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Think Tank

This Month's Think Tank Panel

June 2009

Topic: What are some things you do when you teach reading?

Marc Helgesen

Questioning Comprehension Questions

Not so long ago, I’m sure I would have used my whole space to sing the praises of extensive reading. So many English learners had only experienced reading as tedious grammar and test preparation. They hadn’t experienced the pleasure of reading English for enjoyment. Traditional reading classes practice only work on accuracy. Students need a balance. Extensive reading provides the fluency work they need. But, compared with just a few years ago, extensive reading is exploding. There is a huge amount of interest.

The Extensive Reading (ER) pages will provide you with resources for setting up a program. You can join the ER discussion group on to be part of the conversation (it’s a great source of advice for people just starting out with ER.). The Extensive Reading Foundation gives out the annual Language Learner Literature Awards, recognizing the best new graded readers. In JALT, the Extensive Reading SIG is very popular. You can download copies of the their journal. In the most recent one I write about different types of oral and written student book reports. There is a huge amount of enthusiasm about and awareness of Extensive Reading. I hope you will become part of that.

Since so many people are already doing ER, I’ll turn my attention to an issue that affects most of us as teachers but is rarely talked about. I think we need to be…

questioning comprehension questions.

In most textbooks, reading tasks are limited to answering a few questions that come after the reading. And those questions often don’t actually teach or test comprehension.

Try this. Read the sentence in the box. Then answer the questions under it.

The glorfs drebbled quarfly.

Q1. (grammar analysis)
a. Which word is the subject?
b. Which is the verb?
c. What part of speech is quarfly?
Q2. What did the glorfs do?
Q3. How did they do it?

(Scroll down to the bottom of my article to check your answers.)

Most teachers (and students) can get all the answers correct. Think about it. You answered all the questions right, a perfect score, about a sentence of nonsense words -- a sentence with no meaning. The problem, of course, is the nature of literal comprehension questions. Often, they can be answered without thinking; without even understanding the meaning.

There's a hierarchy of levels of comprehension questions. Unfortunately, literal comprehension questions, the most common type, tell us the least. If students get them right, we don't know if they really understood or just matched the words. If they get a question wrong, did they misunderstand the text or misunderstand the question? We can’t know. Since the questions come at the end, maybe they didn't know what they were supposed to find out. Or maybe they understood it but didn't think it was important so forgot by the time they got to the question.

Barrett's taxonomy of reading comprehension

5. Appreciation
(Highest) Students give an emotional/affective response.

4. Evaluation
Students make judgments in light of the material.

3. Inference
Students respond to information implied but not directly stated.

Students organize or order the information a different way than it was presented.

1. Literal
(Lowest) Students identify information directly stated.

Does this mean "literal comprehension" is unimportant? Of course not. It's basic, both as a low-level test of understanding and because this is the most common type of question in texts and tests (whether we like those tests or not, they are a key to our students' future and we have to prepare them).

But let's look at some ways to actually check comprehension, at the various levels:

Literal These are the basic questions, and for all their limitations, these questions are important. They're the kind learners meet most often. At minimum, teach the students to read the questions before they read the passage. This is important since it increases reading speed and is an important test taking skill.

One good way to focus on literal meaning is to do a scanning quiz. Make copies of the questions and answers from the Teacher's Manual. Have learners work in groups of 4-6. They open their books to the reading (or, in the case of the junior or senior high textbooks which have readings that go on for several pages, the first page of the unit). They turn the book face down on the desk. Ask the first question twice (you want to make sure everyone understands the question). When you say, "Go!", students look at the text and scan for the correct answer. The first student to find it shows everyone where it is. S/he gets one point. Once learners understand the activity, have them do it in groups. One learner, the "quizmaster", gets the question/answer sheet. S/he asks and other students try to find the answers.

Reorganization Do a "jig-saw" reading. Before class, take the reading and cut the paragraphs apart. Put them on the copy machine in the wrong order. It helps to put a box next to each paragraph for learners to write the numbers. It is also easier if you tell them which paragraph is first. Learners read and try to put the paragraphs in order. The ability to find the order shows the students and you that they've not only understood the words, they also understand the organization and relationships between ideas.

