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Engaging Students through Critical Reading

I am very pleased to be introducing Alexander Makarios’ first blog post on our school blog. Alexander’s first contribution is on ways of engaging students with texts at a deeper level of interpretation and discussion of their content, rather than staying just at the level of discovering facts and exploring language.

Marisa Constantinides

Critical Reading

Reading is a very important skill, since we are required to read on a number of different occasions that might prove to be crucial to our well being, our very survival. Road signs and warning signs,  are a great example of this type of text.

However, there are other aspects in the domain of reading which are more suitable for an advanced learner, such as reading as a vehicle to enriching one’s knowledge of language, reading for pleasure, both of which help a person embark on a journey towards furthering their academic knowledge or sharpening their critical thinking.

This last factor, in my opinion, has been immensely neglected in L2 classrooms in Greece, as it is believed to take up valuable time in exam-oriented syllabi. Learners are not trained to read critically and therefore think critically.

We can distinguish between critical reading and critical thinking in the following way:

  • Critical reading is a technique for discovering information and ideas within a text.
  • Critical thinking is a technique for evaluating information and ideas, for deciding what to accept and believe.

By definition, activities that invite learners to reflect on their own culture, traditions and overall attitudes and, then, compare them to a culture specific, are much more demanding not only in terms of language, but also in terms of critical thinking.

Teachers can ask their learners to, first, discover ideas embedded within a text and, then, to evaluate the text according to its pragmatic, communicative, propositional, and conceptual meaning.

Texts offer themselves for critical reading by following the next three steps mentioned below:
Restatement: restating what the text says.
Description: describing what a text does.
Interpretation: analyze what a text means.

The following example serves as a great portrayal of these steps.

Your doctor tells you to eat less chocolate and drink less beer.

A restatement would repeat the statement,
The doctor said I should eat less chocolate and drink less beer.

A description would describe the remark:
The doctor advised me to change my diet.

An interpretation would find underlying meaning in the remark:
The doctor warned me to reduce my calories for the sake of my health.

Non – critical readers tend to be more passive in learning and almost invariably fail to gain further insight into the language they are trying to learn. They tend to memorize what is being “dictated” without questioning or cross-referring facts, rules, or patterns.

On the other hand, to the critical reader, any single text provides but one portrayal of the facts, one individual’s “take” on the subject matter. Critical readers thus recognize not only what a text says, but also how that text portrays the subject matter.1

By following a critical reading procedure, learners become more active, competent, as well as teacher-independent readers by integrating the two basic approaches to comprehension:

a) a top-down approach.

b) a bottom-up approach.

There is a wide range of activities offering themselves for critical reading learner training.

1) Texts which offer alternative discourses.

This sort of activity can be used as an information-transfer activity. The learners can be presented with several texts that share the same context but the writer of each text has different intentions,that is, the pragmatic meaning of each text is different.

For example, all texts may be about ‘The role of the woman in the workplace’. The learners work in groups. Each group has a text which describes the situation through different perspectives. Some texts could be biased, others offensive, neutral, or even dismissive. They, then, have to fill in a table with all the information needed to compare and contrast the ideas expressed in each text. A useful post-reading activity would be a class discussion conducted by the learners evaluating the language used in each text to convey certain ideas, to challenge a certain perspective of a text and then decide on a fairly neutral way of writing it down.

The aim of this activity is to heighten learners’ awareness on the style of writing along with sharpening their critical reading skills by introducing a highly culture-specific text. Finally, another aim would be to introduce learners to certain skills and strategies which may be employed to deal with a text in general.

2) Identifying parallel discourses.

This activity is a variation of the one mentioned above with the difference that it is not to be used as information transfer, as there would be only one text with contrasting discourses. The topic again might as well be contrasting people, places, cultures, traditions and so on.

3) Tasks which challenge conventional outcomes.

