Upper Intermediate students in a General English class should have well developed reading skills. They have a wide knowledge of lexis and grammar and should be able to apply this knowledge to relatively long and complex texts.
Reason for topic choice
At this level it is important to devote time to reading in class because it provides the students with language and grammar in context and allows development of receptive and productive skills. "Receptive skills and productive skills feed of each other in a number of ways. What we say or write is heavily influenced by what we hear and see. Our most important information about language comes from this input" (Harmer 2007: 266). Thus it follows: "With strengthened reading skills, learners will make greater progress and development in all other areas of learning" (Nunan 1991: 69).
In my experience students at Upper Intermediate levels are increasingly exposed to authentic texts and need to develop higher-level reading strategies and skills to gain a detailed understanding of these types of texts. Students at this level often lack the ability to reinterpret information; give more than a superficial response to the text and do not read the text as a whole or look for inferred meaning. Thus, more practice is needed to develop these skills.
With regard to the specific teaching group, although some students do extensive reading, their exposure to English outside the class seems quite limited and it can be assumed that the students' reading skills may not be as well developed as expected or desired.
Analysis of reading for detailed understanding
A "detailed understanding" of a text means understanding the author's message, therefore, not only the individual words, sentences and paragraphs but their structure and communicative function; distinguishing the main ideas from the supporting details; understanding the cohesion of the text; recognising discourse and interpreting implied but non-explicitly stated information. Smith suggests that "Comprehensionâ€¦is a state of not having unanswered questions" (Smith 1987:86). So, as we read a text we constantly ask questions and if we are left with no residual uncertainty it means that we comprehend or that we have reached a state of "zero uncertainty" (Smith 1987).
What is involved in the process of comprehension
The process of reading can be defined as 'constructing' meaning from a written text (Ur, P. 1991:140).
This comes from a combination and interaction of 'bottom-up' processes and 'top-down' processes.
Top down processes
Readers use their background knowledge and information about the world to make predictions and search the text to confirm or reject the predictions (Nunan 1991). Our pre-existing knowledge of the world is referred to as schemata. "When we are stimulated by particular words, discourse patterns or contexts such schematic knowledge is activated and we are able to recognise what we see or hear because it fits into patterns that we already know" (Harmer, J 2001:199).
In the classroom reliance on such schemata can be clearly seen. Students struggle with reading texts without clear context or unfamiliar genre. When they receive some context for example a title or picture or an explanation of the genre they can start to fit the words into this context.
For this reason, before reading it is necessary to activate the schemata. In this way students will access "the knowledge [they] carry around ... [which] is organised into interrelated patterns." (Nunan 1991 p68)
The bottom-up processes focus on the interactions between the individual words and phrases in order to build up understanding. This means looking at the grammar, lexis and syntax of the text.
Subskills involved in reading
The sub-skills used in reading for detailed understanding include distinguishing between unknown words (essential/non-essential) for understanding; distinguishing factual information from opinion; recognising negative and positive opinions; inferring meaning from word formation clues; identifying cohesive links in the text; chunking of text; grasping the chronological sequence of a series of events and interpreting implied but non-explicitly stated meaning. These sub-skills rely on the interaction of top-down and bottom-up processes as they may require the reader to consider the text as a whole and its wider context as well as the individual words and sentences. To reach detailed understanding readers need to start with global understanding and move towards more detailed understanding.
"Prediction is asking questions and comprehension is getting those questions answered" (Smith 1987:85). This suggests that comprehension depends on prediction.
When the schemata relating to a particular topic or genre is activated, the reader predicts the information given in the text. This relates to lexis, content and function. Reading is a constant process of guessing and so students need to be taught how to use what they know to understand unknown elements (Grellet 1981). In this way the reader makes predictions about the text and then reads to confirm or disprove the prediction. If the prediction is disproved then a new hypothesis is made. Predictions are therefore made during all stages of reading to predict what will follow and also to deduce the meaning of any unknown lexis.
In order to reach a detailed understanding of a text the reader needs to be motivated to read it in the first place. "being motivated means that we start reading the text prepared to find a number of things in it, expecting to find answers to a number of questions and specific information or ideas we are interested in. This 'expectation' is inherent in the process of reading which is a permanent interrelationship between the reader and the text" (Grellet 1981:18).
