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Developing reading skill in tefl

The ability to read is considered one of the most important skills that learners of English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL) need to acquire. Reading is a receptive skill in which people extract meaning from the discourse they see.

There are many reasons why getting students to read English texts is a part of a teacher's job. In the first place, many of them think it important to be able to read texts in English either for their careers, for studying purposes or simply for pleasure. Anything we can do to make reading easier for them must be a good idea.

The actuality of teaching students to read critically is based on the fact that nowadays our country tends to accept educational standards of European countries and the most specific feature of the educational system in

Kazakhstan is the transition to credit system. It means that students must possess the ability to work individually. Teachers should aim to develop learners’ skills of this type of work from early stages. The practical purpose raised at school is the developing practical reading skills.

J. Harmer, like most researches makes difference between “extensive” and “intensive” reading. In his opinion, the former suggests reading at length, often for pleasure and in a leisurely way, intensive reading tends to be more concentrated, less relaxed, and often dedicated not so much to pleasure as to the achievement of a study goal [1; p. 199].

Extensive reading frequently takes place when students are on their own, whereas intensive reading is often done with the help and/or intervention of the teacher.

Extensive reading – especially where students are reading material written specially at their level – has a number of benefits for the development of a student’s language. This kind of reading makes students more positive, improves their overall comprehension skills, gives them a wider passive and active vocabulary, enables students to read without constantly stopping and provides an increased word recognition. It is the best possible way for them to develop automaticity. But it is not enough to tell students “to read a lot”; we need to offer them a program which includes appropriate materials, guidance, tasks, and facilities such as libraries of books [1; p.204].

In order to get students to read enthusiastically in class, it is desirable to observe a number of principles.

According to Nuttall Christine, the first thing we should always remember is that reading is not a passive skill. Reading is an incredibly active occupation. To do it successfully, we have to understand what the words mean, see the pictures the words are painting, understand the arguments, and work out if we agree with them. If we do not do these things and if students do not do these things then we only just scratch the surface of the text and we quickly forget it [2; p. 89].

Secondly, students need to be engaged with what they are reading. As with everything else in lessons, students who are not engaged with the reading text or actively interested in what they are doing are less likely to benefit from it. When they are really fired up by the topic or the task, they get much more from what is in front of them.

For the third, students should be encouraged to respond to the content of a reading text, not just to the language. Of course, it is important to study reading texts for the way they use language, the number of paragraphs they contain and how many times they use relative clauses. But the meaning, the message of the text, is just as important and we must give students a chance to respond to that message in some way. It is especially important that they should be allowed to express their feelings about the topic thus provoking personal engagement with it and the language.

The forth thing to know is that prediction is a major factor in reading. The moment we get a hint the book cover, the headline, the word-processed page our brain starts predicting what we are going to read. Expectations are set up and the active process of reading is ready to begin. Teachers should give students ‘hints’ so that they can predicate what’s coming, too. It will make them better and more engaged readers.

For the fifth, it is important to match the task to the topic. Once a decision has been taken about what reading text the students are going to read, we need to choose good reading tasks the right kind of questions, engaging and useful puzzles, etc. The most interesting text can be undermined by asking boring and inappropriate questions; the most commonplace passage can be made really exciting with imaginative and challenging tasks. We could give students Hamlet's famous soliloquy 'To be or not to be' and ask them to say how many times the infinitive is used. We could give them a restaurant menu and ask them to list the ingredients alphabetically. There might be reasons for both tasks, but, on the face of it, they look a bit silly. We will probably be more interested in what Hamlet means and what the menu foods actually are.

For the sixth, good teachers exploit reading texts to the full. Any reading text is full of sentences, words, ideas, descriptions, etc. It does not make sense just to get students to read it and then drop it to move on to something else. Good teachers integrate the text for reading into interesting class sequences, using the topic for discussion and further tasks, using the language for study and later activation. Another aspect concerning teaching reading is reading speed. In any selfassessment or questionnaire – based survey, students almost always cite reading as the skill causing them least difficulty. This is probably correct, at least in relation to the other skills. However, it does not mean that students have no problems with reading at all. The most usual difficulty is that indicated in Geoghegam’s analysis at Cambridge, i.e. an ability to read at adequate speed [3; p. 56].

