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Teaching reading for real!

Updated: Oct 24, 2022

I’m pretty sure you’re familiar with the most standard reading lesson setup that includes some brainstorming at the beginning, maybe a bit of pre-teaching important vocabulary, then reading for global understanding, and a second reading for detail. But is this how it really should be? Does this setup really help our students learn to read, which they can then use in real life or during language exams? I don’t think so. Let’s see why.


I received some surprising feedback the other day when I asked my advanced business English group what their opinion was about the practice language exam task I had set as homework. They are actually pretty good communicators, they understand a lot of things because they work with English on a daily basis, but this BEC Higher reading paper (download the sample paper here) completely destroyed them.

To be honest, I wasn’t that surprised. It’s not that I didn’t trust their skills but I have seen this kind of reaction several times before. When you give a C1 level exam task (and Cambridge exams are famous for being one of the most difficult ones) to students who can actually communicate quite successfully at advanced level, and they are at a complete loss. Why is this happening though? I believe it’s because of the mismatch of:

  • how we teach reading in class

  • what they read in real life

  • what’s expected at an exam

1. How we teach reading in class

The standard lesson stages (Thornbury and Watkins, 2007) don’t really seem to reflect real life where you, first of all, read with a particular purpose in mind, and second, you have different tools around you to help you (for example, an online dictionary on your phone). Reading lessons should resemble real-life reading experiences, and the easiest thing we can do for that is to give our students a realistic and personal aim for reading (Koda, 2020, pp. 101-102).

Why did you click on a particular article while scrolling your news feed? It was probably because the title or the lead caught your attention, and you want to find out something. So, you read it to find what you were looking for. Why can’t we replicate this in class? We could for example, give students the choice to decide what they would like to read from a selection of 4-5 short texts, and before they read it, they need to formulate a realistic gist question for themselves: Why did I pick this one? What do I want to find out? What do I think is going to be in the text?

2. What they read in real life and what’s expected at an exam

Reading habits are changing for sure. Although we cannot say that people completely stopped reading because reading surrounds us, albeit in its simplest forms (such as reading a sign or a phone number), there definitely seems to be a trend of shorter attention spans, thus shorter and simpler texts.

If we just think about blog post writing - writers are now advised to write posts that score high on a readability scale (Agrawal, 2018) because that will bring in more readers and potential customers. Readability scores can increase by adding more headings, using shorter sentences, using more active and fewer passive verbs, and adding lots of images to break up text chunks. (I actually checked the readability of this post with this tool, and it gave me 76.7 out of 100, which is pretty good.)

Now, let’s compare all this with exam tasks. Students are confronted with long and dense texts that contain lots of complex structures, several subordinate clauses, and lots of foreign words. Moreover, the more advanced a language exam is the more higher order thinking tasks it includes. These tasks ask more than just simple literal comprehension (which actually tends to dominate most course book reading tasks). They include some of the following ones (Nuttall, 1996, p.188):

  • Questions involving reorganisation or reinterpretation - More holistic understanding is needed in order to put together and infer the answer (e.g., How many children did Sarah have? (reinterpret “Peter and the twins”))

  • Questions of inference - Same inferential thinking but more sophisticated than type 2 (e.g., What key differences would you find between the trees in Dorset and in Birmingham?)

  • Questions of evaluation - What the writer is trying to do or how far they have achieved it (e.g., Does the text contain bias, How forceful is it?)

  • Questions of personal response - Reader’s reaction to the text but has to be supported by evidence (e.g., Would you like to visit this place? Why (not)?)

  • Questions concerned with how writers say what they mean - Word-attack and text-attack skills (e.g., The word “distinctive” is closest in meaning to A/B/C/D)

I could clearly see the lack of all these skills on my students as they were trying to complete the reading task of this practice paper. First, they were baffled by the length of sentences. Then they couldn’t really make use of word attack skills (e.g. looking at the stem, analysing prefixes and suffixes, guessing from context) when trying to figure out the meaning of unknown words. And finally, they couldn’t use more abstract level thinking to find the main idea of the text and connect it to statements that didn’t explicitly include anything from the source.

So, this is what we did in open class:

  1. Let’s read the paragraph as it is without any kind of help

  2. Now, try to tell me what you think the main point was - no problem if you didn’t understand most of it, guess from the words you know

  3. We’re going to go sentence by sentence, and paraphrase each - paraphrasing is important to find alternative ways to say the same thing, which could then help you find the answer

  4. When we run into an unknown word or chunk, let’s analyse it before giving up - so, we’re actively trying to apply word-attack skills here

  5. OK, now read again and tell me the main idea again

  6. Now, let’s go back to the statements and eliminate the ones which have no connection to text we’ve just read

  7. Let’s try and choose from the ones that remained

With these steps, we could barely finish one reading task in 60 minutes; however, all my students felt that this experience was super useful because they had absolutely no idea how to do this on their own.

Final takeaways

  1. Include more realistic and personalised gist reading tasks

  2. Do more abstract reading tasks together

  3. Practice text- and word-attack skills explicitly


Agrawal, M. 2018. How to improve blog post readability. Retrieved: April 29, 2022.

Koda, K. 2020. Assessment of reading, The Concise Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics (ed. Chapelle, C.A.), Wiley Blackwell

Nuttall, C. 1996. Teaching reading skills in a foreign language. Bath: Heinemann.

Thornbury, S. and Watkins, P. 2007. The CELTA course trainee book. CUP.

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