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?

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decoding graphic symbols to sounds getting meaning from print psycholinguistic guessing-game transaction between text and reader retrieving and comprehending some form of stored information or ideas

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 English; 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 read?
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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 learners?
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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 understanding)

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 reading.

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: wug biometrics discormigate discormigation

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 sexappeal.

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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 processing:
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 extralinguistic 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?
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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

Example: 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 language. 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 language.

Typically recommended reading strategies

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.
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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 feet.  Big buttocks are an impediment to fast movement.  Bipedalism and tool use are evolutionarily related.  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:

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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 concept? 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

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The gluteus maximus muscle in hominids is large. 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 Chinese.

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 better.

Introducing a persuasive article: some pre-reading questions
Title: We Must Not Fear Scientific Revolution
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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 embryo? 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. B. C. D.

blasted off as scheduled landed on Mars was destroyed immediately 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 poisoning. • 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 cabin. 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 cabin.  the monk knew there was no one in the cabin.  the door was locked.  the door was open.

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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

GEPT Classroom Reading and Writing – Intermediate. 2005. Pearson Longman Information in frames 3 and 4 comes from