As students need to read extensively as well as intensively, it is important that they are able to do so in the most efficient way. Efficiency is coupled with speed of reading, and it was noticed that some students read slowly. It is for this reason that some reading courses include practice material aimed at increasing speed and comprehension rate.

It should be noted that there are two opposite points of view regarding reading speed. One is that because students have difficulties with reading comprehension, probably linked to a narrow range of vocabulary, they will naturally read slowly, and any attempt to increase reading speed before improving reading comprehension is misguided. The other point of view is that by improving reading speed, the student is able to see longer stretches of language with each fixation of the eyes and thus more easily contextualize unknown vocabulary and be able to achieve general understanding [3; p. 57].

A good method of increasing reading speed is for students to note the time they take to read a passage in words per minute (wpm) and to answer comprehension questions – often true/false or multiple choice, noting their score. Over the years various measures and estimates have been made of slow, average and fast reading speeds for serious reading material.

Fry distinguished three kinds of reading speeds and then compared the performance of a poor reader and a good reader. Less than 200 wpm is considered slow, about 250 wpm average, and above 300 – 400 wpm fast, 250 wpm is an attainable minimum. He then made an experiment with his wife and himself (both native English speakers). Averaging both their speeds they found that reading aloud they read at 194 wpm, reading to themselves but mouthing words audibly they read at 294 wpm and reading silently they read at 385 wpm [4; p. 16].

Reading speed (according to Fry)


Reading objectives and comprehension

Poor reader

Good reader


Slow reading speed is used when material is difficult and/or high comprehension is desired

90-125 wpm

80-90% comprehension

200-300 wpm

80-90% comprehension


Average reading speed is used for everyday reading of magazines, newspapers and easier textbooks

150-180 wpm

70% comprehension

250-500 wpm

70% comprehension


Skimming is used when the highest speed is desired. Comprehension is intentionally lower

Cannot skim

800+ wpm

50% comprehension

We can see from the table that reading speed also depends on the objective the teacher puts forward in reading, and results in how full the comprehension of the text is.

Various books exist on methods how to increase reading speed. Clearly, a student is at a disadvantage if faced with a long reading list if he or she can only read slowly. ‘Slowly’ is, of course, subjective, and will vary from reader to reader, and will depend on the text type. It is easier to read a light novel quickly with understanding than a densely-packed textbook.

Reading speed courses usually discuss the causes of slow reading. This invariability includes reference to eye movements (i.e. mechanical) and brain function (i.e. comprehension). Factors considered are:

  • eye and recognition span;
  • reading word-by word instead of in word groups/thought units;
  • eye regressions along the line;
  • excessive finger-pointing;
  • slowness in word recognition;
  • poor vocabulary range;
  • vocalizing (i.e. mouthing words);
  • sub – vocalization (i.e. saying words silently to oneself);
  • disability to predict language [5; p.25]. Methods to improve reading efficiency usually involve exercises and practice in increasing vocabulary range, anticipation of language, improved comprehension, awareness of eye movements, variable reading speed and timed reading passages.

It is essential for students to be able to skim and scan texts. Skimming involves the quick reading of a text – not every word – in order to understand the gist or main points of a passage, i.e. the overall meaning. [5; p. 33]

Scanning involves quickly looking through a text, or surveying it, in order to find specific information. [5; p. 41] When skimming and scanning, a student should be looking at the heavy information words (or ‘content words’, i.e. nouns and verbs) rather than the grammatical or structural words (e.g. articles, prepositions).

Many students feel daunted by the idea that they must read quickly during the test. Any activity where speed is emphasized can help to break down the idea that reading slowly and carefully is the only way to understanding. Teachers could begin by setting very simple scanning tasks (asking students to locate names or other nouns that occur in the text). This can help to build up confidence. Teachers could then move on to ask students to locate simple synonyms (asking students to find a word meaning ‘a building’ – ‘house’ perhaps, or a word meaning ‘a vehicle’ – maybe ‘truck’) Gradually increase the difficulty of the exercise; tasks should be moderately challenging, but should not be too far beyond the ability level of the majority of your students. “Find it fast” is an activity that will help reinforce the idea of speed.