In the classroom it is easy to see if students are not motivated by a particular text because the topic or genre is not relevant to them. In this case the students will not engage fully with the activity and this limits the activation of schemata and the prediction processes.
Not adopting an appropriate reading strategy
Students need to apply the correct reading strategy i.e. one that is appropriate for gaining a detailed understanding and not just reading for gist. If they do not consider the text as a whole, the structure and communicative purpose and look for any inferred meaning then this objective will not be met. In my experience I have seen Upper Intermediate students trying to gain a detailed understanding but reading at a word level and not considering the text as a whole.
Inference and unknown lexis
If a text contains a large number of unfamiliar elements and the students do not have the necessary skills to discover the meaning then they will not be able to reach a detailed understanding of the text. They also need to have the ability to determine which words are actually inferable from the text.
At the word level this means using syntactical, logical and cultural clues to deduce the meaning of unfamiliar lexis. This may involve examining the word formation or derivation.
In the classroom Upper Intermediate students are often unable to deduce the meaning of words even when they are similar in their own language or have the same derivation as familiar words.
Students may lack the necessary top-down knowledge to understand the author's message or meaning. They may not be able to pick up on hints and clues that are present and which indicate that the author is implying something without explicitly stating it.
E.g. "The senator admitted owning the gun that killed his wife" (Kurland, D. 2000)
From this, students should infer: there is a senator; he was married; his wife is dead; that gun caused her death and that the gun was the senator's. More subtly, a public figure has some involvement in a major crime and that the gun (or a bullet) has been recovered and identified as the murder weapon-or the reason for an admission would make little sense. (Kurland, D. 2000) However, they can not infer if the senator's admission is true; if he was responsible for his wife's death; if she died from gun shot wounds or if it was murder.
To infer meaning from a text therefore involves recognising implications and drawing conclusions. These unstated meanings may be based on social conventions, shared knowledge, shared experience, or shared values.
Students often have problems reading when they are unable to decipher sentence structures or are unable to chunk the text. Text chunking consists of dividing a text into grammatically meaningful units or chunks.
E.g. The origin of football / is unclear. / Some people say / it might have developed / from an ancient game / in which a ball made of pig skin /was kicked around.
In my experience Upper Intermediate students often have problems chunking a text and therefore are unable to fully understand.
Reference and cohesion
Students have problems recognising textual cohesion and the use of reference and linkers. This can be a significant barrier to detailed understanding as students need to be able to realise the interrelationship between ideas and to understand the communicative function of different sections of a text.
Reference involves lexical relationship within a text. It includes anaphoric, cataphoric, exophoric reference and the use of synonymy and hyponymy.
E.g. "He took the banana and ate it" "It" is an anaphoric reference as it refers to the banana.
If students can not interpret these references the meaning of the text can be lost or confused.
Connectors are also important in the text and can distinguish factual information from opinion and illustrate negative and positive opinions, agreement or disagreement. Insufficient knowledge of these connectors will prevent the detailed understanding of a text.
Students do not always understand the importance of applying their existing knowledge to a text or making predictions. For example Spanish students reading a text about overcoming difficulties while climbing Mount Everest may not extrapolate an unfamiliar context to their own experiences.
Suggestions for Teaching
At this level, I use relatively long and complex texts (authentic/semi-authentic) as students have sufficient level to approach these texts in ways similar to their original purpose. I use a number of activities to encourage students to use different strategies to reach a detailed understanding.
Aim: 1) To predict the answers to questions before reading.
2) To recognise textual cohesion and referencing.
3) To give a response to the text and evaluate its function.
4) To match definitions given to words found in the text
(from New English File Upper Intermediate 2008:24-25)
Procedure: Students read the back cover of a book about the secrets behind air travel and guess the answers to questions answered in the book. They read an extract from the book (an authentic text) and evaluate their predictions. Next students complete the 5 paragraphs from the text by choosing from 6 sentences. Thirdly, they are asked if they believe the text and finally they match definitions given to words found in the text.
