How to, or not to teach reading

This is turning out to be an interesting discussion. I just read the articles by Rinvolucri and Wilson and they both make some interesting points.
About the class I was referring to in the original post, they were a high-intermediate elementary level class. I came in to teach a new story- Jalapeno Bagels- and I wanted to have the children reading for themselves. I also wanted the children to be able to infer things for themselves and not have me guide them by the hand all the way. The book Jalapeno Bagels is about…you guessed it Jalapeno Bagels. I asked the students what some of their favorite foods were. The Chinese teacher was confused as to why I was doing this as the questions had nothing to do with the story itself, but were leading into the story. The CT had the attitude that what I was doing had nothing to do with the story. Then I asked if the kids can imagine what the story is about from the name of the story and the picture on the cover. I told the students that they had not even read the story yet, and they had fifty percent of what the story is about just by looking at the picture and reading the title.
Next, I started reading the story without having kids point to all of the words they were reading. The CT then stopped me saying that not all of the kids were paying attention as they weren’t pointing to the words. In her view I came in and started asking pointless questions and just lept right into the story. I thought setting up some kind of context was important.
In fact I think kids learn the most from context. You can ask them questions that are not directly answered in the book and get them to answer on their own. Unfortunately many schools have tests after each section of a reading book that must be taught to. That can lead to the more choral rep type of teaching that is so common.
Don’t get me wrong. I think choral rep is a fine way to teach a class of you learners and beginners. It gives everbody in the class a turn to speak. I just think that it has a few weaknesses when it comes to teaching reading.
I do agree that having children follow along with their fingers helps with the fidgetiness as it gives their hands something to do. I like to take care of this problem by playing a quick game of Teacher Says before we start the reading. My CT sometimes just sees this as goofing around and doesn’t understand the point, but I get tired of having to explain the point of every little thing I do to her.
Another point I would like about how children learn from context involves some of my experiences with very young learners. When we have story time I would read a book like Where The Wild Things Are. That is a great book for having children learn what I am reading to them by the tone of my voice and using TPR. I read “They ROARED their TERRIBLE ROARS,” then have the children roar and act like monsters. “And they Gnashed their terrible teeth!” and have the children gnash their teeth, etc. They get the meaning of the book without me having to explain vocabulary they don’t alreay know through rote repetition.
Another example of this with younger learners an experience I had with The Monster At The End of This Book. On each page Grover is urging the reader not to turn the page so they won’t get closer to the monster at the end of the book and throws a fit when they do. I can really ham this up as a teacher when he says YOU TURNED THE PAGE! The children laugh and learn the meaning of the story through how I am saying it. After reading it a boy picked it up during his free time and was walking around the class saying ‘Don’t turn the page’ and when children turned the page he exclaimed ‘YOU TURNED THE PAGE!’ He was a young learner who was essentially learning the text of the book through context and his experience with it rather than through rote memorization.

An example of some negative experiences I have had trying to teach students through strict choral rep reading is that it is debatable how strict I should be about pronunciation. Some interruptive type CTs feel I should try to pick out every mispronunciation I can find. I do correct pronunciation in reading class, but I feel you should do that in every class related to language learning. So we will be reading along chorally and I am listening and when I catch a kid not saying something right I correct it. Some people get nit picky with this though and I feel the pickiness is more detrimental to the students than it is helpful. One CT felt you should have a kid say something correctly five times for every one time they said it incorrectly. I will have the class reading and a student will say ‘The dog jumped over the fence’ as ‘Va dog jumped over the fence.’ I correct the mispronunciation but some CTs will jump in and try to get the child to say it five more times. And if they pronounce the as Da they will have to do it over again. I feel this will only serve to frustrate the student and sometimes it is really a close call as to whether the child mispronounced the word or not.

It sounds like you need to get rid of your CT. She seems to think she knows more about teaching than you, but if that were the case, wouldn’t she be the one teaching the class?

What you’re doing is 100% correct. Context is one of the most important things to have when understanding written word. An example used by Bransford and Johnson in a classic study had people read the following, and answer questions:

The procedure is actually quite simple. First, you arrange things into different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you go somewhere else due to lack of facilities, that is the next step. Otherwise, you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important, but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first, the whole procedure may seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one can never tell. After the procedure is completed, one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put in their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated. However, that is part of life.

  1. What is the first step?
  2. Is it better to do too many things or too few?

These 2 questions can easily be answered. They are right there in the text. Here’s the hard question:
3) What is the passage describing?


In the study, some people were given the title of the passage (“Washing Clothes”) and thus were able to have an understanding of the text. Prior knowledge of what you are going to read is essential, especially in an EFL environment.

Looking at the title, the pictures on the cover, paging through the book and looking at the pictures, relating it to the students’ experiences, and getting them to predict things are ALL helpful to understanding the text. No text is complete by itself. The reader has to interject background knowledge to bring the text to life.

Puppet you make excellent points and I had no idea what the passage was about until the end.
Another point is that you should ask students if they have any experiences with the subject matter of the book. This will help them predict what is going to happen next before they read it.

