A task-based approach to reading | Module 6 reflections

Task-based reading.jpg

This is the last in a series of posts I’ve been writing to review and reflect on my learning from this Coursera MOOC . This module focused on selecting suitable texts and constructing appropriate tasks.

  • Narrow reading newspaper article tasks: Learners read two or three newspaper articles on the same topic, discussing their reactions after each one. They then compare the texts to notice differences and make inferences about the reporter’s stance. Alternatively, ask them to create a table where they add to incrementally as new information emerges from each text. This task will only work well if there’s an adequate gap between the texts to allow learners to deliberate over the veracity of the information.
  • Tasks structured around texts that present different opinions: First ask learners to identify the different perspectives and summarise each viewpoint. They then present these opinions in an oral role play such as an interview.
  • Texts with conflicting perspectives: Ask learners to debate who they agree with.

Some suggestions for adapting dry textual exercises from coursebooks:

  • Don’t go immediately to the comprehension questions. Instead, construct a small task that allows learners to explore their reactions to the text.
  • Extend discuss questions to make them more productive. For example, a question that asks learners what could be changed could be modified into an action plan that they need to produce. The action plan could be conceptualised as a poster or a PowerPoint presentation.
  • Instead of answering opinion questions individually, ask students to mingle and discover the perspectives of their peers. They can report the findings in a graph or a presentation.
  • If a text is prefaced by survey findings (as they often are), ask learners to conduct the survey with their peers before comparing it with the results in their coursebook.
  • Pre-reading vocabulary exercises can be made interesting using pictures or word search puzzles.
  • Introduce texts using video or picture-based tasks which allow learners to brainstorm ideas and produce target vocabulary.
  • Copy-paste the text into a word cloud and ask learners make predictions.
  • Subvert tasks or texts that are contrived by asking learners to make them more authentic (great idea from Prof. Pauline Foster)

The final assignment was on creating a task-based reading activity that met the course’s criteria for designing a task. Here’s mine:

My overall experience with the course

I believe this is an excellent course for training teachers on teaching reading skills more effectively. It goes beyond the knee-jerk skimming and scanning (or scheming and scamming as some of my learners refer to them) and offers teachers lots of interesting techniques couched within insights drawn from research. However, in terms of task-based teaching and learning, the course is weak. It attempts to reconcile conventional ELT reading approaches with task-based sequences and does so unsuccessfully. This is not to say that the two are mutually exclusive – for my assignments including this last one I was able to construct some approximation of a task-based reading lesson, but most of the assignments I peer reviewed weren’t able to achieve this.

I think the primary reason behind this shortcoming is the course’s inability to suggest real world tasks where meaning is indeed primary. It was almost as if they were scraping the bottom of the barrel for task creation – designing book covers as an example of an authentic post-reading task – honestly?!  The three course facilitators, Dr Amos Paran, Dr Andrea Révész and Dr Myrrh Domingo who I assume also designed the materials, were very focused on younger learners, particularly teenagers and I can see how it might be challenging to construct authentic tasks when the context for language learning is very general. This is reflected in the relative strength of each module, the weakest of which was ironically this week’s module on designing reading tasks.

On the other hand, some of the guest speakers were able to suggest relatively more authentic tasks because many of them were looking at adult-learning contexts, often with specialised needs where it becomes easier to design tasks that genuinely reflect the activities that learners carry out regularly in their personal and professional lives.

This limitation notwithstanding, this is a great course and I highly recommend it to both new and experienced ELT professionals. My experience in this regard has been fairly similar to Sandy Millin who’d originally recommended this course on her blog. I thought I knew quite a bit about teaching reading skills but I discovered a lot of new insights.

This is also the first Coursera MOOC I’ve actually (and diligently) completed since 2014 when I’d been on a MOOC binge. I’ve been finding it really difficult to stay focused and complete MOOCs. What helped with this one was that I paid for a verified certificate which helped me stay honest and on track.

Recommended reading 

Here are the additional reading lists from each module of the course.



Image attribution: Nancy Avery’s class by EarthFix | Flickr | (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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