Reading, not drowning!




Girl in swimming pool with t-shirt and gogglesFollowing on from his previous post about reading aloud, Peter Redpath, co-author of Incredible English, teacher trainer and ELT consultant, considers how to encourage successful reading in language students.

In my last blog post I questioned the value of reading aloud around the classroom. I suggested that the main aim for this seemed to be spoken pronunciation and not reading skills. In this blog post I would like to think about how you can get children aged about 9 and above to read successfully in a foreign language.

Let’s start with an image. Think of the reading text as a swimming pool. A swimming pool is full of water and a text is full of language.  If I’m not careful and throw my students in at the deep end (for example, by getting them to read aloud word by word), my learners may drown in the language. I want them to dip their toes in the shallow end and then, as they grow more confident, move them towards the deep end.

To begin with they need something to aim for: an objective or task. The tasks I set will guide them into the water at the shallow end and gradually move them to the deep end.

To complete these tasks successfully they will need to read efficiently. In other words, they will need to use reading strategies. These strategies are the swimming strokes, which will help keep their heads above water so that they don’t drown in the language of the text.

Before teaching the strategies or swimming strokes, I need to make sure basic  pool safety, or methodology, is in place.

1. Task before text

Most of the time we need a reason to read. We infrequently read a text with no purpose – without a reason. To give our pupils a reason to read I need to set a task. This for me suggests a logical order to my procedure: they need to know what the task is before they read the text. Have you noticed that some coursebooks put the task or questions after the text? They often seem to be dictating a procedure of text before the task, which I think is in the wrong order! What do you think?

2. Using time limits

The text is often recorded onto a CD. Often, students are instructed to listen and read at the same time. Why? What is the purpose of doing this? Maybe it’s to manage their reading speed.  But, it is reading at one speed only and most people don’t read like that. Don’t rely too heavily on the CD. Instead use time limits! If you want them to read quickly, set a short time limit. If you want them to read carefully, set a longer time limit.

3. Teacher reads the class

Now that the CD is no longer controlling their reading speed, you need to be more alert to the children and how they are reading. Watch them carefully and gauge how they are doing. If you set a time limit of 1 minute and they are still reading after that time, one of two things is possible. Either you’ve have miscalculated how long they need to do the task, or they are not reading very efficiently. Can you think of any other possibilities for this situation?

4. Compare their answers

When the children complete the task, get them to compare their answers in pairs. Then do feedback on the answers. Can you think of a good reason for getting them to compare their answers? What do you think they do if they have different answers?

5. Checking their answers

Once they’ve compared, check the answers. I usually get the answers from around the classroom and if necessary write them up on the board. Try not to be too quick in confirming the correct answer or saying the answer is incorrect. Asking, “do you agree?” usually gets a brief response from the group and keeps all the children engaged in the feedback process and on their toes.

In my next blog post I will look at how we can take the children from the shallow end of the swimming pool to the deep end.

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  1. I would like to answer the question about the purpose of listening the CD and reading at the same time.
    From my point of view this can be of a great help for Slovak students. In their mother tongue they can hear each sound for each letter within a word. It is easy to identify the meaning. In English they have problems to overcome this obstacle especially when reading.
    They learn new language by connecting meaning to both written and spoken form of the language in their brains. It means – hearing the spoken language and reading it in written form at the same time can help them to understand. E.g. audio recors for OUP graded readers are very clear, understandable. They do not aim to improve listening skills. This audio support helps to understand the written text.

    • Hello Eva, thank you for your comments. I think what you say is more relevant to my last blog post which was called, “ reading aloud allowed?”. Did you see that one? I will not answer your post in any detail here, in case the debate about reading aloud begins again here. Could you copy and paste your comments about reading aloud into that blog post? That will keep the whole debate about reading aloud in one place. I would like to respond to what you say so I hope you have time to copy and stick your post into the other blog post. Peter.

  2. The following are the steps I use:

    1 Get students to talk about the picture or graphic (if available) or the heading. What do they think the article is about?

    2 Students read the article to get an understanding of the article.
    (Question: Does the teacher need to pre-teach new vocabulary/phrases?)

    3. Play the audio so that the students get to hear and follow the text.

    4. Ask questions to gauge whether the students understand what they have read.

    5. In a pairwork exercise, students get to do the questions together.

    6. Finally checking their answers.

    What do you think about this method of doing a reading lesson?

    • Hello Jo Cheong, thank you for your comments. I’ll leave the question in number 2 until the end, if that’s okay. I think the order of the procedure is clear. One small suggestion: I was trained that “task before text or tape” was a good procedural order. ( I guess we need to substitute CD for “tape” if we are going to be up-to-date!) The reason for this was to give the pupils a reason to listen or read. So your number 4 (Ask questions…) Is number 3 from me.

