Are you really teaching reading?


In an integrated-skills curriculum, reading and writing can be easily neglected if curriculum developers and teachers do not make a conscious effort to focus on them explicitly and to teach them as skills on their own right, rather than mere reinforcement of grammar and vocabulary or a springboard for speaking. I have already discussed the teaching of writing in two of my posts this year, so this time I will address the teaching of reading, with a focus on intensive reading*.

As a program superintendent and teacher developer, I observe an average of fifteen teachers a year, most of whom are in the second semester in my institution. Most are also novice teachers, with an average of two to three years of experience. Not always do I get to observe a lesson on reading, but when I do, teachers’ lesson plans often lack the necessary focus on reading skills and strategies. Below is a rough description of what I generally see:

For a lead-in, the teacher opens up a discussion on the topic of the reading. With a view to integrating skills and activating students’ schemata, the teacher brings a video on the topic of the reading and shows it to the class. Sometimes this video contains from 30 to 50 percent of the information that will be presented in the text to be read. A discussion ensues, and from twenty to thirty minutes is spent on the pre-reading stage. After that, the teacher asks students to open their books and presents the text. Usually the lesson plan does not include an analysis of the title, the pictures that accompany the text, and its format, to identify its genre and predict content. However, teachers end up doing this because of our interaction during the pre-observation meeting. Despite our long conversations on the importance of teaching reading, teachers will rush through the tasks proposed by the course book, eager to do something “more fun”. Sometimes students answer the while-reading item – usually related to reading for the gist – before they read because the information has already been provided to them. While the students are reading, the teacher walks around the room rather impatiently, worried that he or she is not busy enough. Students sometimes stop the teacher to ask vocabulary questions. Some teachers answer right away, others interrupt the other students’ reading and have them answer, while very few tell the student to try to understand the main idea first and that vocabulary will be dealt with later. Students may or may not read a second time to answer the questions related to reading for specific information and language analysis (bottom-up processing), and the teacher quickly moves on to the post-reading stage, focused either on deriving grammar or vocabulary from the reading for intensive study or on speaking. The reading itself ends up taking a small proportion of the reading lesson, as the pre and the post-reading tasks gain more prominence, and students leave the class perhaps having acquired new knowledge on an interesting topic, but not having advanced in their ability to read texts in English.

According to Nation (2009), an effective intensive reading lesson has to prepare students to be successful in their reading of future texts. “How does today’s teaching makes tomorrow’s text easier?” he asks (p. 26). Thus, the teacher should focus on strategies that can be used across texts, not with one single type of text. These strategies include previewing, setting a purpose for reading, predicting, posing questions, connecting to background knowledge, paying attention to text structure, guessing words from context, critiquing, and reflecting on the text. Also, focusing explicitly on the distinguishing features of the text genre helps students learn how to predict fixed patterns when they read future texts of the same genre. Some of these features are types of grammatical constructions commonly used, discourse markers, register, vocabulary, etc.

Taking into consideration Nation’s recommendations and those provided by other renowned authors on teaching reading (ZhaoHong Han and Anderson, 2009; Grabe, 2002,2010), as well as my experience as a teacher and teacher developer, here are some tips on how to teach a successful intensive reading lesson that will help students advance in their reading skills and strategies:

– For the pre-reading stage, prepare an activity to activate students’ schemata, but make sure you don’t spoil the reading by already presenting information that will be in it. Make sure this part of the lesson doesn’t take longer than the reading lesson itself. The pre-reading stage is not meant to pre-teach anything or to spoon-feed the students.

– When presenting the reading, have students explore its format. What’s the title? Are there subtitles? What can you predict from the pictures? What would you like to know about this topic? Do not confirm their answers; just jot them down. This is the previewing and predicting stage of the lesson.

