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A Discussion-Based Approach to Reading Comprehension
There is an adage I remember from my schooldays which was along the lines of ‘you get as much out of a text as you are prepared to put into it’. Lunzer (1979, p.18ff) provides seven reasons why reading may be more demanding than listening. Point six seems to offer a particular point of difficulty, ‘[b]ecause text is more complete than utterance, it tends to be more dense […] it is also unfamiliar in choice of words and in style […]’ (Lunzer, 1979, p.18).
Having tried using authentic texts with my high level (C1 / C2) learners who are university students on an academic scholarship awarded for high grades in their subjects, I realised that they thought they understood more than in reality they did. Nuttall (1996, p.10) goes as far as saying, ‘poor readers often do not even realize that they do not understand’. Even though these learners are not ‘poor readers’, puns and cultural references, in particular, were passing unnoticed over their heads, humorous comments were being taken as serious points and the meanings of idiomatic phrases completely missed.
A different problem presented itself in mid-level classes (in my case upper-intermediate and intermediate classes) – the pace dropped dramatically when I tried to do any kind of feedback on comprehension texts from the coursebook. Even students who had done the task and knew the answers were hesitant to reply in class unless called upon directly and the atmosphere sometimes became uncomfortable if a wrong answer was provided.
A side issue was that I felt that I was not exploiting the texts to their full extent as a lot of great language was going uncommented upon and, I feared, unnoticed by learners. This brought me back to Lunzer’s (1979) point about writing being more complex than speech, generally speaking, and thus my worry that students were striving only for basic comprehension.
With the aims of making reading comprehension tasks more interactive and student-centred, reducing teacher talking time (TTT) and maximising use of learning opportunities, I set out to try a different format for feeding back on reading texts. I also wanted to encourage more extensive reading and use texts as the basis for short discussion activities as warmers in class.
As newspaper articles provide a rich source of authentic language on a variety of topical subjects, I was particularly interested in an activity type that would allow me to use these texts effectively in class, but which I could use initially in lower level classes with coursebooks texts in order to familiarise these students with the process.
The Week (Frith, H.) offers a good range of short texts which compare reactions to news stories from various standpoints. This makes it an excellent source of input material for discussion activities, studying how newspapers frame stories and how language is used to steer reader opinion. The Economist (Minton Beddoes, Z.) uses a lot of puns and informal language mingled with some very high-level vocabulary, so is sure to meet the expectations of my very high-level learners who relish this kind of challenge.
Choosing Suitable Texts
As Golebiowska (1990, p4) notes, getting students to discuss something means first finding a topic where there are differing opinions. First I selected authentic texts which I thought were provocative or which offered a range of viewpoints. I left them in a file and came back to them at least a week later. This allowed me to make a more objective judgement on whether they were too topical and would therefore date quickly. The texts which would not stand the test of time were discarded.
Next, I highlighted interesting language in the text. My criteria for interesting were whether I predicted students would correctly understand the language as used in context, whether I felt the item was of high enough frequency, or suitably specific, to be of future use to students and whether there was an underlying cultural meaning which students would not necessarily recognise without further prompting. I also picked out idiomatic phrases and noun / verb + dependent preposition combinations to prompt noticing (Schmidt, 1990) of these combinations.
This highlighting process allowed me to see quickly whether a text was rich enough in terms of language to justify the time spent further developing the activity. More texts were discarded at this stage. I used this process with coursebook texts too so that I could focus on aspects not covered in the accompanying exercises.
Criteria for Texts
- General interest / not too topical – these date too quickly and cannot easily be reused with subsequent groups
- Language should be above the level of the group as students are more satisfied the greater the challenge. Since one member of the group has the answers, there is no anxiety that they might fail to get ‘the right answer’
- Enough questions have to be generated to allow pair and/or groupwork
- Shorter texts generally work better if you are planning to go into great depth with language work, or if you want to use them as a warmer activity. It is an intensive activity, so students become tired if the task is too lengthy
Nuttall (1996, p.181) suggests ‘questions that help are those that make you work at the text. Well-planned questions make you realize you do not understand, and focus attention on the difficult bits of the text.’ She goes on to praise the value of the class discussion of why certain answers are correct or incorrect, stating ‘[t]hrough discussion, the students learn the processes of critical thinking that good readers use. Groupwork is ideal, because in small groups […] even the weaker students should be active and learning.’ (Nuttall, 1996, p.183). However, these discussions are limited to a post-reading activity when the teacher has already revealed the correct answers to comprehension questions. I wanted my questions to be based on more than comprehension, and also involve learners actively in every stage of the process.
