Why Teaching Reading?

As teachers, we must instill in our students a love of reading at an early age since reading is crucial to lifelong learning and our personal and professional development. Students who value books are more motivated to read on their own and are more likely to continue to hold that value for the rest of their lives. In other words, reading not only expands vocabulary, improves imagination, creativity and writing skills, but also builds up academic autonomy, self-confidence, social-emotional skills and at last but not least life skills.

In Harmer’s view, there are many reasons why teachers play an essential part in getting students to read English texts. First, lots of them want to read texts in English for study purposes or simply for pleasure and enjoyment. According to Harmer, there are also other purposes for reading: any exposure to English is a useful thing for language students, more specifically “some of the language sticks in their minds as part of the process of language acquisition, and, if the reading text is especially interesting and engaging, acquisition is likely to be even more successful”( Harmer, Jeremy, How to Teach English – An Introduction to the Practice of English Language Teaching, England, Longman – Pearson Education Limited, 1998, p. 69).

Futhermore, Harmer highlights a relevant aspect related to reading that is the fact that reading texts provide good models for English writing. Similarly, reading texts provide lots of opportunities to study language, namely vocabulary, grammar, punctuation, sentence construction, paragraphs and texts. Much more, in Harmer’s opinion, good reading texts may constitute an inexhaustible source of interesting topics, discussions, arising imagination and creativity which spice up the lessons.

Besides all this,Harmer points out that a great controversy has appeared on whether the texts appropriate for English language students should be authentic or not. That happens because“ people have worried about more traditional language – teaching materials which tended to look artificial and to use over-simplified language which any native speaker would find comical and untypical”(Ibidem, p. 69).

Moreover, Harmer makes a clear distinction between real English on the one hand and the students’ abilities and interests on the other. Some authentic written material such as menus, timetables, signs and basic instructions which beginner students can partially understand be used within reading lessons. But for longer prose, texts should be written or adapted especially to students’ level. Such texts should be as much like real English as possible. In addition, Harmer highlights six principles which are at the basis of teaching reading in English.

• Principle 1: Reading is not a passive skill. This principle refers to the fact that reading is an active occupation which, in order to be done successfully, needs understanding of the words and understanding of the arguments. Harmer considers that if we do not analyze the text profoundly, then our work with text remains at the surface.

• Principle 2: Students need to be engaged with what they are reading. Harmer acknowledges that students who are not engaged or actively interested in the reading text 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”( Harmer, Jeremy, How to Teach English – An Introduction to the Practice of English Language Teaching, England, Longman – Pearson Education Limited, 1998, p.71).

• Principle 3: Students should be encouraged to respond to the content of a reading text, not just to the language.Through this principle, Harmer emphasizes the equal importance given both to studying reading texts for the way they use language, the number of paragraphs they comprise and the frequency of relative clauses and moreover, the meaning, the message of the text which is equally essential in the sense that students should be given a chance to respond to that message and freely express their feelings about the topic – this way challenging their personal involvement with the language and the matter in question.

• Principle 4: Prediction is a major factor in reading. From Harmer`s viewpoint “when we read texts in our own language, we frequently have a good idea of the content before we actually read. Book covers give us a hint of what’s in the book, photographs and headlines hint at what articles are about and reports look like reports before we read a single word. The moment we get this 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 predict what’s coming too. It will make them better and more engaged readers”(Ibidem,p.71).

• Principle 5: Match the task to the topic. This principle is more than relevant for teachers within their reading lessons because once they have decided what reading text the students are to read, the tasks should be chosen accordingly. In this respect, even “the most interesting text can be undermined by asking boring and inappropriate questions and  the most commonplace passage can be made really exciting with imaginative and challenging tasks”( Harmer, Jeremy, How to Teach English – An Introduction to the Practice of English Language Teaching, England, Longman – Pearson Education Limited, 1998, p.71).

• Principle 6:  Good teachers exploit reading texts to the full. At this point, Harmer asserts that “good teachers integrate the reading text into interesting class sequences, using the topic for discussion and further tasks, using the language for study and later activation”.

Generally, there are many kinds of reading lessons and the reading activities vary according to the stage, approach and specific aims of the lesson. For the first school levels, a reading lesson may involve providing different contexts for practising the same thing, for example developing instant recognition of names of objects in the classroom.

Any reading lesson supposes three stages with pre-reading, while-reading and post-reading activities.

Pre-reading stage usually may have one or more of functions such as: to arouse students’ interest in the topic of the text; to introduce the language or the concepts which occur in the text but which students may not know-the meanings of new vocabulary may be exemplified through the use of context, picture, drawings, objects, mime, synonyms, and antonyms; to help students see the correlation of ideas in a difficult text by providing a framework. Then the teacher may use various techniques to present the new grammar patterns such as rules, drawings, pictures, realia, diagrams, demonstrations, grids and tables and moreover, the teacher should provide students with samples after introducing the new vocabulary and structures in order to reinforce them.

As regards while-reading activities, this stage comprises activities that students engage in while actually reading the text, for example answering questions from the text which can be a source of information for further fill-in exercises, for drawing posters, problem solving ones etc. The purpose of these activities would be to enable students to achieve the lesson aims by handling the text in different ways.

Whereas the main function of the while-reading activities is to make students look closely into the text and analyze it in its depth, the purpose of post-reading activities is to look out of or beyond the text and perceive its relevance to other activities students may find attractive or useful.

As for Harmer, students should be capable of doing lots of things with a reading text. They should be capable of scanning the text for the particular information they are looking for. This skill supposes that they do not have to read every word or line, fact which would stop them scanning well. Another skill students should acquire is skimming a text so as to get a general idea of what it is about. Harmer acknowledges that just as with scanning, if students “try to gather all the details at this stage, they will get bogged down and may not be able to get the general idea because they are concentrating too hard on specifics”(Harmer, Jeremy, How to Teach English – An Introduction to the Practice of English Language Teaching, England, Longman- Pearson Education Limited, 1998, p.70).

In Harmer’s view, “whether readers scan or skim depends on what kind of text they are reading and what they want to get out of it. They may scan a computer manual to find the one piece of information they need to use their machine, and they may skim a newspaper article to get a general idea of what’s been happening”( Harmer, Jeremy, How to Teach English – An Introduction to the Practice of English Language Teaching, England, Longman- Pearson Education Limited, 1998, p.70). But what is expected from them is to be less utilitarian with a literary work where reading for pleasure will be a time consuming but closer kind of activity.

Reading for detailed comprehension represents another skill students should appropriate whether looking for detailed information or language which must be considered by students as something different from the before mentioned reading skills in the sense that when looking for details, students are expected “to concentrate on the minutiae of what they are reading”(Ibidem, p.70).

Briefly, Harmer’s conclusion regarding reading and reading skills is that “one of the teacher’s main functions when training students to read is not only to persuade them of the advantages of skimming and scanning, but also to make them see that the way they read is vitally important”(Ibidem, p.70).

Although reading seems an underrated activity nowadays, when the focus is mainly on technology and the increasing information available through all forms of communication technology, it is vital to read and the benefits will definitely appear. It is our duty as teachers to guide our students and find ways, diversify our teaching approaches so as to strongly motivate them in this respect.

Harmer, Jeremy, How to Teach English – An Introduction to the Practice of English Language Teaching, England, Longman- Pearson Education Limited, 1998, p.69-71).


prof. Ionela Carmina Iliin

Liceul cu Program Sportiv, Bistrița (Bistriţa-Năsăud) , România
Profil iTeach: iteach.ro/profesor/ionela.iliin

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