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Teaching Tips 208


Speedy reading

I first heard about the reading app Spritz this last week & at the same time there was this article in the Guardian. Have a read:

In 2005, a company called ICUE addressed the imminent problem of reading books from tiny screens by proposing a slew of new reading techniques. Their system allowed you to read hundreds of books in a variety of new ways, including a format wherein each word of the text flashed up on the screen in turn, at high speed. This was a time when you had to order ebooks by text message, and ICUE, far ahead of its time, disappeared when this "problem" was effectively solved by making phones with bigger screens.

But screens are shrinking once again, turning into smartwatches and the hovering prism of Google Glass. Step forward Spritz, a recently announced app by a team of developers in Boston. The approach is the same – flash words at the reader as quickly as possible – but the pitch has been updated. The key terms now are optimal recognition point, the moment in a word when the brain starts to process the meaning of the word, and saccades, the tiny, unconscious movements the eye makes as it runs along a line of text. Remove these and you can raise your reading speed from an average of about 250 words a minute to something ridiculous like 600.

Spritz claims to be "reimagining reading", and when you start looking there is a host of apps that promise the same. Velocity integrates with other iOS apps such as Instapaper and Pocket, while Quickreader includes access to ebook stores such as Smashwords and Feedbooks, with millions of titles available, should you wish to power through Don Quixote in a few commutes. Like so many technological fixes, Spritz and the like seem to be answering a question nobody asked. And if you do ask, you'll find that speed-reading experts say you can do better by running your finger along the page – but nobody wants to be seen doing that.

Although not necessarily a new idea, interesting all the same, no? Check out the Spritz website where you can try the app out: I find it a little stressful but it is supposed to get easier the more you use it.

It could be really useful for our students who tend to read every word as they do not know which are the most important key words. Using a technique like this would speed up their reading, complementing normal reading. It might also help students to become tolerant of unknown vocabulary as they have no choice but to go at the speed of the app. So hopefully when they read extensively they will be able to skip words, filling in the meanings as they read normally.

Too many unknown words could be potentially demoralising, so choice of texts would be important. A text just above the level of the students would be appropriate, providing 'roughly-tuned input'. Just as with normal texts, if there are too many unknown words then it may well be incomprehensible. And as normal reading allows us to read in our own time, we can go back & see where links are being made. If we miss a linking idea with the app then we may well miss the message of the text.

A couple of other drawbacks might be that due to the speed of the words there may be too little time to think ahead as we do when we read. And reading the text on the app cannot match the different strategies we use when reading different kinds of texts.

As with any reading the interest value of the text & purpose for reading provide a meaningful activity that transfers into a more success-oriented task. Talking to your students about the app would consolidate the reading strategies that you talk about with them when doing readings in class.

So the app may well be useful but it probably needs a little thought for it to be effective for our students. As with anything, try it out yourself first & anticipate how your students might feel & what they might get out of it

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Personal graphs

If you have been with us a while, you may remember the Tip on learner-based presentations. This Tip is very similar but instead of using dictation, here we are using graphs. The graph is a medium that appeals to most people, especially to the professional person.

Give out uncompleted graphs & go through what each axis means - without getting into the language to express it all i.e. the language of the presentation. Then ask the students to fill in the graph for themselves - what is the probability of doing those things, how much do they like them, how often do they do them - whatever it is being focused on. They put an 'X' in the graph for how they feel about each point. The successful completion of the graph shows that they are clear on the concept you are dealing with.

You'll probably want to see a graph or two by now.

The graphs on this page are to give an idea & are not comprehensive - you'd probably add a few more things, e.g. ten, on the vertical axis.

When they have all completed their graphs, using a graph you have filled in for yourself on the board, elicit/give the target language, concept check, highlight form & phonology & drill chorally & individually - the presentation. Follow this with a copy stage.

Then the controlled oral practice is already set up through the graph as the task consists in the finding out of similarities & differences to their colleagues in the class. They will use the language & the communicative purpose could be to find three similarities &/or differences with three people in the group. As they do this you go round monitoring & correcting.

A very personalised presentation, using the clear & attractive medium of the graph that automatically supplies the personalised follow up practice activity

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Communicatively purposeful

Imagine this scenario: The students are working in pairs exchanging information on charts, that they keep secret from each other, through questions & answers - an information gap activity. The language area is the present simple for talking about daily habits - What time does Peter get up? etc.. There are a list of people & their habits to talk about. Student A asks, listens to the answer & then writes it on their charts. Then it is Student B's turn. 
When they have completed filling in the missing information the activity is finished. The teacher has been round listening in & correcting. All are happy & on to the next stage/activity. 

How about taking it a bit further, making it more interesting & providing motivation to complete the task?

Ask yourself why they are filling in the charts. OK, to practice the target language. But what about providing a 'communicative purpose' - a 'real/pretend' purpose to the task? This is like a jigsaw activity - bring the parts together to discover the whole.

In this case the purpose could be to find out who is the laziest in the list of people discussed i.e. by working out how long they spend in bed through the time each goes to bed & gets up.

This could also be made even more interesting by personalising the activity by using the students themselves & discover who is the 'laziest in the class - the students mingle & fill in a chart - Name/Time get up/Time go to bed - for each student.

Another purpose might be to find out which of the people are similar - a kind of dating agency.

By providing this communicative purpose you take it further than language practice for the sake of language practice.

Don't forget to tell the students the aim - the purpose - before they begin the activity!

For another example see the Tip - A Communicative Drill?:

It all adds more interest & motivation to a practice activity. It certainly requires a bit more thought from you the teacher to think up the 'pseudo-communicative' purpose but it is worth it. And hang on to the activity to use another time!

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