True, but his suggested “substitute” questions are likely to get a null response with most of my past 1st year university “advanced” ( relative to ? ) reading class students.

With this years intake, anything is pretty much guaranteed a null response.

The writing is on the wall. I dunno where the reading is.

[quote=“Ducked”]True, but his suggested “substitute” questions are likely to get a null response with most of my past 1st year university “advanced” ( relative to ? ) reading class students.

With this years intake, anything is pretty much guaranteed a null response.[/quote]
This. I like to blame the class size (70). I’ve stopped asking questions in anything but a rhetorical sense - too depressing otherwise.

The important thing would be to ask why they are not responding.

  1. They don’t understand the question (English-wise) or they understand it but they don’t “get” why you would be asking that question so they believe they have not understood.
    —Additional comprehension checks to ensure that everyone can understand.
  2. They understand the question but do not feel it was directed at them so they won’t answer.
    —Specific body language to indicate whether a question is to the class for a choral response, to the class for a wait-then-pick-someone scenario, or to an individual.
  3. They understand the question but don’t feel confident in speaking to the point where they will risk an error to answer.
    —Do not expect answers yet; establish a rule where a one-word answer is acceptable (often overlooked in grammar-centric Taiwan as being a real means of communication) to encourage answers rather than grammar exercises in responses.
  4. They have checked out, either because they are convinced they cannot succeed in English class, they are too far behind to know what’s going on (understand it 100%), or they believe that since they passed the entrance exam, nothing more should be expected of them until sophomore year, if then (and probably only core courses even then).
    —Teach to where they are, not to where they “should be”; for the other problems, I guess a quick slap upside the head might help? :smiley:

You can create a class environment where certain responses are required of students (I mean behavioral responses, not oral answers). The key is for everyone to know what’s expected and when. It’s pretty much a matter of training the desired behaviors, which is not often associated with higher education, but if you want them to do certain things, it may be necessary, especially given their prior experiences in learning English.

Regarding the CT who interrupts to make students repeat the mistake five times, what you should do is interrupt her every time she makes a mistake, especially when she has just interrupted you, and make her repeat it five times. Be extremely picky about vowel sounds, especially long a sounds. Make sure all of the students are aware that you are interrupting her because she made a mistake and has bad English. Also encourage students to point out her mistakes so she can repeat them five times. If she becomes extremely embarrassed, angry or expresses some other form of negative emotion, feels stupid and is reluctant to speak in the future, then you will have succeeded in your role as a teacher of EFL in Taiwan. Naturally, she’ll also become a fluent speaker though.

[quote=“lostinasia”][quote=“Ducked”]True, but his suggested “substitute” questions are likely to get a null response with most of my past 1st year university “advanced” ( relative to ? ) reading class students.

With this years intake, anything is pretty much guaranteed a null response.[/quote]
This. I like to blame the class size (70). I’ve stopped asking questions in anything but a rhetorical sense - too depressing otherwise.[/quote]

With large classes I took to using a lot of competitive group work for oral and written responses, mostly because it eases the assessment task. Scores are/were running-totalled on the board, and some written questions are/were run as a race. At end-of-class there was/is often a small prize (sweeties) which an assigned group member has to catch. OK, arguably childish, but its a bit of bizniz that cuts the tedium a bit, and it generally worked OK. Of course there are/were some passengers.

Its still generally working with 2nd year classes, and with a specialist language 1st year class, though their standard has dropped a bit.

Doesn’t work with the new lot. They WILL NOT do any kind of group work. They WILL NOT get off their arses to form a cooperative group huddle. Individually directed questions (difficult or easy) generally get a null response, often with a liberal side-order of fuck-you. They’ll do individual written responses, but I can’t continuously mark those with a class that size, though I can sample.

Since they are the 2nd year students of the future (I can’t get away with failing ALL of them, though I intend to fail more in the second semester) this bodes ill.

Part of the problem with reading classes is that the textbooks that make it onto the list are almost universally dire, being almost exclusively concerned with vocabulary memorization that Chinese teachers can design machine-marked multiple choice tests for. The sophomore texts are “all skills” and so have a greater variety of material and activities.

It’s great that I should be extremely picky about long vowel pronunciation. The next chance I get, I will say that she pronounces the long a sound at the end of way it more of an eh sound than an ay sound.
When you get too picky about some things, I believe you can make students frustrated. Especially children.


I do not like the pointing as it makes the children memorize the words and not really read. I also insist on teaching full phonics and how to sting them together first. As I speak Chinese, I make sure to get on good side with parents right away and I explain the real way to learn Reading.
They thinks just need to be memorized cause that’s what they do in Chinese with characters. I explain that our ABCS are like bopomo you learn the sounds and learn how to bland them and you can read anything that comes up, if they think it doesn’t matter i show them words like ‘hypothesis’ ‘photosynthesis’ ‘hippopotomonstrosesqupedeliaphobia’ ‘supercalifragilisticexpialadocious’ and ask them if they want to memorize those.

