A Bad Reading Lesson

Imagine there is such a thing as a reading lesson. (It’s easy if you try).  By reading lesson in this case I mean  a reading skills lesson for English learners. When I think of a reading lesson, I typically think of a nice PDP lesson. First some pre. Then some during (sometimes known as “while”). Then some post. Pre-reading, during reading, and post-reading, that is. In the pre-reading I imagine maybe some pre-teaching of vocab or maybe some schema activation. Maybe a prediction about the text. Ignoring (for now) the viscous attacks against reading for gist and skimming and scanning let’s imagine that students have a few chances to read the text on their own. In the During stage I am thinking students are actually reading.. The Post stage might then involve some productive skills (speaking or writing) related to to the topic of the reading text.

[Real Question Alert]
Does this sound like a typical or expected reading lesson?
Does this sound like a reasonable framework for approaching a reading lesson?

[Confession 1] 
I have to confess that this framework makes a lot of sense to me.  It passes the eyeball test. First, we help students get ready to read. Then they actually read and then they produce something related to the reading. Simple. If we want to help students improve their reading then we need to give them chances to read.

(Some people might be thinking that Extensive Reading is The Answer to which I might say “perhaps this blog post is not for them because we are imagining a world with reading skills lessons for students of English”.)

OK,  now that we have gotten the assumptions, reminders, confessions,  and first round of questions out of the way, let’s move along to thinking about what could go “wrong” in the above PDP scenario.

The first thing that comes to my mind is the teacher translating every word into L1 for the students without giving Ss a chance to read on their own. (Thus, no during! No chance for students to actually read.) 

Another classic is having students read the text aloud (solo or in a group) before they have had a chance to read it on their own. (My concern here is that Ss might be more focused on not being embarrassed than on understanding anything.)

Another one is where the teacher gives students a certain amount of time to read and then counts off every 10 seconds or so that they know how much time they have left but don’t have much of a chance to actually read. You have 1 minute to read……….50 seconds…..45 seconds. (You get the idea. Annoying, right?) 

Have you seen or done any of these reading lesson “no-nos?”

As luck would have it, I am presenting at the 9th CAMTESOL (Cambodia TESOL) in about 10 days and the title of my workshop is “A Bad Reading Lesson.” I am planning on doing a mini-demo-lesson where I (as the teacher) share some of the “bad” teaching I have seen in reading lessons and then use these to think about what might make a better reading lesson. I wonder if you, dear reader, have any to add to the list? Who knows, I might even do it in my workshop.  Thanks for reading!

Update: I am also doing a version of this presentation at the Seoul KOTESOL Conference. Instead of 30 minutes the workshop will be 1 hour, which will leave more time for discussion. I will still limit the painful sample lesson part to 15 minutes. I will hopefully give participants something to think about. If you are reading after this presentation…welcome!

[Confession 2]
I am not so comfortable or happy with the simple ideas “good” and “bad. I think it is too simplistic and judgmental and might not promote reflection or reasoned decision making but instead just promote habits without thought. I think lots of potentially reasonable ideas get labelled as “bad” on training courses (or wherever) and don’t get considered as viable options.  With that said, I also believe that thinking about and noticing the “bad”  can be a starting point to get teachers to think about the type of teachers they want to be.


  1. Rachael Roberts

    Sounds like it will be a very thought-provoking session… What about firing off comprehension questions after students have read the text, without giving them a clue beforehand what they might be asked? Oh, and together with counting down the time, pacing around noisily and peering over people’s shoulders… (judgmental, moi?)

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the reminder about (what I call) memory questions as opposed to reasons to read/comprehension questions. Delicious. Excellent.

      As for the pacing and peering. I think I will need to add that to my repertoire. Thanks so much for the ideas, comments, and support.

    • Kristin

      In addition to Rachels’ idea……even if they did have a set of comprehension questions given before hand, the T asks others as well.

  2. David Deubelbeiss

    Thanks for getting me thinking about this Michael. My own views are quite extreme but I’ll mention them nonetheless….

