Reading Skills in TEFL

Reading is one of the four main language skills‏‎ along with writing‏‎, listening‏‎ and speaking‏‎.

There are various considerations when you use a text in class. There is the matter firstly of choosing the right text and then of how you present it to the class. Finally, what happens when the class get the text – in other words, what they do with it. This article is an overview of the way reading can be done in class.

The Right Subject & Level

In other words, don’t expect your class to enjoy a text discussing managerial techniques if thy are teenagers.

When you choose a text for the class make sure it’s a subject which will interest the class. If you are teaching Business English‏‎ to managers then yes, use an article on managerial techniques but if you’re teaching teenagers, choose a blockbuster film review or an interview with a celebrity whom the class all know.

Don’t be put off by the idea that a text on a trivial subject matter is of no educational value. Students can learn as much English from reading an article on Johnny Depp as they can from reading an article on the work of the Red Cross so don’t feel you have to use only didactic texts.

On the matter of level, suppose you – as a highly proficient English teacher – come across this poem in an English book:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

It means almost nothing to you (and most people) and though you might guess at a few words it’s pretty incomprehensible. But bear in mind that this is what your class will see if you give them a text too far above their level. Ideally a text should be aimed at just above their current comprehension level with plenty of known words included:

Holiday grownties and those who travel abroad broxerly are being targeted by a new government wooschore aimed at halting the import of illegal pookie.

Here the students have some signposts as to the meaning. They can read the text and understand much of what is said and make educated guesses as to the unknown words.

Thus it’s important to make sure that you understand your students needs here and that means a Needs Analysis‏‎ is in order!


Think of when you read something. Before you start you often have a good idea of what to expect. If you take a newspaper you know that you will read about current affairs, latest news, television reviews from the night before, etc. If you go to a tourist office and take a brochure you expect to read about local sites and attractions and so on.

In other words, you have expectations and these prepare your mind for what is to follow.

When you present a text to a class you need to give them these expectations. This can be done in several ways. You can simply say that, “Today we’ll be reading a short article on President Obama’s pet dog.” Or better still, you can write on the board a short headline and then work with the class encouraging them to come up with some ideas about the subject matter. This also allows you to work with them in coming up with useful vocabulary they may come across.

In this way you raise expectation in the class and when the students finally see the text they are not put off by suddenly seeing something they know nothing about.

Reading Sub Skills

There are a number of sub-skills involved in reading which you can practice with your class once you have presented the text to them.

skimming or reading for gist

When you pick up a magazine you will probably not be interested in all the articles. Instead, you may well flip through the magazine and look for those which will interest you, reading the headline and maybe glancing over the first paragraph to find out what the article is all about.

Similarly, when you find an interesting article, you may well not be reading every sentence for every detail. It may well be that you skim the article and pick out the main points. If asked about the article ten minutes later you would be able to give the basic story but probably not remember dates, names, times and other details.

In a TEFL‏‎ classroom, after giving the text to the class you can then offer them 30 seconds to read it, encouraging them to read as quickly as possible and then getting them to turn over the text and hide it. Now ask them very general questions about the text; here you are not looking for specific answers but ideas and concepts.

This is a similar step to the presentation of the headline above. You can write on the board different (correct) suggestions by the students so that, for example, if the general theme of the text was a new film with Nicole Kidman you can ask them who she is and what they know about her (these answers may not be in the text and come from the students’ general knowledge but they will serve to build up expectation of the text in general and to put it into context).

scanning or reading for specifics

One common reading skill which needs to be practiced is reading for a specific detail. You may, for example, be looking for the time of the next theater performance in a brochure. You would skim through it until you came upon the relevant section and then pick out the precise information you needed.

With a class you can practice scanning by getting students to look for answers to very specific questions. In a Business English text about a new car plant being constructed you might ask them:

  • How many cars will be produced per day.
  • How many hours will the plant work per day.
  • What will be the predicted turnover for the company?

And so on.

NB there is some controversy when it comes to skimming and scanning in TEFL and actually how useful it is for your students to study these techniques. For more on this, see the links below.

extensive reading

This is used to get a general understanding of a text. In a way it falls in between skimming and scanning and at the end of it you will be able to give a good summary of the text without necessarily knowing details.

Extensive reading is the way native speakers will often read for pleasure or general business. When you have finished a novel, for example, you can easily explain the storyline and major events but won’t necessarily remember specific descriptions or conversations.

In the TEFL classroom, if, for example, the text was review of a new blockbuster book at the end of it your students would be able to give you an overview of the plot, an idea of the main characters and whether they reviewer thought it was good or bad. In extensive reading your students don’t need to understand every word written as they are looking for general points, major themes and so on.

Testing extensive reading can be done by asking the students to precis an article or answer multiple-choice questions on the main themes in the text, etc.

See also links to Reading for Pleasure‏‎ below.

intensive reading

This is highly detailed extensive reading. Your students will need to read and understand every single word in the text and be able to answer both general and very specific questions on the text. It’s only really used for shorter texts.

In real life intensive reading is used in situations where you might need to read a legal letter or contract etc. where it is imperative that you read, understand and fully comprehend everything.

In the classroom this is usually a very specific short text about a subject which your students will be familiar. It doesn’t often occur in General English‏‎ classrooms but is more likely in an ESP setting although English for Academic Purpose‎ classrooms should study this as well.

Additional Skills

There are a number of sub-skills involved in reading which you can practice with your class once you have presented the text to them. These are meta skills aimed at helping with the sub-skills above.

deciphering the script

For students whose mother tongue‏‎ is not written in the Roman alphabet‏‎, this will be something that needs to be worked on at the very beginning.

Some students will have signposts in their own alphabet. For example students with Greek‏‎ as a mother tongue will be able to recognize some of their own alphabet and also make direct correlations between their alphabet and the Roman alphabet. A few very similar letters are shown here:


However, students whose MT is Japanese or Chinese (amongst others) will need more work here where there is no real correlation between their mother tongue alphabet and English‏‎.

picking key words

Encourage your students to identify and pick out the key words in a text. With these alone they will often be able to give a good summary of what the text is about. Simple activities like highlighting content words (as oppose to function words):




When an unknown word appears in the text, encourage speculation based on the context. As well as using the text itself for this kind of exercise, you can also use completely open examples and have the students make suggestions in conjunction with their knowledge of word classes‏‎:

My Grandmother likes to sit in her armchair and —– for hours on end.

From the context the class should know they are looking for a very here so encourage speculation: knit, drink tea, talk, gossip, sleep, doze, read, write, watch birds…

In conjunction with context, students can also use their real world knowledge to apply it to the text.

In 1592 Columbus —– across the Atlantic.

Reading Out Loud

This is one activity which a lot of TEFL teachers seem to enjoy. They present a text to a class and go round the class, asking each student to read out loud a few sentences‏‎ and then moving on.

In effect they are asking the entire class with the exception of the reader to sit passively and listen to – in all likelihood – not very good English pronunciation!

There is another important aspect to this kind of activity as well. The primary goal of English teaching is to teach students real life English and the skills which go with it. But ask yourself this: How often does the average native speaker read out loud? There are exceptions of course (news readers, vicars in church, lecturers) but in general very little reading is done out loud so why get the class to practice something they will most likely never need to use?

Reading is a silent activity, not a noisy one!

Useful Links

Study Skills in TEFL – an overview of the 4 main study skills

Reading for Pleasure‏‎ – how to make reading enjoyable

Skimming‏‎ and Scanning in TEFL – is it worth teaching or is it a waste of time in TEFL?

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Posted in Language Skills.

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