By Flor de María Vila A.
Nowadays the capacity for reading comprehension is frequently discussed. Among the many ideas that are debated comes that related to how much we, as a nation, have improved in reading comprehension. We are no longer in the 69th place but in the 62nd in PISA (the Program for International Student Assessment). That appears as good news. However, it is valid to wonder, how much we teachers in general, or teachers of English as a foreign language, have cooperated to improve the reading comprehension level of our students.
In a previous article I probed if we, teachers of English, are instructing learners on how to read or whether we are just evaluating how well students already do it in their own language. Regrettably, I am afraid that in general we just settle for evaluating; we do not teach how to read or help our students to improve their reading comprehension. Ask yourself honestly the following questions: What activities do you carry out in addition to activating students ‘previous knowledge? Do you know and teach reading strategies? Do you guide your students to use reading strategies before, during and after reading? Do you know what metacognition is? Do you teach how to use metacognition in the process of reading?
Grasping what one is reading is more than the ability to remember ideas and information that are directly stated in the textbook material (Literal Comprehension). Neither is just the ability to extract ideas and information not directly stated in the textbook material, using prior or background knowledge to assist in such understanding (Inferential Comprehension). Truly, these are the two most common and basic levels of reading comprehension. Most textbooks come with many exercises appraising and promoting these levels of comprehension. In our lessons, we tend to think that if students can answer the questions provided by the textbook, they are then able to understand what they are reading. And this may be true, but we are not teaching them how to read; in many cases, we are just setting the scene by explaining the meaning of new words, asking a few questions to create interest and setting the time to do the exercise.
Have you had your students make predictions about the probable meaning of the text? Have you monitored your students´ comprehension by questioning them, having them think about, and reflect on the ideas and information in the text? Have you helped students to relate what they have read to their own experiences and knowledge? If more than one answer is negative, it is very likely that you are not teaching how to read but simply helping them to fill out the exercises provided.
It wouldn´t hurt to find about other levels of reading comprehension such as evaluative, appreciative, applied and critical. Knowing what these other levels of comprehension really mean will enable us to design and propose other kinds of activities to teach how to read or to help our pupils improve their understanding of what they read in our classes or anywhere else. Together with these levels we should also review or learn the reading strategies used before, during and after reading any text no matter whether it is short, long, easy, or difficult; no matter whether it is reading for pleasure or for doing an assignment.
Think about the following and share your ideas:
Is it possible to teach reading in our classes? Can we help our students improve their reading comprehension? How?
M.A. in Cognition, Learning and Development from PUCP, B.A. in Education with a major in English Teaching. Ms. Vila is currently Pedagogic Advisor and Member of the Research Team at Centro de Idiomas de la Universidad del Pacífico and Academic Director of International Contacts (test training & foreign applications advisory). She is official Examiner for several University of Cambridge tests, freelance consultant with Universidad ESAN, experienced speaker on diverse English teaching issues for prestigious institutions, and senior international examinations trainer (GMAT, GRE, TOEFL, IELTS)