    I can’t resist – have to suggest in regards to reading – “Teachers! Leave them kids alone!”

    I have been working on a blog post on low impact teaching and the notion of “teaching reading” or even “teaching reading skills” is a good example of where teachers do best but doing least. Let them read, let them enjoy. If they like it a lot, let them share how they feel with the class in some way, shape or form. All the rest to me (in reference to reading) is Bad teaching and just playing the part of a control freak, I’m the all knower, teacher.

    (and don’t get me started at how useless oral reading is! – has no relevance when measured against the yardstick of students’ needs and reality.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks as always for the insights, David. As you might imagine writing that post gave me a chance to to think about a few things….as I am still not really sure what I think about reading lessons (let alone the best way to “do” them!).

      I am sort of thinking aloud here so forgive me if it doesn’t make much sense!

      It seems like (written) texts are a big part of many classes and my current thought is that teachers *should do their best to exploit such texts as helpfully as possible. So, rather than simply translating or asking comprehension questions after teachers can give students a reason to read and give students multiple chances to dive into the text. Too control freakish? Perhaps…I guess I am seeing it as better than what I think is happening a lot —> reading lessons without any reading. I feel like I’d be more inclined to follow the “leave the kids alone” thinking than the listen to the teacher translate the reading text into L1 and use texts only as a vehicle for transmitting lexical/grammatical bits.

      I can’t resist wondering how bringing video into class is any different than a reading text.:)

      Actually, I have a feeling there is a lot of crossover on our thoughts on these issues. I think there are some central questions about the role of the teacher here and things that we could ask when it comes to reading/listening/(use of video)/anything. I am looking forward to your blog post.


      • David Deubelbeiss

        I can’t resist wondering how bringing video into class is any different than a reading text.:)

        — to reply quickly – in authentic video, people are actually really communicating and using language purposefully. It is a model for what students will most likely be doing in the real world unless they intend to enter academia. Text is a whole different genre. It is stylized. Don’t fall down the ER rabbit hole and believe students can by a book/text alone begin to speak and communicate. It is only a tool, not the solution.

        I think we are doing a big disservice by exploiting texts so heavily in our classrooms. They aren’t a proper model of reality.

      • mikecorea

        Thanks David…. I guessed you (in turn) couldn’t resist the mention of video!
        All kidding aside, I think you do raise some interesting points.
        As for over exploiting (written) texts I think this is a fair point. Perhaps I am coming from the view point that IF (and maybe it is a big if) texts are going to be so prominent there *should at least be some principles guiding how they are used. (and not just the translation lectures and random reading aloud).

        Thanks as always for the insights!

    • Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)

      Hmm. Useless, you say? Not for me. Reading aloud requires me to read every word, something I have a hard time doing when I read in my head. For some reason, my eyes naturally drift ahead in a text and I get confused because without reading aloud, it’s hard for me to force myself to read everything. I certainly am not saying that reading aloud should be done in place of silent reading in class. It just helps with other deficiencies. Beyond this, completely outside of reading skills, it can help with pronunciation. It’s very easy to pronounce difficult (or even “easy”) vocabulary in your head, but not quite as easy out loud.

      • mikecorea

        🙂 I will let David speak for himself (and I know this issue is spread out all of the ELT internetS) I will just say that from view reading aloud when encountering a text crowds a whole lot of things out.

        Thanks for reading and commenting.

        Your comment reminded me of one of the great things about teaching and learning and sharing…it is all different!

      • David Deubelbeiss


        My own view is that with beginners, you might promote phonemic awareness by having students read simple sentences aloud. But don’t for a moment be fooled that this is “pronunciation” – it is beginning to learn to read English I can’t think of any “other deficiencies” that reading aloud helps with but would like to hear your opinion.

        Pronunciation occurs without a text and is speaking / listening based – if it is important for students to hear themselves speak words and notice their language, why not do it through modeling/speaking the language yourself for the student instead of them “reading”. This would be much more effective. Even better practice the pronunciation features in a communicative context. Teachers shouldn’t use phonics and text as a way to teach pronunciation – they are ways to teach reading.

