The full debate in response to Scott Thornbury's three-part article on the apparent paradoxical relationship between teaching reading and teaching language.

Photo of students reading in a classroom or in a library.

Source: cyano66, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Lewis, 26 June 2006

We have to make a distinction between what students do in real life and what they do in the classroom. I believe any students of mine, on finding themselves alone in the UK, for example, would spontaneously apply their reading skills as in L1 to reading English texts, skimming etc. to obtain the information needed. Unfortunately they don't always and automatically apply these skills when in the classroom and, knowing they have the teacher there to help them, start reading word by word from the top left-hand corner of the text, ignoring headlines, illustrations etc. So I think they do need some stimulus to a proper approach to reading English texts.
A related phenomenon is the application of words they know from their work. It often happens that students regularly use English words (in marketing, information technology etc.) but these don't always come to mind when they are in the classroom. They then kick themselves: "Oh, of course, I use this word every day!"
However, I don't think these problems are an enormous obstacle and they can be overcome with a little practice. Texts should serve mainly to give students interesting material for discussion and to illustrate new vocabulary and new grammatical structures (all kinds of structures with infinitives and participles, that seem natural to English-speakers, are often incomprehensible at first sight to my Italian students).

the gecko, 3 July 2006

Great Scott – no!

First of all, continuing Scott’s analogy, we know that if Françoise wants to drive from Paris to London, and Jane wants to drive from London to Paris neither of them stop halfway and give up despite never having driven in a foreign country before. However the aim, for both drivers, of driving from A to B remains the same even though where they drive changes.

Why do Françoise and Jane read? Either for information or for pleasure – whether Le Monde, The Guardian or Marie-Claire. Why did Scott read El Pais? To learn Spanish, no doubt he also learnt a lot about Spain too and enjoyed some of what he read along the way, but the fundamental aim was different: to learn a language. As a professional linguist he also recognized that’s what he was doing and the best way to do it.

But because the fundamental reason for reading has changed many of our students, as Lewis also says, don’t actually transfer the skills they already have. So some read a text with finger or pen moving slowly along the text stopping at an unknown word and either underlining it or going straight for the dictionary; others complain that the text is too hard and give up even though they can understand most of it; while there are those who ask the teacher again and again what a word means even though it can be clearly worked out from context.

Of course we should be teaching language rather than reading skills, but reading words and grammar in context is surely one of the best ways of doing this. The more students read, the more they learn. It’s the opposite of a vicious circle! If all students read in English outside the class half the battle would be won, but many just don’t. Those who have seen the used to structure in print and understood how that works aren’t going to have difficulties when it arises in class. Getting rid of reading in lower levels means removing a context for words and grammar and would actually make the class more boring, not less so. Concentrating only on short 50-word texts just reinforces the point that reading in English is to learn a language. Removing READING and replacing it with TEXT seems the ultimate in tedium!

So, rather than removing reading there should be a lot more of it. The lesson should include all sorts of texts, from a variety of sources and covering a range of subjects, chosen by the students too of course. Students should be reading for pleasure or information first, ie mimicking what we do in real-life, with some nudging in the right direction how we go about doing that. The meanings of new words and grammar and language learning can come naturally from these texts. Once integrated with other skills language learning becomes a lot more fun than a lesson devoid of reading.

Finally, get rid of those dull reading comprehension questions that test students rather than helping them to learn. Let’s have more different texts, and more interesting responses to a text instead. So yes, the end of reading as we know it but certianly not the end of reading!


Lewis, 3 July 2006

At last this discussion seems to have got going. Anyway, the question is (and Jackie seems to be of the same opinion): if we took the reading pieces out of text-books, what would be left? By all means improve them, but we must have some "meat" in our text-books. Man does not live by grammar alone.

eteacher, 4 July 2006

Reading is nice, since we read about what we like. Perhaps we are living a time for a great change, where books can easily interact with the internet. Why don`t we try to do so? I mean we can use all these means in order to help us having inovative classes. As Lewis put it - man does not live by grammar alone - I do agree, so books can have a bit of all and we can bring a bit af all as well from elsewhere. Let`s say: internet. After all, at this very moment we are reading, aren`t we ?


schetin, 6 July 2006

Several problems come to mind when you think about how nice reading is:

  1. reading is slow and many prefer reading only for educational purposes;
  2. reading requires a certain degree of inner concentration - the one kids feel easily bored with; reading for educational purposes averts many from reading;
  3. reading calls for an ability of sympathizing the author of a message, or there will be no understanding; there are two outcomes: those who are flexible enough to conform are easily sombied, and those who are not - often fall behind, which sometimes can be an advantage - they may develop their own view of the world;
  4. reading is ineffective if you don't hear the message you are reading;
  5. reading is ineffective if your own personal experience (and, therefore, interest) doesn't correlate easily with the experience (interest) behind the message you are reading;
  6. ...



