This article looks at a variety of different strategies and examines why, when and how you might use each of them to develop your students' reading skills.

Photo of a group of students and a teacher reading in a classroom.

Source: Caiaimage/Robert Daly, Getty Images


In order to help our students become proficient readers we need to have a wide array of strategies and techniques to hand. One of the fundamental flaws of coursebooks is that reading texts are often there simply as a means of 'carrying' grammar and vocabulary items. Reading strategies are added as an afterthought and quite often comprise nothing more than a set of extensive and intensive comprehension questions.

If we want to help our students improve their reading skills we need to think more carefully about how we teach them to read. We need to supplement the tasks in coursebooks, possibly add a wider variety of text types (i.e. different genres) and think specifically about our individual learners' needs and problems.

Do reading tasks always need to reflect real life?

The simple answer to that is no. This is not to say that we shouldn't use real-life tasks in our classroom, but there is also a place for activities that are designed to build certain skills. The classroom, by definition, is not exactly like the real world. Students are there with the intention of focusing on learning and improving their languages skills, which is why we might spend time on activities that develop accuracy (which is not something you'd spend lots of time on in real life, where the main focus would be on communication).

However, whatever we do in the classroom has to be designed with the ultimate aim of giving our students the necessary skills to operate in real life. Therefore, at the back of our minds, we should always be asking ourselves the question: How does this help my students prepare for what they have to do in the real world?

Skimming and scanning

Two of the most commonly used terms when talking about how to read are skimming and scanning, and these are probably the most widely taught techniques. Skimming basically means reading a text quickly in order to work out the key topic, main ideas, etc. Scanning, on the other hand, is reading quickly to find a particular piece of information such as a date, name, time, place or fact.

It is important to remember that these are only two approaches out of many and that reading isn't necessarily about doing one or the other. You may well not do either. It is also essential to realise that just because you use one technique on a text it does not mean you can't also use the other, although normally you would skim a text before scanning it and not the other way round.

Often there is no need to skim a text to work out what the key topic is. For example, you don't really need to skim a newspaper article as the headline will give you much of the information you need (as will the section in which the article appears in the newspaper). However, you still might wish to skim the text to see whether you want to read it in depth (your initial reaction to the headline could be: This might be interesting, but is it actually?).

It is also possible that after scanning a text you will want to re-read it in more depth. This certainly wouldn't be the case with, say, a timetable, but it would be possible for other genres. For example, imagine you are vegetarian – you might scan a menu to check whether the restaurant offers vegetarian options. You discover a section of vegetarian meals, so you then read that particular part of the menu in depth (you are no longer skimming or scanning).

Activity: What's the headline?

Choose a short article from a newspaper or magazine. Cut off the headline and make enough copies of the article for your students. Write three or four possible headlines on a piece of paper, including the original, but make sure only the original headline actually fits the content of the article. Make enough copies of these headlines for your students. Hand out the article to the students and give them a short time limit to skim the article (setting a time limit is crucial if skimming and scanning activities are to work). Then hand out the possible headlines and ask them to choose the one they think fits best. Put students in pairs or small groups and get them to check and discuss their ideas together.

Rationale: This creates a reason to skim the article. What students are doing, effectively, is looking for the main points. 

Top-down & bottom-up

The terms top-down and bottom-up are not the same as skimming and scanning but are often confused with them. In fact, skimming and scanning both include top-down and bottom-up approaches. A top-down approach to reading is one where students use existing knowledge about the topic of the reading to predict what the content might be or what particular vocabulary they might encounter. For example, when we read a menu we automatically use a top-down approach because we expect the menu to conform to a set of characteristics particular to that genre. We expect to come across the words starters, main courses, desserts, etc and we can often predict the order in which certain items will appear.

We may also employ a bottom-up approach to the same text in certain instances, however. A bottom-up approach is where we focus on details, for example a particular grouping of words, in order to understand exactly what the text means. An example of this when we're looking at a menu is when we find the name of a particular dish but we don't know what it contains (and the name itself gives us little clue). I once came across a dish called pyjamas on a menu. In the context of a menu I was stuck, and no amount of top-down processing would help. I therefore relied on a bottom-up approach by reading the information given about the dish to discover what it was: ice-cream with a stripe of raspberry syrup and a light nut-topping. By reading the information I could find out what the dish contained and also make an educated guess as to why it had been given that particular name.

