by Robert Buckmaster
As presented to the LATE Annual Conference, Riga, August 18-19th 2016
Why do we read in the language classroom?
There are any number of answers.
You might say it’s in the course book so we should do it. That’s not a particularly good answer but it is an answer.
You might argue that learners should read. It’s good for them. Well, yes it is, but is there more to it than that?
Or you might say that it is necessary to read to show they can answer questions. This answer would have the benefit of truthfulness. We often ask learners to read and then answer comprehension questions.
Some of you might say reading can help learners to learn grammar and vocabulary. Indeed it can if you focus on that grammar and vocabulary rather than ignore it.
My own answer is that we should read texts in class so that next time they will read a similar text they will be able to read it better. So there needs to be a focus on grammar and vocabulary and less ignoring of language which appears in the text; in short a total focus on the language of short texts.
Learners should understand everything of a text as part of a focus on learning. Lessons should be learning focused and texts which appear in lessons should be approached on the basis of what can we learn from this text?
Current Best Practice Reading Skills Lessons usually have four phases. The Pre-reading phase can include a lead-in, interest arousal, pre-teaching vocabulary and prediction. These activities prime our learners for the text and help them with the following tasks. There is often a first During Reading Task such as a skim reading tasks to get the gist of the text, or a scanning task to get some information out of the text. A second During Reading Task often focuses on answering some comprehension questions. There might be Post-Reading Tasks which focus on a grammar point or a sub-set of lexis which appeared in the text, or there might be extension speaking and writing tasks.
All well and good [maybe] but much of the text is often ignored in such an approach. The learners only need to understand the parts of the text which are tested by questions and the questions only test parts of the text – not the whole text.
The reading of a text to answer comprehension questions is at heart a TEST.
It’s a test of comprehension, short and simple. No arguments brooked on that I’m afraid.
It might be necessary to do this sometimes but if all your readings are comprehension tests then you are short-changing your learners. They are tests – not learning focused tasks. While you can learn from tests its not the most optimal way to do it.
And anyway, do all your learners get all the answers correct on these comprehension reading tests? Johnny at the back gets 1 out of 10. Is that acceptable? Marie gets 3 right. Is that enough? What is the pass mark for this reading test? Even if you go back and try to find out why an answer is correct, what about the rest of the text, which is not tested?
One better way of approaching reading is the Dual Text Text Approach.
This is, in a way, Maximal Pre-reading Teaching/Learning. You study one text with the learners in depth and then follow this with comprehension test reading of a second text. The first text will contain similar vocabulary and grammar and text structure to the second text so that when learners come to read the second text they will be better prepared to do so. Studying the language of the first text will help them read the second text better, and answer the comprehension questions better because they will know, or will be more familiar with, more of the language and text conventions of the text.
Let’s look at an example to show you what I mean.
This example includes two texts I wrote based on the information available on Wikipedia. It’s blatant plagiarism – so acknowledge your sources.
First you present and study a text. You could show it line by line on a presentation. Or hand it out line by line or given the learners the whole text and then work through it. Imagine presenting it line by line [and supported by pictures taken from the Internet, not shown here for copyright reasons].
Present the first sentence [with a photo] and ask questions: What is it? Where is it? Move to a consideration of the language of the sentence: What is an island? What is a tidal island?
|St Michael’s Mount is a small tidal island located in Mount’s Bay, Cornwall, United Kingdom.
Then move on to the second sentence and do much the same. Why is ‘The’ used? What is a civil parish? What is a causeway? Show a picture. Teach about tides and low and high water.
|The island is a civil parish and is linked to the town of Marazion by a man-made causeway of granite blocks, passable between mid-tide and low water.
For the next sentence ask: How many people live there? Then ask again: How many people live there?
|The population of this parish in 2011 was 35.
The answer is that we don’t know.
The next sentence leads us to the main grammar point of the text – the passive – [revise/present this as you feel appropriate with your class but do not ignore it], and some more specialised vocabulary – like ‘harbour’ and ‘summit’ – and reminders about the use of prepositions.
|The earliest buildings, on the summit, date to the 12th century, the harbour is 15th century and the village and summit buildings were rebuilt from 1860 to 1900, to give the island its current form.
The next sentences add to the specialised vocabulary load and exposure to the passive, as well as consideration of such text features as the meaning of ‘this’ and ‘it’.
|The island was given to the Benedictine religious order of Mont Saint-Michel by Edward the Confessor in 1044. The monks of this order used the monastery until 1424 and it was site of pilgrimage.