Commentary: The value of the first activity is to activate the students' schemata relating to air travel and it prepares them to read the extract. The students feel motivated to read to find out if their predictions are correct. The second exercise is useful because it focuses attention on the cohesive links within each paragraph and encourages students to notice text structure. The third task evokes a response to the text but is a little limited as it does not ask why. The final task is valuable in confirming the meaning of any words deduced through context
Aim: 1) To gain a detailed understanding of a text about relationships.
Procedure: Students form expressions, then look at photos of famous people and discuss the two couples. Next the pairs read different texts about the couples and complete a table.
How did they meet?
What were the important things that happened during the relationship?
Why did the relationship finish?
Richard Burton and Liz Taylor
Nelson and Winnie Mandela
(Language to Go Upper Intermediate P14)
Commentary: This activity is useful because the construction of the expressions and discussion of the photos will activate the schemata relating to relationships and the specific couples. By reading different texts the students have the additional motivation to understand their text to share the information with their partner.
The completion of the table provides an alternative to typical reading comprehension questions and allows comparisons to be discussed easily. The task is provided before reading which is useful as students know what information they are looking for. The only drawback is that some students may feel that they want to read both texts but this could be done after class.
Aim: To help students recognise the structure of complex sentences which will help them to reach detailed understanding.
Procedure: Students are given four long and complex sentences from Time magazine (authentic texts). They have to match the subjects and the verbs in each sentence.
(Grellet 1981: 43)
Commentary: This type of exercise is excellent for providing practice using skills at the sentence level which are than transferred to longer texts. The students practice identifying the 'core' of the sentence (subject - verb - object) and distinguishing it from the additional grammatical structures. The sentences are from a news magazine, so are authentic texts of the type that are of interest to Upper Intermediate students. A similar exercise would be to practice chunking a text for meaning (Grellet 1981). These short exercises enhance students' bottom-up skills and aid detailed understanding.
Aim: To help students to distinguish between "for" and "against" arguments.
Procedure: Students are given a text which presents a number of arguments for or against a subject e.g. exams. The students must determine which of the underlined sentences are for or against exams.
Commentary: This exercise is useful because in many texts the different arguments presented are found throughout the text and students must learn to determine the meaning and the value of the ideas. By having the relevant sentences underlined the students' attention is drawn to the specific task. However, it would also be useful to practice identifying the arguments.
Aim: To help students understand the logical relationships within a text.
Procedure: Students are given a long paragraph which has been broken up into 12 individual sentences. The students have to reorder the sentences to provide a coherent paragraph. They then underline the words and expressions that helped them to understand the order.
Commentary: This activity is useful because students will analyse each sentence to find clues indicating its position in the paragraph. They will need to consider referencing and connectors and also draw on their wider knowledge of paragraph structure.
The skills necessary to understand at a detailed level are varied and rely on students having both the necessary top-down knowledge; being able to access the relevant schemata; having the necessary grammar, lexis, understanding of syntax, whole text features and being able to recognise cohesive, coherence and referencing. By focussing on these individual sub-skills students can improve their detailed understanding of texts.
Clare, A. and Wilson J. 2002 Language to Go Upper Intermediate Students Book Longman
Grellet, F. 1981 Developing Reading Skills, Cambridge University Press
Harmer, J. 2007/2001 The Practice of English Language Teaching Pearson Education Limited
Kurland, D. 2000 http://www.criticalreading.com/inference_reading.htm
Nunan, D. 1991 Language Teaching Methodology Prentice Hill
Oxenden, C. and Latham-Koenig C. New English File Upper Intermediate Students Book, Oxford University Press
Smith, F. 1987 Reading Cambridge University Press
Ur, P. 1991. A Course in Language Teaching Cambridge University Press
Language Skills Assignment 1: Reading - Lesson plan
Tuesday 16th October 2010 - Upper Intermediate
General overview of the group of learners
The course is a voluntary class of Upper Intermediate General English and runs from October to June. The students meet twice a week for 1.5 hours each session. I am one of 6 teachers who share the responsibility for covering all language skills areas. As the focus of the class is General English, and is not leading to any examination or qualification, the entry requirements for the course are very flexible in terms of educational experience or background.