Inference Much of reading is really "reading between the lines." Learners need to understand [what] the ideas behind the information in the text. Look for inference opportunities in the text. How does a given character feel about something? How do you know? Has that character ever been here or done this? How do you know. One good way to help them infer is to have the read part of the story. Stop them at a critical point and, in pairs have them predict what will happen next. This helps students make the jump to inferencing.

Evaluation This label sounds more difficult than it is. It just means deciding fact/opinion, same/different, etc. Later, if you want, it can include higher level decisions like agree/disagree or good/bad. Students make some kind of decision. At an elementary level, it can be as simple as asking the learner, “What character is the most like you? Why?” At a somewhat more sophisticated level – this is a technique I use with my university students doing extensive reading – have them find elements in the story that do or don’t parallel their own lives. They have to explain why. Some students do this at a deeper level than others. I recall one learner who said Gulliver’s Travels was not like her life since she had never been around little people (What about kindergarten?). On the other hand, a student who read a biography of Princess Diana turned in a report that started, “Her life had tragedy. And so does mine. Last year my father died.” Heavy stuff. It was clear she was processing the meaning at a deep level.

Appreciation This is my favorite, not because it's the most sophisticated (though it is). I love it for its simplicity. After a reading, simply ask the students, "Did you like this story or not? Why?" Being able to answer is a true test of understanding. One good way to get at this is to ask each learner to draw a picture of one scene from the story. Since our students are usually skilled at drawing, they take forever getting their pictures perfect, and it is helpful to forbid erasers and limit them to five minutes. This is English, not art class. With their pictures they turn to the person next to them and explain the pictures. I let them choose which language they want to explain it in. They have read it in English. That’s the understanding I’m checking. They end with the sentence. "I Iiked/ didn't like the story because..."

reading%20bag.jpg One other thing about comprehension questions: As they say in the restaurant business, “Location, location, location.” Most comprehension questions are in the wrong place. The questions are generally after the reading. That is sort of like saying, “Read this story. OK, now that you are finished, let me tell you why you read it.” If the learners’ task is to answer questions, they should know the questions before they read the piece. It helps their understanding. And that’s what we are trying to accomplish.

Portions of this are from a piece previously published in Longman Teacher Link. I learned about Barrett’s reading taxonomy from Jack Richards. The taxonomy is also cited in Reading in a Foreign Language by Alderson & Urquhart (Longman)

Answers: 1a. glorfs, 1b. drebbled, 1c. adverb, 2. They drebbled. 3. Quarfly

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Curtis Kelly

What are some techniques for teaching reading?
Are my Japanese colleagues doing it wrong?

Hard question. I don’t know much more about reading instruction than the next person. I’ve read the arguments for and against Krashen’s input theory, I’ve heard a number of talks on the glories of extensive reading, and I even took a TESOL Summer Institute class on that topic, taught by the wonderful Richard Day. Still, my comments are pretty much from the pew rather than the pulpit.

I suspect, though, my concerns are pretty much the same as yours. In particular, I have strong doubts about the way my Japanese colleagues teach reading, especially those who majored in Literature. I wonder what “approach” they are following by giving low-level learners classical literary works to read in the raw, i.e, read the original texts. Incomprehensible input? It doesn’t help that they tend to specialize in authors who died at least a hundred years ago.

I wonder what “approach” they are following by giving low-level learners classical literary works to read in the raw, i.e, read the original texts. Incomprehensible input?

Then, one morning, I was lying in bed half awake, when a hypnogogic reverie came to me. I’ll try to pass it on as accurately as possible: I was in a murky, candlelit room addressing an assortment of writers.

“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming. I have assembled you here today, the greatest English authors in history, so that I can tell you about the wonderful ways we have developed since your day for teaching reading. Although a few diehards still use your texts in the original form, we have come up with something better, called “graded readers.” Here, take a look at this version of Romeo and Juliet. It was rewritten with only 400 headwords. I think you’ll like it…”

(one hour later)

“So, that’s it. Pretty creative, don’t you think? And language acquisition research shows that this approach works.”
(Uncomfortable silence)

“Well, I guess you agree. Any questions? William? Emily? J Scott?”

“If I may, sir?”

“Mr. Dickens.”

