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  Home > TEFL Clinic > Practical Teaching > Reading Skills > Exploiting Readers

Pre-reading Activities

Interest in a Reader cannot be assumed and the teacher should be aware of the negative effect a lengthy, foreign text can have on some students, adults or children. Frequently, games, humour, visuals, puzzles, role play and other unusual approaches can motivate students' interest as well as providing opportunities for reflection and insight.

Ironically one way of stimulating interest is to withhold the text and spend one or more lessons in the pre-reading stage building interest in and curiosity about characters, places, themes, and action by permitting only tantalizing glimpses of small selections from the text. These snippets must be carefully selected; they must stimulate curiosity, but not provide so much information that the need to read is removed. The pre-reading stage is important as it can whet the students' appetites to read; it can provide a need to read to complete an activity or confirm an idea; and it can persuade the students that as far as perception or hypothesis is concerned there are no right or wrong answers, only different ones.

Hypothesis is encouraged at the pre-reading stage because it is impossible for students to give a 'right' answer in traditional terms as none of them has read the text. The teacher must resist the temptation to intervene and confirm or disprove any hypothesis; this diminishes the need to read.

Activity 1

Title of Activity Once upon a title
Nature of Activity Revision of familiar stories, anticipation and preconceptions of plot
Level Elementary to Advanced
Time 20-25 minutes
Preparation None

    1. This activity works well if it is a story which is fairly well known already, for example a fairy tale, or the story of a popular film.

    2. Give the students the title of the Reader concerned, in this case The Piper of Hamelin (OUP) which is a fairly well-known story.

    3. Ask them what they know about the story already. Then write the titles of the chapters on the blackboard, but not in the correct order, for example,

    • 'Give Me My Money'
    • The Mountain
    • The Piper
    • The Sad Town
    • 'Come into the River for a Swim'
    • The Rats of Hamelin
    • A Different Tune

    4. Ask the students to suggest an order.

Activity 2

Title of Activity Plot thickening
Nature of Activity Anticipation of plot, hypothesis about theme and plot
Level Intermediate to Advanced
Time 25-30 minutes
Preparation None

    1. Divide the class into groups. The number of groups should correspond to the number of chapters in the Reader you use.

    2. Give each group a single, different chapter title. Tell the groups to treat the titles as if they were those of a complete Reader as opposed to merely a chapter. Ask them what they think the story of this new Reader might be?

    3. When the entire class has suggested plots for each of the chapter titles help them to put the chapters in order.

    4. As an optional extension to this activity ask for suggestions for a plot or story-line for the actual Reader from which they were taken

Activity 3

Title of Activity What's in a name?
Nature of Activity To gauge emotional response to chapter titles; discuss preconceptions
Level Intermediate to Advanced
Time 30-45 minutes
Preparation None

    1. Write the chapter titles in random order on the blackboard and ask the students to arrange them in descending order according to how interesting they sound. They should be able to justify their choices, but there is no need for consensus.

    2. As an optional exercise ask the students to decide which would make the best book title, and to explain which would make a good LP title and why? Which would make a good name for a pop group and why? What do these titles suggest to them if the context is changed? Ask the students for other contexts in which any of these titles could be used.

NB. This activity works best if students work alone first, then in pairs and finally in larger groups before feeding the ideas back as a whole. After reading has actually taken place a comparison can be made between their anticipations about the chapters they feel about what they have read.

Activity 4

Title of Activity It's all in the stars
Nature of Activity Anticipation of plot, perception of clues and details, connecting ideas, imaginative discussion
Level Intermediate to Advanced
Time 60 minutes
Preparation Find a newspaper or magazine which includes astrological predictions in English and prepare some simplified versions.

Prepare a summary of the Reader in three forecasts like the examples at the end of this activity, which have been written using the two main protagonists from Hijacked (OUP).

In Class

    1. Most students are familiar with the idea of foretelling the future. A brief discussion at the start of the lesson will elicit from them various methods of doing this including, probably, astrology. Whether or not they actually believe in astrological predictions will not affect the activity.

    2. Distribute the samples of authentic horoscopes from magazines and newspapers which are current for the day, week, or month of the lesson. Ask the students if there is any connection between their current reality and their current forecast. They may be prepared to elaborate, but this is not necessary.

    3. If possible find out the signs of one or two people whom you know will interest your students, for example, famous celebrities such as pop singers, political figures, or sports personalities. Ask how their current forecast would affect these celebrities if they believed in astrology. Is it a good time for a summit meeting, for example, or for making a new record, or playing an important football match?

    4. Then, as an optional extra, ask the students to suggest what might have been in a forecast written in the past for a famous historical figure on a particular day. What was Julius Caesar's forecast on the day he was murdered? What was Christopher Columbus' forecast on the day that he discovered America? The students should be reminded that the language of horoscopes is always general and vague.

    5. Now begin to introduce the summary of the Reader you have selected. The summary should be written in the form of three parallel forecasts for the two main protagonists. These forecasts must be written by you at the pre-reading stage, but the students themselves can summarize another Reader in this way after reading. The preparation of these forecasts is not difficult, but the language must be at the right level, and the style and register should appear as authentic as possible.

