Reading: Building A Skilful Habit

  • Is reading a skill in isolation?

No language skill, either receptive or productive, should be dealt with in isolation in class. Reading texts hold an awful lot of language, information, and topics among other things that can lead to speaking and writing. Thereby, it would not be wise to engage students in a reading task and move along after it is finished without connecting it to anything in the lesson. On the contrary, I fully agree with Brown (1994:283) when he states that ‘reading ability will be best developed in association with writing, listening and speaking activity. Your goals will be best achieved by capitalizing on the interrelation of skills, especially the reading-writing connection’.

Being reading an important strand that is interwoven with the other three skills – speaking, listening and writing, it is, therefore, of paramount importance that the teaching of reading as any other skills should be dealt within integrated-skill approaches that foster foreign language acquisition.


  •  Methods and Approaches to work on reading.

According to Parrot (1995:174) ‘we read for a variety of purposes and, according to these purposes, in a variety of ways. Although reading always involves deriving meaning from a text, our purpose in reading determines the kind of meaning and the amount of meaning we look for’.

Most of the reading sub-skills are practised by studying shorter texts in details, others require longer texts. There are two traditional basic approaches to reading in a foreign language – extensive and intensive reading. Both approaches may be contrastive in the sense that the former is fluency-oriented and the latter is accuracy-oriented. Obviously, extensive and intensive readings are both necessary and complementary since learners can use a wide range of strategies that they judge most appropriate to tackle a text.

As far as extensive reading is concerned, there is a feeling of pleasure reading. It involves approaching a longer piece of text to gain an overall understanding of it. Therefore, reading extensively is a fluency-oriented activity whose focus is mainly on the informational content rather than worrying too much about individual words and sentences. It is worth pointing out that a longer piece of text, say, a novel is made up of small bits such as sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. That is exactly the point when the small parts are complementary to the understanding of the whole and that intensive and extensive approaches overlap. I fully agree with Nuttall (1996) when she points out that the learners have to be encouraged to apply both intensive and extensive approaches when facing a longer text mainly because being able to understand a text adequately does not mean grasping every part of it.

However, as class time is somehow short and learners do have different needs for reading in a foreign language, outside class reading should be promoted as a means to achieve reading proficiency. As a matter of fact, the more outside class reading is done, the more fluent and accurate learners become. Therefore, learners should be made aware that extensive reading is instrumental in providing them with a choice of what to read, what strategies to adjust to the material they read so as to serve their different purposes effectively. Consequently, developing reading habits is crucial in the sense that learners may derive considerable benefit to their linguistic ability from reading extensively.


As for intensive reading, it implies a procedure in which learners approach the text under teachers’ guidance or a task that requires learners’ focus on the text so that they can understand what the text means as well as how the meaning is conveyed. It also implies reading short sections so as to extract both general and specific information. It is an accuracy-orientated activity which engages learners in obtaining general and detailed information. In other words, learners need to understand linguistic as well as semantic details. Hence, reading intensively demands that the learners pay close attention to the text so that they can make inferences from the context, grasp the ideas relationship therein a text in order to close the gap between their current knowledge, schemata if you will, and that assumed by the writer.

Intensive and extensive readings differ widely from each other mainly when it comes to class procedures and purposes. According to Nuttall (1996:38) ‘the ‘how’ is as important as ‘what’, as intensive reading is intended primarily to train strategies which the learners can go on to use with other texts’. Bearing this in mind, we can either use a skill-based lesson whose focus is on a particular skill, say, inferring meaning from context, basic reference skills or a text-based lesson in which the text itself generates opportunities for learners to use whatever skills necessary to try to understand it to the full. Likewise, an intensive reading approach may give learners opportunities to use the top-down and bottom-up reading processes in which learners may see the overall purpose of the text and also see specific points the writer wants to make.

As extensive and intensive readings go hand in hand, the same thing goes for top-down and bottom-up processes. After all, a good reader is the one who is flexible when it comes to the speed, the way he approaches the text according to the reading purpose.


  • Problems adult learners may face when reading in a second language.

Very often we have students complaining that reading a text in a foreign language is somewhat difficult. But are they really being taught to read? A corollary to this fact is that the learners might be deficient in their command of English partly due to misdirected reading strategies, lack of reading habits, which can be both surprising and disappointing to find out. In other words, the way reading is approached in class might be giving learners the wrong idea of how to attack a text, what strategies should be used and when to use them.

Having taken this into account I decided to carry out an experiment with a group of adult learners and I was able to detect some difficulties those learners have when facing a reading text.


