Reading in the EFL Classroom

I’m an avid reader. Many of the things that people think ‘define’ me are things that I’ve discovered through reading. In short: I’m a fan of reading.

But, I’m also a fan of making music, and I don’t drag that into my EFL classroom. So, I guess that means a good place to start this is with a simple question:

Why reading?

I think most of the ‘why read’ conversations focus on what reading offers kids. The people I teach, however, are no longer kids and they either are, or most decidedly are not readers. Why would I do that to them?

There seems to be the idea that speaking and listening are the best ways to interact with the language. And, for a number of reasons — we do speak quite often and it offers a really short feedback loop — I think they should always be the primary activities in the classroom.

But primary doesn’t mean solitary.

My students have to read and write emails, navigate signage in museums, understand posted warnings, and make sense of information sent to them from colleagues, customers and suppliers abroad. In short, they have to read.

Alone, those would be reasons to include reading in the EFL classroom. Even more, though, reading provides students with a lot of (ideally) perfect English that they can model their own language production on. Further, a short story covers a situation — with vocabulary and dialogue — that a classroom discussion just can’t approximate.

Additionally, in a classroom where most vocabulary is taught verbally, a written text may be the first time students encounter the correct spelling of a word.

Even more, students who enjoy reading in their native language but think it is ‘too tiring’ in English may simply need a bit of scaffolding between comic book English and Agatha Christie. Once you can help them read in their own time, you’re helping them turbo-charge their learning.

Reading in the classroom

There are a number of ways to include reading in the classroom. Some ideas include:

  1. Bring in an article to read and discuss. This is obviously dependant on the level of the students and may require simplification/shortening. (I generally don’t like to present more than a singe page of text.) I think there’s nothing wrong with saying “we’re going to read and discuss this article” but I tend to warm up to it. “Remember what we discussed last week? I went home to learn more about what Matthias said and guess what I found… a reading exercise!”
  2. Break a conversation down into steps and write them down. At almost any level, you can write the questions you want to ask down on strips of paper (and possibly number them), and have students pick up individual strips and challenge other students with the question. This works equally well with statements for students to agree or disagree with.
  3. Use a short text to set up a situation for discussion. It can be something as simple as “Olivia lives 30 minutes from her work. Olivia drove home from work. When she was outside the city, her car stopped. She couldn’t start her car.” And then move on to what should Olivia do? For better students, make a text with three or more characters and discuss them: “What did Olivia do wrong?” “What would you do if you were Sigfried?” “Who was at fault?”

Reading as homework

You might not know this about me, but I have a collection of short stories for the EFL classroom that I force upon my students as ‘voluntary homework.’

Before I give out any reading as homework, I try to make my expectations clear: do I expect them to read this with a dictionary? Do they have to understand it, or just try? How important will this text be to the next English lesson?

Generally, in my lessons, the answers are “Give it a try, but don’t get your dictionary out. Set a timer for thirty minutes and, if you can’t finish it in that time, realize that I did a bad job picking out the story and come in here next week and tell me that.”

As for how important will the reading be next week, that depends. If they’re reading something to discuss in the following lesson, I tell them that. (But, I also stress that they should come if they don’t have time to read it — some students will just not come.)

When I hand out a short story every week or every other week, however, we can’t discuss it in each lesson. Instead, as part of my goal of having more to do than there is time, I write down in my notes what the story covered and plan a short “Who read the story last week? We know that Steve never reads. Can you tell him in two sentences what happened? Does your family do things this way? How does your family do it?”

Doing that does a couple of things: it lets the students who didn’t have time to read — and some people genuinely don’t have the time (or time management) — pick up the next story in the series and know what is happening. Also, it provides five minutes of conversation on something that probably isn’t worth 30 minutes in the class plan, but still interesting. Lastly — and I think this is really important — it gives the students who are proud of doing all the homework a chance to let the teacher know they did the homework. (I could write a whole post on the fact that some students do the homework more for you than for themselves, and you need to let them be proud of that.)

How do you use reading?

Reading is something that I’ve become comfortable using in the classroom and as homework. Maybe I’ve become too comfortable. How do you use reading to support your students? Are there activities I’ve overlooked in my routine? What could I do better?

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