rhetorical and logical structure and the attitudes and cultural meanings which it has to his own experience, his own conception of reality. He needs to judge if this is really the way men and women behave under the influence of fear, love, or hate. The whole question of the truth of fiction needs to be examined (is the story of the Prodigal Son a 'true' story?) and so too must the validity of logical and rhetorical structures. (Are the conclusions which the author draws from the evidence he presents justified? Are the conclusions the author leads us to draw valid? Is the language used in this apparently objective description in fact 'loaded' so that we find ourselves approaching this following section of the text with prejudice? and so on.) It is only when all of these dimensions of understanding have been seriously contemplated that full comprehension may be achieved.

This then is a brief exploration of the nature of reading, of the kind of thing it is, and the factors that enter into it. How then is reading to be taught and what part does it play in teaching English to foreigners?

Teaching reading

First of all there is the question of teaching the mechanics of reading. As was pointed out earlier, where pupils are already literate in a language that uses the Roman alphabet the mechanics as such present few problems. Where the Roman alphabet is not known then the full panoply of techniques used for teaching initial literacy must be brought into play. A useful account of current methodology is to be found in C.Moon and B.Raban, A Question of Reading.

The conventions of reading from left to right, and from top to bottom may have to be taught by such devices as simply getting pupils to follow the tip of a pointer which moves appropriately, picture story series arranged in the appropriate pattern, video or cine projections with moving points or areas of brightness which follow the left to right pattern all help. The shapes of letters may have to be taught by using all kinds of mnemonics which will help to link them with their sound values—S is a Snake, b is a big fat man with a big belly, and so on. The visual perception may have to be supported by the kinaesthetic, learning to write the letters as they are recognised, sandpaper cut-outs, plastic or wooden letters which can actually be handled, the range of devices available is almost overwhelming. Once the basic conventions are understood, then the combining of phonic analytic/ synthetic approaches and global pattern recognition approaches can proceed. It is at this point that learners should be made aware of the most usual regular English spelling patterns, and encouraged to recognise words by their block shapes thus  has quite a different block shape from  Flashcards, or better, flashboards are of great use here. A flashboard is a piece of black painted plywood or white thin melamine surfaced sheet, like Formica, about 30 cm long and 10 cm wide. The black painted surface can be written on with chalk and easily erased for re-use, similarly the white Formica surface can be written on with water-based felt tip pens. A set of nine or ten flashboards is sufficient for most purposes and avoids the consumption of great quantities of card. Longer boards can be used to encourage quick recognition of whole sentences in their written form and most teachers of complete beginners will find a set of five of these about one metre long extremely useful. Some teachers may have access to such sophisticated pieces of equipment as tachistoscopes or Wordmaster talking cards where the words or sentences being read are recorded onto a magnetic tape strip attached to the card on which the words are printed or written. When the card is run through the Wordmaster machine the printed words are reproduced in the spoken medium. The greater the variety of approaches that can be adopted the greater the likelihood of success.

One relatively mechanical aspect of reading is that related to reading speed. The book by Edward Fry mentioned earlier gives sound guidance here. The simplest technique for improving reading speed is basically to use a series of timed texts, understanding of which is then tested in some way, most often by multiple-choice questions, but mechanical pacers which move a blind or a pointer down a page have also been shown to be useful, as have various types of film projection device. Obviously at very early stages it is possible to encourage rapid recognition by using flashboards as suggested earlier. Most teachers need to learn flashboard technique. The key things to remember are to stand where all pupils can see the board without the teacher having to move the board around, and to keep the board still when showing it. If the teacher holds the board horizontally across his chest so that the writing is upside down and facing him, calls for pupil attention, and then twists the board along its own horizontal axis, a good clear 'flash' can be achieved with the writing revealed right way up for just as long as the teacher may require.