“Indeed, sir, to strain the words to a mere 400 sieves the stew into gruel. What fat can any urchin put on from such a weak diet?”

“Yes, but limiting the vocabulary lets them read fast, and they can enjoy it more. Um, you sir, with the frilly collar, is there something you’d like to say?”

“Methinks this helpless smoke of words doth me no right. Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

“Ah, yes…?”

“I’m Tom Robbins. Allow me. What Mr. Shakespeare is trying to tell you is that you can’t take his rich phrasing and replace it with simplistic interpretations of your own. What makes reading worth it is interpreting the text in your own way. I agree. I hate the way you cut the imagery out of those graded readers. Graded, and paved. To get to the real essence of any knowing, you have to use words to describe a thing in multiple ways. The way we play with words is the Tom Turkey of writing, the bakery waft, the lie detector beep, the unexpected tax refund, your bag first on the chute, seeing Mt. Hood in December, a…”

“Okay, okay, I got it. We tend to change amorphous, complex meanings into stereotypical fixed ones by simplifying your work, but hey, we keep your great stories the same.

“May I speak?”

“Yes, Ms Woolf.”

“By what madness say you that these reduced works are still borne of our hands. They are mere skeletons of plots. Cast off insect shells. You turn treatise into cartoon. This is neither literature nor art.”

“Ah, well, we make the stories simple so that lower level readers can understand you.”

“A leather breech is no longer the bull.”

“But science says comprehensible input is what makes good reading.”

“Void of passion…”

And so on, until sometime later I woke up in a sweat. I’ve had a few days to think about that restless morning and maybe I know what it meant. We read because we love the twisty, frothy stories, the crusty lode of words, and especially, the room to interpret and discover.

Maybe I was wrong in what I said about my Japanese colleagues. Maybe there is something so special about ingesting great writing in the original that it is worth plodding through it one page per class, because even a small bite leaves a great aftertaste. Maybe our fixation raising reading speeds and language proficiency makes us miss other aspects of great writing, such as how beautiful a single sentence can be.

I am not about to give up my belief in graded language and extensive reading, but I must admit, after all, that it is just a belief. Granted, this view is supported by “research,” so to speak, but research conducted by other priests of our particular religion, whose holy scripts call for proficiency and acquisition rather than personal growth. None of these researchers has ever tried to measure the depth of internal change or passion aroused by reading a great book in the original.
Then too, it helps to remember that these same Japanese colleagues that teach reading in what I think is an arcane, “wrong” way, were once themselves stumbling English students. At some point along the way, reading these great works transformed them in a big way, enough to cause them to devote their lives to causing this transformation in others.
I was wrong to assume their way is wrong and ours is right. We are just pursuing different goals.

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Chris Hunt

Teaching Reading

hug a dog

hug a cat

hug a hen

an egg!

get it! get it!

get it! get it!

got it!

This is the complete text for an unfinished picture book. I’ll leave you to imagine what the illustrations should be like. I guess the finished book would be called a reader. But aren’t all books readers, unless they are incredibly dull? I always wonder about that term, perhaps it’s because I loathe abridged versions of books. Even as a child I wanted to read the real thing - once I could actually read.

I have schizophrenic feelings when it comes to the teaching of reading. Much of what I do with children on a daily basis is helping them to “crack the code” to reading English. But I think that learning to read is an individual process like learning to walk. More and more I’m beginning to think that I have wasted years in pursuing ways to make reading English more understandable for children when the emphasis should really be on making it enjoyable.
As a child I wound up in a remedial reading class. I think I might only have been there for one lesson, but I do remember the feeling of being in the class meant I wasn’t normal. What a cruel thing to do to a child!

My memory of learning to read is very hazy. I don’t think phonics was used because I remember the trouble I first had dealing with it when I began using it to teach children. I definitely remember my teacher talking to someone, probably my mother, when I switched from primary school to junior school (was that at around the age of seven?). There was some kind of test that determined which class students were placed in. The teacher was deliberating. She was concerned because my spelling was too erratic. I could spell some long words but she was troubled because I couldn’t spell “the”. I don’t know how the decision was reached but I do know it was a fortunate one. I ended up in a class with Mr Right.