This activity would serve the purpose of highlighting the conventions and roles that are salient and dominant in a society. Learners – especially if they are parents – would be immensely interested in casting a critical eye on the discourses that underlie children’s books, for example. They would get the opportunity to examine closely how the roles of parents and their children are implied in a subtle manner.

Again, in this case, while-reading activities could aim to heighten learners’ linguistic awareness. Finally, after-reading activities could be used to sensitize them to pragmatic content of a text.

4) Activities that engender problem-posing rather than problem-solving questions.

Such activities are based on the concept that learners are to read a simple text supported by visual aid and, then, instead of answering an already-made, classroom-tailored question, they have to draw on their own personal relevant experiences , pose their own questions and share and discuss them with the rest of the class. Hopefully, a discussion can arise about the social and cultural aspects of the issue presented in the text.

5) Pre-reading activities for skills/strategies training

Learners could be provided with a generalized issue, or title of a text. Then, they could engage in conversation in pairs, or groups, predicting what ideas might be presented in the text, what syntactical structures may have been employed by the writer. In other words, they will engage in a discovery process since they acquire the role of the writer while mapping down his/her ‘personality profile’. This is a very useful activity as many new grammatical structures and lexical items could be introduced or revisited. Moreover, it is an interesting way to involve all learners in the lesson and create a need for the actual text to be read. In terms of skills and strategies training, the teacher could prompt learners by asking them how they might get an overall idea of the text. The questions posed by the teacher could be explicit, such as ‘Are you going to pay attention to all the words you come across?’, or, ‘Do you want to know what each word means, or do you care more about the main gist of the text?’

Final comment

Critical reading is an important part of reading skills development and can also be an engaging way of teaching this skill for teachers and learners as well. It is the best way to personalize a lesson since the learner involvement is much higher than average. Therefore, textual content  is highly likely to be both more memorable and motivating, provided the teacher has taken into account the learners’ interests and level of literacy when choosing or adapting texts with this aim in mind.

And if the content is memorable, it is more likely that the language of the text will be remembered as well.

References
Wallace, C. 1992. Reading. A Scheme for Teacher Education. Oxford University Press.

http://www.criticalreading.com/critical_reading_thinking.htm

http://www.criticalreading.com/critical_reading.htm

http://www.criticalreading.com/ways_to_read.htm

About the author

Alexander Makarios has been a teacher of young learners and adults for 5 years. He obtained his CELTA in 2006 and has just received the glad tidings that he is also a proud DELTA holder. He completed his training at CELT Athens where he now teaches general and Business English courses. He is currently training up to be a CELTA tutor at CELT Athens.

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15 replies »

  1. Thank you for the great ideas! I find that challenging the thought-process brings out the best discussions. These are great ways to challenge accepted ideals and find out various perspectives, especially in a classroom with students of different backgrounds.

  2. Thank you for your kind words. Indeed, engaging learners through critical reading can be really conducive to fruitful conversations; it can, also, help Sts notice L2 patterns which would otherwise be extremely difficult for teachers to present by following other approaches. I’ll try and post a sample lesson plan.

  3. Nice to see criticality in EFL education! And refreshingly a take on critical reading that does not see it as an additional skill simply to be learned and used when required. So many EAP programmes present ‘reading critically’ as following insipid and programmatic formulae.

    I think, like you, critical reading is something we can all do naturally given the right environment – which is usually about reducing the students’ expectations that they should produce such and such an answer or reproduce the usual interpretation or whatever is in vogue within that field at the time and more about making it clear the teacher does not expect a model answer but simply that the students engage with the text and produce an original and personal response.

    Some nice ideas here, and easy to follow. Thanks

    🙂

  4. Great post! I think that if I had to sum up what’s crucial to gaining understanding of what’s written, it would be:
    1. recognizing the context and taking it into account
    2. understanding the intentions of the writer/speaker
    Would you agree? (why/why not?) And do those two things cover it or might there be something else a reader needs to know (if so, what)?

    • Thanks Vicki.