    6. The first forecast should deal with the beginning of the plot, the second with some major turning point which affects both protagonists, and the third with the eventual outcome. In keeping with the vagueness of authentic forecasts no specific facts are given.

    7. Distribute the forecasts in stages with the students working in groups of four or five. In the example provided, the students receive the 5 January forecast first. At this stage do not tell them that there is any relationship between the two people. Tell the class that these two forecasts were extremely accurate. So what sorts of experiences could a Leo and an Aquarian have had on this day? One side of the class can work on Leo and the other on Aquarius, if preferred.

    8. Introduce the 6 and 10 January forecasts in the same way after the third forecast has been distributed ask the students to try to link the three forecasts with some sort of narrative thread.

    9. Next, allow the students to see all six forecasts and give them some very basic information about the characters, for example, age, nationality, and job. In this example they would be told that Leo is a 16-year-old English schoolboy and that Aquarius is a former university student from Japan who is in his twenties. How does this knowledge affect their interpretations?

    10. Next, tell them under what circumstances the two protagonists will meet and how they will be affected. These two characters meet under violent conditions and will learn to hate each other. How does this knowledge affect the students' interpretations?

    11. Finally, tell the students the title of the book in which these two characters will meet and ask again how this affects their interpretations. As previously stated this example is produced for the Reader Hijacked (OUP).

NB. During all of the above stages it is essential that you give the group sufficient time to reflect on the information and to adjust their response to it as each new layer of information is added. It is not essential that any group foretells with a hundred per cent accuracy the plot and the relationship between the two characters. Allow them to submit their ideas without providing them with the right answer. Then, the only way the students can find out if their guesses were correct is to read the book.

LEO 5 January

Avoid long journeys today. Your ambition is almost achieved, but be prepared for an unexpected problem. Appearances can be deceptive. Remember loved ones and be patient. A day of surprises.

LEO 6 January

Be prepared to think and act quickly today. You may get out of one problem and into another. You will get a chance to show talent and courage today, but be prepared for a violent disagreement with a new acquaintance. Take care of your health, people are depending on you.

LEO 10 January

A day for physical courage. Take the advice of those with more experience. A situation which has been troubling you is finally resolved. Your loved ones are worried so try to remember them. Your ambition is closer to being fulfilled. It is a good day for travelling.

AQUARIUS 5 January

You are a dreamer, but today is a day when your dreams could come true. You may have to lie to get what you want. A good day for travelling, but delays are to be expected. Try to control your violent nature and bad temper.

AQUARIUS 6 January

A friend you were relying on has failed to do as you asked and you are kept waiting. Try not to get too impatient or you may do something you regret. People in authority stop you getting everything you want today. Wait. A good friend is crying to contact you.

AQUARIUS 10 January

Not a good day for those interested in political ideals. Your plans receive a major set-back. Avoid water if you can. People in authority have a good right to be angry with you and you should stay calm if you want to avoid an embarrassing end to all your present hopes.

Activity 5

Title of Activity Take a letter
Nature of Activity Anticipation of plot and the role of characters within that plot, perception of clues and details, connecting of ideas, imaginative discussion
Level Elementary to Advanced
Time 60 minutes minimum
Preparation If the text of the Reader includes several notes or letters written by one or more of the characters these letters can be extracted from the text to provide a pre-reading problem-solving activity. The letters should not be presented in any particular order and no comment should be provided by you. The examples at the end of this activity are taken from Space Affair (OUP).

    1. Divide the students into three groups and give each group a different letter. Ask them to hypothesize as to what the story is about and what type of story it might be. Explain that the letters are linked and are written by two people.

    2. Now ask the students, in their groups, to discuss the following specific points:

    • Do any of the characters reveal anything about themselves?
    • What seems to be the main problem?
    • Why do the letters appear to have been written in each case?
    • What are the relationships between the writer of each letter and the recipient.

    3. You may need to help out with vocabulary concerning the specific points. Make sure all the students understand before they begin their discussions.

    4. Give the groups sufficient time to discuss the points thoroughly. Then ask all the students to form three new groups. Each member of the new groups tells the other members what his or her letter was about.

    5. Finally, having shared all their information, ask the groups to decide what the story is about.

NB. This technique can also provide a way in for unsimplified texts including Cambridge Local Examination Prescribed Texts, such as Patricia Highsmith's detective novel The Talented Mr Ripley, is peppered with notes and letters which the students enjoyed reading and analysing before they looked at the text itself. The activity usually works well with any detective or espionage story as the students share the atmosphere of mystery.

Activity 6

Title of Activity Dear Marj
Nature of Activity Anticipation of character and relationships. Subjective perception of and response to details from the text
Level Elementary to Advanced
Time 60 minutes
Preparation This pre-reading activity encourages the students to focus on the main dilemma or problem facing the characters in the Readers. The same problem is looked at from as many points of view as possible. This enables the students to identify more closely with the characters and to see the relevance of the theme to their own lives.

