Developing skimming and prediction reading skills in Pre-Intermediate students to aid in comprehension when reading newspaper articles.
Most ELS learners that I have taught are very enthusiastic about the prospect of reading authentic newspaper articles. However, they often lack the necessary reading skills that would enable them to read such a text and this leads to a lack of comprehension and negatively affects their confidence.
Therefore, I aspire to improve my pre-intermediate students’ top-down reading strategy by focussing on their skimming and prediction skills, to help them understand newspaper articles better and enable them to become more confident readers and learners.
2.1 Features of a newspaper article. *
Newspaper articles are easy to identify due to their distinctive lay-out features.
Headlines are short and printed in bold, and in a bigger font-size, than the rest of the article. The purpose of the headline is to grab the reader’s attention and evoke curiosity. Linguistic features of headlines include:
• Omitted words: articles and the verb “to be” are often omitted: ‘Teacher Wins Lottery’
• Noun strings: ‘Easter Weekend Road Tragedies’
• Alliterations: ‘Cold Coastal Christmas Expected’
• Changed verb tenses: The present tense is most often used: ‘MP resigns’
By-lines are printed in bold and can be slightly bigger, or the same size, as the text font. They consist of a synoptic sentence to give the reader an overview of the article. It can include the name of the writer if it’s not typed separately.
2.1.3 Photographs, drawings, graphs.
Articles can include some visual element such as a photograph, drawing, or graph. This would be accompanied by a heading which describes the content of the picture.
2.1.4 Body of the article:
The body of the article consists of short paragraphs and are printed in column format. The first paragraph would generally answer the questions; who, what, when and where.
Linguistic features found in articles include:
• Referencing and relative clauses
• Emotive Language
• Indirect speech, with occasional direct quotes
• Idioms and colloquialisms
• Word-play, often with homonyms
*Sourced and adapted from “Understanding Newspaper Language”, ‘London School of English’ blog-post.
To determine if we are interested in reading a text, we employ skim-reading skills; we quickly read through it to find the main idea, or gist, ignoring the specific details. As described by Grabe and Stoller (2002:266), skimming is a specialized type of reading in which the reader quickly reads to develop a general understanding of the text and to determine the gist of the passage.
Brown (2004:213) states that skimming is “a prediction strategy used to give a reader a sense of the topic and purpose of the text, the organisation of the text, the perspective or point of view of the writer, it’s ease or difficulty, and/or its usefulness to the reader”. Thornbury (2006) also reiterates that skimming means “rapidly reading a text in order to get the gist, or the main ideas or sense of a text”.
Making predictions is a reading micro-skill that involves readers to use information from a text, for example; headlines, titles, pictures and lay-out, and their own knowledge and experience, to anticipate what they are about to read. As written by Grabe (2009) “In effect, we are prepared to build the situation in which the information unfolds.”
By introducing prediction as a pre-reading activity, we allow learners to identify familiar ideas and to connect the ideas in the text with personal knowledge that they’ve already required. This process is generally referred to as activating schemata. Nuttal (2005) describes schemata as a mental structure which is abstract because it doesn’t relate to any specific experience, it derives from all the experiences we’ve had. It’s an organised structure which includes the relationships between its component parts.
3.1 Interference of previously learned strategies:
I found that my Russian students rely heavily on bottom-up strategies such as stopping at every unfamiliar word to translate it or asking for clarification of every unfamiliar structure. They are very uncomfortable when asked to predict what they might encounter in a text, or when asked to engage in contextualised guessing. It is of extreme importance to emphasize to these students that they need to develop and apply top-down strategies alongside bottom-up strategies. As Nuttal (2005) states: “sometimes one predominates, sometimes another. But both are needed”.
3.2 Underdeveloped skimming skills
The issues mentioned in 3.1 strongly inhibit well-developed skimming skills. By being drawn into a bottom-up approach when reading, skimming skills are being pushed aside as learners try to decipher a text before they even know the general idea of it. They haven’t yet discovered the value of skimming as “a questioning and exploratory kind of reading, which surveys the text as a whole and tries to get a sense of perspective about it.” (Jones, B and Johnson, R. 1990)
3.3 Lack of schemata
Factors like cultural differences, age and social background could result in weak schemata regarding certain topics. “Readers could not assemble a text model of comprehension or a situation model if they were not continuously using background knowledge representations” Gabe 2009. This became apparent in my lessons with Russian students whenever we discussed holidays and festivities, for example, as many Western holidays such as Christmas and Mothers’ Day either doesn’t get celebrated or have completely different traditions and significance.
3.4 Unfamiliarity with specific text attack skills for newspaper articles
Because students don’t get enough exposure to authentic texts like newspaper articles, they might not be skilled in recognising features within a text that might aid them with comprehension. While my adult learners and young learners of pre-intermediate level, are all very comfortable and confident about reading newspaper articles in their first language (German, Russian or Romanian) they seem to not apply the same text-attack skills when reading in English. These skills help students to use context and knowledge to derive meaning from what is read. Examples of comprehension skills would be grammatical competence and knowledge of morphology, syntax, mechanics, using context to gain meaning, using schemata as aids, using metacognitive knowledge, recognizing text structure, and predicting what will come next in the text.
4.1.1 Prediction (Newspaper features)
The learners’ attention is drawn to the article headline, by-line and photo. They are asked to predict what the article might be about. They are reminded to consider all 3 these features and to not just focus on one if they feel they don’t completely understand it. In pairs they then make a list of what they base their predictions on; words, phrases, visuals. Students are encouraged to paraphrase the headline and by-lines in more familiar language with the teacher helping with alternative vocabulary or explanations.
The purpose of this activity is based on the statement made by Catherine Wallace (Reading, OUP, 1992) that “knowledge of genre allows us to predict the likely occurrence of certain discourses: conversely, given particular discourses or discourse features we can frequently identify in the genre”. By drawing on learners’ pre-existing knowledge of newspaper article features, we encourage them to have a mental framework into which they just need to fill in the relevant information pertaining to the article at hand. This would serve to highlight the features students are already familiar with, as well as lead them to predict the possible discourse they might encounter, which would bolster their confidence before they read the text in full.
4.1.2 Prediction: (follow-up on 4.11)
Learners are instructed to read the first and the last paragraph of the text and to discuss, in pairs:
1) Does the information in these two paragraphs support their predictions made in 4.1.1?
2) What do they expect to read in the body of the article to link these two paragraphs together?
They can now add some vocabulary or phrases to their original list of language they expect to find, or associate with the theme. They are asked to retell, or summarise, the text they’ve read in their own words. The teacher uses this opportunity to provide the learners with more vocabulary or phrases they might need to comprehend the text.
This activity leads the students into predicting what they might read, and thus engages them. They have the opportunity to discuss their ideas in their own words, trying out vocabulary and assisting each other in formulating and verbalising ideas. By using alternative language to relay what they’ve read, they are reminded of their own existing knowledge. To quote Catherine Wallace (Reading, OUP, 1992): “Pre-reading activities may not just offer compensation for second language readers’ supposed linguistic or sociocultural inadequacies: they may also remind readers of what they do in fact already know and think, that is, activate existing schematic knowledge.”