Posted tagged ‘reading skills’

Thinking Outside the Box: Exploring Different Ways to Interact with a Text

September 11, 2015

I believe there are different ways we can read a text with students. There can also be different objectives. Do we want students to read for general comprehension, for example, or to find details? Reading skills also overlap with pronunciation skills. I’m a big believer in oral reading. It shouldn’t be the default format, but I think it should have a place in language instruction. For that reason, I’ve devoted some of my time to building a playlist of practice texts for learners to read aloud. These are short texts that can easily be read multiple times.

How can you keep a text fresh if there are to be multiple readings? You can use any text — mine, yours, or something you find online. As long as the content is comprehensible, appropriate, and meaningful, then it may be used.

1. Read a text aloud at different speeds, but always with expression. A slower oral reading can call attention to phrasing. A faster oral reading is an exercise in articulation.

2. Unscramble the text and do a choral reading. What if each student were assigned an excerpt? Then you could have the students read their excerpt and the group would have to order themselves in a line or a circle. Once the proper order has been established, read the text one more time from beginning to end. The first step requires students to think about structure and sequence. The final time focuses on oral expression.

3. Read in character. How would a politician delivering a speech read the text? What would a salesperson sound like? You may have tried role play in the past, for instance, with dialogs or debates. You can also try it with short readings or excerpts from a larger reading. Ask students to suggest roles. Whose words might these be? Ask for volunteers or have students take on the roles in pairs. This can also be suggested practice if students are shy about role playing in the classroom.

4. Set up the text to serve as answers to questions. This could be similar to reading in character. For example, my latest oral reading text has this paragraph:

     Sometimes there can be pressure to stay in one place, but my desire to move was strong. Those closest to me supported me. I needed space to experiment and build something new. What would control my future, fear or a sense of purpose? I knew the answer. I stepped outside the box.  

Have students create questions that require direct answers from the reading. Then one students asks questions, and another supplies the answers.

Q: Why didn’t you stay in your hometown? A: Well, sometimes there can be pressure to stay in one place, but my desire to move was strong. I needed space to experiment and build something new. 

Q: Did your family support your move? A: Those closest to me supported me.

Do you know another way to approach reading? Feel free to suggest it!

Finding Fluency through Oral Reading

February 20, 2014

I’m a big believer in the power of reading and the need to maximize the benefits of a text. With private students, I’ve often asked them to work with a particular reading multiple ways. We read for comprehension. We study vocabulary and new structures in context. We discuss the content and make time for summaries and reactions. Additional readings can then be done. For example, I  can select lines or paragraphs from the text and ask students to listen and repeat after me until fluent reading is achieved. I see the confidence and satisfaction grow when a student finally reads a passage smoothly.

What about independent reading? Of course, there’s reading for pleasure, reading for academic  coursework, and reading that needs to be done at the workplace. But those all tend to be silent forms of reading. How can learners continue practicing oral reading to improve general fluency? What materials and strategies can be used?

Since last year, I’ve been toying with the idea of creating oral reading passages for independent practice. I hope to post my initial ideas in the near future in the form of video. How would you go about composing these texts and how would you ask students to work with them? Here are some of the factors I believe need to be addressed.

  1. A language learner needs to read a text multiple times. Therefore, the texts for oral reading practice should be short enough so that a busy person would be willing to reread it. A one-minute reading seems ideal to me. The shorter length would also more easily allow varied types of reading, from listen-repeat to choral reading.
  2. The texts need to be comprehensible. If a learner is going to read with expression, the content must be understood. That implies that the vocabulary and grammar must appropriate. For a mass audience, I think a set of readings needs to increase slowly in difficulty. When higher-level vocabulary is used, enough context must be provided so that the meanings can be inferred. Also, when new vocabulary is introduced, the words should be high frequency words to make them worth learning.
  3. Comprehension also comes through readiness. Simple pre-reading activities are used to engage and prepare a learner.  From predicting to discussion, a pre-reading task activates prior knowledge and taps into relevant personal experience.
  4. Fluent reading is guided by knowledge of punctuation and sentence structure. I think some simple slashes or other markings make natural thought groups clear for a reader. I hope my series on punctuation will support my set of texts for oral reading.
  5. A learner needs a model. In a live lesson, we can serve as models for our students. But for independent practice, learners appreciate having access to recordings. For that reason, I have often selected podcasts online for private lessons. The recordings and transcripts are on-demand. I have also recorded my own reading of original texts in the past and shared those recordings with students. For the new set of videos, I will certainly provide a model for learners to follow.
  6. The content needs to be interesting. The learner must want to do this form of practice. Texts should be informative, entertaining, and/or reflective in nature.