– Give students a while-reading task, that is, set a purpose for reading. It can be to check which predictions were right, for example. Have them focus on performing this task and this task only, not on details at this point. Let them read for the gist (top-down processing). Explain that they will sometimes need to read a text for the general idea and will not have a dictionary or a teacher beside them, so they need to practice reading under these circumstances. Adults, especially, need this kind of explaining.

– Sit down and let them read! Don’t distract students by walking around or fidgeting. Allow them to engage in their own personal interaction with the text. Get out of the way!

– After going over the main idea and answering the big question, focus on reading for details. Many course books will combine top-down and bottom-up processing activities, but if yours doesn’t, add this stage. Give your students a chance to read again, this second time with a focus on reading for details and to interpret the graphophonic, syntactic, and semantic features present in the text. Bottom-up processing is as important as top-down processing. According to Grabe (2009), the almost exclusive focus on top-down, schema-based approaches to reading instruction emphasized in communicative approaches is insufficient to develop effective readers.

– Make sure students understand the information in the text before you ask them to critique it. Many times, we go for the discussion of the text before its full, accurate interpretation. Integrating skills is highly recommended, but don’t move to the discussion phase until you have explored the text for language-focused learning.

– Don’t provide word meanings to students. Teach them how to try to guess them from the context. Sometimes they can guess from clues such as prefixes and suffixes, or words of Latin origin. If they can’t guess, have them look words up in the dictionary. Also teach them how to prioritize and select the words that are crucial for understanding the text and ignore the others. Nation suggests ignoring or dealing quickly with low-frequency words and focusing on the high-frequency ones. This improves students’ reading efficiency. You can limit the number of words they can look up so they can learn to distinguish essential and non-essential words.

– Even if your course book does not propose this, if you have the time, choose at least one distinguishing feature of the text genre to focus on. In narratives, for instance, you can focus on adverbs of time. Don’t approach this from a merely grammatical point of view, but rather, at the discourse level.

– At the end of the reading lesson, ask your students what they learned that day that can be applied when they read another text. Be explicit about the strategies focused on and why they are useful.

If you follow all or most of the steps above, you can be sure that you have really taught a reading lesson – not a conversation lesson based on a text, not a grammar lesson with a text as context, and not a writing lesson with a text as a model (these are legitimate uses of texts as well) – but a true reading class. Having done so, then you can use the text for whichever other purpose you find suitable, even for students to read out loud to practice pronunciation, but please not before that!

I will close this post with a quote from one of my favorite authors on the teaching of reading:

Controlling the formal aspects of language use in reading and writing is a way out from subordinate and marginalized uses of language. (…) Leaving language instruction at an intuitive and ‘mystical’ level of ‘natural language acquisition’ may be easy for the teacher and may make some students feel good, but it leads to disempowerment. (Grabe 2002, p. 297).


*Extensive reading and reading for fluency are also crucial elements of an EFL curriculum, but they’re not the focus of this post.



ZhaoHong Han & Neil J. Anderson, Editors, (2009). Second Language Reading Research and Instruction – Crossing the Boundaries.  Ann Arbor, Michigan:  University of Michigan Press.

Grabe, W. (2002). Dilemmas for the Development of Second Langauge Reading Abilities. In J. C. Richards and W. A. Renandya (Eds). Methodology in Language Teaching – An Anthology of Current Practice.  New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Grabe, W. (2010). Reading in a Second Language.  Cambridge University Press.

Nation, I.S.P. (2009). Teaching EFL Reading and Writing.  New York, NY:  Routledge.


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Isabela Villas Boas

Isabela Villas Boas holds a Master's Degree in Teaching English as a Second Language from Arizona State University and a Ph.D. in Education from Universidade de Brasília. She has been at Casa Thomas Jefferson for 33 years, where she is currently the Corporate Academic Manager . Her main academic interests are second language writing, teacher development, ELT methodology, and assessment. She also supervises MA dissertations for the University of Birmingham. She has recently published the book “Teaching EFL Writing - A Practical Approach for Skills-Integrated Contexts.

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