Every Friday afternoon Mr Wright (as his name is actually spelled) would read aloud to us. I think it was that, more than anything else, that helped me to really learn to read. He had a passion for books and reading and that is what he passed on. The titles of the books he read are all long gone, with the exception of, “The Silver Sword”, and of that, only the title remains. But Mr Wright gave me a reason to read. No, not a reason, it’s not intellectual, it’s all to do with joy and excitement. Through him I discovered the meaning of reading. He turned reading into an adventure.

Sense of adventure, of engagement, is critical when working with children

This sense of adventure, of engagement, is critical when working with children, and I’m beginning to think that it is all that is really required. Read a book like Diane McGuiness’s "Why Our Children Can't Read And What We Can Do About it” and one gains the impression that reading is an unnatural skill requiring specific kinds of instruction. It’s certainly true that the phonetic code of English is very complex and I agree with her observation that text is a representation of sound. But if it is as difficult as she maintains then children would be unable to teach themselves how to read and I know that some children do just that.

I think the whole reading wars debate, phonics or whole language, misses a critical point. In effect the argument is about what is best for the “average” child and no child should be treated as average. Each one should be cherished. I think that children can learn to read when they want to read, so as teachers we should be focusing on desire. Ideally, we would be able to construct classes that would accommodate the children individually as well as being part of a group.

The key to building desire, in my view, is playfulness. This is critical with young children. I’ve found that activities with plastic letters concentrating on sounds and shapes are generally attractive. For example, one activity that nearly all of them get a big kick out of is making a string of letters for me to read and saying, “Read!” Another, that comes later, is letter fishing, where they fish for letters and place them on large double-sided flashcards, covering the matching letters. After fishing we can find out what the combinations mean by sounding them out together and then turning over the cards to find the pictures. Recently, I’ve also garnered interest by using flashcards with a picture underneath the starting sound sitting in a circle at the top of the card. Children like taking cards and individually searching for letters in a big pile tipped on the floor. The letters are large enough to be covered exactly. And all the while we are playing with sounds, I am reading aloud to them as much as they will allow.

But it is with older children that I feel I need to work more on desire. As children get older they become a little more discriminatory and also, largely because of school and parental experiences, build up preconceptions that can interfere with learning.

I have all kinds of games and activities that are supposed to stimulate children into working the phonetic code out themselves. But recently, I have begun to sense that I have broken things down too far and have made reading more difficult and time consuming than it needs to be. How long should it take a Japanese seven year old to learn the basic sounds of English, associate them with letter symbols (one to one mapping) and be able to manipulate them to create and read their own three letter words? More than an afternoon? How about if the child is older? Which is more critical, age or interest?

To what extent has a massive industry grown up which actually requires it takes gobs of time and effort to learn to read? The longer it takes the more money can be made. I really think that if we teachers focus more on desire than on process we can open up the world of reading with much less effort and a lot more joy. But then I guess I’m questioning the whole Dick and Jane approach to education much of the world, and I still include myself, is stuck in. Got it?

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Chuck Sandy

Here: Read This! I Think You'll Like It

If you want to start an argument among a room full of reading specialists simply ask, as innocently as possible, what reading is and how best to teach it. You will then see the room break up into several quite dogmatic camps. You’ll get groupings of the various sorts of phonics proponents, the whole language people, the adherents of comprehension strategies approaches, and probably even some leftover linguistic skills-based types. The interesting thing is that everyone believes they are right. The reading wars have been raging for years, and though we have some widely accepted conclusions based on long-term studies of best practices and programs, there’s still no single answer to how reading is learned and there may never be one. Though I spent some of my best graduate school years trying to figure that out myself, what really interests me is why some people are voracious readers while others read only the minimum they have to read to get through life.

As for me, I am a reader. My home and office are crowded with books and magazines and journals of all kinds. Whenever I go out of the house – even on a short outing – there’s always at least one novel, a magazine, a newspaper, a poetry book, and a little collection of essays in my bag. Yet, even with all this, I can’t resist bookstores and libraries and can never seem to leave either without acquiring even more reading material. And it’s not just print, is it? My laptop is loaded with articles I’ve discovered thanks to Facebook friends. Then there are the Internet journals, newspapers, and magazines I read regularly, not to mention those many sites I stumble upon and simply have to stop and read.

