Teaching EFL/ESL Reading: A Task-Based Approach – Week 3

If you haven’t read any of the previous posts, why not read Week 1 and Week 2.

This week was definitely more focused on reading in the language classroom. We started by looking at the difference between intensive and extensive reading.

  • Intensive reading is, in essence, reading that is done in class with aims and objectives to develop language skills, etc. Usually learners read texts with between 100 – 200 words and these texts are usually accompanied by questions and/or tasks.
  • Extensive reading is reading that learners do for enjoyment or general reading skill development. This is usually done outside the classroom and over a much longer time period. It is also characterised by the real-life aspects of reading, e.g. learners can stop when they want, they can skip parts, there are no comprehension questions, etc.

Macalister writes that there are some issues with intensive reading, however:

  • It often does not replicate real-life reading
  • Focuses on the product, rather than the process, of reading (very similar to the listening to learn and learning to listening dichotomy that
  • Teachers more often than not do it poorly – we often focus too much on TALO.

We also thought about the traditional reading lesson, which follows the pre-reading, while-reading, and post-reading stages. One might think that these stages map quite nicely over the TBLT framework, but we will take a look at why this might not be the case later.

Principles behind classroom instruction of reading

What follows is a list of principles that should underpin everything we do, regarding reading, from a TBLT perspective, in the language classroom. Before we get into that, though, what are your principles? What are your thoughts regarding reading in the language classroom? As we progress as teachers we need to start to build a much clearer awareness of our own principles and how these affect teaching and learning, so I really do encourage you to take a few minutes to put pen to paper and see what you come up with!

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com – This is simply here to encourage you to think!

Ready for the principles? Here they are:

  1. Reading is a communicative act
  2. Fluent reading is fast and automatic
  3. Tasks need to be authentic
  4. Different teaching objectives require different tasks (I have included the different types of objectives)
    • Reading to learn a language
    • Learning to read
    • Reading to learn content
  5. The reading learners do outside the classroom needs to be taken into account
    • Interests
    • Paper or electronic reading sources?

Implications

If we have a list of principles, then we should have a list of implications. Implications are basically conclusions that can be drawn from statements – in this case our principles. If one follows the principles stated above, we could say that these are a number (certainly not all) implications:

  • Interesting texts need to be chosen
  • Learners need to be made to want to read the text (e.g. through pre-reading activities)
  • Focus on meaning is primary with Focus on Form being largely incidental
  • There needs to be a focus on how learners react to texts, what emotions, thoughts, opinions, doubts, etc. they have need to be brought to light
  • Choices need to be offered to learners (in real life we nearly always have a choice, including the choice not to read!)
  • Engage learners in narrow reading, i.e. reading many shorter texts about similar topics – in essence, the same thing we do in real life when we are interested in a topic!
  • Use electronic sources
  • Present texts and activities that learners can cope with. An interesting fact is that we need to know between 95% – 98% of the words in a text to fully understand the text. The challenge here is finding texts that learners can cope with whilst still allowing for room for them to be pushed regarding lexis.

One thing that was heavily stressed this week, and especially when speaking about the principles and implications, is that reading in the language classroom needs to relate to real-life reading, for both pedagogic and motivational reasons. I found the idea of offering choice to learners somewhat new, albeit a little difficult to see how it might work. However, after listening to Amos Paran’s reasoning behind this, I can see why this might be important in the language classroom. Namely, by providing learners with multiple choices, including the choice to not read, we allow them to invest in the activity. I suppose peer pressure is a thing here as well – if everyone is reading something, most learners are likely to start reading as well. I do, however, see issues with this in larger classes, especially in teen classes with 20+ learners. This being said, as usual, perhaps the issue lies less with the learners not wanting to read but more with how reading has been conducted in the classroom previously. Food for thought!

The three-phase reading lesson and TBLT

I mentioned previously that throughout ELT, most teachers generally follow a three-phase lesson plan when teaching reading: pre-reading, while-reading and post-reading. Now, while it may seem that this maps quite neatly over the TBLT task cycle, pre-task, task and post-task, it might be useful to look at a number of examples and see why this might not be the case.

When thinking about reading (or any skills for that matter) from a TBLT perceptive, we need to keep four things in mind:

  • Is meaning primary?
  • Is there some communicative problem to solve? 
  • Is there some sort of relationship with real-world activities?
  • Is the assessment of the task in terms of task outcome?

Course book reading lesson

We were asked to look at this reading course book and consider whether the activities meet these criteria. This course book has many things going for it, from a reading development perspective. For example, we can see that learners can read and listen to the text at the same time (headphone logo), thus further strengthening grapheme-phoneme relationships. Furthermore, there is a space for learners to note down how long it took them to read the text, which over time would help learners see their progress regarding reading fluency. However, when we look a little deeper at the pre-, while- and post- activities, we can see that they fail to meet much of the criteria set out above.