Given that the mechanical aspects of the teaching of reading are satisfactorily dealt with how are the intellectual reading skills to be developed? The classic approach has been by questioning, and a great deal can be done by this means. There are however a number of points that the teacher needs to bear in mind when using questions to help pupils to develop understanding of texts. The first is that there is a great difference between questions intended for teaching and questions aimed at testing. Teaching questions tend to be very numerous, oral rather than written, constructed in ordered sequences which lead the pupil to pay particular attention to various aspects of the text, and are likely to be provocative in the sense that they constitute the opening move in an exchange which might grow into a discussion. Sometimes teaching questions don't have a 'right' answer because they ask for personal reactions, and any one of a dozen idiosyncratic responses may be equally acceptable. Teaching questions should seek to cultivate as many as possible of the different kinds of reading skill. It is therefore inappropriate to tell pupils to shut their books when asking questions which are intended to teach understanding of the text. Questions asked with the books shut test memory, either pure visual memory or memory of what was understood. To learn to comprehend, the pupil must learn to look at the actual black marks on the page and to make sense of them, and this can only be done with the book open.

One useful technique for encouraging the pupils to develop the skill of skimming is that which is initiated by the instruction, 'Find the sentence that has the word aircraft in it.' The pupils then all hunt busily for the word in their texts and put their hands up when they have found it. One pupil is then chosen to identify the place where the word is by some agreed convention 'On line x on page y', and may then be asked to read aloud the sentence in which the word occurs. More complex variations of this technique involve instructions like, 'Find the sentence that tells us that the commandos had to wait for the arrival of the aeroplanes' or 'Find the sentence from which we know that the plans made for the carrying out of the raid did not go through without a hitch.' Notice that while still demanding a skimming reading skill we are also demanding a deeper level of understanding involving making deductions from what has been read.

For cultivating close and repeated reading of a text at the plain sense level, or even at deeper levels, P.Gurrey in his book Teaching English as a Foreign Language suggests a technique which may be illustrated by the following series of questions about the sentence above concerning the men who were issued with weapons. Thus, 'Who were issued with weapons? What were the men issued with? Do we know who gave the men the weapons? Can we guess? Do we know whether the men actually received their weapons? How many different things did each man receive? Is a clip of ammunition a weapon? What kind of pistol did each man receive? Was it a revolver? Why do you think so? etc., etc.' These questions would be very numerous and fired off with the utmost speed. They will be so easy that the great majority of pupils will always be ready to answer and even the slowest pupils will have some opportunity to participate. All such questioning is for teaching. It is in fact very close to language manipulation and pattern practice.

Questions for testing, on the other hand, usually are not very numerous, the most common number seems to be about ten or twelve. Very often they are written and it is clear that a written reply is expected. They are not concerned with fostering specific reading skills. They tend to have a high proportion of questions directed at specific vocabulary items, and demand definitions or explanations rather than asking for inferences about meaning to be drawn from the context. The questions are often directed at apparently arbitrarily chosen points in the text and do not concern themselves with overall pattern or tone. The proportion of questions dealing with logical inferences is high, and the number of questions relating to the plain informational content is low. Often the 'questions' are not questions at all but are instructions for a written exercise involving summary or rewriting the text from a different point of view. Tests of this kind may be perfectly proper, they may indeed help to gauge the attainment of pupils. They may even, education systems being what they are, contribute to the pupil's success in public examinations by virtue of the practice they give in examination technique, but the teacher must be quite clear that they do not 'teach' reading comprehension.

The second point which the teacher needs to bear in mind is that the choice of an appropriate text is very important in building up pupils' reading competence. A text which is too difficult, where every other word has to be explained, or which uses extremely complex grammatical constructions, or which is about some obscure technical subject of small interest to the pupil, is only likely to produce frustration. Similarly a text which is too easy does not extend the pupil and it is fundamental that learning requires effort. So texts must be properly graded and sequenced and varied so that their linguistic content and cultural difficulty matches the abilities and sophistication of the pupils, and ensures a reasonable coverage of the various kinds of reading skill they need to develop. Thus texts should include description, exposition, and argument as well as narrative. Some texts should be short and dense, others should be longer and more slight. Humorous pieces, advertising copy, official regulations, as well as essays, feature articles and news reports should all be included. A collection of pieces like Annabell Leslie's Written English Today gives some idea of what is possible.

The third point is that it is important that all the aspects of reading, all the various kinds of relationship, between words in the text, between grammatical constructions, between logical and rhetorical elements, between the author and the reader and the text should be covered by the questioning. Clearly for some texts one aspect may be more important than another but there is something to be said for maintaining a kind of check list to ensure that at some point every aspect receives due attention. On Page 104 you will find a summary list which may be used in this way.

