Reading Skills

Reading is one of the four language skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing.

Listening and reading are receptive skills and they are aimed at perceiving, comprehending, and processing information in oral or written form. We have to relate words and notions behind those words, to understand how the words are connected in a sentence, and how the sentences are linked into one whole text. Finally, to make sense of the text we have to relate the information in it to our knowledge of the world.

In contrast, speaking and writing are productive skills. They are directed at generating a message. In order to generate a message we recall the words that express the notions in our mind, connect them syntactically into a sentence, link the sentences so that they make up one whole and relate the message to the listener's knowledge of the world.

In light of the communicative approach to language teaching, reading means comprehending a written text by extracting the required information from it as efficiently as possible. For example, while looking through job ads in a newspaper we mean to locate the jobs of a particular type. A competent reader will quickly reject the irrelevant information and find what she is looking for. On the contrary, more detailed comprehension is necessary when carefully reading an article of special interest in a scientific journal.

Reading aloud, i.e. ability to perceive and decode letters in order to read words, is not a skill by itself. Rather, it is a technique to develop and test the correctness of a learner's pronunciation, rhythm and intonation. Reading aloud is widely practised at early stages of language learning, especially by following a model. Later on, when larger pieces of texts come along silent reading prevails.

In general, there are two main reasons for reading:

1) Reading for pleasure
2) Reading for information

The communicative approach to language teaching defines the following reading subskills:

If we read to identify the topic of a text, to get a general idea of what it is about, we read for gist. This is called skimming. When skimming, we go through the reading material quickly in order to get the gist of it, to know how it is organized, or to get an idea of the tone or the intention of the writer.

If we read a text just to find a specific piece or pieces of information which may or may not be the main points and which are pre-specified by the purpose of the reading, we read for specific information. This is called scanning. We only try to locate specific information and often we do not even follow the linearity of the passage to do so. We simply let our eyes wander over the text until we find what we are looking for, whether it be a name, a date, or a less specific piece of information.

Reading Strategies

Skimming and scanning are major reading subskills necessary for quick and efficient reading. In addition to these major reading subskills a number of minor reading strategies are often specified for focusing on in teaching reading.

1)  using context to guess meaning of new words 
2)  skipping unknown words 
3)  relying on cognates, international and borrowed words to guess meaning
4)  avoiding translating while skimming or scanning
5)  avoiding translating every unknown word to understand
6)  highlighting key ideas
7)  highlighting specific information for easy reference
8)  previewing the text to estimate how long it will take to read, how difficult and interesting it will
     be and then go back and read
9)  using subheadings and pictures to get a general idea of what the text will be about
10) using a dictionary to look up those new words which are essential to comprehending
11) looking back and ahead to link parts of the text
12) searching for clues in the context
13) using general knowledge to guess meaning
14) thinking aloud to clarify a puzzling sentence.

This list may well be continued. Most of the listed reading strategies are on the subconscious level and come from general reading ability in one's native language. The teacher’s task is to enable learners to transfer these strategies to reading in English or to develop them while teaching younger learners.

In reading for pleasure any of the above ways of reading may be used depending on what the reader wants from her reading.

Another way of looking at ways of reading is to consider to what extent the text gets exploited for learning purposes. We can differentiate between extensive and intensive reading.

Extensive reading means reading longer texts, usually for your own pleasure. This is a fluency activity, mainly involving global understanding. It aims at developing speed of reading and guessing strategies.

Intensive reading means reading shorter texts in order to extract specific information and to examine language, i.e. to work out the grammar of a particular sentence, to look for all the words related to a topic, etc. This is more an accuracy activity, aimed at accurate understanding of the text. The aim of these activities is to make learners more aware of how language is used.

These different ways of reading are not mutually exclusive. For example, we often skim through a passage to see what it is about before deciding whether it is worth scanning a particular paragraph for the information we are looking for.

Language textbooks are compiled mainly of texts meant for intensive reading. These texts are processed in the lesson
-- at word level: to introduce and practice vocabulary and become aware of lexical links within the text
-- at sentence level: to analyse the grammar of each sentence and grammatical links between sentences
-- at whole text level: to analyse text structure and type.

As a rule the final stage of intensive text processing deals with relating the information in it to learners' life experience and knowledge of the world and interpreting this information.

Text Selection

Texts for reading should be carefully selected. They should be interesting, relevant to learner's age, entertaining and motivating in the first place and they should certainly be at the right level of difficulty. A text may be too difficult because it contains complex language and /or because it is about a topic that learners don’t know about.