        Shared oral reading does have some great benefits for classrooms. It is a wonderfully co-operative experience that builds classroom community. However, the readers should be very ready to handle the text and task. Teachers should be extremely cautious using oral reading in class – there is a lot of invisible damage in the affective realm that occurs and hinders students from having positive experiences with English language text. Reading L1 and especially L2 is a very highly demanding cognitive act. Very recent in our evolutionary time scale. Maryanne Wolfe is a great voice/researcher in the area of the reading brain / deep reading – I highly recommend reading her views on oral reading. In fact, my opinion is the vast majority of language programs around the world are wrong – wrong because they promote reading way too early in the language learning cycle. They do so because they need “authority” and a text seems to bring that value into the classroom. But it is wrong. Once students can speak and listen at a good level, only then should they be introduced to text as a learning aide. But think of even beginning classes – they all start with a book and “reading”!

        Reading every word will never make you a better reader. Reading every word is not reading, it is newscasting or narrating. I don’t see what you are trying to accomplish by doing that unless you intend on entering one of those professions. Maybe try reading slower and using a tool to present text at a certain rate. Reading slower is not the same as reading every word.

        Sorry for the length of my reply but I’m passionate about this issue.

      • Tyson Seburn

        My thoughts aren’t aimed at beginners necessarily, as I currently teach students likely in the intermediate+ range (depending on what skill we’re talking about). I’m also not suggesting that reading aloud will make anyone a better reader per se, but it does have benefits. Gibson (2008) has a good overview of RA drawbacks and benefits, a pretty easy starting point for discussions on this topic. RA is not limited to around the room reading by students one by one.There are other teacher and student-related activities that can leap from this as a springboard.

        I mentioned some deficiencies above that reading aloud addresses for me. Regarding pronunciation, one could argue that having any sentences or phrases on the board or in a text where students practice how it sounds, how it connects to surrounding words, etc. as RA. Doing so from a text is dissimilar. Making the visual connection between the words and the speaking is important to do. I wouldn’t argue with you when suggesting that literacy students (not beginners) would benefit from solely oral communication initially, given they have little ability to read even letters.

        Anyways, I’m not going to go on and on in these comments. We obviously have differing experiences and attitudes towards RA. Where I’d always caution is taking an extreme side for or against any particular tool for the classroom. It’s just not a valuable approach.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for sharing the link! One of my biggest learnings of the past year or so is realizing how similar things can be in different contexts! The post and the comments were amazing. Thanks for sharing!

      • Tom Randolph (@TomTesol)

        Wondering about dictionaries (bilingual, monolingual, phone-based) and buddy-reading. As you and David mentioned, leaving the kids alone would seem to be a primary goal for reading in class. Making sure that students know how to to read alone fairly efficiently would seem to be a prerequisite — is there a point to leaving them alone while they go about looking up every unknown word in a translation dictionary, for example (because, just perhaps, this is what they’ve learned to think of as ‘L2 reading’)? At worst, this encourages a student to think of L2 reading as more of a chore than it might otherwise be, and at best it’s something they can just as easily/successfully do at home. Either way, a lot of dictionary use interrupts of the meaning-construction process: read me?

  3. philchappell

    That sounds like a very worthwhile workshop for CAMTESOL, Mike. Good luck with it. I recall two teaching strategies that I have used and that failed miserably. The first is actually one that is recommended in various circles. The second was just my lack of experience.

    1) During an “intensive reading lesson” like the one described by Mike above, at some point later in the process, have students circle or underline the unknown vocabulary and then they ask the teacher to explain them. Now, THAT’s an invitation for disaster, especially if the text is challenging. The 2 or 3 times I tried this as a novice teacher I had to deal spontaneously with 20+ vocab items! Intensive reading sessions are supposed to develop strategies such as guessing meaning from context, skipping words, etc. This just screamed at the students: “every word is important every time!”