They ask, are there really words that long, and i tell them yes and telling meanings, or the case of the final word, history. Gets the parents on my side and they don’t complain. My one class that I have had since the started NEVER did finger pointing, they have been studying for 1 year now with no finger pointing, just some memorized sight words and phonics phonics phonics. A few can read at intermediate school levels, though they don’t understand all the words yet, and the others are reading at 2-3rd grade levels.

I agree that phonics can be of some use, angelmae3995. However, you mentioned that your students are able to read without understanding. I find it difficult to see the communicative benefit of being able to make the appropiate noises for a collection of letters without knowing what that collection of letters actually means.

Is your plan to teach the students how to say words reasonably correctly without understanding, and then in the future they will learn what the words mean? This is always the problem I have with an over-reliance on phonics. Regardless of the fact that a lot of words don’t slot into the phonics ‘rules’, I’m just uneasy with children parroting sounds without any kind of understanding of meaning.

The problem I have with using the phonics approach is it does not contextualise what the child is reading. Providing context is one of the main things that helps the child comprehend what they are reading. I think it is more important to give the reading some importance to the childs life and help them understand what they are reading. Learning to say the words correctly will come later and pronunciation can be taught in all aspects of language learning.

I’ll be the first to admit this statement always confuses me. I read the idea a lot, but only have experience in Taiwan where the reading does not have contextual meaning. Can anyone elaborate? What do you mean?

Puppet: I think I know what Whole Lotta Lotta means, so let me offer an example. In the fourth grade text book at the elementary school I work at, one of the phonics words for short i is igloo. The students are nine year olds in Taiwan. Do they even know the word igloo in Chinese? I’m not a fan of the concept of teaching phonics for speaking because that’s not how people learn to speak anyway. People don’t sit down with their one year old children, and start chanting, “I I, i i i, bit. I I, i i i, dig. I I, i i i, tin.” Even if they did, they certainly wouldn’t choose the word igloo. For children below adolescence, who are extremely concrete, they’d have a picture and/or use a very familiar action.

Besides phonics for speaking, I’m even highly sceptical of how phonics is taught for reading. Even for my most advanced students at junior high school (many of whom went to the same elementary school I teach at, had the same Taiwanese English teacher as my younger students and used the same textbooks as those students), their ability to read words that do follow phonics rules is all over the place. They can’t make a decent stab at words they haven’t seen. My wife is the same. All of my former students – from kindergarten to adults – have been the same. This leads me to conclude that there is a widespread problem with phonics teaching in this country. Either it’s being taught badly universally, or it’s just plain ineffective. I’d be especially interested in seeing how Taiwanese English teachers who actually teach phonics fare with pronouncing unfamiliar words because if even they are unable to pronounce them with a fair degree of accuracy most of the time, then I’d suggest that they’re not using phonics either, but have (probably like everyone else) seemingly learnt to pronounce familiar words simply through rote learning or great familiarity with them.

I don’t teach phonics explicitly to any of my students.

I HAVE to teach phonics the way they want me to. In all honesty, it’s just a time for me to get paid for turning pages in a book. What I don’t understand (and I’m not picking on anyone when I say this…I just see it said a lot and disagree with it) is why write off phonics as a bad idea because they don’t teach it properly here at all? (I can say that as a blanket statement to almost the entire country). Just because their methods are, to be honest, laughable, why ignore phonics programs that do bring meaning, context, and understanding?

I only include phonics in lessons if it’s on the syllabus - basically if I’m told to. Like GIT I probably wouldn’t ever bother if I didn’t have to. I also think that there is a marketing element to teaching phonics. The parents here expect it and the children need it once they reach junior high school in order to get ahead of the other kids :slight_smile: when they spend the entire first year concentrating solely on kk phonics (during which time pretty much all of them seem to lose the ability to speak English). We all need to be aware that there are many stakeholders involved in ‘educational’ decisions :laughing:. Don’t be too hard on the decisions your bosses make; believe me they have a hard time.

Having said that, I don’t completely write off phonics. I think it is of some use for some students, but probably not the most effective use of class time. The problem in general with debates about education is everything tends to get polarized (‘You use THAT in class!!!’). In my opinion this is because education is a social science and basically nothing is really 100% provable. Everyone with strong opinions tends to be both right and wrong and reseach can be cherry picked to support either position.

The thing that people don’t get about phonics is that it only works if saying a word out loud connects with a meaning already acquired.

For students who are being forced to learn new words and learn to recognize them in print at the same time (99.99% of the kids in Taiwan) that’s not going to work out so well. They don’t have the sounds solidly and accurately in their heads to begin with, so teaching them to sound out letters doesn’t get you as much benefits as it would with a little native speaking kid learning to read English.

I’m not saying phonics doesn’t have its place, but it’s much more valuable if it’s done sequentially, AFTER the kids have the spoken forms solidly in their heads in an accurate phonetic form.