More specialised vocabulary and the passive [again] follows:
|The location of the St Michael’s Mount makes it an ideal fortress and it was fortified from the beginning.
The lexical set of medieval fortress vocabulary [in more examples of the passive] continues in the next sentence with ‘assaulted’ and ‘seized’.
|During the 12th century whilst King Richard I was on a Crusade in the Holy Land, the Mount was assaulted and seized by Sir Henry de la Pomeroy for Prince John.
To round off this set of lexis the next sentence introduces ‘capitulate’ [surrender] and ‘siege’ [and be sure to include ‘besieged’ and ‘under siege’ here].
|The Mount was held for a time by Royalist supporters during the English Civil War, but was forced to capitulate to the Parliamentarians after a siege in 1646.
Ask: Did they want to surrender? Discuss the grammar of ‘was forced to capitulate’.
The last sentence of the text includes a final passive and an example of the present perfect to round things off.
|The Mount was bought by Sir John St Aubyn in 1660, and since that time it has had a peaceful existence.
It is a short text and all the lexis and grammar should be included in the learning activities.
Now, if you have time in the lesson you might want to move to the second text, or you could leave it to the next lesson, when you would start the lesson by asking the learners what they remember about St. Michael’s Mount.
The second text is introduced with a picture of Mont-Saint-Michel in France and questions: What is it? Is it the same as the one we’ve just read about?
Then the learners read the second text to answer the comprehension questions as below.
This the test phase of the sequence and hopefully the learners will be better prepared for the test-text because they have studied the first text.
Read the text and answer the questions.
1. Where is Le Mont-Saint-Michel?
2. How many people live there?
3. What buildings are there on Le Mont-Saint-Michel?
4. When were the first monastic buildings built?
5. Who tried to take Le Mont-Saint-Michel in a siege?
6. Were they successful?
7. What did Louis XI use Le Mont-Saint-Michel for?
8. What happened to Le Mont-Saint-Michel during the French Revolution?
9. What happened in 1863 and 1874?
10. Is Le Mont-Saint-Michel a popular place to visit?
Le Mont-Saint-Michel (Saint Michael’s Mount) is an island commune in Normandy, France. It is located about one kilometre (0.6 miles) off the country’s north-western coast, at the mouth of the Couesnon River near Avranches and is 100 hectares in size. In 2009 the island had a population of 44. The island has been a strategic fortification since ancient times and a monastery was founded there in the 8th century AD. The structure of the town reflects the feudal society that constructed it: on the summit, God, the abbey and monastery; below, the great halls; then stores and housing; and at the bottom, outside the walls, houses for fishermen and farmers. Its unique position — on an island just 600 metres from land — made it accessible at low tide to the many pilgrims to its abbey, but defensible as an incoming tide stranded, drove off, or drowned would-be attackers.
During the Hundred Years’ War, the abbey was assaulted repeatedly by the English but they were unable to seize it due to the abbey’s improved fortifications. The English besieged the Mont in 1423–24, and then again in 1433–34 with English forces under the command of Thomas de Scales, 7th Baron Scales. Mont Saint-Michel’s resistance inspired the French, especially Joan of Arc. The reverse benefits of its natural defence were not lost on Louis XI (r. 1461 to 1483), who started using the Mont as a prison. The abbey was eventually closed and wholly converted into a prison during the French Revolution. The prison was finally closed in 1863, and the mount was declared an historic monument in 1874. Mont Saint-Michel is one of France’s most recognizable landmarks and is visited by more than 3 million people each year. The island and its bay are on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.
Conclusions and Options
Before testing your learners you should teach them. Teach, don’t test. Read to Learn not to test comprehension. If you test, do it separately on a text which they are prepared for because they have read a similar text already.
Obviously you can’t just read about phenomena in the world where there are two similar examples but there are ways around this.
You could write a text about the sights to be seen in London and one about Paris. Study one and test them on the other.
Or if you have to do a course book text write a parallel text based on that one. Keep the structure and grammar and vocabulary but change the names and places and some details. Study your version of the text and then test them with the course book text comprehension questions.
Or if you don’t feel confident enough to write a whole parallel text, choose some key sentences from your course book text and write parallel sentences of just these and study them in their entirety before you read the course book text.
Either way, study before you read-test. Deal with everything in the model text or sentences. Teach your students about the grammar and vocabulary they will meet in the text, and about text structure and organisation. Help them learn what will help them when they read the next text, and help your class move closer to the time when all your learners will get all the comprehension questions correct.
These ideas are from Teaching English: Being the Best a methodology book for teachers of English interested in developing their teaching.