You are on page 1of 34

Don’t sweat the small stuff:

how to help your students

read smarter, not harder,
in English
Barbara Nykiel-Herbert
Department of English
Youngstown State University
Youngstown, Ohio
What is reading?

• decoding graphic symbols to

• getting meaning from print
• psycholinguistic guessing-game
• transaction between text and
• retrieving and comprehending
some form of stored information or

Why do students EFL need to read
efficiently in English?

According to research commissioned by the British

Council, English is the main language of
 books and newspapers,
 airports and air-traffic control,
 international business and academic conferences,
 science, technology,
 diplomacy,
 sport and international competitions,
 pop music and advertising.

• Nearly 70% of the world's scientists read in

• 75% the world's mail is written in English;
80% cent of the world's electronically stored
information is in English;
• 90% of the Internet content is in English.
English as a life skill

English is no longer regarded as a foreign language, but

rather, like computer technology, a set of vital survival
skills in the rapidly changing world. In all likelihood, in
the next 10 years or so, the concept of literacy will be
re-defined from “the ability to access information in a
written text” to “the ability to access and process
information in English through digital means.”

The world doesn’t make allowances for non-native

English readers; books and other texts are not written
like EFL textbooks. When they leave college
classrooms, our students will have to deal
professionally with real-life English texts.

Therefore our task as teachers is to equip our

students with skills, strategies, and confidence to
read challenging English texts.
What kind of texts should EFL students
 non-fiction
 informative
 narrative
 expository
 persuasive
 technical
 academic
 across a range of content areas
 varying length
 a notch (or two) higher than oral skills level
Why is reading a challenge for EFL

 poor control of vocabulary

 difficulty in processing syntactically
complex sentences
 low reading speed
 insufficient content background
 lack of metacognitive strategies
(guiding oneself through thinking and
We learn to read by reading
Reading is based in language. As there are no miracle
methods for learning a foreign language, there are no
quick fixes for reading.

Successful reading is not only dependent on the

reader’s linguistic skills: it also depends on his content
knowledge and his cognitive aptitude.

There are some strategies that can improve reading

efficiency in L2, but there are no fast and easy recipes
for a rapid dramatic increase in reading fluency,
accuracy and comprehension. The only reliable way of
increasing one’s reading power is through more
Word recognition
Associating form and meaning,
e.g. flea, bite, household, navigate

Word recognition in English can be accomplished through

decoding to sound (“sounding out”) or sight recognition.

The knowledge of derivational morphemes helps processing

a given word at many levels: phonetic (sounding out),
syntactic and semantic:
Efficient reading is sight reading

Decoding to sound is a transitional strategy; fluent

readers read by sight. However, decoding is still
useful when encountering new words in print.

Fluent readers do not read word by word: they

perceive and process 5-7 words at a time.

That is the number of items we can hold at once in

our working memory.
Sample 1

Strange as this all may seem, women have suffered

for beauty for a long time now. The Mayans filed
their teeth down and drilled holes so that they
could embellish them with jewelry. The hot beauty
treatment of the Middle Ages was making yourself
bleed to achieve pallor, which epitomized sex-

 Q: In the Middle Ages, women were more attractive

if they were
 A. epitomized
 B. pale-looking
 C. bleeding
 D. appealing
Sample 1 “chunked” for easy

Strange as this all may seem, (6)

women have suffered for beauty (5)
for a long time now. (5)
The Mayans filed their teeth down (and) drilled holes (8)
so that they could embellish them with jewelry. (8)
The hot beauty treatment of the Middle Ages (8)
was making yourself bleed to achieve pallor, (7)
which epitomized sex-appeal. (4)
Comprehension: lexical and syntactic and extra-
linguistic levels

Syntactic level – determining the relationships among

words in
a sentence
 The flea bites the dog.

 The dog bites the flea.

Lexical semantics level – determining the meanings

of words from the context in which they occur:
 I’ll pick up the wugs on the way home.

 Wugs will thrive in these conditions.

Question: What are wugs?

What kind of grammar challenges do EFL
students encounter in real English texts?
 passive voice
 inversion
 complex noun phrases and adverbials
 complex tense forms
 multiple embeddings (clauses within clauses)
 sentence length: main S and V difficult to locate

Had a discovery of the improper installation of the ring
securing the drive shaft been made sooner, the extensive
damage to the engine could have been prevented.
Comprehension: extra-linguistic level

World knowledge – interpretation of text by

reference to the extra-linguistic reality.

Usually the lexical, syntactic and conceptual

complexities co-occur in texts: the more
advanced the topic, the more complex the

The more knowledge of the topic a reader

brings to the text, the better his
comprehension; he can use his content
knowledge to make guesses about the
Typically recommended reading
• Determine the reading purpose/task.

• Preview the text (look at title, headings,

pictures, etc.) to identify text genre.

• Make predictions about its content.

• Read fast for the gist/main idea of the text;

pay attention to boldface words etc.

• Re-read for details.

Working with challenging texts

These strategies do not always work,

especially if a text is challenging for the
reader. There may be no title or any
other indicator of the genre or content
of a particular text, like in the above
examples. (These kinds of texts are
often included in language and reading
tests.) The text may include unknown
vocabulary, complex syntax, or deal
with unfamiliar concepts. Different
strategies are necessary for working
with such texts.
Sample 2
The evidence suggests that a field-dependent
cognitive style, and other characteristics of
limited differentiation, tend to prevail in social
settings which are characterized by insistence
on adherence to authority both in society and in
the family by the use of strict or even harsh
socialization practices to enforce conformance,
and by tight social organization.

