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Selecting a Passage for the EFL Reading Class
by Richard R. Day

One of the more complex tasks facing the English as a foreign language (EFL) reading teacher is the selection of appropriate reading passages. In reading seminars I conduct with EFL teachers, we often exchange views on criteria used to select such passages. Some of the criteria are on everyone s list and are obvious; this is important, for it reassures the participants that their insights are valuable. Other criteria sometimes cause considerable discussion; this is also important, since one of the objectives of teacher education is to encourage a reexamination of beliefs about teaching practices.

The purpose of this article is to present and discuss seven factors that have emerged from these reading seminars. It is important to note that these criteria are concerned with an intensive reading program (in contrast to an extensive reading program).

Regardless of the textbook used in an EFL reading program, the teacher often finds it necessary to use additional readings as supplements. The articles in an EFL reader vary in suitability, and teachers sometimes feel that they cannot be adapted to suit the needs of their classes. Since the focus of the EFL reading class should be on some aspect of reading, the selection of an appropriate reading passage is critical. If the passage chosen is inappropriate for whatever reason, the chances of success for that particular lesson are substantially lessened.

Selection Factors The table below summarizes the seven factors in an order that reflects their relative importance in making the reading selection.

Factors Involved in Selecting
an EFL Reading Passage

  1. Interest
  2. Exploitability
  3. Readability
    1. lexical knowledge
    2. background knowledge
    3. syntactic appropriateness
    4. organization
    5. discourse phenomena
    6. length
  4. Topic
  5. Political Appropriateness
  6. Cultural Suitability
  7. Appearance
    1. layout
    2. type size and font


The most important factor in selecting a reading article is interest. Williams (1986:42) claims that "in the absence of interesting texts, very little is possible." Carrell (1984:339) states: "First, reading teachers should use materials the students are interested in, including materials self-selected by the student." Nuttall (1982:29), who refers to interest as "suitability of content," claims that having texts that interest learners is more critical than either the linguistic level of the text or its "exploitability" (see below).

Interest is important because of its relation to motivation. When the topic of a passage is not of interest to students, their motivation to read is substantially lessened. Without this motivation, it is exceedingly difficult to meet one of the generally accepted aims of a reading program: to help get the learners to read in English on their own, outside the reading classroom.

As part of the effort to find interesting reading passages, Nuttall (1982:30) recommends that the teacher attempt to discover if the passage will:

(i) tell the students things they don t already know; (ii) introduce them to new and relevant ideas, make them think about things they haven't thought about before; (iii) help them to understand the way other people feel or think (e.g., people with different backgrounds, problems, or attitudes from their own); (iv) make them want to read for themselves (to continue a story, find out more about a subject, and soon).

In looking for readings that will interest their students, teachers should try to find those that have a reasonable amount of new information. Too much new information in a story makes it difficult to read, regardless of the interest level; a passage that contains relatively little new information can be boring.

There are a number of approaches to determining learners interests, including ranking and open-ended . A ranking questionnaire asks students to rank their preferences; an open-ended questionnaire has students respond to such questions as "What type of books do you read in your first language?" and "What do you do on the weekend?" Nuttall (1982:29) suggests paying attention to the materials students read in their first language. Williams (1986:42) recommends a similar strategy; he also suggests asking learners to evaluate current reading materials as "interesting," "all right," or "boring."


Exploitability, which Nuttall (1982:30 31) defines as the facilitation of learning, is a key factor in selecting a reading passage. Simply put, will the passage allow the teacher to accomplish the objectives of the reading lesson?

One way teachers can determine the exploitability of a passage is to do the exercises and activities in the reading lesson. If, for example, one of the objectives is to have students discover the author s point of view, the teacher could do that activity to see if the reading passage allows the students to discover the author s point of view. An article that is basically descriptive might not be amenable to that type of activity.


The factor of readability ranks with interest and exploitability as one of the most important considerations in selecting a reading passage. Carrell (1987b) uses the term to refer to the following phenomena: syntactic appropriateness; logical/rhetorical ordering of ideas; textual phenomena at the discourse level; lexical appropriateness; and background knowledge of the reader. Nuttall (1982) reserves this term only for syntactic and lexical considerations. Readability is used here to include the phenomena mentioned by Carrell, plus the length of the passage.