I used a simple two-column table with questions on the left and the corresponding answers in the right hand column. The questions followed guidance from Pugh, and Lunzer and Gardner (quoted in Hedge, 2000, pp.194-5) and thus covered receptive, reflective, skimming, scanning, and intensive reading skills:
Receptive skills: Can you summarise the author’s argument?
Reflective skills: Do you agree with the author’s point of view?
Skimming skills: What is the main point made in (e.g.) paragraph 3? Does (e.g.) paragraph 5 support the author’s view or is it a counter-argument?
Scanning skills: Which (e.g.) author is named as supporting the author’s viewpoint? When was (e.g.) the law introduced?
Intensive reading skills: I took the opportunity to get students to notice (Schmidt, 1990) how ideas are expressed in the text with questions such as: Which verb used in the text collocates with blame? Which preposition follows accuse in the text?
As Littlewood (1981, pp.8-12 ) points out, relating forms to meanings, structure to communicative function and language to social context are all important factors in improving communicative competence. For this reason, I included further questions such as these examples: What does this in line X refer to? Why did the author choose (e.g.) decrepitude instead of a term such as old age? Can you give a synonym / antonym for …?, what is a formal / an informal alternative to …?, etc.
Many have promoted extensive reading as a method for improving students’ language skills, for example Redmond (2017) in a recent issue of MET. I would suggest, like Schmidt (1990), that while extensive reading has its benefits, alone it is not enough to improve wider language skills, given that we generally read for content more than for style. What Schmidt terms ‘subliminal learning’ (1990, p129), i.e. learning only from exposure with no attention explicitly directed towards what is perceived, is ‘impossible’. ‘Incidental learning’ (Schmidt, 1990, p.129), i.e. paying attention to something in order to learn, ‘is clearly both possible and effective when the demands of a task focus attention on what is to be learned’. This conversion of input into intake is referred to as ‘input processing’ by Van Patten and Cadierno (1993, p.226) who go on to argue ‘[f]rom intake the learner must still develop an acquired system’. As Van Patten and Cadierno (1993, p.227) argue, ‘[i]t would seem reasonable, then, to suggest that rather than manipulate learner output to effect change in the developing system, instruction might seek to change the way that input is perceived and processed by the learner.’ In my questions I wanted to bring together Nutall’s (1996) advice together with these changes in perception and processing.
One key difference between the kind of reading I wanted to encourage and ‘real-life reading’ was that I wanted to show learners how they could use reading actively to improve their language skills. In particular IELTS students stand to benefit from checking their knowledge of synonyms and parallel phrases because much of the examination they are preparing for is based on this kind of knowledge.
Koda (2005, p.211) underlines the importance of metacognition in reading, stating [t]he general consensus is that efficacious uses of reading strategies evolve in progressive stages […]’. When writing my own questions to accompany texts, it was possible to regulate the type of questions or the combinations of types in order to provide practice in specific skills. This also allowed tailoring to the class level.
I used the internet and a learner’s dictionary to provide in the right hand column pithy answers to all the questions except those that called for a personal opinion and indicated this in the table.
To give students an opportunity to check unfamiliar vocabulary and thereby reduce anxiety, I gave classes an article to read for homework. In my intermediate and upper-intermediate classes, this was a text from their coursebook. With these texts, there were accompanying questions which I asked the students to answer as part of their homework. With higher level classes I used authentic articles from The Week (Frith, H. (ed)) and The Economist (Minton Beddoes, Z.(ed)) and I did not assign additional comprehension tasks. Because I was using challenging texts, the cognitive load for students was high. As Van Patten (1990, p.287) cautions, ‘learners […] have great difficulty attending to both form and content’, so reading the texts for homework allowed them to absorb the content at their own pace and with the aid of dictionaries as necessary.
In the next class, I explained to the class that they would be working in pairs or small groups and each participant would have different question sheets. I would be giving them both the questions AND the answers, so they should not let their partner(s) see their sheets. I gave them the choice of reading and discussing the questions before checking the answers by folding the sheets to conceal them, or just posing the question and checking what their partner said. It was interesting to observe that in most higher level classes, participants opted to discuss their views and then check the answers, while lower level groups were happy to ‘test’ their partners’ understanding. Some texts I had formatted as pair work and others groups of three or even four to allow for differing class sizes and size of discussion group.
