Reading classes are often very…quiet.
Of course, people are reading, and we generally don’t hold conversations and read at the same time. And we teachers usually like quiet classrooms, seeing the quiet as indicative of learning taking place. This is true in many cases, of course, but there are some drawbacks to these quiet reading classes: they are not interactive, and it’s been shown that interaction between students and students and teacher leads to greater processing of the material and therefore more learning. In additions, it’s difficult to impossible to assess learning taking place without some talking; indeed, it’s hard to tell if students in a silent classroom are even reading and not daydreaming or actually nodding off! Finally, these quiet noninteractive classes are simply boring, and boredom is not an incentive for students to come to class and learn. However, there are several methods to address these concerns in reading classes by making them interactive and still teach reading.
10 Best Practices for Teaching Reading
Knowing your students’ level of instruction is important for choosing materials. Reading should be neither too hard, at a point where students can’t understand it and therefore benefit from it. If students don’t understand the majority of the words on a page, the text is too hard for them. On the other hand, if the student understands everything in the reading, there is no challenge and no learning. So assess your students’ level by giving them short reading passages of varying degrees of difficulty. This might take up the first week or so of class. Hand out a passage that seems to be at your students’ approximate level and then hold a brief discussion, ask some questions, and define some vocabulary to determine if the passage is at the students’ instructional level. If too easy or too hard, adjust the reading passage and repeat the procedure until you reach the students’ optimal level.
Choose the correct level of maturity
While it’s important that the material be neither too difficult nor too easy, a text should be at the student’s maturity level as well—it’s inappropriate to give children’s storybooks to adult or adolescent students. There are, however, edited versions of mature material, such as classic and popular novels, for ESL students, that will hold their interest while they develop reading skills.
Choose interesting material
Find out your students’ interest. Often within a class there are common themes of interest: parenting, medicine, and computers are some topics that come to mind that a majority of students in my classes have shared interest in. Ask students about their interests in the first days of class and collect reading material to match those interests. Teaching reading with texts on these topics will heighten student motivation to read and therefore ensure that they do read and improve their skills.
Build background knowledge
As a child, I attempted, and failed, to read a number of books that were “classics”: Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” leaps to mind. It probably should have been a fairly easy read, but it was so full of cultural references to life in mid-nineteenth century New England that I gave up in defeat each time. It was not at my independent reading level, even if the vocabulary and grammatical patterns were, because of its cultural references. Why, for example, would young schoolgirls lust after limes, as the youngest daughter in the story, Amy, and her friends do? Cultural material like this would stop me abruptly. Clearly, this was not independent reading for me because of its cultural references, and I needed help to navigate this text—to explain that limes, a citrus fruit, would have been rare and prized a century ago in New England with its freezing winters and before there were effective methods of transporting and storing fruit. Similarly, our students, many new to the U.S., would need equal help with such material. It is important for the teacher to anticipate which cultural references students might need explained or discussed. This is not easy, of course, but can become so through such techniques as related discussion before the reading (e.g., “Who knows what the American Civil War was? When was it? Why was it fought?” or “Where is New England? Have you ever been there? What is the climate like?”) A discussion before the reading on its topics builds background knowledge and the comprehensibility of the text as well as giving the teacher an idea of where students’ background knowledge needs to be developed more.
Expose different discourse patterns
The narrative form is familiar to most students. In addition, it is popular to teachers. It is easy to teach: we’ve been reading and hearing stories most of our lives. However, reports, business letters, personal letters, articles, and essays are also genres that students will have to understand as they leave school and enter the working world. We understand the discourse pattern of a story: that is, its pattern of organization. It is related chronologically, for the most part; it is in the past with past tense verb forms; it is structured around a series of increasingly dramatic events that build to a climax or high point, and so forth. The discourse pattern of an essay for example, may be less familiar but still important to understanding the text: that it is built around a series of topics related to one main idea or thesis. Knowing the discourse pattern lets the reader know what to expect, and therefore increases comprehensibility.
Work in groups
Students should work in groups each session, reading aloud to each other, discussing the material, doing question and answer, and so forth. Working in groups provides the much needed interactivity to increase motivation and learning. Students may choose their own groups or be assigned one, and groups may vary in size.
Make connections to other disciplines, to the outside world, to other students. Act out scenes from the reading, bring in related speakers, and or hold field trips on the topic. Help students see the value of reading by connecting reading to the outside world and show its use there.
Too often we complete a reading and then don’t revisit it. However, related activities in vocabulary, grammar, comprehension questions, and discussion increase the processing of the reading and boost student learning.
Too often people think “test” when they hear the word “assess.” But some of the most valuable assessment can be less formal: walking around and observing students, for example, discuss the reading. Does the discussion show they really understand the text? Other means of informal assessment might be short surveys or question sheets.
There is also a place for more formal assessment. But this doesn’t have to be the traditional multiple choice test, which frequently reveals little more than the test-takers skill in taking tests. The essay on a reading - writing about some aspect of Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” for example - demonstrates control of the reading material in a way a multiple choice quiz cannot as the student really needs to understand the material to write about the reading’s extended metaphor of the farm.
Teaching reading presents a unique set of challenges because it is a receptive language skill.
However, if the instructor keeps in mind “receptive” doesn’t have mean “passive” an interactive class that improves student reading can be developed.