The fourth point the teacher needs to bear in mind when using questions to help pupils to understand what they read is that the form in which the question is put may have a bearing on how easy or difficult it is for the pupil. For example there are those structural patterns of question which lead to the answer 'Yes' or 'No'. The first of these are the ordinary 'general questions' (Did the man beat the dog? Did the aircraft arrive on time?). Then there are those which have the word order of a statement but have a rising intonation which gives them question value (The aircraft arrived on time?), and there are also a range of different kinds of 'tag question' (The aircraft arrived on time, didn't it? The aircraft didn't arrive on time, did it?) The structure of such questions is closely related to, often paralleled by the structure of the sentences of the text, and the one-word answers 'Yes', 'No' are about as simple structurally as it is possible to get in English so that from a purely structural point of view such questions are very easy.

The second formal pattern is that which requires as minimal response a short phrase or word group, not just 'Yes' or 'No'. A great many Wh—questions belong to this category. (When did the aircraft arrive?—at 3.46. Who were issued with weapons?—The men.) Similarly alternative questions with or are often of this kind. (Were the men soldiers or civilians?— Soldiers.) However alternative questions may also require full sentence or clausal answers—see page 104. Questions which require short phrase answers are slightly more demanding in structural terms, but even these have a structure which is related in a clear and regular way with the structure of the sentences of the text. The structure of the replies can usually be taken ready made from the text.

The third formal pattern is that which requires as minimal response a clause or full sentence. Questions beginning with 'Why?' or 'How?' are frequently of this kind, and one of the most insidious is 'What does…mean?' (Why were the men issued with weapons? Because they were going on a raid. How does an ammunition clip work? The clip consists of… Perhaps almost a whole paragraph of explanation may be




1     of plain sense within the text

2     grammatical relationships within the text

3     lexical relationships within the text

4     logical relationships within the text

5     rhetorical relationships within the text

6     relationships between the author and the text—attitude, purpose, etc.

7     relationships between the reader and the text—reactions, prejudices, projections, etc.

8     evaluation and acceptance


              Type of question                               Type of minimal response

(a)    General       Yes/No

(b)    Wh—?        One word/short phrase

(c)    Alternative,'or'           One word/short phrase/


(d)    Why?/What does… Clause/sentence/paragraph mean?/How does… work?

(e)    Declarative statement  True/False

(f)     Multiple-choice questions           Non-linguistic (tick, cross, underlining, etc.)

The cross-multiplication of these two dimensions gives some 48 different types of questions which can be used to help pupils to read with greater understanding.

required. What does wave mean? In this passage wave means the body of men who move into position against the enemy. And an alternative question with or might be Did the men get into position first or did the aircraft arrive first? The men got into position first.) Here the relationship between the structure of the question and the structure of the passage— except in the case of alternative questions—is rarely clear cut or explicit, and the structure of the reply may bear very little relation to either. Clearly questions of this kind may make very heavy demands on the ability to produce complex structural patterns, and so must present certain sorts of inherent difficulty which must be taken into account.

There are two other kinds of question which are frequently used to try to help pupils understand texts better. One of these is the True/False variety. Here the structural complexity of the reply is of the same order as for Yes/No questions, but whereas certain sorts of Yes/No questions predispose us to one answer or the other by virtue of their intonation, and hence can be answered in a virtually mechanical, automatic way, True/False questions demand judgments at the level of content so may be just that little bit more difficult. (The weapons the men were given were suitable for attacking tanks. True or False?)

The second kind of question here is the multiple-choice question—frequently abbreviated to MCQ. In a sense this is simply an elaboration of the True/False type since such questions involve making decisions about the relative truth of a number of statements related to the text. In terms of the structural dimension considered above it should be understood that the structural patterns of the questions can be made to match exactly the structural patterns of the text. This means that MCQs have great advantages where the linguistic levels at which pupils are working are at least partly defined in structural terms. The mode of the answer is virtually nonlinguistic, it may be a tick in a box or a circle round a letter, or at most a letter or number written down, so the demands made on the pupil in terms of the production of complex structure patterns is nil. This means that all his attention may be devoted to the business of understanding the black marks on the paper. It is very important to remember the distinction between questions for teaching and questions for testing with the multiple choice format. The most important characteristic of teaching-MCQs is that the rubric for them no longer reads 'Choose the correct answer' but 'Choose the best answer'. Testing-MCQs have one element which is clearly and unambiguously 'correct'. With teachingMCQs several of the elements may be equally acceptable at one level, and it may require considerable discussion and close examination of both the text and the question to decide which one is the 'best'. It must be very clearly understood that the purpose of framing these questions is not to find out how much of the particular text in question the reader has understood but to help him to develop strategies by means of which he may better be able to understand other texts. Detailed discussion and exemplification of what is involved is to be found in Read and Think by John Munby.