The class is Upper Intermediate level but includes about 10 students from Intermediate level to lower Advanced. There are 7 woman and 3 men. The majority of the students are in their 50s and 60s although there is one student in her 70s, one in her late 40s and one in his mid/late 20s. All of the students speak Spanish and most of them also speak Catalan. Since the class began, some students have left and others have joined but at the present time there is a core group of students with high motivation and good attendance levels. Common interests include travel, most of the students listing this as one of the reason they were studying English, as well as for enhancing their job prospects and as for social reasons.
The students do not have much opportunity to use English outside the class and they are very interested in spending time in class on speaking and listening with writing being their lowest priority. As the teacher I feel that there are some areas of grammar that need reinforcing but that class time is usefully spent understanding and responding to texts.
Information about individual learners
The lesson is focussed on reading so I have put them in what I feel is the order of reading ability, from the strongest Cecilia to the weakest (Joan).
Cecilia is a 50 year old Argentinean woman with Spanish as her first language. She is highly educated, an unemployed architect and is studying English for work and for social reasons. She is a serious person and likes talking about serious subjects. Her reading skills as well as her spoken English and knowledge of grammar are very good for this level. She can work well in groups but as she is very confident she prefers speaking in open class and feels that group work can waste time. She does not thrive when asked to work with the weaker members of the class.
Elena is 48 years old and is Catalan. She is studying English as a hobby and for travel. She has a very good level of reading and listening but lacks confidence in her own ability. She is one of the quieter members of the class, rarely speaking in open class but happy to work in groups or pairs.
Gloria is 64 years old and is Catalan. She is one of the most participatory students in the group and works very well collaboratively. Sometimes in open class she tries to speak without having taken sufficient time to process what she wishes to say but this is usually from a desire to contribute and comment on the topic. She is quick to ask the teacher if she does not understand the task. She is studying English for travel and for social reasons. She is motivated and in her free time she reads novels in English.
Montse is Catalan and is a retired school teacher in her 60s. She appears serious but has a gentle sense of humour. Her reading skills are good and she works well with other people to answer questions and discuss topics. She contributes less in open class and is happier discussing ideas in smaller groups.
Nuria is in her 50s. She is Catalan and appears well educated. She participates well in class and is happy to express her opinions about a variety of topics and to ask questions if she does not understand something. Her reading skills are of a good level. She works well in groups though rarely contributes in open class unless nominated to do so.
Jaime is 53 years old. He is currently unemployed after working for his whole life for Burberry. He has attended in-company classes and spent some time living in Brisbane. He is learning English to improve his job prospects. He started the course lacking in confidence but now is one of the most constant members of the group. He reads well and makes an effort to speak in English at all times in class. He works very well with others and is gradually contributing more in open class. He has a repeated problem confusing masculine and feminine subject pronouns.
Mercedes is Catalan and in her 50s. Her reading is good and although she is quite quiet in class she works well in pairs or groups. She has strong opinions about most topics and is growing in confidence to speak in open class.
Nuria is 76 years old. She is quite quiet in class but always has interesting opinions as she has a wealth of life experience. She speaks in a quiet voice and sometimes can not be heard in open class. She needs to be encouraged to share her contributions with the whole group. Her reading skills are good but she is not as strong as other students in the group.
Xabier is in his mid 20s. He is the youngest and newest member of the group and has only attended 3 classes. He seems quite shy but happy to work in groups and is starting to contribute more in open class.
Joan is 63 years old and Catalan. He studies English as a hobby and is one of the weaker members of the group. He has problems with his hearing which can affect his understanding and sometimes he misunderstands instructions. He occasionally becomes "blocked" and difficult to guide back to the task. He likes talking in open class, especially when he can disagree and often steers the conversation in an unnatural direction. He works well in groups when he is with stronger students who can direct his attention to the task. He gets confused between similar words and has a tendency to continue making the same mistakes even after repeated correction.
In the last two classes the focus has been on receptive skills and has included work on both listening and reading. There has been some introductory work related to reading skills, specifically prediction, reading for gist, for detailed information and inference.