Lexical Knowledge. Lexical knowledge and background knowledge are the two most important elements that determine a text s readability. It is clear that as the number of unknown lexical items in a reading passage increases, the more difficult it is for students to read it with comprehension. However, lexical knowledge is among the more controversial factors in selecting a reading passage. Its controversial nature stems from two issues involved with lexical knowledge. The first concerns how to determine the degree of difficulty of the vocabulary of a reading passage. The second is the number of unknown words that is acceptable in a reading passage.

One way of assessing students vocabulary is through the use of a scanning exercise, whereby students identify in some fashion difficult or unknown words in a passage. Over time, this will help teachers determine the lexical knowledge of their learners.

The second issue, how much new vocabulary should be in a reading passage, depends at least partly on the type of reading program extensive or intensive and also on the objectives of the reading lesson. Nuttall (1982:26) defines new lexical items as words and idioms or compound phrases and recommends that in an intensive reading lesson new lexical items should be less than three percent of the whole. Nuttall cites Bright and McGregor's (1970:80) recommendation that a passage should contain no new words because learners cannot respond completely to unknown items. However, if one of the objectives of the lesson is to teach learners to guess the meaning of unknown lexical items from the context, the passage would have to include some unknown words and phrases. In general it is recommended that the number of unknown lexical items be kept to a maximum of no more than one or two words per page. This recommendation is based on the premise that the purpose of the reading lesson is reading, not vocabulary development.

If the reading passage finally selected does contain new vocabulary items, the teacher should consider their importance. That is, what value might be attached to their being learned at the learners stage in the acquisition of the target language? If the unknown lexical items are not important, it might be possible to substitute items the learners already know.

These recommendations must take into account the students reading abilities. It can be argued that at the beginning stages, and perhaps at the intermediate levels, it may be advisable to maintain a minimum of new vocabulary items. For more efficient readers, a higher percentage of new lexical items could be included in the reading passage, since efficient readers, by definition, have learned either to guess the meaning of unknown words or to ignore them. Finally, it might be difficult to find authentic texts in which the quantity of unknown lexical items is very small. Thus, the number of unknown vocabulary items in a reading passage is affected by the students reading abilities, the goals of the reading course, and the objectives of the particular lesson.

Background Knowledge. Along with lexical knowledge, background (or world) knowledge is very important in the readability of a text. The more readers know about a particular topic, the more quickly and accurately they can read it. Research (e.g., Alderson and Urquhart 1988; Carrell 1987a; Johnson 1981) has demonstrated that background knowledge plays a key role in the comprehension of a reading passage by intermediate and advanced ESL learners. Given its importance in these two stages, it might also be a critical factor in the beginning stages.

Since the background knowledge of EFL readers plays a critical role in their comprehension of the passage, teachers should make sure that the passage is on a topic that is known or familiar to their students. If the passage deals with an unfamiliar topic, there are two possibilities; either it can be rejected or students can be made familiar with the topic. The difficulty with the latter is that the more time we spend teaching our students about the topic of the passage, the less time there is to devote to the actual purpose of the reading class learning reading skills and strategies.

The factor of background knowledge in EFL reading texts may be seen as an issue of course design. If one of the goals of the reading course or program is to broaden the students knowledge of the English-speaking world, then having the students read passages about the societies and cultures of English-speaking countries would be appropriate. Time spent in the reading class expanding the students knowledge on such topics would be meeting one of the goals of the course. However, if increasing students knowledge of the English-speaking world is not one of the goals of the reading course, the reading teacher might not care to spend class time building up her students background knowledge of the English-speaking world.

One way of treating the problem of background knowledge is to select passages on three or four themes over the course of the reading program. This issue is explored in detail later in this article.

Syntactic Appropriateness. Syntactic constructions in a passage affect its readability. If a passage contains grammatical constructions that the learners do not know, they might have a hard time reading it. Readability formulas are used frequently in first-language reading, and less often in foreign- or second-language reading, as a way of determining the level of syntactic complexity of a reading. Carrell (1987b) provides an insightful summary of such formulas, and concludes that readability formulas fail for a variety of reasons, including a failure to take into account "the interactive nature of the reading process the interaction of the reader with the text" (Carrell 1987b:32). Moreover, EFL reading teachers often do not have the time, resources, or appropriate information to utilize readability formulas, even if the formulas did what they are purported to do.

One way that EFL reading teachers can become better aware of the linguistic strengths and weaknesses of their learners is to ask them. This could be done as part of a scanning exercise, for example. Using an unfamiliar reading passage, the students are instructed to scan it and underline syntactic constructions that are new or difficult, or which they do not quickly recognize or understand. The teacher analyzes the results to determine the types of syntactic constructions likely to cause problems. The more often this is done, the better is the reading teacher s knowledge of students linguistic capabilities.

