Are we making tomorrow’s text any easier?

In the first in a series of posts on teaching and developing learners’ receptive skills, I want to question whether we always have our learners’ best interests at heart when we plan a reading class.

During the round table discussion at this years’ TESOL Spain convention, talk briefly turned to our learners’ objectives.

“Everyone wants to take an exam,” commented one union representative.

“All anyone’s interested in is their notas,” added a teacher trainer.

The rest of the panel sighed and nodded, and the conversation shifted on to more pressing topics.

Just a few weeks previously, our Director led a development session in-house. He wanted us to evaluate the extent to which our coursebooks prepared learners for the Young Learner and Lower Main Suite exams (not much) and what we could do about it. I remark on this because it seems rather at odds with the message from my own series of workshops exploring ways of developing learners’ receptive skills, and predictably also the message for this post: hack the exam task to give yourself a chance to teach something.

I say this out of a crippling and entrenched fear that viewing any text (written or spoken) as simply an exam task could lead to a cohort of learners able to navigate the intricacies of a reading exam whilst having no clue of how to read, filter, process, and re-read a text to get the information they need from it. This brings to mind conversations we had in an academy I briefly worked at some years ago, as teachers were discussing which exam tasks were appropriate to include in the upcoming skills tests. Our DoS for Main Suite assured us that by this stage in the course our learners would have “seen” the trickiest parts of the reading exam, so they would be able to complete the task.

Were they right in this assertion? There’s probably something to be said for a ‘keep going’ approach. Many of us have likely practised for tests or exams by steadily working through past papers to hone our skills. That’s how I prepared for – and aced – the DipTESOL exam almost a year ago. That was a test of my ability to apply in-depth knowledge of language, teaching, and training methodologies and approaches. Our learners’ tests are quite different, assessing the ability to decode a text and construct meaning according to a comprehension task.

If we want our learners to become better readers (or even, more cynically, better scorers on reading tests), there’s an uncomfortable truth to be told. We have do more teaching of reading skills, and less testing of comprehension ones, especially when these are aligned to formal methods of assessment.

Over to you: your challenge

This post marks the first series of posts exploring the theory of teaching receptive skills and their practical application in our ELT classrooms.  As well as giving you a variety of experiments I’ve tried out, I’ll be suggesting you take your challenge. To start with, it’s about hacking that exam task to include some more work focused just on the text and its meaning. Here are some ideas to try:

  • After discussing your gist task, give pairs of learners some Post-It notes – one for each paragraph in the text – and ask them to summarise each paragraph in a short phrase or sentence on the Post-It. Get them to arrange them on the wall behind them, or even give sets of notes to different groups to organise into the correct order. This will help the learners develop skills for creating a map of the text, and can help with identifying topic sentences.
  • Choose three reference words from the text (things like this, her, one¸ etc.) and get learners to find them in the text and draw arrows to the idea they connect to. This will help them find connections in the text.
  • After the exam task, try why not give learners the wrong answers? Instead of asking them to compare what they put, they need to find evidence in the text to explain why the answer on the board is wrong.

Throughout this series, I will keep returning to a line from Paul Nation. This has become a motto of mine whenever I prepare a receptive skills lesson. It’s a neat way of reminding yourself to keep the teaching focused on developing language skills, rather than just allowing for exam practice.

How does today’s teaching make tomorrow’s text easier?

Paul Nation (1978)

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