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Vol 34 No 1, January - March 1996 Page 34 PREVIOUS ... CONTENTS ... SEARCH ... NEXT


Adapting Readings to Encourage Slower Readers
by Jim Roth

The following may sound familiar to teachers who have given their students some in-class reading. After reading warmup exercises and some pre-reading vocabulary work done with the whole class, some students finish reading the assigned text quickly and breeze through the post-reading exercises. (The teacher feels a need to give them something else to do.) Meanwhile other students may still be reading and haven't even started the exercises. (The teacher notices that the slower readers are starting to fidget or show strain in their faces and feels sympathy for them.) Many may be leafing through dictionaries. The students who finished first are perhaps chatting, and the slower students may be showing annoyance.

Meeting the different needs of students is a constant challenge for teachers. At perhaps no other time are students' differences more evident than when students are given a passage to read. Having engaging activities for students who finish early is certainly one way to deal with these differences. Teachers are aware that sometimes they must conduct a three-ring circus. The master of ceremonies in a circus must jump from one ring to the next to keep the flow of activity continuous: Tigers are roaring, elephants are dancing, and a woman is flying from a trapeze Such a role, however, is exhausting, and it is one that most teachers would prefer to avoid.

Moreover, teachers know that many second language readers try to understand more words than is necessary to get the main idea from a reading. These students may get stuck looking in their dictionaries. Most important, these students don't get practice trying to guess the meaning of difficult words from context. The teacher may ask the class to skim for the general idea of a passage, but the faster readers tend to do the skimming; and the slower readers don't adjust their reading speed.

To encourage slower students, we may set up competitions that encourage them to read faster. The task may be to scan the reading in a certain length of time to check the validity of certain statements. But this competition often must be individual versus individual, and of course the faster readers always win.

As teachers who want our students to increase their reading efficiency, we want activities that don't put the slower students on the spot. We want activities that encourage them and help them develop their reading speed, confidence, and ability to guess unknown words from context.

The following will outline three activities that encourage students with weaker reading skills. The first activity will encourage them to work on their reading speed in cooperation with students who read faster. The second involves selective manipulation of the order of comprehension questions. The confidence of the slower readers can be improved since they may do the reading exercise in about the same time as the faster student. The third encourages all students to work together to guess the meaning of new words from context.

Reading "Off the Wall"

There are many ways to adapt "Off the Wall," an activity found in Natalie Hess's book, Headstart (Longman). Pieces of paper with answers to pre-reading questions are put on the wall around the room. She proposes having students circulate in pairs searching for five answers to match questions they have. The first pair to finish wins. Students sit down and discuss the questions and answers.

"Off the Wall" can be adapted in a multitude of ways for during-reading tasks as well. When students are reading off the wall, it helps if the reading is enlarged on the photocopy machine. Whatever is put on the wall should be spread evenly around the room. Students should be encouraged to start with different pieces of text to avoid bunching up around one posting on the wall.

"Off the wall" can be a reliable technique in one's teaching repertoire for many reasons: It transforms reading from a sit-down task to a milling task, and weaker readers can divide up the task with stronger readers (e.g., each student takes a certain number of questions). Students can work in pairs as Hess suggests and also in triads. Students who finish early can help team members who are still working. The activity can be made into a competition so students are encouraged to read quickly. The physical nature of the activity also gets the students to read faster. In addition, since students are working cooperatively, slow readers are not put on the spot, and the teacher does not have to worry about additional tasks.

Pupil's Material Wall Pupil's Task
a. whole text questions find answers
b. questions text parts find answers
c. answers questions match answers/questions
d. questions answers match questions/answers
e. answers text parts write questions
f. sentences text parts find part with sentence
g. scrambled sentences text parts unsramble/ find text part

Adapting comprehension questions to different reading speeds

The same list of comprehension questions can be made easier or harder depending on the order they follow. The tasks below go from easiest to hardest:

  1. Reading comprehension questions parallel the order in which the answers are revealed in the text.
  2. Questions are scrambled (so that the answers do not come in the linear order revealed in the text).
  3. The reader is given a list of comprehension questions (scrambled ones are more difficult than unscrambled), and some of them cannot be answered directly from the assigned text. The reader must skim the passage to identify those questions that are answered in the text and answer only these.

Using the three graded-level tasks above, the following adaptation can be applied to "cooperative jigsaw readings." Such readings usually call for the text to be broken into three parts. In the first stage, a different group of students reads each part. In the second stage the students are regrouped to answer questions about the whole reading. When students cooperate in this second stage, each group is composed of students who have read different parts so they can answer all questions cooperatively.

In the first stage, some students finish reading their parts before other group members reading the same part. The students finishing first can get task "3" above if they are very fast, or task "2," which is somewhat easier. The students finishing last can get task "1" above. Experience has shown that since task "3", or even "2", are significantly harder than "1", the slower readers can finish the reading and the comprehension task at about the same time as their classmates who read faster.

Meaning from context vocabulary game

Pre-teaching of vocabulary has its advantages and disadvantages. It helps students to read the text because there will be fewer unknown words, but it doesn't develop the students' skill at guessing the meaning of words from context, a necessary skill for reading outside of class.

The following simple game can still be a pre-reading vocabulary task, but it also develops students' skill at guessing the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary from context.

The teacher culls the text for potentially difficult vocabulary and puts each word on a piece of paper. All pieces are put in an envelope. The class is divided into teams. The competition begins when a student from one team pulls out a word at random, reads it, and fellow team members try to find the word in the reading, and guess the meaning. Students can call out the meaning in English or the native language, depending on their level. If the team that pulled out the word can't guess the meaning, other teams can be given a chance in succession. Each correct definition scores a point and mistakes may be scored a negative point.

Teachers know they need to pay attention to the needs of weaker readers. They can build up their skills while maintaining a high level of interest, encouraging cooperation, and avoiding stigmatizing these students as weaker readers. Just as important, teachers can do it all without calling in their skills as master of ceremonies at a reading circus.

Jim Roth is Assistant Director for staff development for teachers at the Accent Language School in Prague. He was also a USIS teacher training fellow in Liberec, Czech Republic.



  • Hess, N. 1991. Headstarts. London: Longman Group UK Limited.

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