Dr. Jamshid Ibrahim,9 August 2006

I would like to approach the mattert from a different perspective. I personally do a lot of reading and enjoy it greatly. Still as Slava pointed out reading is slow. In the age of "fast everything" visual aids like graphs and pictures are used to communicate information because they are faster than texts. In addition, the information imparted goes deeper into memory and it is more convenient than reading a text. Advertising agencies put more emphasis on visual aids. Reading and writing are both secondary skills. Writing is productive but reading is receptive. They are not as popular as the primary skills: listening and speaking. End of reading might still not be in sight but we are already experiencing other ways of learning and the dominance of visual media over text. This has to do with the despotic role of the eye. This also explains the powerful role TV has been playing so far. It is usually TV and not any more "reading" which we give preference to on a regualr basis. I believe there is a change in our reading habits. Dr. Jamshid

schetin, 10 August 2006

Good point, Jamshid. So what do we do?

Nice to hear from you. How are you?



Dr. Jamshid Ibrahim,10 August 2006

Thanks Slava I am fine. I hope everything is OK with you.

Well, I believe reading is a means of accessing what has been written independent of place, time and technology. However, if modern, more economical, more convenient and faster ways of communicating information are invented the book might be replaced. Audio and visaul libraries are already in use. But the book is still more convenient than reading online or even listening. You can read for hours and hours but you cannot listen or watch that long. In addition, reading provides more peace of mind, privacy and it is nice to spend some time with books everywhere as in a library or a bookshop. Books provide a good overview and they are nice to have in your hands. Books, however, require paper, ink, need space but can be kept over a much longer period of time than information stored on optical disks. Dr. Jamshid Ibrahim

schetin, 10 August 2006

So, if I take it right, again, we love to do what we can. If students don't like reading in their own language, it should mean they lack the necessary skills. Hence, the efficiency of teaching them to read in a foreign language will amount 10% at the utmost.

And there's something else. Students will get bored easily, which is extremely unhealthy; they will waste too much time on reading - the time, which they could make use of for their benefit, intellectual, spiritual, whatever; this can result in retardation, even with capable students, and falling behind other students, who, being probably less capable by nature, will get advantage only due to their reading skills.

Wouldn't it be better to teach students efficient reading in their own language first?

Still puzzled,


lulu80, 30 January 2007

Fundamentally, how do we know whether the difficulties students face when reading are down to language problems or reading problems? What makes reading in a foreign language difficult? Firstly and simply, perhaps the student knows the word, but doesn't know what it looks like written down. And this might occur even where there aren't differences in the linguistic relationships between the L1 and English (compare for example French and English and English and Chinese). What I mean here is that whilst a student might be able to read the script, they may just be "barking at print". They know the script, they can read it, but if they don't understand it are they really reading? To better illustrate, we can all read:
jilly ho tzo bena hoipy
because we know the script, but did we read and understand? So, can we say that we have 'read' it?

Cultural differences also pose a problem for many learners. Discourse organisation is different, even between languages whose linguistic relationship is not so distant, such as French and English. Students must master and understand the syntax, grammar and text cohesion of the foreign language in order to fully gain from any reading texts they choose to read or encounter in the classroom. They also need to know how these can change depending on the genre, register and medium (written vs spoken). Cultural references in texts can equally cause great confusion for students. All of these issues must be taken into account when teaching reading. As with teaching any skill, we must consider what will be difficult for our students. It is for this reason that students benefit from accessing a wide variety of types of English texts, so that they might gain knowledge of their features . Reading is therefore important because it supports writing skills development. We must also think about what our students needs are. I say this because the type of reading (and therefore text) should reflect the purpose for reading. Why? Students need to learn how to use texts and pull out the information they need (for example train timetables, airline tickets, departure boards etc).

