in the ESL Classroom
by Louanne Piccolo, December 03, 2016
Reading is a mechanical process. Almost everyone can do it but does that mean that they understand what they are reading?
Look at the following sentence and read it out loud:
Today I saw a palgish fester grondelling strinkly begront the brock
Great! How did it go?
Now, answer the following questions:
1. What was the fester doing and where? (He was grondelling begront the brock)
2. What sort of a fester was he? (A palgish one, of course)
3. How was the fester grondelling? (strinkly)
I’m sure you had no problems answering the questions from the text but did you understand the text? No, of course not, because I made it all up. You did understand the symbols though, but not the meaning, so answering comprehension questions does not prove successful reading comprehension.
Common assumptions of reading comprehension
A lot of teachers assume incorrectly that students need to perceive and decode individual letters to read a word or that students need to understand all the words in a text to understand the text. Fortunately this is not the case but students do:
- interpret words according to the shape and the sense of the text
- skip or misread words while trying to find meaning in a text
- take longer to read a text with a lot of sense units in it
- find it easier to read and understand a text with smaller sense units (words, sentences) combined into bigger sense units (sentences, paragraphs)
- read more successfully if given meaningful units of text to read
Beginning Reading Comprehension in the ESL Class
Should your students have basic oral proficiency before beginning to read? Should they begin reading and writing from the start? Should you teach single letters first and then gradually build up into words or not? When should you teach the alphabet?
You can begin reading comprehension when students have some basic knowledge of spoken English. It should be presented as a way of recognising meaning rather than deciphering separate symbols. It is best to teach the most common and useful single letters and words early on. These include the words “the, he, she, it, this, is, are” and can be recognised through simple tasks that involve understanding word meanings. Your students can learn the alphabet much later when they need to know it for dictionary use.
Reading Task Activities and Strategies
Reading tasks are useful as they provide your students with a real-life purpose in reading and also assess how well your students are able to read and understand. Here are some ideas of tasks that require your students to recognise meaning:
- give your students a general question before the reading activity, asking them to look out for a certain piece of important information
- ask your students to write down some questions before reading the text and to answer each other's questions after reading the text
- get students to suggest a title for the text, if there is none, or an alternative title if there is already one
- play a game with your students where they must summarise the content of the text in a limited amount of sentences or risk being eliminated from the game
- if the text is a story, your class can suggest what might happen next or what might have happened before
- leave four or five gaps towards the end of the text that can only be filled in if the class understood the text
- present two texts with similar topics to your students who have to point out the similarities and differences
- if the text is a letter, ask the class to respond to the letter or to discuss in groups how they would like to respond if they could
- jumble up instructions for a simple operation like using a public telephone and tell your class to put them in the correct order
- give your students a recipe and ask them to cook it
Exploit reading comprehension exercises to the full. Do it shamelessly. Pack them with words, ideas, themes and descriptions and use them meaningfully in real-life situations (as in this treasure hunt activity) or to reach real-life goals. Make them significant, purposeful and worthwhile if you want your students to learn language through reading.
No to reading robots!