It is clear that meaning is not primary for many of the activities (e.g. nowhere is the learner asked to think about how they felt about the text, their thoughts, etc.), there is no communicative problem to solve, and assessment is not in terms of a task (rather it is application of linguistic knowledge). In terms of real-world correlation, one could say that when we read we look up new words if we are not sure of the meaning (kind of what is done in the pre- as well as the while-reading) and that we identify the purpose of the text implicitly (one of the post-reading tasks). Another point that reflects real-life reading is the reading of another text that is related to the first, i.e. narrow reading. The remainder of the activities, however, fail to meet this important TBLT criterion.

TBLT reading lesson

Let’s take a look at a different lesson now, and this is probably something familiar to many of you: jigsaw reading. The following task is a jigsaw reading that I had to create (it was the week’s assignment). It is far from perfect, but hopefully it provides an example of what could constitute a TBLT reading task.

It is missing some things, however. Namely the pre- and post-task phases (we were not tasked with including them in the assignment). I had in mind to carry out a find someone who in which learners had to gather information on certain aspects related to football. I would also include various pieces of vocabulary that I believe might cause issues in the reading – in essence, pre-teaching vocabulary through a task. Here are my find someone who instructions:

Find out how many of your classmates play football.

Find a classmate who likes the same football team as you.

Find a classmate whose favourite football team has a strong rivalry with your favourite team.

Find a classmate whose team has recently signed a new player.

Find a classmate whose team has recently been defeated by another team.

In terms of the post-task, I would like to build on the text and open up a class debate regarding who is the best football player of all time. I imagine that the names Messi, Neymar and Ronaldo would be the main three to come up. From here I would allow learners to find the other players statistics and then discuss together why they think so-and-so is the best.

Reflecting on the task

This task took me so much longer than I expected it to. Why? Well, because I was choosing the texts myself. Normally when I do activities such as this I use coursebook readings (I usually exploit a number of course books at the same time to get relevant texts). These are already graded and matched the level of the learners. There is nothing wrong with this (in fact I would encougrage teachers to do this); however, I wanted to push myself to see if I could create them from authentic materials.

I found a kid’s search Engine, Kiddle, and then looked for a load of football players. I setteled on Ronaldo because the text was one of the easiest for me to create into a task without too much modification. On that, I did have to modify the text, substituting various pieces of vocabulary so that it wasn’t too difficult. I used text inspector to check the level of the text, trying to keep roughly about 95% of the words around A2 level. It was difficult to do and I didn’t achieve it completely, but I think I got there quite well. You are probably asking, why do this? Well, I am a believer of using authentic texts, but I am also a believer that texts need to be made appropriate for my classroom. If I have an awesome text that learners are going to love but it is full of C1-level vocabulary and it is an A2-level class, then it would be remiss of me if I didn’t adjust some of the text for a number of reasons:

  • I want learners to enjoy reading the text. If it is too difficult then learners are likely to not want to keep reading (and this may result in more negative perceptions of reading which could be detrimental to future reading lessons)
  • I want there to be some vocabulary in the text that learners don’t know, but not enough that I need to pre-teach a gazillion new items

I know that this jigsaw is not perfect, but it was a great introduction into really creating my own TBLT materials. What feedback would you give me?

Some final points from Catherine Wallace

We got to watch an interview with Catherine Wallace, who is pretty much a superstar when it comes to research on reading in the second language classroom. I won’t go into detail, but one of her main points was that in our classrooms we far too often teach using TALO, i.e. using the text as a linguistic object. This really needs to change if we really want learners to not only enjoy reading but really take advantage of it also!

Final thoughts

A lot of information this week, but it was really interesting. My initial thoughts were that the three-phase reading lesson would not fit neatly over the TBLT task cycle. It was nice to know that I was right (yay, me!). I thoroughly enjoyed looking at the differences between the two types of lessons and it really got me thinking about how my reading lessons are. As they are, I would say that they fit the three phase reading lesson cycle more than that of the TBLT task cycle. I get learners to interact with the text a lot more than the examples they presented, but I am not sure I am really getting them to carry out fully-fledged tasks with the texts or connecting them to real-life reading enough to satisfy the criteria. I will keep working away and will hopefully get a chance over the next month or so to try out some of the new ideas that I imagine will be coming in the input videos over the next few weeks.

References

Macalister, J. 2014. Teaching reading: Research into practice. Language Teaching 43, 3, 387-397.

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