Issues and Challenges in Teaching Reading in EFL Classrooms
Throughout my school life in a government school of Nepal, I never felt the need of reading English language in classroom. Those days are still fresh in my mind when my English teachers used to paraphrase and translate reading texts into Nepali and students had to remember words meaning, answers to the questions asked and other tasks. It was teachers who would read the text and make us understand the content, especially by translating them in Nepali and Maithili. Generally, we did not have anything to do with reading the text. It would be teachers’ job to read the text, answer the questions and finally write those answers so that we could copy those in our notebooks and remember them for test. English used to be the toughest subject for almost all students because we had to remember so many things like vocabulary, question answers, structures, rules, examples etc. In spite of such hard effort, we could hardly pass in English test. The students would be considered very bright and talented if they could get pass marks.
Furthermore, while teaching reading text, teachers used to ask us to read aloud in the class and we would do it. However, we would rarely understand the text given to us. I am not sure whether we were not up to the level or the difficulty level of the texts provided to us were beyond our comprehension. But in both cases, we had problem in making sense out of those texts, hence we did not like reading. Sometimes, when we were asked to underline the difficult words, we would have many underlined words in the text and teacher used to write meaning of those words, make us learn them by heart and then he would deliver very long and fine lecture on the content of the text. I passed my school days without even knowing the necessity of reading English texts. I had neither any reason nor any interest to read those difficult and boring texts.
Most of the students, especially those studying in government school of Nepal, have faced similar situation in school level. Now equipped as a language teacher, when I reflect back on how I had been taught reading passage, I can easily notice so many problems in teaching reading in our context. Therefore, in this article, I am going to analyze issues and challenges in teaching reading in EFL classroom of Nepal especially focusing on the issue of selecting right kind of reading text and designing appropriate tasks for it.
Issues and Challenges
Reading is one of the most important skills in learning a second language. The success of language learner is largely influenced by his/ her reading practice. “Reading is useful for language acquisition…the more they read, the better they get. Reading also has a positive effect on students’ vocabulary knowledge, on their spelling and their writing” (Harmer, 2007, p.99). Therefore, teacher must develop reading habit in students in order to help them enhance target language efficiency. This can be done by motivating students to read, especially by giving them reason to read. Neyman (2002), states that instead of waiting until later grade, extensive reading should be provided as early as possible so that they can use the facility that children have up to certain age. As a matter of fact, learners must feel the need of reading only then they can read on their own. In short, reading stands as bedrock for learners’ success in learning a second language, therefore it is language teachers’ responsibility to cultivate reading culture in students.
But the fact is; there are so many challenges in teaching reading in EFL classroom of Nepal. Teaching a reading text is taken as the easiest task among all the activities that teachers do in a language classroom. Generally, teachers come in the class without any preparation and they deliver a long lecture on the content. They do not care whether the text is appropriate to the learners or not. Moreover, they hardly give any importance to language teaching and language learners and their interest. There is nearly no any task for students except memorizing word meaning and question answers. In most cases, teacher explains the words for the students and later they remember them for test. “Students who have difficulty in reading, choose neither to read nor to engage in other tasks involving reading” (Stanovich, 1986, as cited in Ahmad, 2006). Students do not get chance to read on their own, as a result they struggle with the new text in making sense out of it in the real life situation.
From close study and careful analysis of EFL context of Nepal, I found following major issues and challenges related to teaching reading:
- Selecting appropriate text
- No reading culture
- Designing reading task
- Lack of Schema activation
Moreover, there are some other related issues such as lack of knowledge of target culture, difficult vocabulary, too much emphasis on bottom up approach by the teacher, lack of motivation to read on the part of the students, no sufficient preparation in teaching etc. All these challenges, as a whole, make reading text difficult and boring to learners.