Textbook materials are sometimes teacher-written, i.e. they contain texts which are specially written or simplified for language learners. At other times they may read articles, brochures, story books, etc. that are what a first language speaker would read. This is called authentic material. Such materials are more varied and richer in language, and consequently they might be too difficult for language learners. Instead of being simplified such materials may get easified and thus preserve the authenticity of the original text, making the reading more realistic. Text easification techniques include:

1)  number the lines
2)  separate the paragraphs
3)  add sub-headings
4)  highlight words, sentences, paragraphs
5)  add visuals
6)  use colours to aid memory
7)  change the font size, enlarge the text, etc.
8)  add comments or questions
9)  add somebody else's text to it
10) translate difficult words
11) provide pronunciation of unfamiliar words using the IPA offers a range of different techniques of helping second-language readers cope with the vocabulary load by defining, illustrating and simply providing clearer context for reading.

Text, Cohesion and Coherence

Text is the verbal record of a communicative event. Whether a set of words and sentences constitute a text or not, depends on cohesive relationships within and between the sentences. These cohesive relationships form the principles of connectivity which bind a text together and force co-interpretation. In other words, in a text the interpretation of some element is dependent on that of another. You are unable to decode some element without finding what it refers to within the same text. For example in the following sentence- 'I've spoken to Kim today. She sounded very happy.' She in the second sentence refers back to Kim in the first sentence. The referent for she can be found by looking back into the text. Thus she is given the identity of Kim.

Grammatical cohesion devices can be classified under the following types:

1)  reference (see the previous example)
2)  ellipsis (the omission of an element normally required by the grammar), e.g., Tommy can't swim at all, but I can ([I can] swim is supplied from the first clause to the second).
3)  substitution, e.g. I'd like a kilo of apples. Which ones? These ones?
4)  conjunctive relations, e.g. and, but, in addition, so, then, after that, etc.

Text cohesion may be also derived from lexical relationships like hyponymy (cat is a hyponym of pet), part-whole (nose is part of a face), synonymy (start and begin), by consistency of tense, and by stylistic choice e.g. The gentleman encountered an acquaintance. vs. The guy met up with this bloke he knows.

However, sometimes a text may lack any explicit markers of cohesive relations. Two of the much-quoted examples are the following one:

A: There's the doorbell.

B: I'm in the bath.

Yet, by using our knowledge of the world we are able to reconstruct the context where such a dialogue might be possible and imply what it is all about. The first utterance must be a request to see who is at the door; the reply to it is an excuse not to fulfil this request: the person is in the bath. Here we are looking at the pragmatic meaning of the utterances that comes from the context rather than from syntax or lexis. Pragmatics is the study of what speakers mean to convey when they use a particular structure in context.

When we talk about text coherence we refer to such terms as 'background knowledge' or 'knowledge of the world' which are beyond the scope of linguistics. This background knowledge includes the knowledge of the structure of stereotypic event sequences such as grocery shopping or booking a plane ticket, i.e. script knowledge. And we do bear in mind the principles of rhetorical organization and social constrains on communication; for example, a greeting sequence, such as,

Hello. - Hi. How are you? – Fine. And you? -Just fine.

The result of using this knowledge is a coherent text - text that 'sticks together' as a unit.

Stages of a reading lesson

While devising exercises aimed at developing reading comprehension, we should keep in mind that there are several types of reading and they depend on one's reasons for reading. Learners will never read efficiently unless they can adapt their reading speed and techniques to their aim when reading. By reading all texts in the same way, learners would waste time and fail to remember points of importance to them because they would absorb too much non-essential information.

As a rule there are three main stages in a reading lesson:

Pre-reading activities: an introduction to the topic. These activities draw in the learner's current knowledge or attitude to the subject, and create the state of anticipation preparing the learner for a 'dialogue' with the text. Through an introduction activity the learner forms a number of questions which she expects to find answers to in the text, and while reading she is looking for those answers. This expectation is inherent in the process of reading which is a permanent interrelationship between the reader and the text. Pre-reading activities, for example, may include the following tasks:

1)  predicting from the title the content of the text
2)  guessing the content from the list of key words
3)  Discussing illustrations to the text
4)  answering questions about the topic and thus eliciting background information

While-reading activities: a series of comprehension activities aimed at creating meaning of the text. Sometimes the same text is read a few times, each time with a different task. These activities focus on understanding cohesive grammatical and lexical relations within sentences and between parts of the text. This stage can be also used to focus on new structures and vocabulary of the lesson when a reading passage is a means of introducing new language. Or it may include awareness-raising activities. They all aid comprehension. For example,

1)  questions of different kinds: open or multiple-choice questions
2)  true/false statements 
3)  Choosing the best title
4)  decision-making activities: drawing a diagram with the information given in the text
5)  completing a table or a document, solving a problem
6)  matching exercises: headings and paragraphs, questions and answers
7)  comparing several texts in their content or points of view
8)  activities aimed at developing study skills, such as using a dictionary 
9)  leaving out unessential information by highlighting key ideas and words
10) note-taking and summarizing
11) guessing the meaning of unknown words
12) making inferences and reading between lines 
13) jig-saw reading
14) ordering a sequence of pictures

Post-reading activities: learners are asked to relate the information in the text to their own lives (personalisation) or exchange their opinions on issues in the text. The ability to evaluate and assess the text in order to develop critical reading skills is the aim here.

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