Wish me luck as I move forward. Please feel free to comment and make recommendations.

Getting the Most Out of Authentic Texts

July 7, 2010

If you’ve decided to bring in an authentic text to share with your students, what do you plan to do with it? You can use a text to meet a number of objectives, which include but are not limited to:

  • Teaching text organization and comprehension of main ideas.
  1. Scramble the paragraphs of a short article and have students work in pairs or small groups to reassemble the text.
  2. Remove the title as well as any section headings. Challenge students to create a main title as well as suggestions for section headings. Compare their ideas to the original ones written by the author.
  3. Present a gapped text. On the board write the 3-4 missing sentences from the article. Be sure that the sentences are removed from different paragraphs so that the main ideas/ subtopics are clearly different. Have students work with a partner to insert the sentences in the most appropriate places.

These kinds of exercises facilitate thinking in English and not simply about English.


  • Teaching suprasegmentals.
  1. Practice intonation patterns. Select an excerpt from a dialogue (play, film script, novel, etc.) that contains a good mix of sentence types (yes-no questions, wh- questions, sentences with a series of items, etc.) which are ideally said by different characters. First reading: The teacher reads and the students identify the pattern (e.g., rising intonation). Second reading: Place students in small groups of three or four and assign each member a pattern (e.g., Student A – rising, Student B – falling, Student C – rise fall). The sentences will be read in the order they are written, but all the sentences of a given pattern must be read by the same student. Third reading: The students will assume character roles, including a narrator if necessary.
  2. Practice rhythm through thought groups. Select a short article or brief excerpt. As a class, mark appropriate places to pause. Read the text orally as a class and a second time in pairs, observing the noted thought groups.

These reading activities allow you to choose a highly appealing source, such as a popular film, a TV show, or a speech made by a celebrity. If the resources are available, you could compare a student reading to the original recording.

Related ideas can be found in my posts on paraphrasing and editing.

Teaching Real Life Skills: Reading Signs

January 16, 2009

Part of an ESL teacher’s job is to help the language learner better function in the host country. One important skill to have is reading signs. They’re everywhere, and the information they convey does not apply to drivers alone. Consider the simplest of signs: ENTRANCE ONLY, NO SMOKING, EMERGENCY EXIT: Alarm will sound.  Then there are more detailed signs about fines for trespassing, the danger of guard dog, lanes merging on a highway, etc.

Thankfully, there are alternatives to stealing public property, carting real signs into your classroom, and showing them to your students. Yahoo images has plenty of photos to select from. You can download and print out 10-12 signs for classroom use.  I recently discovered an interesting compilation of signs by Tana Hoban. See if your local library has this title available: I Read Signs. (Children’s Literature)

You can tie this reading activity in with a grammar lesson on modal verbs. As you show each sign to the class, provide a choice of two modal verbs (or modal-like expressions). Have them write their interpretation. Require them to write at least one sentence per sign, but the challenge is to write two.




You provide two prompts: MUST / CAN’T

Possible interpretations by students: “You must drive slowly because children play on this street.” / “Drivers can’t go fast because there are children playing here.”


Teaching Practical Skills: How to Read Handwriting

December 5, 2008

A real challenge in language learning can be dealing with handwritten text. This is especially true for students whose languages use another alphabet or system of characters. Students may feel confident reading printed text, but their comfort level can significantly drop when the text is written by hand. Despite the fact that we live in the computer age and much of our written correspondence involves a keyboard, there are still times when we must read others’ handwriting. For instance, I still ask my husband (a native Russian) to help me read birthday cards and wishes for the New Year when Russian family and friends write to us. Sometimes I cannot read the most basic words because I can’t figure out the sender’s handwriting!

Here are two fun games that teach a practical skill: how to read handwriting.

GAME No.1 – Finding Common Ground [intermediate – advanced]

Have a few friends or acquaintances who are native English speakers handwrite a short text describing their personalities and/or lifestyles. Limit them to 5-7 lines.* Be sure to get a mix of printing and longhand. Compile and photocopy these texts. Distribute them to your students. Have them read the texts in pairs first. Then read them as a class, clarifying as needed. Students can then work in pairs again and discuss which text most closely describes their own personality or lifestyle.

*Model:                 I’m a very active person. I don’t like to sit at home, and if I am at home I’m probably trying to do at least two things at once. I come from a small family, but I have a large circle of friends. I love city life, and all that goes with it: theater, museums, and restaurants. I enjoy parties, too.