In fact, teachers seem unaware about the fact that reading text is for students. They practice reading in the classroom and develop their reading proficiency instead of letting students enhance their reading skills. Gnawali (2005) states that it is teacher who improves his/her English in highly teacher-centered classroom but not the learners. Moreover, they are not even clear about the purpose of teaching reading text. Generally, they believe that they need to teach reading text simply because it is given in textbook and is going to be asked in examination. Ahmad (2006) states, “They (teachers) said that passing exam were more important than spending time on extra reading” (p.70). So, the main aim of teaching reading text for them is to help students in securing good score in exam. Above all, we can say that teachers do not know exactly why they do what they do in language classroom.
Reading is more than just picking up words, phrases, and sentences written in the text; it is, an activation of the prior knowledge that we already have in our mind. When we read any text, we use our knowledge of the world to understand the text. Reading is, therefore, a ‘psycholinguistic guessing game’ (Goodman, 1967, as cited in Hedge, 2010). We make guesses and match them with what is given in the reading task. When our prediction is similar to information given in the text, we easily comprehend it but when our mental script is challenged or when we don’t have any similar kind of experience; we face difficulty in understanding the text. Hudson (2007) states, “The reader makes guesses about the meaning of the text and samples the print to confirm or disconfirm the guess. In this way reading is an active process in which the reader brings to bear not only knowledge of the language, but also internal concepts of how language is processed, past experiential background and the general conceptual background” ( p. 37). Thus, schema activation in teaching reading is a key factor in understanding the text.
However, the mental schema is activated only when we are familiar with the context and the information given in reading text. “…the first part of a text activates schema…which is either confirmed or disconfirmed by what follows” (Wallace, 1992, as cited in Stott, 2001). In other words, in order to make students able to use their schema, reading text must be similar to their background knowledge. Similarly, teacher must be able to prepare appropriate task to encourage students in using their knowledge of the world. But in context of Nepal, as I have already mentioned, there are so many problems with the reading texts and the tasks that teachers design while teaching reading passage. Therefore, these two issues: first selecting right kind of reading text and second preparing suitable reading tasks for students need to be discussed in details.
Selecting reading text: Authentic or modified
Selecting right kind of reading text is a very debatable issue. There are two different views regarding selection of suitable reading text. First view favors authentic materials like newspaper, advertisement, speech as reading materials in language classroom so that language learners can read authentic texts in real life situation. Similarly, this view also opines that language cannot be separated from culture; hence learning second language also includes learning L2 culture. Therefore, authentic text is provided in order to expose authentic language and culture to learners. But, authentic texts cannot be easily understood by all learners because of their difficulty level and cultural related factors. Students cannot comprehend the text if they lack the schema needed to interpret it. Smith (1994) states, “Knowledge of relevant schemas is obviously essential if we are to read any kind of text with comprehension. A child who does not have a scenario about farming is unlikely to understand a story about farming or a reference to farming in a textbook (p. 15, as cited in Hudson 2007).
However, the next view prefers modified authentic text or a reading passage from local culture. In this view, when teacher bring reading texts from learners’ culture, they can easily exploit their knowledge of the world in understanding them. Furthermore, the authentic text can be modified to meet students’ level to make it easy for them to comprehend. “…learners with very little exposure to the second language have difficulty in reading. Thus second language reading instruction must find ways to avoid continually frustrating the reader. This can be accomplished through the use of modified text to fit readers’ ability levels.” (Day and Bamford, 1998, as cited in Hudson, 2007)
We can find literature (Ur, 2005, Hudson, 2007, Ahmad, 2006) supporting both authentic as well as modified reading texts in teaching reading. As a matter of fact, both kinds of texts have their own advantages and disadvantages. No doubt, when learners are provided text from their culture they feel easy to understand. But in doing so, learners are separated from target language culture and as a result, they may not be able to develop full mastery of target language. Regarding this issue, Ur (2005) suggests that we generally use simplified text with less proficient learners because such materials are more effective at earlier stages. Likewise, the use of authentic text for less proficient learners is often frustrating and counter- productive. But after all, our final aim is to make learners capable of coping with any kind of text like native speakers, therefore it is necessary to expose variety of authentic or near authentic texts when they can handle them.