It will be noticed that while open-ended questions for teaching are very often oral, leading and guiding the pupil along the road to fuller and fuller understanding, MCQs for teaching are most likely to be written in form. The pattern of classroom interaction for open-ended questions is likely to be teacher centred: the teacher asks the questions, the pupils answer. With MCQs the most profitable pattern of classroom interaction is between pupils in small groups where the discussion of alternatives can go ahead and the close reading of text and question, comparison and interpretation develop freely. The very great success of this technique, illustrated by the second lesson in Chapter 2, is one of the things that recommends it so strongly.

The discussion of using questions to help pupils understand texts better so far, assumes that the questions are formulated by the teacher or the textbook writer, but questions formulated by the pupils themselves can contribute substantially to furthering their understanding of texts. This technique has the advantage that the questions that the pupils ask will in the first instance be real questions, directed at gaining information which is not accessible to them on first reading the text. If the teacher begins by asking each pupil to formulate three questions about the text, questions to which he genuinely does not know the answer, and small group discussion is initiated, some of these questions can be answered by other pupils in the group. If the discussion is then widened to a whole class discussion even more of the questions are likely to be answered and the few remaining ones can be dealt with by the teacher in the ordinary way. With very little guidance pupils soon develop strategies for getting the meat out of a text, and soon acquire the ability to peel layers of meaning off. This seems to be a particularly useful technique for dealing with literary texts like poems, where the layers of meaning may be very numerous. It may of course be necessary for the teacher, keeping the checklist of types of understanding in mind (see p. 104), to use straight questioning techniques to lead his pupils towards full understanding, but pupil-initiated questions have the advantage that they lead the pupil to develop those strategies for understanding which will ultimately take him beyond the tutelage of the teacher, and this must surely be a fundamental educational objective. See Appendix 2 for a summary of questioning techniques.

A recurring problem in helping pupils to understand what they read is that no matter how carefully the teacher chooses his texts, there will always be some pupils for whom they are too easy and some for whom the texts are too difficult. One way round this problem is to attempt to individualise instruction. This involves having available a large number of carefully graded texts with appropriate exercises on them which pupils can work through largely on their own. Creating materials of this kind is a long-term project which would require great dedication on the part of the teacher to carry through successfully. However there do exist published materials of this kind. They are known as the SRA Reading Laboratories (Science Research Associates, 1958/60). These materials need to be used with caution since their cultural orientation is largely American and biased towards the native English speaker, but they nevertheless are a valuable source of immediately usable material.

Visual and audio aids to reading

A further series of devices which may help to foster better understanding are those which involve the use of pictures, diagrams, charts and models. For example a map of the submarine base where the commando raid took place—Used as an example earlier in this chapter—might make the whole description easier to follow. Similarly a picture of a dagger, or the real thing, or a cut-away drawing of an automatic pistol showing how the ammunition clip fitted into it might help to clarify the conceptualisation of an unfamiliar bit of military technology. A time line, or diagram, showing the relationship between the time of narration and the sequence of events recounted in the story can also help to make comprehension easier—especially in longer pieces of writing like novels where the technique of telling a story in 'flashback' is often used. L.P.Hartley's The Go-between is a good example, and Joseph Conrad often uses the technique. Similarly various kinds of tabulation or graph presentation can make the architecture of a piece of writing clear. It can show how various themes are developed paragraph by paragraph or chapter by chapter, how several themes or sets of characters are treated, with an interweaving of threads of narrative, the giving of prominence to one event here, another there, or it can help in keeping track of what different characters were doing at different times in different places—as for example in a detective story—so that the solution of a mystery is clarified. Such visual displays can often be prepared by the pupils themselves and the exercise of doing it is a training in perceiving the meaningful relationships within the text.