** Being a reader in the 21st century sometimes makes me feel like a member of an endangered species in an old growth forest.

Reading for me is not only wonderful, but also a large part of who I am, and even though being a reader in the 21st century sometimes makes me feel like a member of an endangered species in an old growth forest, I still have trouble understanding anyone, particularly students, who look me in the eye and say “I don’t like reading” or even, quite bluntly, “I don’t read”. What do they mean and why would they say such a thing? I keep asking myself this question and pose it to self-professed non-readers whenever I encounter one.

What I’ve found over the years is that very often people who claim to be non-readers usually have had some kind of painful reading experience in their past. Either someone (sadly often a teacher) has convinced them that reading is hard and painful, or they came to the conclusion at some point during their schooling that reading isn’t something they could ever be very good at. Others cite things like being forced to read some book they found boring in school as their reason for becoming non-readers later in life. I’ve heard a variety of answers, but what everyone who justifies their non-reading in such ways has in common is that reading has never been something enjoyable for them and they’ve given up.

What I’ve also found, though, is that it’s almost never too late to try to turn such people into readers. In almost every case, particularly with students, I’ve been able to get back to them with a suggestion of something for them to read: something that was at their level, suited their interests, and was enjoyable for them. If they claim they don’t like novels, I suggest non-fiction. If they don’t like books, I introduce them to some magazine or websites I’ve found that I think they’d find interesting. Sometimes it’s enough to give such non-readers a lead for them to follow up on by themselves. More often, though, what turns the page, so to speak, is me actually handing them something good to read – something that I’ve picked out just for them. What this does is to send a message that says “I was thinking of you when I saw this and thought you’d enjoy it.” When I follow that up with an invitation to drop by my office later to talk about what I’ve given them to read, it works even better.

As the wonderful recent novella The Uncommon Reader by Allan Bennett suggests, turning someone into a reader is often a matter of putting the right reading material into his or her hands at just the right time. In his story, Bennett's fictional Queen of England becomes a ravenous reader in her twilight years after falling in love with Nancy Mitford’s romantic novel Pursuit of Love. This book, perhaps because it was easily accessible and fun led Bennett's queen into a rest-of-her-life habit. But why did Bennett choose to give the queen this book as her way into reading? Bennett says in a New York Times interview that it's because Pursuit of Love was the first adult novel he had read for pleasure and that like the queen’s character, the book led him on and into more serious literature.

“There are all sorts of entrances that you can get into reading by reading what might at first seem trash,” Mr. Bennett writes.

It worked for Bennett and his imagined queen, but will everyone who gets turned on to and by a good read then go on to become a voracious reader? Often not, but at least they will have had one good experience with reading that they just might turn into more.


**I encountered this lovely metaphor in an email from my old high school friend Lynn Feasley who wrote that sending her youngest to muck out the horse stalls at a farm in our old hometown of Eden, New York made her feel like "a member of an endangered species in an old growth forest." Thanks Lynn. Such a lovely metaphor deserves to be further shared


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Dorothy Zemach

Teaching Reading Skills

I recently spent two weeks in Libya at Al Fatah University working with final year graduate students who will become English teachers; and who actually already are English teachers, working as Teaching Assistants in the English department. I decided to spend one lesson each on speaking, vocabulary, writing, reading, and grammar. We’d spend the first part of the lesson working on the skills themselves, I figured, and the second part of the lesson talking about how to teach that skill.

When we got to the reading lesson, I asked the prospective teachers if they thought there were such things as “reading strategies.” In my experiences with SE Asian students, I’ve noticed that often students think reading means nothing more than decoding words and then learning a ton of vocabulary. The Libyans knew a lot of the right answers—skimming, scanning, reading for main ideas, reading for details, making inferences; and they could trot definitions of these right out.

As practice, I gave them a chapter of a reading book I’ve just written, Building Academic Reading Skills (University of Michigan Press, 2009). The level of the readings themselves were below these students’ proficiency level, so I assumed they’d have no trouble applying the strategies.

