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