Organization. Organization refers to both the rhetorical organization of the text and the clarity of the organization. Research (e.g., Carrell 1985) indicates that ESL readers who can recognize the rhetorical organization of a text have better comprehension than those who do not. While similar research has not been conducted with EFL readers, we might expect parallel results. Therefore, the EFL reading teacher should carefully examine a text to see how it is organized. A passage that is not well organized might present problems for EFL students, especially at the beginning stages.

Discourse Phenomena. Textual phenomena at the level of discourse include the arrangement of topics and comments in a reading passage, and considerations of cohesiveness and coherence. EFL reading teachers need to be aware of the manner in which the author makes use of these in the passage and the degree to which EFL readers are able to deal with such textual phenomena. EFL reading teachers need to know whether their learners can handle the presentation of ideas and arguments in the passage, whether the cohesion markers and transition devices are within the linguistic competence of the learners, and whether they can follow the line of reasoning utilized by the writer of the passage. To the extent that these factors are within the competence of the learners, the passage can be considered for use in a reading lesson.

One way of determining students knowledge of discourse phenomena is through simple identification exercises. For example, if an unfamiliar text contains samples of various cohesion markers and transition devices, students can be instructed to identify them. The next step would be for the students to recognize their functions in the passage. This could be done by a matching exercise in which the students have to match cohesion markers or transition devices that are either similar or different in function.

Length of Passage. The final factor of readability concerns the length of the potential reading passage. The most common mistake of inexperienced teachers or teachers who are not able to judge the reading abilities of their students is to select a passage that is too long. If students are unable to finish the reading passage, the lesson is not successful. The would-be learners become frustrated and often blame themselves, feeling that they are poor readers.

One technique that helps to avoid this difficulty is for the reading teacher to time herself reading the passage she is considering for a reading lesson. Then, if the passage is used in the reading class, the teacher can compare her time with the times of her learners. By repeating this process a number of times, the teacher should be able to make a fairly accurate prediction of how long it will take her learners to read a new passage.

In general, the objectives of the reading lesson determine the appropriate length of the passage. For example, if the focus of the lesson is on skimming, one excellent way to teach skimming is to give the students a rather lengthy article and a time limit to get from start to finish. But if the focus is on reading for main ideas, a much shorter article would be appropriate.


The topic of a reading article is an important factor to consider. Teachers may feel that a wide variety of topics would be helpful to maintain student interest and motivation. However, we should consider the merits of what Krashen (1981) calls "narrow reading." He claims that narrow reading, by which he means reading more in depth on a subject, might facilitate second-language acquisition, as the vocabulary and structure are often recycled.

Dubin (1986:143 45) makes essentially the same claim when she proposes a reading-in-depth approach to provide background knowledge. Certainly, having learners read more on a subject would facilitate comprehension, as they would become familiar with an author s (or authors ) style, and the vocabulary, concepts, and background information important to the topic. It is recommended, therefore, that, whenever possible, reading teachers explore three or four themes or topics during the reading course as an aid in facilitating reading comprehension and building background knowledge.

Dubin (1986:143 45) offers three techniques for reading in depth to provide background knowledge: using an anthology built around a particular theme or themes; dividing longer texts into shorter selections, introducing the topic from different sources; and using "the running story" a series of stories on the same topic. This can be done by using current news stories. As the story progresses and the students read more and more about it, they become more familiar with it and with the details in it.

Political appropriateness

The political suitability of the reading passage must be taken into consideration. In some countries the political content of articles is a critical issue, while in others it is not. Expatriate teachers working in politically sensitive countries should pay close attention to this factor, particularly if it is not an issue in their home countries.

Regardless of the teacher s status, whether expatriate or not, reading teachers should attempt to deal with their own political biases in selecting a reading passage. Teachers should not censor articles that do not reflect their political beliefs; nor should they attempt to use reading passages to put across their own political leanings.

Cultural suitability

Cultural suitability is another factor to consider in selecting reading passages. Articles for expatriate teachers which would not raise an eyebrow in their home countries could be culturally explosive when used in other countries.


The final factor is concerned with the appearance of the reading passage, which includes layout and print and type size.