Wrong. Each reading (two per chapter) in the book begins (after some warm-up questions for the topic) with a Predict, a Skim, and a Scan exercise. But, as soon as they started with the first Predict question, which directed them to look at the title, they started reading intensively. I stopped them, and in a few cases had to ask them to turn their papers over. The skimming and scanning were even harder. I watched one student, who had in fact provided me with the very correct definitions of skimming and scanning when I’d asked, actually pick up his pen and start moving it along under each word, underlining some, circling others. “Ahmed,” I said (not his real name), “you’re reading every word, aren’t you?” He looked stricken. “Yes, but I can’t help it! I just must read everything!”

We stopped the class and talked about what was happening. I recognize that I was extraordinarily fortunate to have students whose listening and speaking levels, as well as their reflective abilities, were high enough that they could talk about what was going on in their heads. Ahmed, as it turned out, was a literature aficionado; and normally one doesn’t skim or scan a novel or short story. However, these students were also struggling with the reading section of the TOEFL and with their own academic reading for their graduate school courses. We had a nice discussion about different types of reading approaches for different types of texts, and since every student in the class admitted to having difficulty getting through the amount of reading they had, understanding the texts, and remembering what they read, they promised to at least try the strategies I was proposing.

On to the next text. This time, they got through the Predict, Skim, and Scan exercises without reading intensively (though I admit to standing behind Ahmed and whacking him on the shoulders with a bat whenever I thought he was succumbing) (that is, a rubber toy model of the animal, not a piece of sports equipment; our readings were both on bats). Now came the moment I both anticipate and dread as a teacher—when I’ve recommended something that I’m 85% sure will work for the students, but can’t in my heart quite guarantee. But, oh, happy day! Yes, after students read intensively and did the exercises, they all said that they had found that the intensive reading went faster and that the exercises were easy to do (and yes, I knew from previous classes that if they had not found a strategy useful, they would have happily said so). Ahmed in fact stopped by my office later and asked for more short texts to practice these strategies on.

Pre-reading strategies are a bit like the first two steps of process writing (brainstorming and organizing), I find—most students see them as steps that take more time; and yet, applied correctly, they actually make the process more efficient. A good reader saves time not just by being able to move through the text more quickly but by being able to understand it and remember it better.

As teachers we need to explain the purpose of reading strategies and not just teach how to apply them. These explanations need to be repeated, re-affirmed, and re-proven.

My take-away from this experience is that as teachers we need to explain the purpose of reading strategies and not just teach how to apply them; and that further, these explanations need to be repeated, re-affirmed, and re-proven. In addition, students need opportunities to practice the strategies over and over again. It’s not enough to skim in Chapter 2, scan in Chapter 3, and find some details in Chapter 4. As I work on Book 2 in the Building Academic Reading Skills series, then, I’m making sure that I have students apply the strategies over and over and over again, and that I provide frequent short explanations of the intention and value of these strategies.

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Peter Viney

Teaching Reading

That’s the title I was given, and I’m going to surprise everyone and discuss the teaching of READING: not extensive reading, not developing reading skills, not reading comprehension, not strategies to encourage reading but actually teaching people how to read. It’s the area I’ve returned to the last year or two, and it doesn’t have too much relevance to the Japanese situation, but what I’m talking about is learning the Roman alphabet and how to assemble the bits of it phonically to form words.

Twenty-five years ago I wrote a book called Basic English Reading Programme, and no one involved realized that the acronym read BERP, until too late. It was designed for teaching reading to adult speakers of languages which did not use the Roman alphabet. Most of the target audience would be literate in another phonetic script, even if that script travelled in a different direction to English’s left to right along a horizontal line. (An aside, we accept now that for learning and computer programs the British use the ‘program’ spelling, while for TV and radio broadcasts they use the ‘programme’ spelling. Twenty-five years ago the ‘programme’ spelling was used for both, hence the full title of BERP.)