So, in many instances we employ both a top-down and a bottom-up approach to reading and they are not mutually exclusive. The teacher needs to think about which approach is used in different circumstances, and it is also a skill that students need to develop.

Activity: What's the context?

Give students a set of decontextualised words and sentences for them to read (these may be self-contained mini reading-texts in their own right). Ask students to work in pairs or small groups and to answer the following questions:

Where does the word / sentence / text come from?
Who might be reading it, and when?
What does it mean?

Here are a few ideas to use:

  • Danger! Rocks!
  • Do not leave luggage unattended.
  • Turn left at the first set of lights and take the second turning on the right.

Rationale: This is an activity that requires a bottom-up approach and helps learners realise that thinking of the context for a particular word or sentence will help them understand its meaning.

Activity: I think …

Tell the students they are going to read a particular type of text (for example a postcard, a letter of complaint or some instructions on how to use a kettle). Put students in pairs and ask them to write down five words or phrases they think they will read in the text. Hand out the text and ask them to circle the words and phrases if they find them.

Rationale: This is a simple top-down activity that demonstrates how much language students can guess/predict simply by knowing the text type. If you work on this through your courses students will become better and better at predicting. NB. don't try to catch students out by giving them unusual examples of a particular genre – the point of the activity is to show them how much they already know.

Extensive reading

By extensive reading we are not referring to the division between extensive and intensive comprehension questions. Rather, we are referring to the reading of longer texts for pleasure, entertainment and overall understanding, rather than detailed reading where minute information is the focus. In real life we do quite a bit of extensive reading. For example, we might read a novel. Normally, when we do such reading we are not intent on memorising details and we don't answer sets of comprehension questions. We simply read because we want to.

There is a time and place for this reading, both inside and outside the language classroom. It is also quite possible to have tasks for such reading.

Activity: A poem

Give your students a poem and ask them to read it. Don't ask them any comprehension-type questions about the poem. Simply ask them the following (or ask them to talk about the questions with a partner or in small groups):

1. When would you read this kind of poem?
2. Did you enjoy it? Why (not)?
3. Who would you show / tell / give it to?
4. When and why?

Rationale: By asking these types of questions you are focusing on their enjoyment of the poem and exploring the types of questions that might be relevant to real life.

Activity: What I read …

Ask your students to choose a text that they think they will find interesting. It could be anything from a newspaper article to a poem or short story. Ask students to read it (probably for homework) and then to answer three questions:

1. What was one thing they found interesting?
2. What was one thing they read that was new?
3. What was one thing they read that they didn't understand (and would like someone to explain)?

Alternatively, you could ask your students to answer one simple question:

What did you like about it and why?

Note: You can also do this kind of task in class where all the students read the same text.

Rationale: We often ask students to summarise something they have read, but what exactly do we mean? Detailed summaries that ask for specific information are all well and good but they aren't the kind of summarising we would do in real life. This activity is the type of summarising activity we might well do in our L1.

Cohesion and coherence

Understanding a reading text often goes beyond simply comprehending the topic of the piece. Aspects such as cohesion and coherence are essential. In other words, understanding how a particular text is put together, the conventions, things such as discourse markers and cohesive devices, paragraphing and reference words are all part of fully understanding a text. So activities that focus on these areas can be incredibly important.

Cohesion is the way in which the elements of a text are connected. This includes things such as repetition of words, use of words from the same field (topic area), referencing, linkers and so on. In theory a text can be cohesive and yet still be incoherent!

Coherence is whether or not a text makes sense. There should be a logical link between sentences so that one follows on from another. Sentences can be grammatically correct and yet impossible to understand as a text because there is seemingly no link (topically, or otherwise) between them. Coherence is often achieved through context and by the reader understanding the meaning that the writer was trying to convey.

Activity: What's the order?

Take a reasonably long text (at least five paragraphs). Cut the text up into paragraph chunks and mix them up. Photocopy the jumbled text and give it to your students. Explain to them that they have a complete text, but in the wrong order. Their task is to put the paragraphs in the correct order.

Rationale: Here's a great example of a classroom activity that doesn't reflect real life and yet has immense value. Understanding texts (and being able to read well) requires students to be able to see how a text 'holds' together. This type of activity gives students the necessary practice and skills.