Above all, we should provide modified text to less proficient learners at first and later on slowly and gradually we can give them near authentic and authentic texts. In this way learners will not feel difficulty in dealing with simplified passage in the beginning and then gradually they be given authentic text when they become capable enough to cope with it.
Designing reading tasks
Preparing appropriate task is very crucial in teaching reading text. The success and failure of the lesson depends on the activities we design for any text. Even an interesting text can be boring if we cannot engage students in right kind of tasks and the vice versa. It needs great effort on the part of teachers while preparing reading tasks. They need to read a text several times to design proper activities in order to engage students successfully in it. It is task that helps students in using their knowledge of the world to understand the text. Therefore, a reading task must be designed very carefully. Preparing right kind of task is very important in Harmer’s view:
We need to choose good reading task- right kind of questions, appropriate activities before during and after reading, and useful study exploitation. The most useful and interesting text can be undermined by boring and inappropriate tasks; the most commonplace passage can be made really exciting with imaginative and challenging activities, especially if the level of challenge (that is how easy it is for students to complete a task) is exactly right for the class (Harmer, 2007, p. 102).
Broadly speaking, there are three stages in teaching reading text: pre- reading, while-reading and post-reading. In each stage, we need to involve students in different activities. Generally, in the first stage we set a scene for reading by relating the text with learners’ knowledge of the world, next we involve students in extensive and extensive task in the second stage and finally we engage them in text related activities in order to relate the text with their experience. Doff (1995) states that in the pre reading stage, we do three things: first we present some of the new words from the text, give a brief introduction to the text and eventually present one or two guiding questions. These all, help students giving them some idea what to expect, increase their interest and make them want to read the text, give the students a reason to read and finally lead them towards the main points of the text.
Similarly, during while reading stage, first we ask very easy questions which demand only extensive reading and slowly we move to difficult activities trying to make them read intensively. This simple to complex order holds learners’ interest alive and they understand the text successfully. Likewise, in post reading stage teacher encourages students to express their opinions and make them share their experiences relating them with the reading text. This is production stage where learners are free to express what they feel after reading particular text. In this way, every stage has some activities, which all as a whole, help in developing reading proficiency in learners.
There are so many issues and challenges in teaching reading text in EFL classroom of Nepal such as de-contextualized reading text, difficult vocabulary, difficulty level of text, lack of motivation to read, no reading habit, excessive use of bottom up approach, no sufficient preparation in teaching etcetera. Among them, selection of appropriate reading text and designing task for teaching reading appear main issues. In order to minimize the issue of reading text selection, teachers are suggested to use modified text for lees proficient learners and authentic text to proficient learners. Similarly, teachers should design the task dividing the lesson in different stages and providing students suitable activities in each stage so that students can use their knowledge of the world to understand a text.
The author is doing his Master’s degree in ELT at Kathmandu University School of Education (KUSOED). He is a life member of Nepal English Language Teachers’ Association (NELTA) and has experience of teaching English in different private schools of Nepal. His areas of interest includes motivation and teaching English through literature.
Ahmad, Z. (2006). Reflecting and teaching of reading. Journal of NELTA, 11(1-2), 66-72.
Doff, A. (1995). Teach English: a training course for teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Harmer, J. (2007).How to teach english. London: Pearson Longman.
Hedge, T. (2010). Teaching and learning in the language classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hudson, T. (2007).Teaching second language reading. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gnawali, L. (2005).How to teach reading in the EFL classrooms.Journal of NELTA, 10(1-2), 10-13.
Neyman, P. F. (2002). Helping children learn to think in English through reading storybooks. The internet TESL journal, VII(8). Retrieve from http://itesl.org/articles/neyman- storybooks/
Stott, N. (2001). Helping students become better readers: schema theory application and limitations.The internet TESL Journal,VII(11). Retrieve from http://iteslj.org/articles/stott-schema.html
Ur, P. (2005). A course in language teaching: Practice and theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.