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Reading: Preparing Intermediate Students to Tackle Authentic Texts
by Alex Case - 3

Classroom activities
How, then, can we help improve our students' reading strategies? Each strategy will be examined in turn:

- skimming for general idea
- scanning for specific information
- ignoring or guessing unknown language

Skimming can be split into two parts: reading quickly and reading efficiently. For sheer speed, methods that can work in the classroom are setting of time limits, races etc. In Advanced Masterclass (5), there is an attempt to provide students with tips on the actual technique of 'speed reading'. I did not find this particularly successful in changing students' (or even my own) reading behaviour, but my attitude to exercises such as this tends to be that as long as the texts used on these learner training subjects are interesting in themselves, it is worth a try. Other activities to improve speed, whilst focusing more on comprehension as well, are activities where students must read and react quickly to the text, such as computer adventure games. My experience as a CTEFLA trainer and observer has also reinforced for me the importance of a single, well-chosen skim question for texts used in class. I find this is something in which the Headway books, for example, are especially weak- invariably providing between 3 and 5 questions to answer from the first reading of the text. Finally, the simplest and most useful tip can be to make students put their pens down when reading.

A popular task is to give even very low-level students a text and ask them to scan it for easy to find information such as numbers and names. Whilst this is useful practice, I would argue against using a text in this way without later doing more detailed comprehension tasks as this is more likely to point out how little they understand rather than how much. Something that seems to have been almost entirely ignored, possibly for logistical reasons, is the idea of 'scanning a publication'. Thinking of how someone tackles a newspaper, for example, they are much more likely to flick through the whole paper looking for a specific article than they are to scan through a single article looking for specific information. The only activity I know of this type was designed more with the motive of textbook familiarisation (6)

Handling unknown language
Tackling this has two purposes: helping comprehension and stopping students becoming daunted by authentic texts. The point was made earlier that students may often not be aware that they still have to do this in their own language. A difficult text in L1 ( e.g. 'Don Quixote' for Spanish speakers) should provide plenty of examples which can be more or less guessed from context. It should also be pointed out that it could also provide some that cannot. I have before now finished reading a book in a foreign language in which a piece of vocabulary occurred several times, looked it up in a dictionary and found that it meant something completely different to what I thought. When using a text in class, if such language cannot be ignored either, it is precisely this which should be pre-taught.
Practice activities for handling unknown vocabulary can include cloze exercises, guessing of possible meanings of nonsense words etc. In the research for another article in (7). I also found that looking at word chains in a text could help. The teacher should also ensure that if students ask for explanation of vocabulary they should as much as possible be lead through the process of guessing it. Even with the most unguessable word, students should at least be able to divine what part of speech it has.
The point was made earlier in the essay that students expect to learn vocabulary from reading, and reasonable use of the dictionary (or the teacher) can certainly help with this. Generally, though, students tend to use these excessively. Activities where students are allowed to look up a specified number of words only can certainly help them with prioritising. Three to five words seem a reasonable number.

Current published materials
The principles on which I have based the activities above have been common currency for some years and texts as old as New Cambridge English Course 3 (8) certainly took these into account. Very up-to-date texts such as New Headway (9) and Cutting Edge (10) generally deal with reading in a very modern and systematic way, and my approach to these has generally changed over the years from a rejection of certain activities given into an understanding of their importance. Examples of these are vocabulary activities and text organisation. The chief question in dealing with book readings from texts such as these has rather become one of prioritising- one Headway reading can often have enough (usually useful) activities for a two hour lesson. My own major objection, then, would be the lack of original ideas for practising these skills. Activities such as the 'mazes' in New Headway, for example, where students choose options and read cards with the consequences, would seem exactly the kind of idea where students could react quickly to the text, thereby building up reading fluency.

Understanding of reading in L1 and L2 has increased a lot over the history of EFL teaching, most especially in the area of reading strategies. Whilst the conclusions on these are generally uncontroversial and well-known, a real understanding of them by the teacher can change the way the material used is viewed and even lead to new ways of helping students practice the skills they need, most especially those making the important jump into the world of authentic materials.


(1) seminar 'Reading Aloud' Alan Maley, Oxford House, London, 1997
(2) seminar 'Stories in Language Teaching' Andrew Wright, TESOL Spain March 2000
(3) 'Reading'- Catherine Wallace, OUP
(4) Article 'Curriculum Innovation, Teamwork and the Management of Change' K.Jennings and T.Doyle- Included in 'Challenge and Change in Language Teaching' editors Jane Willis and Dave Willis
(5) Advanced Masterclass CAE- T.Aspinall and A.Capel, OUP
(6) Seminar- 'Making the Most of your Coursebook' International House Madrid May 1999
(7) Article- 'Discourse Analysis, Advanced Learners and the Cambridge CPE'- Alex Case, Dec 2001
(8) New Cambridge English Course 3- M.Swan and C.Walter, CUP
(9) New Headway Series- John and Liz Soars, OUP
(10) Cutting Edge Intermediate and Upper Intermediate- S.Cunningham


Alex Case is working as Senior Teacher (Materials and Teacher Development) and a freelance EFL writer in Tokyo, after working in Turkey, Thailand, Spain, Greece, Italy and the UK. He is also Reviews Editor of and you can comment on this article and other TEFLy things on his blog- "TEFLtastic with Alex Case" (

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