Q: The occurrence of field-dependent cognitive style in

societies correlates with
 limited differentiation characteristics
 strict social order and compliance with authority
 consistency in child-rearing practices
 unusually harsh living conditions
Sample 3
Evolution of the unique attachments and the
proportionately large size of the gluteus
maximus muscle in hominids may be related as
much to the requirements for control of the
trunk on the hindlimbs during movement
involving forelimb activities in tool using as to
those for maintaining the trunk above the
hindlimbs in bipedal locomotion.

Q: Which statements are true? Which are false?

 Bigger buttocks help maintain balance on two
 Big buttocks are an impediment to fast
 Bipedalism and tool use are evolutionarily
 During evolution, buttock muscles first
appeared in hominids.
Reflect on your reading strategies
 What kind of reading difficulties: lexical,
syntactic, or extra-linguistic do the Samples
1,2 and 3 present to you?

• As an experienced reader, what strategies

have you applied to understand the texts and
answer the questions?

• Did questions help you understand the text?

Some strategies for working through
short but challenging texts:

 Read the question(s) first. Restate the question to make

sure you understand exactly what is being asked.
 As you read the text, stop to ask yourself if you
understand what you have just read.
 Clarify what exactly you don’t understand: is it a word,
the way words are put together (grammar), or a
 Examine the structure of the unfamiliar words (prefixes,
suffixes, etc.) Can you figure out approximate
meanings of these words?
 List the facts in the passage that you do understand.
 List the “gaps” - what you don’t know.
 Using what you know, try fill in these gaps meaningfully.
 Verify your answer: re-read to check if the text still
makes sense with your understanding.
Example of “working through” a
challenging text
• The gluteus maximus muscle in hominids is
• It is attached in an unusual way.
• These two features evolved for two reasons.
• First reason: When a hominid uses a tool with
his hands he has to stand on his feet. When his
moves his arms to use the tool his body has to
stay upright. The g.m. muscle helps him to
maintain such position.
• Second reason: The g.m. also helps to keep
the body upright when the hominid is moving
on two feet.

If a text is challenging for students,

rather than translating it into L1,
guide them with questions so that
they can reason out the meaning
and restate it in simpler terms.
Model the process so that they can
begin doing it for themselves. Try
to use English for this rather than
Reading longer texts

Reading longer texts creates its own challenges,

especially if they contain a high number of unfamiliar
vocabulary, complex grammar, and difficult
concepts, or complex arguments. A longer text may
need a more extensive pre-reading introduction to
make it possible for students to understand the text
Introducing a persuasive article: some
pre-reading questions

Title: We Must Not Fear Scientific


 What is a revolution?
 What is scientific revolution?
 Judging from the title, how do people feel
about scientific revolution?
 Do you think scientific revolution can be
scary? What is your opinion on the issue?
 Do you know what cloning is? Stem cells? An
 Why is the use of stem cells controversial?
 The students may not know the answers
to some of these questions, but just
asking these kinds of questions
activates their thinking (creates “hooks”
for the new information), and so while
they read they will be more likely to pay
attention to the relevant details.
 We may want to give students some
information relating to the content of
the text before they read, since juggling
too many unknowns is
counterproductive (this has to be

Encourage the students to read selectively.

This is not the same as reading fast. Rather
than reading and understanding every
sentence, get them to focus on specific
information to find in the text e.g.,
 What kind of people are the most afraid of
scientific revolution?

 What are their reasons to be afraid?

 What are the author’s arguments for

supporting scientific revolution?
Some problems with texts
Much to the relief of the astronauts’ families and people all over
the world, the space shuttle Discovery returned home safely on
August 9, 2005. But after Discovery blasted off on its successful
mission, experts discovered small pieces of debris had fallen
from its external fuel tank during lift-off. Fortunately, the debris
did not hit the frame of the shuttle and didn’t put the crew at risk.
A similar accident happened in 2003 when the space shuttle
Columbia blasted off. A suitcase-size piece of debris broke off it
and punched a big hole in the shuttle’s wing. Super-heated
gases escaped into its frame, and then the shuttle blew up. All
seven astronauts on board were killed. But this time the experts
didn’t take any chances. They postponed the blast-off until
everything was OK.

Space shuttle Discovery _____ as a result of small

pieces of debris
found falling from its external fuel tank.

A. blasted off as scheduled

B. landed on Mars
C. was destroyed immediately
D. was not allowed to leave the ground
Some problems with test questions

No valuables were stolen, and the furniture was all in

place. But the police officer found that the skin on the
body had turned pink.

It can be inferred that

• the person might have died of carbon monoxide

• the person may have died of food poisoning.

• the person may have died of lead poisoning.

• the person may have been murdered.


A monk walked down a path that led to a

In the moonlight he pushed open the door and
entered the cabin.
It can be inferred that
 the monk knew there was someone in the

 the monk knew there was no one in the

 the door was locked.

 the door was open.

 Vocabulary, grammar and content knowledge
contribute in different ways to comprehension.
 Reading strategies must be appropriate to
 purpose

 type of text

 level of linguistic complexity.

 In order to cope with various types of reading

challenges, EFL students must develop flexibility in
the use reading strategies.

Text and test question samples have been

taken from the following sources:
1. Gibson, KR and Ingold, T., eds. 1993. Tools,
Language and Cognition in Human Evolution.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

5. GEPT Classroom Reading and Writing –

Intermediate. 2005. Pearson Longman

7. Information in frames 3 and 4 comes from

You might also like