    2) Know what the key vocabulary is and know how to deal with it (convey its meaning) in the most effective and efficient way. When “vinegar” came up in a reading text as being an important remedy for bee stings, I was asked what vinegar is. Totally unexpected. As an inexperienced teacher, I then proceeded to go through the distilling process on the board, talking about similarities to wine and whiskey. I was getting nowhere, and the students were getting bewildered. Finally, a student said “nam som sai choo” (in Thai). Everyone gave a sigh of relief that they finally knew what vinegar was. Lesson? Use L1 as a learning and teaching tool, and prepare reading tasks ahead of time by doing them yourself!

    Hope these help!

    • mikecorea

      Very helpful, Phil! Thanks!
      I can just picture the vinegar distilling process on the board. That is classic. Thanks so much for sharing this. As you say this is nice example of L1 as a tool! (as well as a lesson on preparing ourselves on the texts themselves).

      As for the circling…that is a great one .. I have railed against it in the past but I wasnt thinking about it this time. I think this will surely find its way into my presentation! I Circling…yes… explaining yes. love it. “EVERY WORD IS IMPORTANT EVERY TIME.” Yes. I got it. Message received loud and clear.

      Thanks again. 🙂

  4. Tom Randolph (@TomTesol)

    Wondering about dictionaries (bilingual, monolingual, phone-based) and buddy-reading. As you and David mentioned, leaving the kids alone would seem to be a primary goal for reading in class. Making sure that students know how to to read alone fairly efficiently would seem to be a prerequisite — is there a point to leaving them alone while they go about looking up every unknown word in a translation dictionary, for example (because, just perhaps, this is what they’ve learned to think of as ‘L2 reading’)? At worst, this encourages a student to think of L2 reading as more of a chore than it might otherwise be, and at best it’s something they can just as easily/successfully do at home. Either way, a lot of dictionary use interrupts of the meaning-construction process: read me? (double-posted this in the wrong spot a moment ago).

    • mikecorea

      Hi Tom,
      Thanks for the comments. (in both places!)
      Thanks also for reading.

      I like your point about leaving students to do it on their own but the risk of dictionary abuse coming into play.

      I think you make a good point about L2 reading in class being done just as easily/effectively at home or in class. I think this pushes me to value actual reading tasks (as well as the pre and post stuff mentioned above).

      Maybe some would say that reading should be done at home alone and with texts chosen by Ss. I dont have much to say to this except to wonder how likely it is and how it would fly with admin and such.

      Thanks again for stopping by. Nice to meet you lately on twitter!

  5. James Taylor

    I’ve written about some of my experiences as a student on my blog (http://www.theteacherjames.com/search/label/Learner%20Diaries) but to be really specific…

    1) teacher asks student (me) to read text aloud
    2) student starts reading
    3) teacher interrupts to correct every mispronunciation, no matter how small.
    4) student doesn’t even think about what he’s reading, just tries to pronounce it right, slowly gets annoyed by constant interruptions.
    5) after a paragraph of this, another student continues.
    6) first student wonders what exactly was achieved by this except raising his blood pressure.

    Hope that helps!

    • mikecorea

      Very, very helpful James.
      Thanks for the script. I think I am going to do this exactly in 6 days.

      I love the added stress factor and the interruption. Good times.

      This is one of the reasons I really like the During idea. If the teacher is correcting pron it is most certainly not During reading. 🙂

      Take care and thanks again!

  6. Kristin

    A bad reading lesson??
    One with no context, where the text has no relevance for learners, where no assistance with developing reading skills either via teaching vocab or deducing meaning of vocab, or in which the feedback stage is simply what’s the answer (T: What’ve you got for No. 1, Soon? Soon: True T: Good, No. 2, Jeong? …)occurs, where the tasks designed for gist (or whatever other reading micro-skill you might be working on) don’t achieve that, where there is no time for extending out of the text into a post-stage as might happen in real-life reading, because the teacher ran out of time (perhaps due to other things getting out of control in stages before this), where there is no chance for the learners to read for what they want to find out about the topic…….
    Good luck with the session!

