Professional Development

Strategic reading in the classroom

Jessica Williams

In today’s post, Making Connections author Jessica Williams suggests ways to promote strategic reading in the classroom, to encourage your students to become skilled readers.

Reading is complicated, and becoming a skilled reader takes a long time. Most L2 reading textbooks try to promote skilled reading by teaching reading strategies. When readers begin to use these strategies automatically, the strategies become skills. So, how can you promote strategic (and one day, skilled) reading in your classroom? Here are five suggestions to keep in mind.

1. Teach, don’t just test. Many reading textbooks present a reading followed by comprehension questions. Comprehension questions can indicate whether your students have understood the text but they can’t help them become strategic readers. Good comprehension is a result of strategic reading. If you want your students to find the main idea, for example, show them how. You might start by asking them to find the topic. Then ask them what the writer wants to say about the topic. Tell them to check subheads and look for repeated words and phrases. Or, if you want your students to recognize the difference between fact and opinion, help them recognize the language “hooks” such as “research suggests” and “government records indicate” that often accompany the reporting of facts.

2. Don’t neglect fluency. Fluency is not about reading quickly; it’s about reading effortlessly and automatically. Fluency is a major component of reading proficiency; therefore, building fluency should be an important part of reading instruction. Yet, it is often neglected in reading courses. Reading is an interactive process of constructing meaning. If readers read too slowly, that process breaks down, comprehension suffers, and your students will learn little of either the content or language in the text. The best way to improve fluency is through reading, in particular, reading texts that allow effortless reading. Include different types of reading in your curriculum: easy reading, repeated reading, extended reading, and timed reading. Fluent readers are more likely to enact the strategies you are trying to teach. Fluency practice builds a virtuous cycle: fluent reading → text comprehension → strategic reading → language learning → increased fluency → …

3. Don’t forget that you are a language teacher. The learning objective in L2 reading is not really to understand the content of a particular reading, it’s to become a better reader. So, don’t forget that part of your job as a reading teacher is language instruction. If learners’ language proficiency is too low to allow them to construct meaning from a text, strategy instruction won’t really help them. Limited vocabulary is a major barrier to reading fluency and text comprehension. If your texts have lots of unknown vocabulary, your students will struggle and read slowly. This perpetuates a vicious cycle: difficult texts with unknown vocabulary → poor fluency → poor comprehension → little learning…Your students need to build their sight vocabulary. One way to do this, of course, is to read texts that provide repeated exposure to unfamiliar vocabulary. However, this incidental lexical learning is a slow process and chances are, your students may not have the luxury of time. This means that some vocabulary learning will have to be intentional and the instruction, explicit.

4. Practice; practice. Becoming a skilled reader, building the lexicon, acquiring the L2 grammar. These all take a long time, repeated engagement with texts, and repeated exposure to unfamiliar vocabulary in different contexts. Many texts introduce a new reading strategy with each unit, but don’t leave the strategy from the previous unit behind. Recycle strategies whenever you can. Remind your students to activate appropriate strategies whenever they tackle a new text. And, although this may seem obvious, they need to practice the strategies while they are reading. Many textbooks introduce new reading strategies only after the text is presented. Students should become familiar with new strategies before they start reading and be ready to activate them during reading.

5. Be realistic about your students’ limitations and your own expectations. Your students may be skilled readers in their first language, but if their proficiency is low, they may not be able to use those skills in English. Think about your own reading processes. You can probably guess the meaning of an unfamiliar word in a text. That is because every other word in the text is sight vocabulary; that is, they are words that you know well and process automatically. This allows you to construct the meaning of the text and then use it to infer the meaning of that one unfamiliar word. Try to put yourself in your students’ shoes from time to time. Try reading an academic text in another (weaker) language. Not so easy!  In spite of the fact that most L2 reading books encourage—even require—learners to infer the meaning of unfamiliar words from context, few L2 learners have the extensive sight vocabulary and level of fluency that this task requires. So, don’t accept everything you see in textbooks!

You can find more about Making Connections here. 

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