      You clearly describe your procedure. Can you give a learning aim to your number 3? What are the students learning/practising by listening and reading at same time?

      In answer to your question in number 2: is it okay if I don’t answer it just yet? I’m going to deal with vocabulary in my next blog post on reading.

      I am in total agreement with your number 5. it seems to me that getting the students to help each other, or to compare their answers after reading facilitates their learning rather than just tests their understanding.

      I look forward to hearing from you.

  3. Hello Peter. I’ve read your article and I totally agree with the fact that we must give students a purpose or task to read because if they know why they’re reading for this will increase their awareness and enhance the use of particular reading strategies to reach comprehension as well as to complete the task.

    When working with children aged about 9 years old I find more useful to guide the process in three stages: pre-reading, while-reading and post reading. These stages I’m talking about are related to the points you suggest and they also might include dealing with vocabulary. I think it all depends on the aim of the reading, for instance, in pre-reading stage I usually try to activate previous knowledge and if I want students to understand the text as well as introduce new vocabulary I make a quick activity or game like playing hangman or a word search of new vocabulary, what for? It’s not only useful to introduce new vocabulary but it’s also helpful and easier to remember words related to a particular topic, and this way we’re also developing semantic memory.

    After this, students have some tools like new vocabulary and they also may infer the content of the text. However if what I want is that students infer the meaning of unknown words this stage would be different of course.

    Secondly, the while-reading stage may have different aims, but the general idea is that students must be able to complete some activities like a multiple choice activity, questions, summarize, etc. in order to enhance comprehension. I understand comprehension as a result of a process and the mixture of what students knew, what they learnt and the combination of both: a new learning outcome. Supervision here it’s important and we can use different strategies like pair or group work as you have already discussed.

    Finally, I think it’s necessary to develop students awareness of their learning and that they find useful to use these strategies not only in English lessons but in other subjects as reading is so important for learning. This could be an extra activity to try with the class as a whole. For example, you can ask what they learnt, how they can use this information, etc.

    • Hi Andrea JM . I think you make some very valid points. Your overall procedure sounds rock-solid to me. I’m interested in what you say about vocab – I’m going to look at that in my final blog post on reading. What strategies for reading effectively do you encourage in you learners?

  4. Hello Peter. Thanks for your comment. First of all, what I want to achieve with my learners is that they become independent, giving them tips and strategies to learn on their own. Reading is a very important skill to learn almost anything, so I want them to be successful in their learning.
    May be this is because in Mexico, students are not used to read not even in Spanish, so I think that teaching English in Mexico has by itself, a lot of challenges due to our cultural context.

    Well, in order to read effectively, the first thing I consider is what the interests and needs of students are, then, according to the materials provided in our school I show them a way to understand the text. If they’re children, I find games useful and fun for them and I take advantage of their previous knowledge and I activate it with activities like matching a picture with a word, playing tic-tac-toe using words, playing bingo…etc. It’s important to point out that the words I use are from the text and have a relation. These words might be unknown by students but important to understand the text. For example, if the text is called “Wild animals” I ask them to give examples of this kind of animals, I write them on the board and add some animals included in the text. This way I use previous knowledge and provide them new vocabulary. Then when they read they are able to identify the animals but also they infer what the text is about.

    After this, telling them what it’s expected from them it’s important, as you said giving them a task. The most common tasks I set are also related to the kind of text we’re working, we can practice reading for specific information –in order to answer questions or may be just for pleasure.

    I also encourage them to find a way to understand the text even though they don’t know the meaning of ALL the words, l usually ask them questions or I ask them to find words they actually know and underline them. If they know some words, and they find a relation in the whole text they finally get the pattern and hopefully the overall idea of the text. At the end of the activity, I check with the class as a whole.

    Finally, I use a graphic organizer like a mind map and ask them to write what they learnt. For instance, if the mind map is about wild animals and I write some topics from the text like food, habitat…etc. but also new words and an example of them.

    • Hello Andrea, thank you very much replying. You’ve got lots of good ideas for reading and the kind of tasks you can ask children to do. I think it’s important to come out of the coursebook sometimes and find texts from other sources. I think it’s a very dull classroom if all we ever say is, “open your book at page 26″ and the children know that tomorrow they’ll be looking at page 27! Having said that, the coursebook is an invaluable resource and can save so much time in finding appropriate material and preparation. As you say, making sure they have a task before they read seems to me to be absolutely fundamental. Making them read and then asking questions which they haven’t seen until after they read tests their memory and not their understanding.
      Asking the children to underline all of the words they know is an interesting activity. They often surprise themselves by how much they have underlined! “ Hey,” they think, “I know a lot of English!” that’s a thought which I really want to encourage in the classroom.

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