Finally, if we teach reading (and for the reasons briefly mentioned above I think that we should), we should aim to help the student to enjoy reading. Some people do not read in their first language and so don't or won't read in English. These students will not discover enjoyment in reading in English if they don't have it in their first language.

Wanderer, 31 January 2007

Hi folks,
My first response to finding that my students didn't read much in their first language was to remove most of the reading, and writing, from my classes. My theory went like this - I'm just here to teach English as a second language, I'm in this post because I'm a native speaker, my students will gain most from my insights into the language, cultural interaction etc. At some point though, largely through working with people I saw as 'real' teachers, I came to challenge that role of teacher. "Native" teachers get a lot of criticism these days, but part of the problem is that we accept the role of 'foreign clown', despite, in some cases at least, being bilingual language experts. How does this relate to reading? Well, if I'm working with a class of highly-literate adults who have told me they only want to improve their speaking skills then that is what we will do. However, if I'm working somewhere where literacy skills are lower in L1, second language classes can be a way for the learners to have another go at building literacy skills. Life and work obligations, and even aspects such as pride, may mean that people will not broach weaknesses in literacy in L1 but the second language classroom can give them the opportunity. We often talk about negative transfer from L1 in learning a second language, but there is also very positive transfer from the learning of a second language to communication skills in the first language.
As English becomes more important as a Lingua Franca I think that the role of English language teachers has to change. "Native" teachers in particular need to throw off the image of "foreign clowns" and become educators, working with students as whole people. I want to stress that by that I do not mean the teaching of any set of moral values, but rather that the title "teacher" is an important one - we should be proud of our chosen profession and use our potential to help people in the fullest possible way.

David Powell, 7 July 2007

Personally, I've been a slow reader. Slow in most things. I like to savour progress, and then to move deliberately from one platform of assured competence to the next.

I found the treatment of bulk text in senior high school stressful. I still remember the shock when we received a reading list for English that was to be worked through privately, independent of our class time.

Anyway, I've usually thought of this when I've seen skimming and scanning strategies being promoted in coursebook exercises.

None of these exercises made much sense until I came across an exam preparation book. It recommended skimming the text in conjunction with a skim of the questions, so that you'd form a quick map of the territory you needed to cover. When addressing a specific question, it then advised scanning to re-locate the relevant part of the text (a search informed by the initial skim). Finally, it emphasised the importance of reading that section carefully - intensively - for detail.

For the very first time, the strategies were presented to me - the teacher - in a meaningful and integrated way. And for what purpose? The passing of an IELTS reading exam!

However, despite this artificial, laboratory-like objective, the exam is a fine motivator, and I was not ashamed to teach these skills (= strategies) for this very practical purpose. And, of course, the IELTS test attempts to be a predictor for the candidate's fit into real world situations. So perhaps it's not so artificial after all.

The fact is that people in the real world expect us to read at speed.

I have to say that I hated learning to read at a faster rate than I could talk. I remember being astonished at the suggestion in high school that I had to get rid of the inner talking voice, and to allow my "eyes" to read. I didn't believe it was possible. I couldn't see how I could comprehend material at that speed, when I knew that I often needed to think at slower-than-speech rates in order to digest an idea and integrate it into my own schemas. It took me a long time to realise that most writing is not to be savoured as work-of-art, but processed pragmatically according to our preconceived perceptions. (Is that why textbooks set 'prediction' exercises for pre-text musing?).

Uh-oh. Maybe I'm still an unrepentant plodder.

I think literature *should* be savoured where possible. I think we *should* slow down, particularly if we're young and we have a limited bank of preconceptions into which to 'pigeonhole' what we're about to read. I think there are valid reasons why as an adolescent I was appalled at being given a long reading list that was to be consumed at speed with no reference to our course (or our life, or anything). And I wonder whether there may be valid reasons why an L2 learner may also use first gear when reading a long English text.

Still, the exam is a reminder of the harshness of this pragmatic, time-driven world. Speed reading strategies can be 'taught' with clear motivational goals. We need merely link them to what success in the exam will achieve: entry to university or permanent residence.


Montse, 21 May 2007

I think it is important that students feel motivated when they finish reading a story, comic, etc. Because in this way they want to read more and more.
Nowadays children when finish reading a story they have to answer some questions about the story, but this is always the same and it is very bored. For this reason, we need to motivate them. How? For example, to play different games, to continue the story, to draw a sequence, etc. There are many things to do.