1)      Lack of motivation and interest in the texts.

2)      They tend to use a dictionary every time they come across a new word.

3)      They want to understand as much of the text in L2 as a text in L1.

4)      Paragraph and sentence length may impair their understanding.

5)      Phonics – the relationship between spelling and how the words are pronounced.

6)      The great variety of lexical items used in English.

7)      The degree of formal features of a written text may cause difficulty in interpretation.

8)      Poor L1 reading strategies may impair L2 reading strategies.

9)      An over-anxiety to understand every word in the text.


  • Possible ways of helping learners to develop reading competence.

Having taken the list above into consideration one might come to the conclusion that students in general tend to approach reading with an expectation to understand everything, a fact which may be aggravated due to poor reading habits in L1.

On the one hand, that may be of value if the aim is to enlarge lexical items as well as grammar understanding. On the other hand, this tendency does not make them better readers mainly because that is not the way people read in real life. In order to increase learners’ reading potential, it is critical that they are aware of the fact that understanding every single word in a text is not essential and, most of all, that the practice of some reading strategies in English may be very useful for them. Consequently, training learners to read to extract either general or specific information and prepare them to undertake the tasks within time limit circumstances is a way of minimising this difficulty.

One point to be considered is providing learners with stimulating, informative and relevant reading lessons. What is more, motivating learners by making reading an enjoyable experience can raise positive emotions and attitudes. Grading tasks from global understanding to more specific understanding is a very efficient way of building up student’s interest and confidence. Engaging learners in pre, while and post reading activities that are neither straightforward nor demanding is a good way of encouraging learners to take risks and anticipate what they are to find in a text.

Another point to consider is integrating reading with other skills so that the learners are given the opportunity to develop communicative competence. The skills should not be practised separately but in closely interwoven series of tasks that mutually reinforce and build on each other. The skill-integrated lesson caters for the learners’ ability in two or more of the four skills within a constant context. As a result, learners are given the opportunity to recognise, experiment with and redeploy the language they are exposed to in different frameworks and contexts.

As far as material authenticity is concerned, choosing appropriate reading materials is fundamental so as to cater for learners’, needs and interests. In this way, it is a wise idea to expose learners to as much authentic material as possible since authentic texts preserve their original nature that provides the learner with the context in which they might appear. However, an authentic text that is linguistically difficult may impair learners’ ability to achieve understanding, which can be highly demotivating. It is worth pointing out, however, that the degree of difficulty of an authentic text may be minimised by not grading the text itself, but instead grading the tasks.

Alternatively, there are texts in coursebooks that are at least devised to look authentic. One point in favour of such ‘authentic’ materials is that they can be utilised through tasks that bear resemblance to realistic reading purposes. A further advantage is that they are in a way intended to make the function of a text clearer to the readers by building up a context in which it might appear. The downside of such semi-authentic or non-authentic materials is that they pose some risks. For instance, simplified texts may result in increased difficulty because the references, redundancy as well as discourse markers a foreign reader can rely on are removed or filtered. A further drawback is that they can do a disservice to learners who are deprived of the natural characteristics that constitute an original material.


In conclusion, in foreign language learning, reading should be seen as something pleasant not dull or aimless. Not only is it our role to make learners aware of the purposes of reading in the foreign language but also the rationale behind the reading process involved in successful reading and the strategies they can use when facing written texts. If they are made to see that they can get real information from a text and at the same take pleasure in doing it they will certainly derive great benefit from reading both inside and outside class.




  • Brown, H D – Teaching by Principles – An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy (Prentice Hall) 1994
  • Grellet, F – Developing Reading Skills (CUP) 1995
  • Nuttall, C – Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language (Heinemann) 1996 (new edition)
  • Parrot, M – Tasks for Language Learners – A Resource Book for Training and Development (CUP) 1995
  • Richards, J C – The Language Matrix (CUP) 1994
  • Scarcella, C S and Oxford, R L – The Tapestry of Language Learning – The Individual in the Communicative Classroom (Heinle & Heinle) 1992 
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Adriano Zanetti

Adriano Zanetti – BA in Letras, Post-graduate in Language Teaching Methodologies, RSA Dip. DELTA. An educator for 30 years, an ELT consultant/teacher trainer at A2Z English Consultancy, a teacher/trainer/coordinator at FISK São João del Rei and Cambridge Assessment English Speaking Examiner. A Pronunciation SIG member responsible for Pronunciation courses for teachers/students. Presented several times in LABCI/ABCI conferences, Braz-Tesol Regional/National Chapters and different institutions in MG. /

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