GAME No.2 – Proverbs as Discussion Starters [intermediate – advanced]

Ask a few native speakers to handwrite about ten proverbs of your choosing. Many native speakers naturally use a combination of longhand and printing, but you may need to ask your friends to avoid using all printed letters as the cursive letters tend to be the more challenging ones. Compile the proverbs, selecting the writing samples that are most difficult to read. Have students work in small groups. Assign two or three proverbs to each group. The students must read the proverbs and try to interpret them. After about ten minutes, bring the class back together. Each group must read their assigned proverbs and share their interpretations with the class. Allow for discussion and illustration of the proverbs.  As follow-up, you can ask each student to translate a proverb from his or her native language and write it out by hand. Post these handwritten proverbs for everyone to read. (Be sure to include the country of origin.)


Understanding the Challenge of Reading and Writing in English: A Quick Tip

December 3, 2008

Sometimes when we think of how to teach reading and writing to our students, we focus so much on higher level skills that we can forget about the more basic ones. We may be asking our students to scan for details or use parallel structure, but to comply with our instructions they must face challenges created by a foreign system of writing. If you’re in an ESL classroom, are you aware that some of your students may read and possibly write with vertical text? Do you know which languages use a right-to-left direction? And what about the different alphabets and complex characters that other languages use? Indeed, it can be challenging to read and write in English as a second language.

One way you can appreciate what it takes for your students to read and write in English is to have them write your name in their native languages. At one point in my classroom, I had such a list posted on the side wall. I got to see “Jennifer” written in Greek, Arabic, Korean, Telugu, and a number of other languages.  It served as a reminder to me to praise students’ skills in English. It may have helped build respect among classmates as well. I can add that on occasion the list was a great conversation starter…oh, and it also likely reminded forgetful students what my name was!

How to Bring the December Holidays into Your Classroom

December 2, 2008

December is here! It’s time to start thinking about how to weave holiday-related themes into your lessons. After all, learning a language implies learning another culture(s). From Washington, D.C. to London, people in English-speaking countries are looking forward to Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s Eve celebrations. How can you raise students’ awareness of these holidays?

  • WRITING ACTIVITY: Letters to Santa.

Find out what students know about Santa Claus (a.k.a. Father Christmas). Is there such a figure in their culture? Explain how children in English-speaking countries often send a Christmas wish list to the North Pole. To teach the format of a personal letter, you can ask your students to write to Santa Claus. Take them through the steps of planning, writing, and revising.

  • PRONUNCIATION GAME: Holiday tongue twisters.

Consider using holiday-related vocabulary to teach and practice minimal pairs. For example:

/k, g/ = Go get good, crisp Christmas cookies.

/f, v/ = Very fine fig pudding for everyone.

/t, d/ = Time to decorate the tree.

/s, z/ = Was it nice and cozy or super noisy on New Year’s Eve?

  • ORAL PRESENTATIONS: Celebrating holidays around the world.

Students can speak for one or two minutes to the class. Possible topics:

1.       How does your family celebrate New Year’s Eve?

2.       What has been the most memorable Christmas for you?

3.       How do different countries celebrate Christmas? (Advanced students can do research online. Focus first on English-speaking countries. Then allow for other countries to be selected. Assign one country to each student.)

  • ORAL READING: Holiday tales told in rhyme.

Stories told in rhyme are good for oral reading practice. Stress patterns are more easily felt in this genre. Try ’Twas the Night Before Christmas or Dr. Suess’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

  • READING SKILLS: A holiday classic.

Advanced students can use the month of December to read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The complete work is available online. Allow for discussion, highlight vocabulary, and consider essay writing at the end.

  • LISTENING/ CONVERSATION SKILLS: Holiday film session.

Choose a holiday film to watch in the month of December. Focus on developing listening and conversation skills. Some films, like It’s a Wonderful Life with James Stewart, serve as a great foundation for a grammar lesson. In fact, the High Intermediate book of Focus on Grammar  uses that film to teach unreal conditionals in Unit 24. Other holiday films with good speech models: While You Were Sleeping with Sandra Bullock and When Harry Met Sally with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. (The latter isn’t really a holiday film per se, but the big finish takes place on New Year’s Eve).

  • CONVERSATION SKILLS: Holiday survey.

Have students work in pairs to create two or three questions. Then allow for a question-answer period, during which they talk to as many other classmates as possible. Put the original pairs back together to compare findings. Possible topics to assign to pairs:

o   Holiday foods/ dishes.

o   Holiday plans.

o   Holiday traditions.

o   Holiday gifts.

o   Holiday entertainment.


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