Approaches in reading education: theories in practice

readingLet’s start with a simple but effective question. Why do we read? 
We might have different personal reasons (fun, knowledge), but when we read in school, we read to learn. Learn a language, learn about culture and learn about various subject areas.

What can we learn from reading stories?
Stories (narratives, anecdotes) occupy an important place in both genre-based and text-based curriculum design. Stories don’t only entertain us, but they also consolidate the knowledge we have gathered during lessons by contextualizing it in a narrative.

How can we benefit from different approaches to literacy in our lessons?
Different learning strategies focus on different skills (which can become problem areas for some students). When we approach a text, we do so from various angles and at various levels depending on the reading strategy we would like to practise. From the highest level of contextualisation to the smallest unit of the letter, we have several entry points into a text. David Rose distinguishes 8 patterns of reading and writing: context – text – paragraph – sentence- word group – word- syllable – letter. He says that ‘to read with fluency and comprehension, all of these patterns must be recognised and interpreted simultaneously.’ Most students have problems with reading longer narratives because they have difficulties with a certain pattern. Is it the context, the text, the paragraph? By identifying problem areas, we can assign learning strategies to tasks and improve our students’ overall reading level.

How do these approaches work in practice?
There seems to be a never-ending list of approaches to reading, and we might think that it is hard to apply a combination of them in the classroom. Let’s examine some approaches and see how we can benefit from using them.

I’ve chosen the first page of the level 5 (CEF B1) reader Mystery at the Mill by Elspeth Rawstron (illustrated by Nick Tankard) to illustrate these approaches and to show you can apply various reading approaches within the bigger framework of an extensive reading programme, aiming for independent reading.

 1 Top-down reading: text in context

Why do it?
Top-down processing relies on the background knowledge of the reader. Instead of using the individual words to understand the text, readers predict what the text will be about. The top-down approch to reading also means that first we place the text in a context: historical, social, geographical. We define the subject matter and talk about what type of text it is.
Knowing what they are going to read gives our students some kind of comfort and safety. When they are reading in a foreign language, orientation gains special significance. Having background information and expectations does not mean that the text won’t be able to surprise or challenge them.

How to do it?
Mystery at the Mill
One way of creating context and activating background knowledge is using the cover of the book. Here are some questions for Mystery at the Mill. 

  • How many images can you see on the cover?
  • Why do you think there are two images? What do they imply? (There are two parallel stories within the story. One is set in 2012, the other one is set in 1859.)
  • Which story is set in the 19th century and which one is set in the 21st century?
  • What can you see that supports your decision?
  • The title of the story is Mystery at the Mill. Have you ever been to a mill? (Here ‘mill’ means a clothes mill, which is a place where cloth is processed and made. Your students might think of a water mill or a windmill.)
  • What is the connection between the two girls in the two images?

On the first page you will read about the year 1859. Look the year up on a historical timeline and collect some important events that happened during this year.

2 Modelled or shared reading: pronunciation, critical reading, text in context

Why do it? 
Even advanced students enjoy modelled reading and reading aloud sessions. You read the text aloud to the students to present fluency, chunking and thinking aloud. This way you can demonstrate how you make sense of longer or more difficult sentences and paragraphs. You can also show your students how they can use the information the text provides to create context.

How to do it?
Read the first page of Mystery at the Mill aloud to your class. If you have an IWB or a projector, you can use this marked and annotated page (see below). Once you have read the whole page, go back to the phrases highlighted in yellow, and ask the questions written in the comment boxes.

MMarked and highlighted page from Mystery at the Mill by Elspeth Raswstron. ©Helbling Languages

Marked and highlighted page from Mystery at the Mill by Elspeth Raswstron. ©Helbling Languages

3 Detailed reading : focus on sentences, word groups and words 

Why do it?
During a detailed reading session we move deeper into the text, reaching paragraph, sentence and word levels. This can help with comprehension and vocabulary building. Detailed reading ‘involves carefully designed interaction cycles, in which the teacher prepares all students in the class to identify wordings in each sentence of the passage’. (Rose 2009)

How to do it?*
Detailed reading is a complex multimodal reading cycle with written and spoken elements. Here we will look at the stages which help our student focus on key information, word groups and sentences. Look at the words hihglighted in green on the first page of Mystery at the Mill.

Ask the following questions as you go through the sentences:

  • Prepare sentence: The first sentences tell what us about the workplace of the girl’s great-great-grandmother. Look at the sentence as I read it. ‘The Industrial Revolution had by now changed the face of England and my great-great-grandmother started working at Salts Mill, a woollen mill in Bradford.’
  • Prepare wording: The sentence tells you where the great-great-grandmother started working. Can you see where she worked?
  • Identify: a woollen mill
  • Affirm: ‘Exactly. Let’s highlight a woollen mill.’
  • Elaborate: A woollen mill is a place where woollen textile product are made.

Go through all the highlighted words using the same method.

*Source of the description of the cycle and the quotations:

4 Extensive reading: where reading for pleasure happens

Why do it?
Give space to extensive reading sessions, where students can choose what they want to read, at their specific language level, without worrying about being tested after the reading session. Extensive reading programmes will prepare your students for practising independent reading. Independent readers can read with almost total accuracy. They are fluent readers and can easily apply reading strategies to help their own understanding of the text.

How to do it?
Read about extensive reading in the classroom on this blog: 5 + 5 Tips on Extensive Reading in the Classroom.

5 Paired  reading: communicative reading experience

Why do it?
During paired reading sessions a less and a more fluent student can read together, or you can simply put an older and a younger student together, and assign them paired reading tasks. This way when students read to each other they generally feel less intimidated or uncomfortable as they do when they read in front of the class. They can motivate each other, express their opinions, and start discussions together. The ‘workload’ of reading a book may also seem more like fun if they do it together.

How to do it?
Stories like Mystery at the Mill are great for paired reading as they contain a story within the story. You can ask your students to divide the book: one of them can read the ‘Diary’ and the other one can read the ‘Modern’ story. They have to share information about the plot to put the whole story together. If they read graphic stories together, they can decide who reads the narration, and who reads the comics. They can also assign the characters and read the book as if it was a script.

The pairs can also play a game: one of them can be the storyteller, the other one the listener. They take turns and read passages or chapters to each other. The listener then retells the story inhis/her own words.

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