A task-based approach to reading | Module 3 Reflections

This is the third in a series of posts I’m writing to review and reflect on my learning from this Coursera MOOC . This week’s materials analysed the application of insights from task-based learning to reading.

Task based reading.jpg

(Intensive reading is) the type of reading that happens in class, directed by the teacher using a text that learners would be unlikely to read successfully without assistance.  Macalister (2014)

The course suggests that we do too much intensive reading and often unsuccessfully, solely focusing on the linguistic aspect. And that by doing so, we imply to the learners that we read to mine for language i.e., the sole purpose of reading is learning a language, ignoring the fact that reading could potentially be an enriching and engaging activity from a non-linguistic perspective.

Building on concepts in module 2,  5 principles were introduced for effective reading.

1. Reading is a communicative act

2. Reading must be fluent and fast

3. We need to reach some sort of authenticity of task

4. Different learning objectives require different tasks (reading to learn a language,        learning to read, reading to learn content)

5. We must take into account the reading that learners already do

It was suggested that these result in a set of implications for how we ought to plan and teach reading lessons. We need to

1. Choose interesting texts

2. Make learners want to read a text

3. Focus on meaning

4. Focus on reactions

5. Offer choices to the learners

6. Provide narrow reading

7. Use electronic sources

8. Present text and activities that learners can cope with

At first glance, these implications make sense – who’d disagree right? But, I continue to see a paradox (see my post from last week) in what the course is discussing from a pedagogical and theoretical perspective and what it’s recommending in terms of practical classroom approaches. Last week was all about agency and letting learners bring in their own texts but implication one seems to do away with that. Take a look at this:

So we really need to make sure that at least at the beginning of a course, or the beginning of a year, we choose texts that are interesting and relevant to our learners. From there, we can move to texts that we think our learners should be reading and which are about topics that have values in themselves

… so we can move to texts that *we think* our learners ought to be reading!? Wherefore art thou, agency?

While I feel this is somewhat incongruent with what they’ve been preaching, the others seem reasonable and perhaps even pedagogically sound. For instance, the rationale for number four is that we often wait until after long drawn and inane comprehension questions to ask learners to react to text, and only when we’re not running behind time when we subject the reaction stage to the old skiperoo. The course recommends that we focus on reactions immediately after learners read a text.

Apropos principle 5, I recently ran reading circles at a teacher training program where participants were offered a choice from a bank of curated articles and they had to develop consensus among themselves for which text they wanted to explore. I thought this was very empowering. These democratic reading circles were with a group of teachers; I’m not sure how well it would work with learners.

I found the idea of narrow reading, implication 6, quite interesting. In narrow reading, learners read a series of texts on the same topic. As they go from text 1 to 2 to 3, they spend less trying to understand its content (because they’ve already done that in text 1) and can do a more nuanced reading and focus on how they might feel towards it. The course rationalised this by stating:

Outside the classroom we do this all the time by choosing what we read or following a news story over a few days. Or we have our own interests and we often read about a particular topic.

It was also suggested that narrow reading facilitates the learning of language because the learners don’t need to focus so much on meaning so there’s allegedly more incidental learning of grammar and vocabulary. Implication 8 is critical because apparently a reader requires knowledge of between 95-98% of the words in a text to achieve comprehension (not sure where they got these stats from) and that we ought to rein in our tendency to include or replace words to bring in our target language because it can be very frustrating for learners.

Intriguingly the course presented research that urged greater authenticity in task design but also suggested cases for avoiding it because some inauthentic tasks such as reading aloud, and re-reading multiple times have been found to be effective.

Subsequently there was a discussion about how the stages of a reading lesson (pre, while and post) seem to deceptively mirror a task-based learning sequence. However, there is usually no real life task, and if there is one there may still be multiple issues. The comprehension questions may focus on meaning but in a decontextualised way. There may be no communicative problem to solve and there is rarely a non-linguistic outcome.

Nevertheless, the course proposes that it;s possible to adapt a conventional reading sequence for TBL, illustrating this through an example from Reading Links by Marion Geddes and Gill Sturtridge.

The ultimate task which the learners have is to design a flag for an imaginary new nation … The initial groups receive different texts with different information about this new nation, its history, its geography, its people, and customs … Once they have read and reached an understanding of their text, new groups are formed with one person from each of the original groups. And the task is now to design a flag that will represent this new nation, based on the information from the different groups.

It’s a task/problem I suppose and a seemingly engaging one but how authentic is it? I dunno.

This week’s assignment involved constructing a jigsaw reading task where learners works in groups of three to read three different tasks on the same topic. I cheated a wee bit because I couldn’t find three texts on the same topic at a similar language level so I conveniently retrofitted my target learners to the text. A lot of the assignments I peer assessed stuck to largely conventional reading approaches and I questioned the authenticity of the task that their activities culminated in.

I am still waiting for a shift in focus from the status quo in terms how we deal with reading to a more thorough examination of how reading would work as a task-based strategy. Hope to see that in next week’s materials.


4 thoughts on “A task-based approach to reading | Module 3 Reflections

      1. hi
        he may well report results in that, dunno, i believe the original paper is:
        Hu, M., & Nation, I.S.P. (2000). Vocabulary density and reading comprehension.
        Reading in a Foreign Language, 13(1), 403–430.


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