The value of aural presentation ought not to be neglected either. At the very simplest level this may involve no more than the teacher reading a text aloud. A reading like this may resolve structural ambiguities like the one in the example about the programme in Bremen, but it can also emphasise the organisational signals—first, second, third or as a consequence, thereafter and so on. With a taperecorder or record player the roles and characters of participants in dialogue and even the context of the dialogue can be made much more vivid, since background noises and sound effects may be introduced. In particular, understanding a play can be made much easier and more enjoyable by listening to it well read—though clearly plays should really be seen in performance to arrive at the best understanding of them. A great many courses for the teaching of English to foreigners published today have taped materials to accompany them and it is nearly always valuable to have these available to support the written text, if for no other reason—especially for the teacher who is a non-native speaker of English. A very useful list of recorded spoken materials is published by the English Teaching Information Centre (Information Guide No. 3. Recorded Material for Teaching English, 1974) and this is well worth consulting. Many of the records and tapes listed there may be borrowed from British Council Offices in various parts of the world.

Study and reference skills

So far the techniques discussed have related principally to developing the intensive reading skills. It sometimes happens however that pupils learning English as a foreign language need to develop study and reference skills in English. These are skills which they ought of course to have developed in their mother tongue first of all, but for most non-Western Europeans the conventions may be quite different and deliberate teaching of the English conventions may have to be undertaken. Even such fundamental skills as those of using an alphabetical sequence may have to be taught, for example to pupils who are literate in Chinese. Exercises involving thorough familiarisation with the sequence of letters in the English alphabet, and with the arrangement of words in sequences which depend on alphabetic order are basic to quick and easy use of dictionaries, encyclopaedias and other reference works.

Pupils may also, of course, have to develop study skills of the kind required for the SQ3R technique mentioned above. This is where attention given to skimming, reading for specific points of information and practice in formulating pertinent questions pays off. But it will be necessary to set specific assignments for this kind of work. The skills don't just spring into existence of themselves, they have to be worked for. Where the EFL teacher has a clear idea of the kinds of content that his pupils will have to study— sometimes the English teaching marches alongside technical or vocational instruction of some kind—then it is clearly of the greatest importance that the English teacher and the teacher of the subject matter that is being studied through English should get together to devise assignments which will be valuable both in terms of the content and of the language skills the pupil may acquire from them. This kind of cooperation is all too rare, but in the best interests of the pupils departmental and subject boundaries must be crossed.

Teaching extensive reading

Turning now to techniques for encouraging extensive reading it will be found that this territory has already been partly covered, in that setting assignments for skimming, or finding one fact in a substantial body of text, involve one kind of extensive reading at least.

The practice of extensive reading needs little justification. It is clearly the easiest way of bringing the foreign learner into sustained contact with a substantial body of English. If he reads, and what he reads is of some interest to him, then the language of what he has read rings in his head, the patterns of collocation and idiom are established almost painlessly with a range and intensity which is impossible in terms of oral classroom treatment of the language, where the constraints of lock-step teaching and multiple repetitions, however necessary they may be, impose severe restrictions on the sheer volume of the amount of language with which pupils come into contact.

Given properly graded readers whose language and subject matter suit the capabilities of the pupils using them, there is no reason why extensive reading should not form a part of regular EFL teaching from the most elementary stages. Every well-devised reading scheme for native speaker uses this principle. Graded readers do exist, the grading is almost entirely in terms of vocabulary control, and every major publisher in the field has them listed in the catalogue, but the grading and classification is very far from uniform. Even those readers written within a vocabulary of 1,000 words may be written within a different 1,000 words for each publisher. Most publishing houses seem to have private lists specifying the vocabulary and the house style for their graded readers. It is therefore wise to treat publishers' claims with caution. There is a substantial literature on this topic; the main points are well discussed in Teaching English as a Second Language by J.A.Bright and G.P.McGregor.

Ultimately the only way that a particular simplified reader can be shown to be suitable for a particular pupil or group of pupils is by trying it out. In some countries information on which books have proved successful with pupils has been collected but it appears to be available only in mimeographed form from local teachers' associations or educational authorities, and it often requires persistence to get hold of it—though clearly it is well worth doing so.

