Enhancing Reading Comprehension I: Explicit Teaching Techniques

Image source: www.bigstockphoto.com


Reading can be a very challenging skill for ESL learners. Teachers also know that individual students may respond differently to different styles of instruction. Fortunately, we have access to both explicit teaching techniques and structured experience techniques. Even though ESL teachers themselves may be more comfortable with one or the other of these options, it is well worth taking both of them seriously because each can make a contribution.  Part I of this series covers explicit teaching techniques and Part II covers structured experience techniques. I will offer practical advice regarding both approaches, and explain three proposed techniques for each.

Explicit teaching taps into the trust and confidence that clear, direct instruction can inspire. It has the potential to provide learners with cognitive clarity about aspects of the reading process. While it typically works best when followed up by one or more structured experience activities, explicit teaching should not be underrated. It is an excellent starting point.

Here are three strong explicit-teaching techniques:

1) Schema activation highlights the usefulness of a student’s own background knowledge (schemata). Existing knowledge helps skilled readers understand texts fluently. Instead of laboriously building a new schema from scratch every time, beginners benefit from learning how feasible and necessary it is to access relevant background knowledge that they already possess. One step is to introduce every new reading by inviting students to express what they know about its topic. But equally important is to facilitate that process by carefully selecting materials on topics with excellent schema-activation potential. Examples and advice can be found at Activating Students’ Schema.

2) Text structure is similar to content schemata, and is another kind of pattern that helps facilitate comprehension by skilled readers. Therefore, it is crucial for beginners to grasp how simple such pattern recognition can be. Some commonly occurring text structures include: problem/solution, comparison/contrast, cause/effect, time sequence, and description.   These patterns apply to all kinds of texts, both narrative and expository. Explicit instruction can invite inferences based on recognized text structure so as to hone in on important information and to identify the main idea. These possibilities are explored more fully in Implementing Text Structure Strategy in your Classroom.

3) Visualization activities help teachers indicate a way for beginners to profit from the thinking habits of skilled readers. Students may be surprised to learn that they come to texts with existing control over a very valuable resource: their ability to make sense of a passage by visualizing its information. In this case, explicit instruction could include inviting students either to engage in and orally share mental visualizations, or to create physical visualizations on paper or on the board. Further suggestions can be found in Visualizing Activities to Promote Active Reading.

With all of these forms of explicit instruction, it is absolutely critical to remember that there is always a balance between one potential weakness and one available strength. The weakness of course is that merely hearing a teacher does not guarantee learning. Without convincing illustrations and opportunities to discuss, direct teaching risks failure. But the strength is that explicit instruction offers an occasion to share insights specifically and to cheerlead’ for students as they demonstrate understanding. Our responsibility is to minimize the former and maximize the latter.

What direct instruction techniques (including practical routines not mentioned above) do you employ in your own reading classroom? Please feel free to share your strategies with us in the comment box below. I would love to know what techniques you use!