BERP went out of print in the eighties, and I thought no more about it for years. Then I noticed that BERP kept cropping up on my statements for photocopying royalties from UK colleges and schools. Yes, British authors enjoy royalties on photocopying as long as it’s done in Britain, France, Germany, Scandinavia, The Netherlands, Australia, or Canada. This is a good thing! Whenever I went into the local ELT bookshop they asked why I didn’t republish it. Next a school asked if I had any copies left as they had photocopied theirs so often that it, and their group set, had fallen to pieces. Karen (my wife and co-writer) and I did several talks in Britain on teaching beginners after our IN English: series was launched, and we always finished with a question and answer session. Every single time teachers asked us how to deal with the students who couldn’t cope with reading in English fast enough. Even if their spoken ability matched their classmates, they stumbled through any pair work which had written cues. Every single time, we talked at length about how to teach reading effectively. At a talk in Manchester, a teacher asked why I didn’t do a new book on the topic. The students had changed over 25 years. When I wrote the original BERP, the students with English reading problems came from North Africa and the Middle East. Now they also come from China, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. My youngest son was studying martial arts in China and agreed to trade English lessons for martial arts lessons with his coaches. I sent him copies of IN English: and he telephoned to point out that his students could not read the Roman alphabet, which rendered the books less effective than they might have been. I started e-mailing him updates of the old BERP program, lesson by lesson. I thought of many ways of improving the concept, and finally I determined to start again from scratch.

The secret to reading English at speed is very simple. Adults who are literate in any linear phonetic language, don’t need to learn the concept of reading, they need to learn how to crack a code, how to interpret different symbols to form words. Adults who are not literate in a linear phonetic language (but literate in a pictographic language), or those who are altogether unable to read in any language, equally need strategies to find their way through the phonetic code.

Working with adults, you cannot use the techniques which are commonly used for teaching children

You cannot use the techniques which are commonly used for teaching children. A native-speaker child already knows the meanings of the words pen, pan, ten, tan, tat, tap, pat and associates them with pictures and words. A non-native adult does not know the meanings. In fact, phonics programs advocate the use of non-words or infrequent words (i.e. meaningless words) with kids to test concepts: nen, tet, pep, pap, nat.

Any attempt to teach initial reading, i.e. interpretation of symbols to form sounds, together with the meaning of all these words, some of which are not immediately useful or frequent, founders under sheer information overload. Initial reading instruction has to teach words initially as sound combinations without teaching meaning. This is effective for students right up to intermediate level, as the more difficult topics presented in a programmed way (pan / pane, dot / dote, bit / bite, fun / flute, or consonant clusters as in straight, scrape, or split) will enable them to read faster.

In teaching children in the UK, the letters always have the lower case name, never the capital letter name. In the USA, the capital letter name is often introduced initially. I bought my grandkids an American reading game for the Mac and it is useless because it says ‘find the “ay” or find the “oh” while the kids have been taught “a” as in pat and “o” as in not. In the new reading program we are putting together now we use the British system. When I wrote BERP, we didn’t show students capitals until they could manipulate lower case at speed. Nowadays, we can’t do that because the capital symbols, on the keyboard, are the letters they will see most frequently. We still use lower case names, or rather phonics, for both forms of the letters, but each unit marker is composed of pictures of appropriate computer keys.

Nowadays, again, there is less emphasis on writing, i.e. letter formation, because we assume someone with poor writing skills will prefer to key in texts. A further change is the introduction of a global reading element from the outset. Key words have to be read like pictograms rather than phonetically, especially as so many seem irregular. They’re not exactly “irregular” either, because the problem in English is not, as some experts have claimed, the lack of rules, but rather the large number of minor rules. I also introduce many photos of signs and other realia to make it look adult and appealing. A constant problem students have is in recognizing letters in different fonts. Think about the number of “g” shapes and “a” shapes, both lower case and capital and printed and handwritten. There are also exercises on word recognition in a variety of fonts and styles.

Working on this new reading program, Fast Track to Reading, has been a salutary experience. People desperately need to acquire a reasonable reading speed before they can learn English using any modern textbook series. This may be of little or no interest to teachers in Japan unless you’re thinking of moving and teaching in rural China, the UK, Africa, Central Asia or the Middle East. Still, even in Japan you might have some adults who struggle with romanji who could use the self-study element, but in the end, the purpose of this article is to cast just a glimmer of doubt on the overpowering concept that reading consists of only MEANING and to question whether it’s always the be all and end all.

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Outstanding blog..very informative. i am also a teacher. i mostly find difficulty in comprehension part..helping students to get idea of a paragraph is sometimes not easy for me..but i will keep in mind all what you have shared here. thanks for this information.



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