Layout. The reading teacher should examine the article to see whether the layout is beneficial or harmful. For example, the teacher can check to see if there are pictures or other nontextual information that might help students understand the article. Are the lines or paragraphs numbered? The teacher can also determine the legibility of the passage. This is important if it is to be reproduced. A barely legible article can spoil an otherwise excellent reading lesson. If the goal of the reading class is to help the learners become readers of the target language outside of the class, attractive, well-designed passages are more of an incentive than sloppy, hard-to-read texts.

Type Size and Font. The type size and font (the style of type) are factors to consider for beginning readers. Type somewhat larger than normal is an aid in the initial stages of reading, as it helps in the decoding process. Larger type is commonly used in beginning readers for first-language reading. Type that is too large, however, may be a detriment to developing rapid reading, for it can hinder the reader s ability to process chunks of print as the eyes move across the page. The font (the style of type) should be clear and attractive to aid beginning readers in the decoding process.

Reproduction of Copyrighted Articles Once an article is selected, it has to be reproduced in some fashion for use in the class. If an article is to be photocopied, teachers should be aware of and observe copyrights. Although the legal reproduction of copyrighted works varies from country to country, most countries recognize a limitation on exclusive rights called "fair use." With respect to books and periodicals, fair use allows for single copying for teachers for scholarly research or use in teaching or preparation to teach a class.

In addition, fair use may allow for multiple copies (not to exceed more than one copy per pupil in a course) for classroom use provided that the following guidelines are met: (see Footnote l )

1. The article is less than 2,500 words or is an excerpt of not more than 1,000 words or 10% of the work, whichever is less, but a minimum of 500 words.

2. Only one chart, graph, diagram, or other type of illustration is copied per book or periodical issue.

3. The decision to use the article and the time of its use are so close in time as to make it difficult to expect a timely reply to a request for permission to copy.

4. Not more than one article or two excerpts may be copied from the same author, nor more than three from the same collection or periodical during one class term.

5. There are not more than nine instances of such multiple copying for one course during one class term.

It is also generally recognized that fair-use copying is not to be used to create or to replace anthologies, nor to substitute for the purchase of books. Finally, it is not to be repeated from term to term. In such cases, permission to copy should be obtained from the copyright holder.

Conclusion Given the wide variety of situations and circumstances in which English is taught throughout the world, it is not possible to have a reading text with readings appropriate for all learners in all contexts. The factors discussed here should be of some help to teachers who decide to select additional readings for their EFL reading classes. Teachers themselves are encouraged to add to these factors and to develop their own lists of criteria for their own specific situations.


  • Alderson, J. C. and A. H. Urquhart. 1988. This test is unfair: I m not an economist. In Interactive approaches to second language reading, ed. P. L. Carrell, J. Devine, and D. Eskey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bright, J. A. and P. G. McGregor. 1970. Teaching English as a second language. London: Longman.
  • Carrell, P. L. 1984. Schema theory and ESL reading: Classroom implications and applications. The Modern Language Journal, 68, 4, pp. 332 43.
  • ------------- . 1985. Facilitating ESL reading comprehension by teaching text structure. TESOL Quarterly, 19, 4, pp. 727 52.
  • ------------- . 1987a. Content and formal schemata in ESL reading. TESOL Quarterly, 21, 3, pp. 461 81.
  • ------------- . 1987b. Readability in ESL. Reading in a Foreign Language, 4, 1, pp. 21 40.
  • Dubin, F. 1986. Dealing with texts. In Teaching second language reading for academic purposes, ed. F. Dubin, D. E. Eskey and W. Grabe. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.
  • Johnson, P. 1981. Effects on reading comprehension of language complexity and cultural background of a text. TESOL Quarterly, 15, 1, pp. 169 81.
  • Krashen, S. 1981. The case for narrow reading. TESOL Newsletter, 15.
  • Nuttall, C. 1982. Teaching reading skills in a foreign language. London: Heinemann Educational Books.
  • United States Copyright Office. 1988. Reproduction of copyrighted works by educators and librarians, Circular 21. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress.
  • Williams, R. 1983. Teaching the recognition of cohesive ties in reading a foreign language. Reading in a Foreign Language, 1, 1, pp. 35 53.
  • -------- . 1986. "Top ten" principles for teaching reading. ELT Journal, 40, 1, pp. 42 45.

Richard R. Day is a professor of ESL at the University of Hawaii, where he is involved in teacher development and second-language reading. He got his start in the field as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia. His most recent book is New Ways in Teaching Reading (TESOL, 1993).


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Footnote l

     1. This information is from the United States Copyright Office, Circular 21, Reproduction of Copyrighted Works by Educators and Librarians, pp. 10 11.

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