Reading is a challenging skill for many reasons and is often a stumbling block for those who want to succeed in the First and Advanced exams. According to recent research carried out by our Teacher Training department, two very clear conclusions can be drawn: firstly, a very high percentage of students who fail to pass the reading paper also fail to pass the exam. Secondly, reading is the skill that is the most difficult to improve in the months leading up to the exam. This means that teachers need to start dealing with reading skills in class as soon as possible, giving it sufficient time and focus so that struggling readers get the opportunity to work on this skill throughout the year.
Being a good reader in general doesn’t necessarily mean being a good exam reader. Students might be used to reading for pleasure or even be great readers in their own language. However, reading under strict exam conditions (and timing) is a very different matter and, in order to be able to perform well in exams, students need to learn specific reading skills. These skills need to be taught in class: a big mistake some teachers make is only testing their students rather than helping them develop their reading skills; leaving many with reading as the weakest of the four skills and the least likely to pass in the exam. It must be mentioned that coursebooks are getting better at teaching rather than testing when it comes to reading, but the role of the teacher in guiding their students through this difficult skill in the classroom is of vital importance.
There are some common challenges that teachers and students face when preparing for the reading paper:
- Motivating students who don’t read in their own language is difficult. Very often, the texts they come across in the exams (and this is particularly true at Advanced) are the longest and most demanding ones they will ever read.
- Sometimes (most of the time) texts are quite boring; motivating a student to read an academic text, let’s say, about the economic benefits of organising the Olympic Games is never easy!
- It’s a skill that is really difficult to improve: it takes a very long time to improve students’ reading skills. In fact, and particularly if the teacher doesn’t have much time, it would be wise to improve students’ exam reading technique rather than their overall reading skills.
- Students find it difficult to focus on reading and they get distracted easily. Just try to do the exam reading tasks yourself and you will see that getting distracted is quite easy (especially when it comes to the really boring ones). Regardless of how well we understand and empathise with our students, teachers need to be strict and use classroom time to get students to read the texts in real conditions.
Despite these challenges, there are many tools teachers can use to help students become efficient exam readers. Here are some of our top suggestions:
- The best way to become a good reader is to read as much as possible, which is no big secret. That’s why teachers need to give students as much practice in class as possible, in a wide variety of genres and text types. These not only include the specific genres they will find in the exams, but also reading outside the classroom for pleasure. Getting students to read a graded reader for First or authentic material for Advanced (e.g. a novel of their choice) will greatly improve their reading skills and their interest in the skill itself.
- Practise reading sub-skills in class. Sometimes teachers assume that skimming and scanning skills can be directly transferred from students L1 reading skills, but as mentioned above, one of the current issues is that students don’t read in their own language. Setting tasks in which students have a limited time to read long texts for general understanding or scan a complex text for paraphrasing is essential.
- Get students to justify their answers. This will get them to analyse the questions and texts more closely. It is important that they think about why an answer is right or wrong, particularly in the parts where their detailed understanding of a text is tested.
- Get students to guess the meaning of unknown words. This is an essential skill and teachers need to teach students how to use the context to work out the meaning of the words they don’t know. For this reason, it is advisable not to answer any questions related to vocabulary while they are reading, instead leaving it to the feedback stage after the task.
- Teachers need to insist on students underlining the relevant parts of the questions and texts to make sure they can refer back to them when feedback is given. This will also demonstrate that they are able to match the answers to the part of the text where the answer is and makes it much easier for the teacher to identify where the students are going wrong.
- Reading at speed is an essential skill. Students need to be able to read a long and complex text quickly and efficiently. This is something they need to practise in class if they want to be able to do it in the exam. Therefore, it’s essential to time your students on a regular basis and encourage them to make a note of how long a reading task takes them when doing it at home.
- Teach strategies and specific reading skills. These might include understanding inference and implication, purpose and attitude, identifying contrasting or similar opinions, identifying paraphrases, understanding the overall structure of a text or understanding how different sections of a text link.
- Always look at the title of the text you are going to read. It sounds so simple, yet so many students jump straight into the questions related to a text rather than just stopping for a moment and considering what the text is actually about. Global understanding of a text is key to success and the title is the basis of this understanding.
To sum up, teachers need to teach specific reading skills in class. Not only does this involve getting students to read texts and answer comprehension questions (which is basically testing them), but also making sure that students get enough practice developing reading sub-skills and strategies. This will enable them to approach reading tasks with confidence and the knowledge that will help them go on improving.