IATEFL 2015: Structured Reading Tasks for Using Authentic Materials to Teach Academic Skills – Dr Barbara Howarth

Another academic session! 

Barbara Howarth is from Glasgow International College in Scotland. The approach she is talking about originates from Edward de Chazal. She works in a pathway college – students there are aiming to get into university, they aren’t there yet. This could be pre-masters programmes, science and engineering students. They teach a range of academic skills.

In the “research project” module (a min. of 5.5 IELTS score in reading  and IELTS 5.5), students get 20 weeks and they are aiming towards writing a research project based on secondary research. 10-15 students per group. Materials are provided. Within these are a number of authentic texts. The overall approach is a task-based approach and reading is integrated into this. The form of assessment is an 8000 word written report and a poster presentation. The students choose their own topic.

(So this is similar to what the Uni Sheffield students I teach have to do, except my students get about 8 teaching weeks to produce a 2000 word written project based on secondary research. They also give an oral presentation on the same project.)

A 12-step approach 

<For a list of all the steps see handout page 1>

The rationale is to grade the tasks and present them in a logical order, so that students are taken naturally through the reading process. Work with these tasks repeatedly so that a level of automaticity is developed.

Step 1:  Bibliographical details identification

It’s very important that students have bibliographical details for any text they are working with. So getting them to highlight the relevant information is a straight-forward task to start with. However, issues can emerge, such as lack of issue number on the front page, but if you look in a database, you can find the issue number. To deal with this, use follow up homework tasks to get the students into the library and databases to find such information.

Steps 2 and 3 (see the handout)

Step 4: Labelling abstracts.

Starting to think about information and what type of information is in this text. One element is the abstract/summary, another element is the analysis. This might involve the results but for these to make sense, you need to understand the aims. They need to be interpreted, so you need to draw conclusions i.e. evaluate the findings. So the task at this stage is for students to label an abstract. Show them a model first. Things that aren’t straightforward for students: The aim sits within the method. Sometimes its difficult for the students to label up the aims.

Up to this stage, we have mainly been previewing the text – bibliographical details, what kind of information is in there, how it is structured. Basic things but things that are necessary in order for the students to approach meaning.

Step 5 (see handout)

Step 6 Meaning

The aim of the task is to write a summary. The abstract is a summary, yes, but what is the point of the whole paper? The main point will correspond to the aims of the paper. The main points are determined by these. In the example paper, there are two aims – to analyse the carbon sequestration and to simulate the potential carbon sinks. Important for students to identify these and break them down. Getting them to copy bits of information encourages them away from the laptop. In this case, the aims. Anything they copy should be denoted by quotation marks and include a citation. So this gives them the main information with other distractions removed. The example summary is a two-sentence summary reflecting the two main aims. Insisting on reduction of number of words encourages paraphrasing.

Step 7 and 8 (See handout)

Step 9 Language

Language is a means of expressing meaning. So the language that you choose to look at arises from the steps that have preceded. E.g. in this case, the language of analysis, relating to the informational elements in question. This task is a categorisation task – identifying topic-related vocabulary (e.g. carbon sequestration, forestation) and vocabulary related to analysis (e.g. rate, applied to, empirical growth curves) Then divide the vocabulary up into word type. Follow up work could involve the Oxford Dictionary of Academic English. All the words identified are present. Underlined words are head words. Red words are on the AWL (Coxhead 2000)

Step 10: Critical thinking and evaluation

After dealing with meaning and language, students are in a position to start engaging with slightly more higher order cognitive tasks. E.g. discussion questions. Students need to learn that they need to justify their opinions. Another task is to look at conclusions and relate them to the results, and realise that they contain an element of evaluative judgement.

What Barbara has seen

Students go from the state of being buried in their laptops and make a transition into being really thoughtful readers. That change may be brought about by giving the students a structured step by step that they can use, working from simple to more complex tasks necessary in academia. The magic moment for Barbara is when she hands out a reading text and students automatically start to apply the process – e.g. highlighting the bibliographical information.

There will be a link to the handout here (once I have photographed and uploaded it!)

An interesting session! And a reminder that I STILL need to get round to reading de Chazal’s book that has been sitting on my kindle since last year… 

reading glasses pixabay

Let’s read! Image taken from Pixabay.



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