There appear to be basically three ways that extensive reading may be encouraged, first by having class sets of titles, second by operating a class library system, and third by using the school library.

Having class sets has the advantage that the teacher can control the rate of progress of all pupils, it is convenient where the class is taught together; particular linguistic or content difficulties can be tackled with the whole class at once; themes, textual structure, character development and so on can be explored in class discussion; technical or historical background information can be supplied to the whole class as necessary. This is perhaps the best treatment for a book which is likely to present difficulty for the class so that it would not be easy and straightforward for them to read the book entirely on their own. It is probably best to set the reading to be done out of class in terms of specific assignments of certain nominated chapters or sections. Such assignments do not need to be directly sequential through the book, they may be discontinuous. For example in reading the Arabian Nights if the pupils were to pick out only the story of Scheherazade it might be proper to assign only those sections of the book which dealt with her and omit the sections in which the stories she tells are to be found. In this way the basic framework of the book could be made clear. It is valuable too to set specific questions to which answers must be found; four or five are enough. (What story did Scheherazade begin on the second night? Had she really finished the first one?) It is possible by these means to reduce the amount of class time that needs to be given to checking whether the reading has actually been done and in discussing difficulties that may arise, since these usually are quite closely defined by virtue of the work pupils have done, but it is also of course possible to spend a great deal of time on the discussion. In general this should be discouraged and attention focused on the reading and on deriving meaning over the long term.

A class library system has the advantage that with limited funds available for the purchase of books it is possible to have four copies of ten different titles—and hence the possibility of exposing the pupils to a greater range of language—instead of forty copies of one title. The books are distributed among the pupils, who read them more or less at their own rate. The teacher can exercise as much or little control over this reading, as he wishes. He can set deadlines or not, he can devise assignments on the same sort of lines as those for class sets suggested above—but unless these are made with MCQs to check on the reading they become burdensome and complicated to keep track of. More usually pupils may be required to keep a record of the books they have read by making an annotated bibliographical entry— ideally on a 10X15 cm index card—showing in the usual way the author, title, number of pages, publisher and date of publication, then might follow the date of beginning to read the book and the date of completing it; a star grading, one to five stars showing how much the pupil enjoyed and valued the book (a symbol for books which pupils find totally repellent is also useful, say Ø) and the pupil's own summary of what he thought the book was about. Index cards like this as they accumulate give the pupils a real sense of achievement and provide a ready means of refreshing the memory. Cards also have the advantage that they are easy to sort and keep in alphabetical order. The same information can equally well be recorded in an ordinary exercise book of course but this somehow seems to lack the effectiveness of index cards. Many teachers find that keeping a class reading chart for the extensive reading done is useful. This shows pupils' names on the vertical axis of a grid and the titles of the books available in the class library on the horizontal axis. As each pupil takes out a book the date is entered on the intersection of his name and the title, when he returns it that date is entered too. Thus it is easy to see at a glance who is reading many titles quickly, and who is reading few slowly and appropriate encouragement can be offered in each quarter. The demands on class time of this class library system may be a little higher than when using class sets but the sheer volume of reading done is likely to be much higher. The pupils' index cards provide a cross check on this record and allow some of the recording to be done out of class time.

Books chosen for use in class libraries like this should on the whole be easy for the pupils to read, preferably with high intrinsic interest and the least possible linguistic difficulty— one rough guide is that fewer than one word in every one hundred should be unfamiliar enough to require glossing or the use of a dictionary; that level is the extreme upper limit, ideally the pupil should not need to look up any words at all in the dictionary and provided context and in-text definition is used this is quite feasible. Obviously for both class sets and class libraries of this kind graded or simplified readers are likely to be required. It must be understood that the kind of extensive reading work being discussed here really has very little to do with the study of 'literature'. It appears to be a very common misapprehension that reading a simplified version of Robinson Crusoe or Oliver Twist has something to do with the study of Defoe or Dickens as literary artists— the fundamental changes in language and even in the organisation of material which simplification may involve clearly mean that this is just not so. The fact that 'Robinson Crusoe' and 'Oliver Twist' are famous names may contribute to the motivation of the reader, but literary study of 'great writers' is clearly something which requires substantially greater experience of all that is written in English than can be expected of most pupils, who need the kind of extended exposure to the written medium in English that graded readers are intended to provide.

