Why are Reading Lessons so Boring?

By Jenny Hardacre
TEFL teacher and trainer with 30 years experience

As a teacher trainer I’ve seen quite a few awful reading lessons. (To tell the truth, as a teacher, I’ve probably given quite a few awful reading lessons, too). A typical unsuccessful lesson goes like this; the teacher starts the lesson with something like “Today we’re going to do some reading. Open your books on page 67.” The students are then told to read the text. A  few words in, some students come across a word they don’t know and reach for their dictionaries or ask their neighbours. The teacher either allows this or says cheerily, “Don’t worry about the unfamiliar words. You don’t need to know all the words to understand the text.”

When most of the students have struggled through to the end of the text, the teacher asks them to look at the comprehension questions, again waits till most people seem to have finished and the class then plods through the answers together.

What’s wrong with this approach?

Firstly, it doesn’t engage students’ interest. Secondly students find it really frustrating to be told not to worry about unknown vocabulary (or if you’ve allowed them to look up all the words they don’t know, they’ve probably completely lost track of the overall meaning of the text and possibly not managed to get to the end). Thirdly, and most importantly, this process does not at all reflect the way literate people read in their first language. We don’t generally just pick up texts with no idea of what they will be about, and we are certainly not usually confronted with a list of questions to answer when we have finished reading.

The recommended procedure for a reading lesson is:

  1. Introduce topic
  2. Pre-teach Vocabulary
  3. Set gist(skimming or scanning task).  First reading + Feedback
  4. Set more detailed questions/task. Second reading + Feedback
  5. Follow up activities (speaking or writing)

For a 50 minute lesson I’d spend about 20 minutes on the first three stages. The procedure isn’t completely inflexible; the point at which you deal with vocabulary may vary and sometimes you may have a reason for dealing with a text quite differently.

If you’ve done some initial teacher training and/or have a reasonably good teacher’s book to accompany your course book, this is probably roughly the procedure you usually follow. I think it is useful to have a clear understanding of why this approach is considered a good one, as it will help you decide how to implement it, when to vary it and make it easier for you to plan your own lessons using authentic materials. Over the next three blogs I will look at this procedure in more detail and clarify why it is used.

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