In terms of language, students have discussed the related topics of family relationships, the expectations parents have of their children and rules regarding access to technology e.g., teenage use of the Internet.
This has prepared the learners for the current lesson which requires the formulation and description of their opinions related to the topic Â´Has technology ruined childhood?Â´ and further development of their detailed reading, paraphrasing and inferencing skills.
The students formulate and discuss their opinions regarding the effect of technology on childhood and determine if that effect has been ruinous.
The students read a text adapted from newspaper articles. They summarise the opinions given.
The students respond to what the writer says and determine to what extent they agree or disagree.
Through pre-task question, practice 'prediction' strategies.
Practice 'responding to text' strategies to reach a detailed comprehension of text by reading questions relating to a section of the text and finding the answers within the text.
Refer back to the title after reading sections to determine whether the writer is implying agreement or disagreement.
Utilise "meaning from context" strategies to guess the meaning of unfamiliar lexis which will specifically aid those students who read English extensively.
To understand any problematic vocabulary
The students in the class will be familiar with lexis relating to similar topics (family, teenagers, technology etc.). I am sure that the theme of the lesson (Has technology ruined childhood) will not take students by surprise and will be of interest to them and they will have their own opinions on the subject. I also think that they will be able to follow the main gist of the text without too many problems. I think that between them all they will recognise the majority of the lexis which appears in the text.
I assume that the students in the class have well developed reading skills in their own language and I expect that they will be able to transfer the reading ability to English when regarding more basic sub-skills. Therefore, I expect that all the students will be comfortable with the strategy of breaking up the text into sections and of answering questions related to each section to give detailed comprehension. They will also be familiar with deducing the meaning of words from examining the word in the context. However, I assume that some students will have more problems transferring the higher level sub-skills to their reading in English and will need more guidance distinguishing negative from positive opinions and inferring and interpreting implied but non-explicitly stated meaning.
Analysis of skills
In this lesson the students will need to use both top-down and bottom-up processing skills to reach a detailed understanding of the text.
When the students engage the top-down processes which are necessary for the comprehension of the text they are gaining a general overview of the topic. If the relevant schemata are activated than they will be able to predict and anticipate what will follow in terms of content, vocabulary and textual purpose. This will allow the students to interact with the text. The relevant schemata for this text relate to technology within the home, childhood activities past and present and family relationships. These prediction skills will be used during the pre-reading stage, to predict the answers to the comprehension questions and also when attempting to deduce the meaning of unknown lexis.
When using bottom-up processes the students will be focussing on the interactions between the individual words and phrases in order to build up understanding. This means looking at the grammar, lexis and syntax of the text. To answer the comprehension questions the students will need to use reading for gist and detailed information which will involve the use of bottom-up processes. They will need to reorganise and interpret the text at a sentence level in order to give accurate answers to the comprehension questions.
These top-down and bottom-up processes will be interacting throughout the reading task. To answer the comprehension questions students will be relying on both processes. When looking for inferred meaning students will also need to use their knowledge of the world and how discourse functions as well as looking at the individual words in the text. When looking at the text as a whole and considering whether the writer agrees or disagrees that technology has ruined childhood specific words and phrases in sections 1,3 and 4 will need to be considered along with the students background knowledge of the world, the role of technology and its effects on children.
Analysis of Language
This is a list of language that I might need to help with during the process of comprehension
shutting themselves in their rooms:- going in their rooms and closing the door
individualistic activities:- activities that are done alone, independently
retreated to their bedrooms:- withdraw to their bedrooms
increasing prosperity:-increasing wealth
hooked up:- to connect to
devote:- spend (devote time to)
gossip:- chat/talk about
television soap:- soap opera- TV series showing the intertwined lives of many characters
proliferates:- to increase in number or spread rapidly and often excessively
viewing:- what they watch on TV
drew the line at:- refuse to go any further than
Difficulties reaching a detailed understanding of the text
As the text is quite long and relatively complicated it is possible that students may have problems. The students may have difficulty relating their world knowledge to the text, guessing the meaning of new vocabulary items, as well as, difficulty inferring meaning. All of these issues could inhibit them from reaching a detailed comprehension.