Class libraries of the kind suggested here do require some small amount of storage space. Where this cannot be provided in a classroom it is not difficult to fit all the books needed into a small suitcase which may be no more inconvenient to carry about than the average briefcase.

Using a school library for extensive reading has the advantage that no storage space is required for books in the classroom and the range of books available to the pupils can be considerably widened, but it does depend on the school library being well organised, with a good stock of books in English—including graded and simplified readers such as those mentioned above—it needs to be available and open when the class teacher wants to use it, and it needs to have a librarian who is prepared to co-operate with the teacher in promoting the extensive reading programme. In using the school library—even the best organised—the control and checking of what is read always seems to become more difficult. If borrowing from the library is done in out-of-class time then class time needs to be used to get the reading record up to date unless the librarian is very co-operative indeed. If borrowing from the library is done in class time then the amount of time taken up always seems to be much more than is ever anticipated and it always seems easy for those who most need encouragement and direction to evade it. The school library is probably most useful for that type of extensive reading which relates to study skills, and where skimming and fact finding assignments are set the resources of even a modest library are likely to be far greater than can be conveniently carried into a classroom.


There is one final matter related to the teaching of English as a foreign language and reading and that is the place of literature in the scheme of things. Traditionally one of the major reasons given for learning English at all has been that the learner might read Shakespeare in the original. There are those who might deny the importance of this reason for learning the language today but it still carries considerable weight. Clearly learning a language and studying the literature written in that language are different activities, but this is not to say that they are unrelated. Much of what has been written above about reading with understanding, and appreciating stylistic and tonal differences has clear relevance to literary study, and is indeed a basic prerequisite to it. Similarly the 'best writing' is clearly a proper object of study for anyone who wishes to know a language well; the memorable quality of much good literature must surely be one of the contributing factors in the foreigner's building up of a native speaker—like intuition. Literature does not have to wait for advanced knowledge of the language, though clearly some literature is not accessible to the beginning learner. Even the most elementary learner can derive pleasure from traditional rhymes and riddles which are fundamental to a great deal of literary reference, or from linguistically simple but aesthetically complex poems like Christina Rossetti's 'Who has seen the wind?' or some of Blake's 'Songs of Innocence and Experience'. What appears to be much more important than a solid and extensive knowledge of the language itself is that students of English literature should share the cultural assumptions which determine what kind of a thing it is and what it is for. The conception that literature is one of the roads to wisdom, that it enriches the spirit and provides deeper and more significant insights into the human condition is one that really must be appreciated before the colourful patchwork of Pickwick Papers or the dark agonies of King Lear make sense. Conceptions like these arise out of maturity and that literary sophistication which grows from knowledge of literature in the mother tongue as well as in English. Once such conceptions are gained the linguistic difficulties of reading the literature become manageable, without them the undertaking involves Herculean efforts. Once again there is a considerable amount which has been written on the question of teaching English literature to foreigners, the English Teaching Information Centre has a specialist bibliography on it, but probably the most useful introduction is The Teaching of Literature by H.L.B.Moody.

Suggestions for further reading

All books mentioned in the text above, and

J.P.B.Allen and S.Pit Corder (eds), The Edinburgh Course in Applied Linguistics, Vol. 3, Techniques in Applied Linguistics, Oxford University Press, 1974.

C.J.Brumfit, 'The Teaching of Advanced Reading Skills in Foreign languages with Particular Reference to English as a Foreign Language', survey article in Language Teaching and Linguistics: Abstracts, vol. 10, Cambridge University Press, 1977b.

F.Grellet, Developing Reading Skills, Cambridge University Press, 1981.

R.Isaacs, Learning Through Language, Tanzania Publishing House, Macmillan, 1968.

W.F.Mackey, Language Teaching Analysis, Longman, 1965.

M.Macmillan, Efficiency in Reading, British Council, ETIC Occasional Paper no. 6, 1965.

C.Nuttall, Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language, Heinemann, 1982.

F.Smith, Understanding Reading, New York: Holt, Rinehart—Winston, 1970.

H.G.Widdowson, Stylistics and the Teaching of Literature, Longman, 1976.


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