Another major contribution to our knowledge of reading, with many implications for the classroom, is provided by Schema theory. Bartram [4; p.98] first used this particular term to explain how the knowledge that we have about the world is organized into interrelated patterns based on our previous knowledge and experience. These 'schemata' also allow us to predict what may happen. This theory takes our idea of the interactive reading process a stage further by proposing that efficient readers are able to relate 'texts' to their background knowledge of the world. Brown and Yule, McCarthy and Carter, Cook and Nunan all provide accounts of how this background knowledge can influence the comprehension process. Clearly it can sometimes be based on previous knowledge of similar texts. For example, if we are reading a newspaper, we know from previous experience about the typeface, the layout, the order in which the information is presented and so on. We share cultural background material with others. As Nunan [43; p. 95] writes, 'We interpret what we read in terms of what we already know, and we integrate what we already know with the content of what we are reading.' The word 'wedding' in a British context could engender a complete schematic framework to accompany it; that is, 'last Saturday', 'Registry Office', 'Best Man' and so on. This is why reading something written by someone in a language with different cultural assumptions from ours can be difficult. Overseas teachers and students sometimes complain that reading literature in an L2 is problematic not just because of the language, but also because shared assumptions or different schemata do not always match up.

In many cases an efficient reader appears to use what are called 'top-down' and 'bottom-up' strategies. This means that the reader will not just try to decipher the meaning of individual lexical items but will also have clear ideas about the overall rhetorical organization of the text. The essential features of the bottom-up approach are that the reader tries to decode each individual letter encountered by matching it to the minimal units of meaning in the sound system (the phoneme) to arrive at a meaning of the text, whereas with the topdown approach, the interaction process between the reader and the text, involves the reader in activating knowledge of the world, plus past experiences, expectations and intuitions, to arrive at a meaning of the text. In other words, the top-down process interacts with the bottom-up process in order to aid comprehension. It is most useful to see the act of reading as the interaction between topdown and bottom-up processing. Sometimes it is the individual details that help us understand the whole; sometimes it is our overview that allows us to process the details.

We might further illustrate this by looking at a speaking/listening analogy first of all. If someone asks us, 'Have you got a light?' and we get stuck at the level of the bottom-up process by working out each individual word, then clearly we are missing the top-down request, that the speaker is in fact asking for a match. As teachers we may want to offer our learners one effective reading strategy, which might be to approach the text by noting the title first of all. This clearly points ahead to what the writer will be saying and how the argument develops at various stages in the text itself, when the author is giving approval and disapproval to various types of information. The reader may also put 'schematic' knowledge into operation: in other words an understanding of the background to some facts. This 'top-down' processing would interact with the text as would the 'bottom-up' processing at the lexical level. The reader may also get through the passage by means of what are sometimes referred to as the discourse signposts in the text: expressions such as 'however', 'fortunately', and 'there are’, ‘nonetheless', which are meant as a useful guide for the reader.

Reading can be the aim teaching of a foreign language, but at the same time it can be a mean of teaching other skills that should be mastered by learners. The positive results of such work will spread beyond the field of foreign-language learning. Improving our students’ ability to read in the foreign language will improve their overall reading competence, even in their own language. Moreover, the skills in which learners have been systematically trained (anticipating, inferencing, structuring, analyzing, etc.) are required throughout the curriculum, independently of the subject matter.



  1. Jeremy Harmer. The Practice of English Language Teaching. Longman, 2001. – p. 199-227.
  2. Nuttall Christine. Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language. London: Heinemann Educational. 1999. – p. 87-95.
  3. Geoghegam, J. Class readers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983. – p. 54-57.
  4. Fry T. Embracing Contraries: Explorations in Learning and Teaching. New York: Oxford University Press, 1963. – p. 12-19.
  5. Glendinning T.M., Holmstrom V.A. Reading in a Foreign Language: A reading problem or a language problem? New York: Longman, 1999. – p. 25-72.
  6. Bartram M. and R. Walton. Hove: Language Teaching Publications. New York: Longman, 1998. – p. 86-110.

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