For this reason I have divided up the text into 5 sections and embedded the comprehension questions into the text before each section. In this way students can clearly see what detailed information they are looking to gain from each section.
Response to questions
When responding to reading comprehension questions students sometimes repeat sections of the text rather than reorganising or reinterpreting the information in order to give an adequate response to the question. This can mean that although it may appear that students understand that understanding is very superficial.
In order to minimise the possibility for students to regurgitate portions of the text I have given the comprehension questions before each section of the text so that students can read them and know what they are looking for before reading. I have also tried to provide questions that require students to reinterpret the text so that to answer them a detailed understanding is necessary.
There is no clear introduction or conclusion to the text clearly stating the author's opinion. The author refutes the assumption that technology has ruined childhood but most of this is implied meaning. Students may find it difficult to infer meaning.
To aid students understanding of the author's opinion I will refer back to the title of the article after each section and discuss how specific words or phrases provide the clue to whether the author agrees or disagrees.
I also expect that some lexis will cause difficulty. I plan for students to deduce some of the lexis from the context in which they find it when the meaning is inferable from the surrounding words or phrases. Where deduction is not possible I will tell them the meanings of the words.
Choice of skill
I have chosen this skill because I think that reading is one of the most important skills for students studying English in Spain. Since the students are not exposed to English in their everyday life they need to find another source for practice and language input. To my knowledge only some of the group members undertake extensive reading and I hope that by helping students recognise and transfer their L1 reading processes to L2 and by helping them to enjoy reading in L2, I can encourage them to read authentic English texts and have the skills to read even without adaption. This text is adapted from articles published in The Independent and interactions magazine (a science and technology magazine) and students can find similar texts readily available on the Internet.
I have chosen this text, firstly, because I think that the students will have an interest in the topic and as a result of their range of personal backgrounds and ages they may have varying opinions and attitudes on this subject. From my previous reading and personal experience with reading activities in the classroom, I have found that it is important to select material in which the learners will have some knowledge or interest in. This means that they can interpret the topic and start to activate schemata related to it. Once these processes are engaged then the learners will naturally start making predictions about what they are going to read. As the topic should be familiar to all students they will have relevant top-down knowledge. Secondly, although the text appears at first to be relatively simple as the lexis and language are not particularly complex, closer reading of the text shows that the writer actually disagrees that technology has ruined childhood. This opinion may well be the opposite of what students expect and since it is also not explicitly stated, the students will need to infer meaning to fully understand thus making the text far more interesting that at first assumed. The students will need to use higher level sub-skills to reach "a state of zero uncertainty" (Smith 1987:86).
Approaches and techniques
Activating the schemata
The first step in the pre-reading stage is to stimulate interest in the topic and activate the relevant schemata. By doing so students will access "the knowledge [they] carry around ... [which] is organised into interrelated patterns." (Nunan 1991 p68). The particular schemata relevant to this text are the increased use of technology by children at home, childhood activities past and present and family relationships. The ultimate aim of this stage is to make the content of the text more predictable and thus the reading of it less unexpected and thus comprehension easier. By writing the title on the board before handing out the text, I can ask students to discuss the title, formulate their own opinions and make some explicit predictions about the writer's opinion.
Breaking the text into sections and adding comprehending questions
After showing the students the whole text in its original form, I will give them a different version with comprehension questions included before each section. The comprehending questions can be used to guide students to the main point of each paragraph. I will give the comprehension questions before each section so that students know what questions that I think are important to answer (Smith 1987) and because predicting or guessing the meaning of questions before reading helps to motivate reading of the text (Ur 1991). The questions have been formulated with the intention that students can not rely only on literal interpretation but involve reinterpretation or inference (Nuttal 1997:188).
Guessing the meaning of lexis from context
As difficult lexis arises I will ask students what they think it means and where possible to deduce the meaning from the context. I have decided not to pre-teach any lexis or provide a glossary because after analysis I found that most of the difficult lexis is not essential for comprehension of the text.
After the students have a detailed understanding of each section I will refer back to the title of the text and ask the students to think whether the writer agrees or disagrees. This will involve considering the text as a whole rather than just the individual pieces and involve analysing the text to find meaning beyond the individual words and non-explicitly stated.