Mark Beales

Teaching reading skills to your students

Teaching reading can be tricky. There always has to be a reason for the students to read something.

You should always give your students a reason to read. 

The mere joy of picking up a book and being able to enjoy a range of literature isn’t going to cut it with a generation who’d rather be on Facebook or playing online games.

It’s fine to have a reading class, but make sure students produce something at the end of it, whether it’s a book report or an empathic response. With higher level groups, you may find students are happy to grab a book and dive in, but with lower levels they usually need some persuading.

Introduction is key

Reading, like any activity, needs to be introduced properly. Begin a class by presenting your students with a chapter from Harry Potter and telling them ‘read this’ will result in blank stares. Ask your students to tell you five words associated with Harry Potter and you’ve got the start of a lesson.

Once you have your five words, you can show students a picture (on paper or computer monitor) of a scene from one of the movies. Get them to tell you about it and predict what is happening (they can do this even if they don’t know one wizard from another). 

After this, ask them to read a short extract from the book that relates to the following scene and see if their predictions were correct. Once that’s done you can get them to pretend they are a character and ask them to write a journal about what happened to them and read it to their friends.

And there you have it, one ready-made, boil-in-a-bag, lesson.

As with all classes, begin by engaging students, then introduce the topic and give them a task. Once the task is completed you can expand things a little and get them to produce their own work. If you’ve been paying attention, you will also have noticed that we use all four communication skills here: the students listen to the movie extract, tell you their predictions, write down their character’s journal and read the chapter.

There are a few other things you should bear in mind:

Firstly, think about the level of your students and the text you want them to read. If possible, use authentic texts but don’t worry about slightly simplified stories, as long as it sounds natural, it’ll do. 

Challenge the students

In general you want to aim for a level that is very slightly above where your students currently are. They should be able to read at least 80 per cent without diving for a dictionary every other line. This will breed confidence and provide some opportunities to learn new words. 

Make sure it’s something you can get them interested in. A school once decided to introduce a new reading programme for all students following an inspector’s negative remarks. They parachuted in a programme straight from the USA and handed it to their EFL students. 

Suddenly 12-year-old EFL students in Southeast Asia were being asked to study material designed for American primary students. The topics were far too childish and the texts far too simple, so by the time one teacher had finished handing out the books to the class the first student had finished his. The level was wrong and so was the subject matter – a student in Southeast Asia just can’t get that excited about the origins of the Stars and Stripes. 

Pique student interests

Even here, there is a way to salvage the mess. The student may show complete apathy for the Stars and Stripes book, but may well be interested in his own nation’s flag, so get them to research it and present their findings to the class. Once they finish the set book, you could also ask the students to design a new national flag and write down why they had chosen particular colours or symbols.

Get them interested. Show pictures, give clues, read the book aloud with some actions – do anything that will persuade students reading can be fun.

Give them a task. Teaching experts with lots of letters after their name talk about intensive and extensive reading. Intensive means reading for a purpose; extensive is more about reading widely and for pleasure. Either method is ok, but higher level students tend to prefer extensive reading as it’s more focused around their level and offers more opportunities for expansion.

Set a time limit. Given the choice, students would happily sit with a dictionary and pen by their side, searching for every word they have doubts over. After 20 minutes there will be a page of translated words scribbled across the text, but ask them what the story is about, and they won’t know. You don’t want a text where every other word is unknown to your class, but equally you want a text where some words are new. Encourage students to work out meaning from context, not from dictionaries.

Be creative. With a little preparation, you can use almost any reading material with any class. Presenting your class of elementary students with a Shakespearian sonnet may seem like madness, but ask them to pick out the continuous verb forms or negative structures and suddenly they’re presented with something achievable.

Here is the skeleton of a reading class that you could easily adapt for your students.

1. Begin with a game that introduces new vocabulary (stick words up around the room, ask them to try and build a story with those words, or predict how they may be used).

2. Once students have read the text, get feedback. How many people were there, who is the narrator, did they like it, who is it written for?

3. Follow-up activities are where the fun really begins. Tell students to create a role-play based around the characters, get them to predict what will happen next, ask them to discuss a central theme or give them a scenario based around the text that they can work on in groups.

Reading material

The beauty of reading is that you can find material from anywhere. Grab some take-away menus when you’re passing by your local Indian, take a handful of train timetables from the station, snatch some tourism leaflets from the town hall. You can ask simple comprehension questions or get students to ask a classmate for specific information that is on the leaflet or menu. 

You may feel newspapers are too difficult, and some certainly are. Regional papers and tabloids (in the UK at least) offer simpler language than broadsheets and may be appropriate. If nothing else, you can explain the style of a page, asking what job the headline does and how the page is laid out.

- Above blog adapted from 'Teaching English' (How to Teach English as a Second Language)


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C'mon Indian menus? Let's pretend that there's Indian food outside of Bangkok and Pattaya.

Menus? This is the best that you can do? There must be half a dozen absolutely quality online reading sites that teachers can access for free. Further, there are older sites that have a lot of quality resources downloadable PDFs even with reading comprehension sets and you're stating that teachers can just throw and should throw anything at students.

Whenever I see your post it's always about teaching some students random vocabulary. The teacher should have a textbook and should be teaching the vocabulary from that textbook assuming they are a less experienced teacher.

I teach her with far more experience might be able to pinpoint some vocabulary for purpose or refer to specific list that will truly enhance a student's vocabulary. Again, the online resources are just bewildering.

Thai people don't even like Indian food. Why would they have the least bit of interest in reading a menu and would they have even eaten any of that food? No.

By Jim Beam, The Big Smoke (1st June 2022)

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