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Where Are We Going Wrong with Teaching Reading Skills?

By Mark Bartholomew

Past and Present? – Teaching Techniques

Do you remember reading classes in English, Spanish, or whatever foreign language you were studying, where the text was too difficult for you really to understand the meaning and the teacher concentrated on testing challenging vocabulary or asking questions like “What does ‘them’ refer to in line 25?” If your recollections are anything like mine, they probably conjure up memories of being bored and only paying enough attention so as not to be caught unawares by a teacher’s question.

Where are we going wrong with teaching reading skills?Yawning while Reading – Zichy

This was true for me not only in foreign language classes but also in English literature. I am an avid reader and appreciate the classics but cannot enjoy one of the masters of twentieth century literature, D. H. Lawrence. I put this down to the painful treatment that my teacher inflicted on the author’s ‘The Rainbow’ in a secondary school in London forty years ago.

I suspect that many readers share this experience: literature classes that do not open up a magical new world of discovery, never transport us to different times and places, and fail to show us that our innermost fears and deepest pleasures are shared by others. These are the very reasons why we need to read. Too often, our classes do exactly the opposite: they snuff out any flicker of interest.

The same can be said of my French language classes; reading insipid texts about ‘la famille Bertillon’ and their day at the beach. I am not claiming that all my language classes were tedious or that the teachers were unremittingly unimaginative but there were too many of both.

So, what is going wrong in our schools and universities?

It’s a grammar class, not a reading one

The first difficulty arises when teachers do not see a text as a piece of writing to be enjoyed but as a means to identify grammar. Stephen Krashen argues that it’s hard for learners to focus on meaning when the teacher’s covert aim is for them to identify relative clauses. In other words, we as teachers use reading lessons to teach syntax or lexis, not to get students thinking and talking about content.

Let Learners Read What they Want

The next problem is that reading texts selected for inclusion in a textbook or syllabus are often teachers’ – and only teachers’ – choices. They don’t reflect the interests of the learners. But all the evidence suggests that if our aim in reading is to improve our language skills, it matters not the least little bit what we read. The issue is how much! Booker Prize winners and modern classics compare no better than a soppy romance or a gruesome tale of flesh-eating zombies when it comes to second language acquisition. The trick is to let our students read what they want. At least then there is a chance that they will be turned onto reading.

Where are we going wrong with teaching reading skills?

Young Man Reading – Sicurezza

This is true even if learners are allowed to choose the level of difficulty of a text for themselves. Learners lacking confidence in their language skills may feel more comfortable with a text which is way below their level of competence. Besides, they do not stay with books like that for long: they get bored and move on to more challenging works. But teachers routinely and wrongly use texts that are difficult for learners: Krashen’s i + 1. In fact, though, the great man explicitly stated that, when reading, students should choose a linguistic level well within their comfort zone. A much-quoted rule of thumb here is the five finger test: get students to hold up five fingers and drop one every time they come across an unknown word. If they cannot reach the end of a page before there are no fingers left standing, the book is probably too hard for them to enjoy.

Why is reading so important?

But why all this emphasis on reading anyway? Because to progress from an intermediate level to a more advanced one demands reading.

Take grammar as an example. Just about everything we teach to students is only partly right. For instance, we use adverbs of frequency only with simple tenses (I always go to the park on Sundays), not with continuous ones. Don’t trust teachers on this one: they’re always teaching half-truths! And what about never putting a future tense directly after ‘if’? If you will insist on doing that, you’ll certainly lose marks!

I could continue, but let’s look at vocabulary instead: ‘sick’ and ‘ill’ are synonyms – so why can’t we say “That doctor is great with ill children”?

In short, language is too complicated to be described and practised in its entirety in a textbook or by a teacher. Only by reading do we develop our skills to proficiency level!

Next month, I will look at classroom techniques to get students interested in reading.

Copyright information on photos
Yawning while Reading: Mikhail Zichy
Mihály Zichy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Young Man Reading: Antonio Sicurezza
Antonio Sicurezza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Krashen, S. (2006): The Power of Reading, Heinemann

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  • Andrew Macdonald

    Basically we need to look at the differences between intensive and extensive reading. Intensive is the grammar focused type used in all language classrooms. Extensive is not used so much, but should be. Krashen is a proponent of extensive reading, but I+1 does not apply here. 95% of the vocabulary should be known to permit understanding of unknown words through context. I won't continue with this as it's 02:00 here, but intensive and extensive reading is the key.