Past and Present? – Teaching Techniques

Do you remember classes on reading in English, Bengali or whatever language you were studying, where the text was too difficult for you to understand the meaning and the teacher concentrated on testing challenging vocabulary or asking questions like “What does ‘them’ refer to in line 25?”

If your recollections are anything like mine, they are probably memories of being horribly bored.

This was true for me not only in language classes but also in literature. I am a compulsive reader and appreciate the classics but cannot enjoy one of the masters of the twentieth century, D. H. Lawrence. That is because of the painful treatment my teacher gave to the author’s ‘The Rainbow’ in a school in London forty years ago.

I suspect that many readers share this experience: literature classes that do not open up a magical new world of discovery, never transport us to different times and places, and fail to show us that our innermost fears and deepest pleasures are shared by others. These are the very reasons why we need to read. Too often, our classes do exactly the opposite: they kill any flicker of interest.

So, what is going wrong in our schools?



It’s a grammar class, not a reading one

The first difficulty is that teachers do not see a text as something to be enjoyed but as a means to identify grammar. In other words, we as teachers use reading lessons to teach syntax or lexis, not to get students thinking and talking about content.

Let Learners Read What they Want

The next problem is that reading texts chosen for textbooks or syllabuses are often teachers’ – and only teachers’ – choices. They don’t reflect the interests of the learners. But all the evidence suggests that if our aim in reading is to improve our language skills, it does not matter what we read. The issue is how much! The trick is to let our students read what they want. At least then there is a chance that they will enjoy reading.

This is true even if learners are allowed to choose the level of difficulty of a text for themselves. Learners lacking confidence in their language skills may feel more comfortable with a text which is way below their ability. Besides, they do not stay with books like that for long: they get bored and move on to more challenging works. But teachers routinely and wrongly use texts that are difficult for learners! A rule of thumb here is the five finger test: get students to hold up five fingers and drop one every time they come across an unknown word. If they cannot reach the end of a page before there are no fingers left standing, the book is probably too hard for them to enjoy.

Why is reading so important?

But why all this emphasis on reading anyway? Because to progress from an intermediate level to a more advanced one demands reading.

Take grammar as an example. Just about everything we teach students is only partly right. For instance, we use adverbs of frequency only with simple tenses (I always go to the park on Sundays), not with continuous ones. Don’t trust teachers on this one: they’re always teaching half-truths!

I could continue, but let’s look at vocabulary instead: ‘sick’ and ‘ill’ are synonyms – so why can’t we say “That doctor is great with ill children”?

In short, language is too complicated to be described and practised in its entirety in a textbook or by a teacher. Only by reading do we develop our skills to proficiency level!