Are You and Your Students on the Same Page?

Chris Gough
26 January 2017

Boosting motivation to read with the right texts

It is widely accepted that language students engage with and gain more from reading texts about topics and themes about which they have some existing knowledge. Students read far less efficiently and effectively when they read cold, grappling with factual information and cultural reference on top of unfamiliar vocabulary and challenging grammatical structure. Recently, this was brought home to me when teaching a class of non-native English teachers.

As part of a morning spent studying modern culture, the class read a text about Banksy breaking into his cash-strapped ex-primary school to paint graffiti on a playground wall. The headmaster and school janitor were livid until, of course, the penny dropped and they realised the revenue from exhibiting the artwork would keep the school open for another ten years. The class of ten learners from various European countries was divided into those who knew quite a lot about Banksy and those who knew either very little or absolutely nothing. Much to my joy, one of the enlightened students actually had with her a pencil case adorned with a Banksy design, while another was vaguely familiar with the school break-in episode. I realised this was a prime opportunity to undertake a little impromptu research.

Tuning Your Students In

The pre-reading tasks started with learners discussing four images of graffiti and deciding which they considered to be street art, i.e. having some artistic merit, and which they considered to be wanton vandalism. Among the images, was a Banksy wall stencil. Even at this early stage, it was clear that the learners with prior knowledge were more engaged and enthusiastic. They recognized the Banksy art and sensed that he was going to be at the centre of what was to come. A second preparation task required learners to explain the meaning of potentially unfamiliar vocabulary as they read sentences and predicted whether or not they were true. At this point, there was something of a chasm between what the two halves of the class were achieving. Half were tuned in, quickly working out meaning from context and making relevant and valid observations, the other half fumbling with indecision. The first half efficiently defined words like anonymity and hype in context, aware of how and why they would be pertinent. The second half defined the same words as decontextualised items, giving examples unrelated to the topic. Interestingly, an Italian history of art teacher, who incredibly had never heard of Banksy, engaged far more readily and purposefully than the other students with no existing knowledge. She was, however, still several steps behind those already tuned in.

Understanding Why They Are Reading

Predictably, when it came to the actual reading comprehension, the division was confirmed. It wasn’t simply a case of those with prior knowledge better understanding the nuts and bolts of the text. These were, in the main, fairly advanced learners, and even the lowest achievers understood the basic literal meaning of almost of every word. What they failed to do was grasp the whole picture. Without the required background knowledge, there were too many gaps. They didn’t properly understand why they were reading and actually appeared to be slightly envious of the students who did. It was like not being in on a joke that friends were sharing.

After the lesson, I thought more in depth about what I’d observed. How often do we really read to acquire totally new information rather than to confirm or challenge what we already think we know? Take a film review, for example. The conventional assumption is that reviews are written to advise and recommend, but is that really true? Don’t most of us more frequently read reviews of films that we have already seen so as to enjoy comparing our take with that of the reviewer? Why else would Rotten Tomatoes be such a popular website? We choose to read biographies of people we know about and like, hoping that an infamous period or specific episode will be embellished or clarified. Sir Alex Ferguson’s life story will be gripping for a lifelong Manchester United fan but no doubt a laborious grind for anyone with no interest in the beautiful game. How many people would read the biography of a 17th century missionary that they have never heard of? Reading totally fresh information is generally speaking a chore.

Of course, if we suddenly saw a news report that intelligent life had been discovered on a distant planet, we’d lap it up with great gusto. On the face of it, this might appear to be enjoying a text cold, but consider what prior knowledge we actually bring to it. We know intelligent life has so far not been discovered and that opinion is divided as to whether it exists. As soon as we see the headline, we make hundreds of assumptions and then ask ourselves hundreds of questions we want answered. If students don’t, at least subconsciously, do this, they simply can not read with interest or purpose.

Meaningful Preparatory Exchange

It isn’t easy for course book writers to address this fundamental maxim. They are trying to please as a wide an audience as possible and so chose texts that will, in theory, be of at least some interest to everyone. The problem is that they are then of significant interest to very few. More importantly, as courses are aimed mainly at European learners, they focus on European or Central American topics and characters, and Asian and Middle Eastern learners are alienated. I’m sure all teachers have struggled through a text that argues why the UK has failed to develop its own cuisine, stopping to explain why roast beef and potatoes isn’t really a dish or why gravy isn’t strictly speaking a sauce! By the end, learners might have understood but in the same way somebody finally understands a joke when the punch line has been explained.

Authors understand the problem and have become adept at devising more robust scaffolding tasks but, as the Banksy experiment showed, these tasks will only bring readers up to speed so far. Scaffolding tasks are essential but are ultimately most inspiring to those learners who least need them! Learners benefit far more when they bring their own thoughts to a text and the preparatory tasks exploit that.

Skills resources like Essential Reading have an advantage in that they are aimed at a specific market in which learners have specific needs and predictable areas of interest and prior knowledge. Texts can be chosen judiciously to balance what readers should already know with what they probably don’t know and what they want to find out. Of course, it isn’t simply a case of information being familiar. Asian students probably don’t want to read about 14th century paper-making. The text is unlikely to tell them anything they don’t know or, more importantly, provide them with a fresh perspective. Texts about Shanghai sinking into its foundations, how western celebrities are embracing a Japanese diet or the explosion of cosmetic eye surgery in South Korea are far more likely to enthuse.

As always, learners benefit from orientation tasks that focus and motivate but tasks that hone prior knowledge and encourage a high level of prediction. At lower levels, when meaningful preparatory exchange is limited, teachers should perhaps consider allowing a degree of first language interaction. Ambitious students will ultimately make the most of any text they are given but they will surely achieve a whole lot more when they can read with a view to reacting to and perhaps challenging what they have learnt.

About the Author: Chris Gough

I started teaching at the school in London where I did my CELTA (Marble Arch Intensive English) a long, long time ago. Like most of us, my aim was to travel and I soon went out to Valencia, where I taught for a couple of years. I came back to London and worked again for M.A.I.E. I did my DELTA and worked for a while as ADOS. I also started to get involved with teacher training for the first time. I missed Spain a lot though, and in 1992, I went out with my girlfriend (now my wife) to Granada, a city I had fallen in love with during an earlier visit. I worked as a DOS for a year and then took over the running of the school for a second year. Though I loved everything about Spanish life, I wouldn’t say that I really enjoyed the stress of running my own school, particularly in a part of the world where competition is so fierce, and we decided to come back to Britain in 1994. London was no longer very appealing and we decided to head for Brighton, where we had both previously lived.

I lived there for over 20 years and spent my days teaching, training and moderating Trinity certificate courses. For the last seven years, I have been more or less constantly writing, something I’ve enjoyed hugely but which has involved rather a lot of solitude. My family has very recently relocated to Broadstairs, where life is quieter and the air is fresher. I plan to combine writing with teaching and training as far as possible. We have also bought a house in Almeria so we try to spend a couple of months a year out there if we can.



Essential Reading 2nd Edition covers

Essential Reading Second Edition uses the power of reading to improve essential language skills and develop life skills, capturing students’ attention with local & global topics appealing to Asian learners.

Download short audio stories and discover more about Essential Reading Second Edition at