Just Read!

5th Grader - “Sorry teacher, I don’t understand.”
Me - “Read the chapter - that’s all.”
5th Grader - “Er… teacher… CD?”
Me - “What do you mean?”
5th Grader - “Will we listen to the story?”
Me - “No, we’re reading now.”
5th Grader - “Take turns?”
Me - “Sorry?”
5th Grader - “Will we take turns to read?”
Me - “No, just…”
5th Grader - “So you will read it?”
Me - “No, you will read.”
5th Grader - “By myself?”
Me - “Yes!” (thinking “finally!”)
5th Grader - “Oh… OK…” (looking slightly puzzled)

Books… but where are the audio CDs and supplementary materials? - Image by @sandymillin via eltpics

As a ‘conversation’ teacher in the 5th Grade at my school, one of my duties, naturally, is to improve my students’ reading skills. To this end, we have three graded readers included in our syllabus. The stories themselves are great - two of them are original stories (which I always prefer to adaptations of classic novels or films) and the other contains two short Sherlock Holmes stories. There is also a plethora of materials to go with each book. Some of them are useful, such as the digitised version of the book which allows me to show specific pages on the projector, zoom in on the illustrations and highlight particular words or sections of text. However, I find a lot of the other materials to be superfluous - the ‘interactive’ CD-ROM which is actually just a series of gap fill and matching exercises, the non-fiction extra reading sections which are often only thinly connected to something in the book, and the post-reading ‘KET style activities’ to name but a few (isn’t it a bit over the top when the story itself takes up less than half of the space in the book?)

I also include the audio recording of the story in the ‘superfluous’ category. I have used them in the past but I no longer do so for a couple of reasons - first of all, the pace of the recording is slower than the rate at which someone, even a second language learner, can read. If we are aiming to improve reading skills (which should also include reading speed), then having our students following along as the story is heard from a CD player is detrimental rather than helpful. Secondly, I have witnessed far too many students switch off when the CD is switched on. Some of them just stare into space, not even reading the book, not even looking at it!

These days, I aim to get the students to actually read the stories. Now, that doesn’t mean I just say “here’s the book - start reading” of course! We spend time doing pre-reading activities such as predicting what might happen based on the title, the illustrations and the events of the previous chapter or other awareness raising and schema activating activities. Once the chapter has been read, we talk about how the plot advanced, what new things we learned about the characters and go over any unknown vocabulary that came up. However, in between all that, I want my students to get used to just reading… normally.

Think about it - once we are past a particular age of early childhood development, how do we read? With an audio recording of the story playing at the same time? Sat in a circle with some other people taking turns to read a page? Of course not! Reading is a solitary and quiet activity. We will often curl up in an armchair with a drink and a few biscuits and spend some quality time with a book. So why is this not the case in the EFL classroom? It amazes me how many times I have an exchange with one of my students like the one at the start of this post - some of them are simply not used to reading stories by themselves. The whole idea of sitting quietly and reading a chapter of a book seems alien to them!

But, once they are used to it, they start to see the benefit. Having actually read the story instead of half listening to it from a CD or struggling to follow a class mate reading it aloud, they have a better understanding of the book and comprehension activities become easier. They are also more willing to return to the chapter and fish out some specific information (being also more aware of where to find it).

Of course, pressing ‘play’ is easy. It’s easy for the kids to just sit and daydream, it’s easy for the teacher to be sure everyone is at the same place at the same time and it’s easy to say the chapters have been covered. But, teaching is not an easy job and neither is learning a language. For me, the flood of supplementary activities that come with readers is indicative of one of the biggest problems in the ELT profession today - the over-reliance on materials designed to keep the students busy (but not the teachers!)

There’s no magic trick to getting a class to read. It’s just a matter of establishing good habits. It may make classroom life more difficult initially but, like many other ‘difficult’ things, it works out for the best in the long run and keeps the focus where it should be - on reading and learning to simply enjoy a good story.

That’s what I think but (in a blatant act of copying from Phil Wade’s excellent blog posts), I’ll finish with some Questions
  • Should we encourage young learners to read ‘normally’ or do they need more support such as audio recordings?
  • Are there any other ways the recordings could be put to use?
  • Do EFL teachers (and, to an extent, students) over-rely on supplementary materials?


  1. I'm a huge fan of audio books (except for the time when I listened to "Love Story" on a drive north and arrived with panda eyes!) - many (most?) of us were read to as children and learnt to listen for the general story line and not focus on specific words by simply listening to our parents' fluent reading. Audio books also help with pronunciation, intonation and rhythm (especially important if you have a syllable-timed language and are learning a stress-timed language) and, I believe, can help a reader become more fluent in reading by not allowing them to stop and focus on what they don't know. That said, I also think it's important to allow children to read on their own at their own speed...as with everything, "too" (often/much) in front of anything is a bad thing! Variety is the spice of life, they say.
    Incidentally - here's a link to a project carried out in Dutch primary schools on reading and audio books (scroll down to film clip "lezen met cd"). As you'll see: the audio books were nonetheless read individually, not classically!

    1. Hi Louise,

      Thanks as ever for an insightful comment and a different perspective. :)

      Of course, being read to is an important part of early childhood literacy. I have witnessed this with my own son who started to figure out some words in the stories I read to him at 2 and can now read extended chunks of text despite no formal schooling in reading in either language he knows.

      However, much like training wheels on a bike, they have to start doing it on their own eventually. Many of my students (aged 11), revert to early childhood mode when the CD is on and don't even look at the book. As I said in the post, a stated aim of the skills programme I work on is to improve reading skills and fluency. All their other teachers have done/will do the 'read and listen' approach so I'm trying to foster some different habits. :)

      Thanks for the links!

  2. @wellmichelle4 May 2012 at 00:23

    Hi Dave,
    While my young learners (11 to 13 year olds) don't have to read a class book as part of the syllabus I do have a small class library with a selection of graded readers. We use these at various times during the year, students select a book they would like to read and then read it over a number of classes. All the books have CDs, however, we never use them.
    For me, giving our young learners the opportunity to read silently in class is very important. It allows them become absorbed in the story and then experience this without any distractions. As you mentioned, this idea is very often alien to most, probably as much in their L1 as in English. Some of the books which I have for the students are in comic form and I have found that for those who really don't like reading this is a great way to get them into it!
    As for the huge amount of supplementary materials that come with each book, there are a lot of questions at the end of each book and certainly there is even more material available on the publishers website. Honestly, I don't think we really need all this! As the students in my classes are reading different books when they've finished I go and speak to each one individually, while the others continue reading. They tell me about the story they've read and what they liked and disliked about it, and this is a great chance to talk to students on a one-to-one basis. Then we decide on a follow-up activity, this could be to find some new vocabulary in the book and add it to their notebook, or to describe their favourite character, etc. I find that here is no need to use the materials provided with the book, the students generally come up with a suitable activity to support the reading they have just done.
    Developing the reading habit is difficult at first, students squirm in their seats, asking do they really have to read the book and some ask to change their book various times, but I find that a silence slowly descends on the class, as each child begins to get caught up in the story. Students begin to ask when they can read the next part of their book and once they've finished a book they've enjoyed eagerly recommend it to their classmates.


    1. Hi Michelle,

      Thanks for sharing how you do things! We have tried to have a class library in my school before but the school is so large that there are not enough books to go round...

      I also like getting the students to do projects based on the stories from the small (character profiles, plot summaries) to the large (video projects, what happened next stories, etc). Anything that makles them really delve into the book for ideas!


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