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Tips for Teaching Reading in EFL

One thing that new teachers of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) may not realize is that even quite literate students may not understand how to read efficiently in a foreign language.

People, especially adult learners, don’t learn reading skills in a new language the same way they learned to read in their first language. Also, they may not know how to apply some reading skills in English, even though they can implement the same kind of skill in their native language.

For example, once when I was a teacher in Saudi Arabia, I was asked to teach a group of people learning to be computer programmers. These budding programmers were expected to learn all of their material for all of their computer courses in English. Unfortunately, when I started with them their English skills weren’t good enough to start with their most basic requirement—the heavy Introduction to Computers textbook we had. It was the same kind of textbook you’d find in a Computers 101 course at a community college in the States or in Britain.  And these students were probably already quite good at computers, but they weren’t good enough at English to tackle that textbook. This was, as you might imagine, quite dispiriting for the students.

To get around this problem, and to prepare them for this key course in their studies, I taught them not exactly the textbook material, but instead how to read the textbook. By learning how to read the textbook, they also learned the introduction to computers, and a whole lot of useful English target language.

Break it down

Right away, in the first class, I told the students that I also believed the book was difficult, but that we were going to break it into pieces so it would be easier.

First, we went through the table of contents and discussed as a group what the entries there might mean.

Next, we flipped through Chapter One, like a native speaker might do when going to a bookstore or library, and checked out the illustrations. We discussed what those pictures might mean, and then we looked at the captions.

After we felt comfortable with that, we went through the section headings in the chapter and discussed those. Next were the subheadings.  Then we hunted through the first chapter looking for words that were bolded or in italics. We checked out the sidebars. Basically, we looked at the chapter in safe-seeming chunks so that by the time we were down to the plain old reading of the chapter, the students already had a clear picture of what the text would mean. We joked about it, that we already knew it, and I was pleased that my students were no longer intimidated by it.

Survey the (reading) territory

This technique, looking over the parts of a text before reading, is called “surveying.”  When students survey a text, they don’t read it word-by-word. They look for key ideas, especially in headings and subheadings and they go through larger passages for facts or details. Native English speakers routinely use this skill when they don’t have time to read everything—in college courses perhaps.

Teaching this technique (along with skimming larger pieces of text and scanning for specific details) helps English learners.  Get your students to guess and predict what will be next in the text.

Guessing and predicting are important reading skills for your learners. Getting them to guess and predict from context is a great way for students to soak up new vocabulary. When native speakers come across an unfamiliar word in our own language, we can usually make good guesses about what it means from the context. In fact, much of the vocabulary native speakers have comes from casual exposure to words in books and other material, rather than from word lists and memorization. This skill is doubly important for non-native speakers.

Rather than just supplying your students with definitions of the words that they don’t know when they do reading exercises, try this: Get the student to read the sentence or paragraph and let the rest of the class guess what the word may mean. This can help the students hone their reading skills as a group.

Reading and listening are more similar than you think

For EFL purposes, reading is one of the four major skills in English. Writing, speaking and listening are the other three. You may be surprised to learn that the reading and listening skills are very closely related. They are both “receptive” skills.

If you are reading or listening, you are receiving the information.  When you speak or write you aren’t receiving information, you’re broadcasting it.  So these skills can be grouped together in pairs. When students use receptive language (reading and listening), they have information coming to them and they have to interpret and comprehend that information. They need to take in the big ideas and important details and dismiss the inessential information.

As you might realize from my description of the Saudi students, I have always found reading to be one of the most fun skills to teach and your students will enjoy it too if you use these ideas.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Break hard, scary portions of reading material into smaller, less threatening chunks.

TED’s Tips™ #2: Surveying material and guessing and predicting meanings of vocabulary words are great exercises to improve your students reading skills.

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