Pop quiz: What are the four key language skills? I’ll let you phone a friend, which coincidentally involves two of those skills. They are: Speaking, Listening, Reading and Writing. If English Language proficiency were the Apocalypse then these would be it’s Horsemen. That ill-advised analogy aside it is important to consider which of these skills are being targeted when planning an EFL activity. In Japanese schools many JTEs want their classes to contain a lot of reading and writing practice to prepare students for their upcoming tests. Reading the same blocks of text over and over again can get dull, but it needn’t be so.
Get The Reps In
The way most (read: all) reading sections are conducted in Japanese schools is that the teacher will read a few words or a sentence and the students are to repeat it. This pattern is done over until the entire passage is covered. Then the students will usually have to try and read the entire passage by themselves.
As you can probably imagine, this approach is not the most riveting time in a young life. However, it can be helpful, some might say necessary, in the long run. As students are developing their language skills they need to be shown how to pronounce new words and where inflection comes out to play. I personally use this kind of repetition model in the first lesson with a new piece of text, but I try my best to pump some extra energy into the activity.
PRO TIP: Why does repetition have to be dry and lifeless? Keep students attentive by mixing things up. Repeat words and sentences in different tones and inflections, thus giving the students some practice with their vocal range. Have them stand up whilst reading, then randomly tell them to sit or stand again. If the teacher puts sufficient energy into the repetition practice then it can go that step beyond the monotony of just regurgitating after a tape deck.
Bit By Bit
One way I’ve found to be effective in building up student confidence is to practice reading one word at a time. Sometimes learners get befuddled by long sentences and they get lost in text overload. Breaking it down so they only have to focus on a single word at a time increases their proficiency bit by bit.
In groups of at least three, assign one person to be the starter, indicate the direction of reading and tell them they can all sit down once the group has read the whole passage. This “sit when you finish” approach to activities adds a sense of urgency and competition.
An optional level up or round two for this EFL reading activity is to increase the word count per person to two or more. What I like to do is to assign increasing numbers. For example, using groups of four; the starter reads one word, the person to the left reads two, the next reads three, the fourth reads four, then the starter goes again, reading five, but for the person to the left it resets and they read one, the next two, the fourth three, the starter four, the person to the left five, the next one, and so on. It’s fun watching the students try to figure out their order whilst also thinking about pronunciation.
PRO TIP: This EFL reading activity can also be used to weed out any words the students are struggling with. Give each group a small white board and ask them to jot down as many words as they find difficult to pronounce, then review them as a class.
Do You Remember When We Used To Sing …
Reading words and speaking them aloud can only get you so far. Fluency improves more readily if there are some cogs rotating in the brain wagon. One way to turn that crank is with a simple memory challenge. Divide the text into short parts, perhaps defined by sentences or page lines. Decide on how any members you want in each group (I’m a stickler for four) and give each group that many number of sentences or lines. You then end up with each group member having one part. Set a time limit of two or three minutes and tell the students they have to memorise their individual segment.
Once the time has expired you ask the groups to try and recall their portion of the passage without looking at their paper, possibly rewarding the groups that succeed.
Trying to read a full page of text in one go can be quite daunting for a student so I’ve found it really helps to divide the copy up into bite-sized chunks while practising. A lot of the Japanese English textbooks (and presumably the accompanying Teacher’s Guides) already have some of the text blocks divided up. I believe it’s done as a way either to establish a more natural reading rhythm or to create sections that can be more clearly translated into Japanese.
- Pair Reading. In pairs students take turns to read the sections marked by slashes.
- Eye-Contact Reading. An evolution of Pair Reading. Students face each other and as they read they have to look their partner in the face, only speaking when they are doing so. A further advancement of this is to have students stand further apart, which encourages them to speak louder to be heard by their distant partner.
- Echo Reading. The final form of Pair Reading. Pair members are labelled as “A” and “B.” To start, B should close their textbook but keep their thumb at the relevant page. A then reads a slashed section of the text. B has to listen and repeat what A said. Their roles are then reversed, so A closes their book, B opens their own and reads the next slashed section; A listens, repeats and so on.
- Group Reading. The same as Pair Reading except in a group (…duh.) By making the groups stand during the activity and telling them to sit as soon as they finish a competitive element is added.
- Card Reading. Turn reading into a game by using … a game. Give each group a pack of playing cards (if you work in Japan check out the ¥100 shops for cheap decks) and ask them to spread the cards face down in a circle in the middle of the desk. Students take turns to read a slashed section and turn over a card into the middle of the circle. When a student makes a pair (number or suit) with the previous player’s card, they get all cards in the middle of the circle. The game continues until all cards are gone and the winner is the player with the most cards. It’s a game, but they have to read each time they take a turn.
- Board Game Reading. Exactly the same principle as Card Reading – students have to read a part of the text before they roll the dice to make their move. I use a custom variation of Snakes & Ladders that includes special squares such as “Go Back To Start” or “Roll Again.”
EFL Reading Activities
These are just a few suggestions of ways to make EFL reading activities that engage students and promote a positive energy and atmosphere in the EFL classroom. All of these ideas came from the same source: creativity. As Teachers of English as a Foreign Language it’s up to us to bring our lessons to life with fresh ideas. I hope that anyone reading this can take these activities and make them ten times more effective than they are now.
What ELT reading activities do you use? Have you used any of the ones mentioned above?
Thank you for reading! If you need more activities for your ESL classroom, have a look here.