- Student talking time (STT) is maximised
- Students can work at their own pace
- Students have more opportunities to use language from the text when speaking
- Inhibitions are lower when working in pairs / small groups
- The teacher is free to monitor and give correction and guidance where needed
- All students are actively engaged in the task
- Correct question forms are modelled and repeated by students
- The teacher can ensure that all students get the correct answers, where applicable
- The teacher can feed in extra information, for example explaining puns or cultural references which may not be clear to language learners
- It is possible to cover all language systems: grammar, lexis and pronunciation
- Questions can take a top-down (schematic processes) or bottom-up (linguistic processes) approach, or a mix of both
- Students can be encouraged to develop a range of critical reading skills
- Texts are mined more deeply than conventional textbook comprehension questions generally allow
- Learners receive learner training in how they can work with texts to improve their English
- Suitable for mixed ability classes as long as the gap is not too wide between top and bottom
There were times when I felt completely redundant in the classroom. The class were engaged in conversation, actively discussing possible and alternative meanings of the text, lexical substitutions and word families, then happily checking with the answers provided. The one category of question where teacher input was needed was in confirming their interpretations of the phonemic script for the pronunciation questions. Most students have a passing acquaintance at best with the symbols and so required reassurance that they were pronouncing items correctly. Nuttall (1996, p11) describes reading as an ‘interactive process’ and my students were certainly interacting more than with conventional ways of feeding back on a reading text.
In addition, I noticed that the discussion on questions about author’s stance seemed to promote critical literacy (Hood, 1998, pp.11-19) skills as students often disagreed on these. Wignall, (quoted in Hood, 1998, p.13) notes the importance of ‘insights into the literate practices of society, in order, not to assimilate students to them, but to put students in a position to challenge them.’ My students were certainly challenging each other to justify their respective positions.
- It is time-consuming to write lists of questions and answers
- Questions need to be categorised to ensure each participant received a mix of question types, and then formatted to allow group work
- An excellent understanding of the text is required in order to provide adequate answers
- Extreme care must be taken that the answer key provides support without limiting possible interpretation or understanding, i.e. imposing the view of the teacher as ‘the right view’.
With my newly-found confidence in using authentic texts in class, I began using shorter news articles with lower level groups. At first, students only discussed their reactions to the text and outlined the structure. However, as confidence grew and the students became more accustomed to working with text in this way, I branched out into formatting articles as modified cloze texts (for example removing certain verbs for student A, certain nouns for student B, idiomatic phrases for student C) and providing a glossary of the missing words and meanings, getting groups to first discuss predictions together, then work in mixed groups to compare and check their answers.
With some texts I went a step further and removed first and last sentences from paragraphs and asked students to reconstruct the texts, then again checking mixed pairs whether their predictions were correct. We then went on to look at language in more detail in the manner described.
It cannot be denied that this is a time-consuming activity. However, if care is taken in choosing the texts, they can be successfully reused in multiple classes and thus provide convenient standby materials. I have been able to dramatically increase the number of texts that students read and I believe they are getting more value from their reading. Student feedback has indicated that they find this kind of activity more interesting, motivating and useful in terms of broadening their knowledge of both language and English-speaking culture. They report lower inhibitions in tackling newspaper and magazine articles. More research is required to evaluate the learning that results from using text in this way, but any increase in the amount of exposure to language students receive and effective use of strategies for drawing their attention to salient features will not result in language loss!
About the Author
Having taught English for Business and EAP at universities in Germany and in-company in Italy, Rachel Connabeer is now a tutor at Hilderstone College in Kent and focusses on academic English and ESP for monolingual and multilingual groups. She gained a distinction in the Post-Graduate Diploma in TESOL at Canterbury Christ Church University and is currently working on ways of using critical thinking skills to improve competence in academic writing. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Frith, H. (ed.) The Week. Dennis Publishing Ltd. (Available at: http://www.theweek.co.uk/)
Golebiowska, A. (1990) Getting Students to Talk. Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall.
Hedge, T. (2000) Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hood, S. (1998) ‘Critical Literacy: What does it mean in theory and practice?’, in Burns, A. and Hood, S. (eds) Teachers’ Voices 3 Teaching Critical Literacy. Sydney: Macquarie University.
Koda, K. (2005) Insights into Second Language Reading: A Cross-Linguistic Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Littlewood, W. (1981) Communicative Language Teaching: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lunzer, E. (1979) ‘From Learning to Read to Reading to Learn’, in Lunzer, E. and Gardner, K. (eds) The Effective Use of Reading. London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd, pp.7-36.
Minton Beddoes, Z. (ed.) The Economist. The Economist Newspaper Ltd. (Available at: https://www.economist.com/)
Nuttall, C. (1996) Teaching Reading Skills in a foreign language. Oxford: Heinemann English Language Teaching
Redmond, C. (2017) ‘Academic Writing: a Chinese Perspective’, Modern English Teacher, 26(4), pp. 51-53.
Schmidt, R. (1990) ‘The Role of Consciousness in Second Language Learning’, Applied Linguistics, 11(2), pp.129-158.
Van Patten, B. (1990) ‘Attending to form and content in the input’, Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 12(3), pp.287-301.
Van Patten, B. and Cadierno, T. (1993) ‘Explicit Instruction and Input Processing’, Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 15(2), pp. 225-243.