      Yes, I do agree. In terms of more advanced earners, of course, recognizing the context and the intended meaning is the gist of what I’m trying to say; however, this is not enough to engage Sts unless there is some evaluation stage as well. You see, as EFL teachers we are strriving to teach skills and systems but is this enough? What about the learners’ education? wouldn’t it be brilliant if we could simply build up their schemata as well? (I do understand that I sound rather old school). On the other hand, I ‘ve witnessed – and I’m sure you have as well – that language is realy closely related to education and building up one’s knowledge of the world. Language is a means of expressing one’s mind. As a result, if we know little, let alone nothing, we cannot retrieve any lexical pattern or item that would differentiate us from a mere communicator.

      What readers need to know – since we re talking about a classroom environment – is up to the teacher to decide. A language teacher is – whether we like it or not – an educator.

      Hope I’ve answered your questions.
      Please, feel free to leave any comment you like.

  5. Alexander, what a brilliant piece of writing my fellow ex-DELTA trainee. This is truly inspiring, and hopefully some people will be able to pay heed to this and implement some of the basic teaching fundamentals with regards to reading.
    Even if we do look at the Greek system of frontesteria(our dear friends) and the exam-based syllabi, being able to be a ‘good’ reader is still imperative – although reading is only tested directly in one area i.e. the reading paper, the students need to be able to read all the other areas of the paper, they need to understand the underlying meanings, and be able to pick out key words/phrases that will subsequently help them to answer all of the questions correctly.
    So, YES indeed reading needs more focus and more time instead of concentrating on books with past exams that really are not worth the paper they are written on – apart from what is stated on the front cover, ‘past papers for practice’ – sadly the words teaching, learning and practice are slightly confused in some language schools.
    I for sure will adopt some of your methods you have suggested, and I would be greatly interested to read some follow-up papers to this. Get that word out! BRAVO!!!!

  6. Congratulations! Your first piece on the blog,..following in the footsteps of our inspirational tutor. Go for it!!
    An interesting and engaging topic, Can you believe when I taught at Leics Uni in the summer, we actually had a lesson called ‘critical thinking’ at first I couldn’t get my head around the fact I had to teach someone how to think,,,,,then I realised that through the students’ learning experiences of L2 and local schooling (similar to that of Greece), they had never been asked why they read only how to read and what to look for ready for the big exam. This ‘why’ was a new question for them..to look for new vocab, to get the gist, to scan for info…No!!! To think about what the writer has to say. What???? they asked me? Thus, as you say critical reading was introduced to help them discover info and ideas, then we thought about it and eventually evaluated the ideas of what each individual wanted to accept/believe or not..The important realisation for the students was to see that critical reading and thinking work in harmony. So together, we understood the text and thought about it. As you say, if only a few more frontistirios could adapt this style or even the Greek Educational system we would create a whole new generation!! A generation of thinkers not parrots! Thanks for all the teaching ideas, which will help me this summer..I owe you a frappe..!!

    • hey, Sharon.

      thanks for your comments.
      I do hope the activities will help.
      About that frape…I’ll hold you to that 🙂

  7. What a great blog post from my friend and colleague at CELT Athens! Congrats, Alex! There’s a lot to be said for critical reading and thinking, especially within the greater context of the general educational system of a country. Reading your post -you’ve got some great reading activities there, by the way- gave me food for thought.

    It’s true that every time we get our students, many of who have never been taught critical reading or thinking in L1, to look at a text critically and evaluate the opinions expressed or the language used, we actually do much more than teaching the language: we encourage them to develop an ability for both analysis and synthesis that will be invaluable to them in acquiring better knowledge of the world around them! This is another side to our teaching that we do not always realise, but it’s there all the same! For me, it’s also one of the criteria of whether what we’ve been trying to do with our students has actually worked: when you feel you’ve helped them “build up their schemata”, as you very aptly put it.

    I sincerely hope that we’ll have more blog posts like yours spreading the word, since developing reading skills can be one of the most fascinating aspects of teaching!

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