You will need to create the letters which have been supposedly written by the characters concerned to the magazine problem page. Any pains taken by you now will ensure greater success at a later stage when the students, after reading another book, can produce their own problem letters.

First, make a list of all the main characters and then the secondary characters within the framework of the Reader. Try to imagine how the problem would be viewed from their point of view. They may not share the same problem, but each character will have something which is troubling them. For example, in the story of 'Cinderella' poor Cinder's problem would be the treatment she receives from her step-sisters. The step-sisters themselves would be complaining about the lazy girl who does nothing around the house and makes them feel angry because she is so much more beautiful than they are. The father's problem would be his domineering second wife, while Prince Charming would worry about the difficulty of meeting anyone who isn't interested in his money and position as heir to the throne. Most stories, from fairy tales to the classics, lend themselves easily to this shift of focus. Examples of the types of letters needed appear at the end of this activity, and they can be used with The Stranger (Heinemann). You may make copies of the letters for classroom use.

    1. The aim of this activity is not only to hypothesize over the relationships between the people who have written these letters, but also to suggest advice which could help to solve these problems. It is, therefore, not a good idea to let the whole class see all the letters simultaneously. Instead, divide the class into groups, one group for each problem letter.

    2. The groups must, first of all, identify what the problem is and then offer the character advice. At this stage the students are not aware of the connection between all the letters.

    3. Allow the groups of students time to finish their work on individual letters and then have a 'case conference' at which each group presents a brief summary of the problem they have been dealing with and the advice they are going to offer through their magazine pages.

    4. When all the problems have been described and the characters have received a letter of reply and some advice, ask the class to suggest how these characters are interlinked, and also what the students think will happen to these characters if they do not follow the advice which they have just received.

Dear Marj,

My problem is that I don't know whether to mind my own business, or not. I live in a small village. We all know and care about each other. Recently, a young man entered our lives. He has opened up a small shop. At first I didn't want this shop, and I argued very loudly against it. Now the shop is doing well and it sells a lot of my garden flowers to the tourists. I bought a big new TV with the money. The trouble is that I think this new man is causing problems for a young couple, Pete and Anna. They are going to get married, but I know that Anna has been to London for the weekend with the stranger. I can't talk to her. She looks ill and pale. I also do not want to upset our shopkeeper because I enjoy the money I get for my flowers. Should I Just keep quiet?


Dear Marj,

I am no longer as young as I was, but they say I am still beautiful. My talent as on actress is still there, but the parts are going to younger women. There is a part in a new film that I want very much. I have tried everything to get it, but I feel certain they will give it to a younger actress. The worry is spoiling my health and I am getting desperate. What can I do to make sure that I get this part?


Dear Marj,

I am seventeen and engaged to marry a boy from our village. Recently, I have become very attracted to my boss who is much older and richer than my boyfriend. My boss takes me out, buys me new clothes and takes me away on trips. My boyfriend only bothers about football and never buys me a presents. I don't know what to do. My boss isn't from our village and he has a lot of strange business that I know nothing about. When I ask him questions he gets very angry. I have no friend who I can talk to about this. What should I do?


Dear Marj,

I am from a small village where I have lived all myi life. I am very happy there. I have a lovely girlfriend and lots of friends. I play football every Saturday. Unfortunately, jobs are not very good in the village and my girlfriend and I will have to save very hard if we want to get married next year. I don't know if I should leave the village for a year and try to get a better job. If I go my girlfriend might her change mind about me and meet someone else. She already seems a bit different now that she is working in the village shop. I think she is attracted to him. Should I leave the village and try another job. Will I lose my girlfriend?


Activity 7

Title of Activity Word box
Nature of Activity Anticipation of lexical problems. Subjective response to meaning. Awareness of power of single items
Level Elementary to Advanced
Time 45-60 minutes
Preparation The vocabulary in a Reader can sometimes be an obstacle to enjoyment. However, if it is dealt with within the context of a discussion, the vocabulary can stimulate students instead of discouraging them.


    1. Dictionary research
    2. Word searching with the puzzle box
    3. Discussing the students' responses to the words and categorize those responses
    4. Make a word square

In class

Before the students begin to read you should decide which semantic field the Reader makes the most use of, for example, farming, marriage, ships and shipping terms. Find all the examples of this field in the Reader. The field will probably include words which the student already knows as well as new words. Present list of words to the students and allow them time to do dictionary search for the words they do not yet know.

Make a 'word puzzle' of the words which you would like the students to focus on during the discussion and the reading. The words in the puzzle can read in any direction and they are surrounded by a random selection of letters which should not include any other, unnecessary words. (See the examples at the end of activity which may be copied for classroom use.)

Divide the students into two teams, or let them work in pairs. The student who finds a word in the puzzle and can give an explainion of that word can circle it and claim it.

When all the words have been found, claimed and explained the students, still in pairs, try to categorize the words under certain headings which will evoke a subjective response.

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