    • mikecorea

      Ohh… context… I am ashamed to report I hadnt thought of this.
      (I guess this is where, in the framework above a good pre would take care of this)>

      The answer checking business is pure gold.

      And as for the timing thanks for that too. Very helpful and something that often gets away from me. Suddenly feeling quite fraudulent to be running such a session! 🙂

      Thanks for the very helpful thoughts and hopefully I will let you know how it goes.
      (and hopefully it will go well!)

  7. Jemma Gardner

    Hi Mike,

    I’ve seen quite a few bad habits occurring in reading lessons. By “seen” I mean as a trainer, peer-observer or even over-heard through an open classroom door. A common one is asking students to “read and underline anything you don’t understand”. This highlights the negatives, so rather than giving them a task which focuses on what they can and do understand it makes them physically mark all the things which they don’t and then, probably, they will have to show this page to a partner and confess to how much they don’t get. Also, as a teacher, how can you deal with this effectively once the underlining has happened? In a small class of three, you could possibly help with it all, but then there are arguments about how good this use of time would be.. However in a larger group, there is no way you can help with all the issues that have been underlined. And thirdly, it teaches students that they need to understand everything in a text, rather than allowing them to become used to the fact that they often will not be able to comprehend each and every word.

    I’m sure there are more arguments against this as a task, and perhaps a few for, but breakfast is calling. Good luck at the conference!

    • mikecorea

      Thanks so much from reading and commenting. It is always a pleasure to see you in the blogosphere. (no pressure…just an observation). I really can’t believe how common the highlighting of the negatives thing is. My thought at this very moment is that the answers aren’t really going to appear suddenly from reading the text so students are just as lost as they were at the start! As you suggest it really puts the teacher on the spot and in the explainer role….

      Thanks for sharing the insights.
      Hope all is well!

  8. creativitiesefl

    I tried to leave a comment yesterday but it appears not to have worked! I think the pacing and peering is a classic example of teachers wanting to look like they are doing something! Something I’ve seen often is going through answers as Kristin described, but also even when half the class has a different answer, just giving the right answers with no explanation or discussion. Also agree with the comments about highlighting unknown vocabulary and getting bogged down in the individual meanings of words rather than making sure students understand the text as a whole.
    Good luck with your session!

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Jo. Also a special thanks for trying a second time! I really like your point about just getting the right answers (esp to comprehension questions) with no thought/discussion about how or why they might be that way. I am actually pretty sure I have done that in the past but it is surely something to keep in mind.

  9. Martin Sketchley (@ELTExperiences)

    When I was doing the DELTA equivalent on my MA course, there was one teacher who decided to get students to read out loud some text. The observer literally tore her lesson to pieces and failed her on that lesson. It was an interesting attempt to get learners to read out loud the text but I don’t think there was much thought about the structure of the lesson nor the aims. It was experimental and the learners had to get their mouths round the language pretty promptly and she put the learners on the spot. Nevertheless, it was a cringeworthy attempt at a DELTA level teaching practice lesson and the teacher decided to leave the module for another module in the end.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for sharing Martin. I want to get some really cringeworthy things going on so this is nice motivation! 🙂
      I think I will set the dials at random and give people chances to read aloud without any good reason.

  10. gemmalunn

    How about translating every word of the reading then having students memorise the whole reading for a test without them actually understanding the words/sentences they are memorising!

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  12. Ben Naismith

    How about when teachers ask the students to ‘read in pairs’ or ‘read together’ and answer the questions? I’m all for student-centredness, but…

    I also always find it funny when teachers haven’t bothered to answer the questions themselves, assuming that it’ll be easy, then when it comes time for feedback you can see them frantically scanning the text or just accepting as correct whatever the majority of students have got.

    • mikecorea

      This is excellent, Ben (and thanks for commenting).

      I am pretty sure I have done something similiar (to the read in pairs stuff) in the last 18 months. For shame, Mike.

      Also good point re: checking answers. That is a classic. 😉

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