Casablanca – For as long as I can remember, I have been trained to adopt a read-and-answer approach to reading texts. Students also, and since primary school, have developed this unhelpful attitude towards reading comprehension.
As a teacher, I found that I was trapped in the read-and-answer approach, and students could effortlessly predict the lesson: read and answer. I had never noticed the barrenness of this approach. It is a trap.
I have come to realize that asking students to read the text, explain paragraphs, and answer the comprehension questions is not teaching reading. In a reading lesson, students need to learn comprehension skills.
Reading is not only about decoding symbols, it consists of several levels with different challenges. It is like climbing a ladder; each step represents a skill that students should learn so that they can keep going. Students, during early school years, should be provided with lots of activities to build those skills.
Baccalaureate students, in general, find themselves stuck at the first step—reading the written words. They seem to focus merely on how to read the words. They read but do not understand.
Students often have the misconception that to understand a text they should understand every word. Likewise, some teachers adopt the same belief. Consequently, they fall in the trap of explaining every word, pre-teaching vocabulary, taking a lot of time, and then asking students, who did not make an effort, to answer the comprehension questions.
Reading is way beyond asking some students to read aloud. Actually, they do not need to read aloud unless the teacher’s objectives include pronunciation. Instead, before answering comprehension questions, students need to learn how to decode the printed words, analyze them, know what the words mean, and recognize them in a context.
Our students have developed a negative attitude towards difficult words. Instead of dealing with them, they tend to avoid them. Surprisingly, they keep reading without having the slightest idea of what the text is about; they do not really worry about this part because they know that the teacher will explain everything.
Students do not know that they can approach new words positively and, in most cases, ignore them. It sounds strange, but it is considered a basic word-attack skill, according to Christine Nuttall, a policy expert on English assessment in her book “Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language.”
Yet, students cannot apply this rule every time because ignoring some words may make comprehension difficult. There are some techniques that can be used to deal with the new words, called “word-attack skills.”
One of these skills is “sight recall,” when students recognize a word as soon as they read it because they have come across it before. Another is “context clues”: Using other sentences in the context, pictures, and the reader’s familiarity with the subject of the reading text. Finally, “structural analysis” depends mainly on the ability of the reader to recognize prefixes and suffixes.
Word-attack skills vs comprehension skills
In “The Basal Reader Approach to Reading,” Robert Aukerman, a dean at an American teachers college, wrote, “Learning word-attack skills alone is not enough, since reading involves more than just identifying the words that the graphic symbols represent. In order to comprehend, a reader has to relate his or her experiences and knowledge of how a language works to the words that have been decoded.”
Teachers should not expect students to pay attention to topics they are not interested in. So teachers should study their students’ interests through a kind of questionnaire before selecting the texts and take the textbook units into consideration. The reading texts and the activities should be purposeful. They should target students’ experiences and interests.
To teach students to think rationally, teachers must use comprehension teaching in teaching other skills even before teaching reading. And in order to improve students’ thinking abilities, there should be some reasoning in every task they work on.
Merely reading and finding answers to questions is not comprehension. The meaning is not there, in the text, waiting for students to decipher it. The meaning is attained through interaction between the text and the reader.
That is why pre-reading activities are of high importance because we can trigger any experience that is related to the topic. Students find the texts easy when they meet their prior knowledge. Thought-provoking questions are what students need to improve comprehension skills.
Taking reading from a mind-challenging activity to a mechanical activity should be discouraged because reading is not about finding answers. It is about developing the ability to reason, deduce results, discuss ideas, and know the how and the why. That would definitely change students’ attitude towards reading.
After reading, teachers can help students think by 1) meeting with them individually; 2) having them illustrate favorite events by drama or drawing; 3) asking about cause-and-effect relationships; 4) tasking oral reports on topics of special interests; 5) helping students construct their own questions from the reading; 6) doing activities to find the main idea of the text, list details related to the main idea, make and justify inferences, and draw conclusions; and 7) having students prepare short oral or written summaries related to other topics.
The impact of L1 and culture on reading
In her book “Learning to Read,” reading scholar Dina Feitelson says, “The ability to interpret depends not on the cognitive domain alone but also on the readers’ attitudes, his receptivity to new ideas, and his prejudices, as well as his interest in the material read and his motivation.”
The problem EFL learners face is that they read English using the same method that they use with Arabic or French, languages they already use. But when the text is in English, a language they use solely in the classroom, the task becomes more difficult. Even if they decode the written forms of individual words, readers may find that the words do not go together in any pattern that is familiar to them, according to “The Basal Reader Approach to Reading.”
Culture is another crucial factor. The relationship between the reading and students’ culture has a direct impact on reading. The value the students’ culture places on reading and how they learn to learn is important. Students tend to transfer their reading habits from one language to another.
According to Ralph Staiger, the executive director of the International Association for Reading, reading habits affect comprehension more than the nature of the language. It is extremely difficult for students to change the way of learning that they have been trained to adopt throughout their school life.
The purpose of reading texts
There should always be a reason for students to read a text. Students must be taught to read for the main idea and for details. They should also learn how to skim, to scan, to read critically, to outline, and to use the dictionary.
In order for students to develop reading and comprehension skills, they must get a lot of practice with easy texts. Textbook readings are linguistically difficult; that is why they resort to translation which slows down the development of most reading skills.
The reading texts are unsatisfactory especially in the early years. The texts are not sufficiently related to students’ experiences, the level of difficulty is not generally suitable, and the questions do not involve enough use of reasoning.
Textbook readings are practically adjusted to teach language. So if the unit is about shopping and the present continuous tense, the text will contain vocabulary and certain structures. But the need for the text to have a message is neglected. This does not necessarily provide students with appropriate input to use their reading skills.
I believe that this is one of the reasons that reading lessons are boring. There is a difference between a language lesson and a reading lesson. A reading lesson should not be entirely devoted to teaching language; instead, it should be a source of information and entertainment, and it should convey a message as well.
Independent readers and independent learners
Students are hardly exposed to any reading outside the textbook. Instead of giving texts that students find boring, why not give students the responsibility for the reading comprehension classes by agreeing on an extra set of readings that are related to the textbook units?
Students have different interests; therefore, they should be allowed to choose what they want to read. Students will have no excuse if they do not participate in discussions or get bored during reading classes.
At the end, I want to stress the importance of teaching study skills in early school years. Students are highly in need of knowing how to study. The majority of them do not know how to be students. They do not have any idea how to take notes, be organized, designate a study area, think positively, create a study group, and read actively.
They need those tools and skills in every subject and throughout their whole life. Most students do not have any objectives or any vision for the future. Our target, as teachers, should be creating independent learners who can rely on themselves to achieve their objectives.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial views.
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