(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)*
One reason that ESL students often take so much time reading a passage is because they think that they need to understand all the information. As a result, many of them tend to cover a text in translation of every word that they are not familiar with. We have often heard of international students staying up until 2 a.m. trying to complete reading assignments in their academic courses.
This can change if they know in advance the purpose of the reading assignment.
Reading with a Purpose
Reading with a purpose means approaching a reading assignment knowing what the specific goal is. Depending on the information that is needed, they will read parts of the text at different speeds and ignore vocabulary that is not “important” for achieving their goal.
After working with the purposeful approach, many of our former students have reported back to us about how much it helped them to be more efficient in their reading, how effective it was in helping them with their comprehension and how they were able to develop a tolerance for ambiguity.
In the real world, we usually do not pay attention to every detail in a passage equally. Even in a newspaper article, we’ll skim over some information but focus more on other parts depending on why we are reading the article. Let’s say there is an article about a crime in our city. If we are especially interested in knowing how close to our own neighborhood it happened, we might skim over details about who the police suspect did it but read more intently when the article describes the location. Or we might skim over the location and pay closer attention to who they suspected if a similar crime had happened to us.
Tolerance for Ambiguity
When reading is purpose driven, the information in the text can be better understood. Unfortunately, too often with ESL reading assignments, comprehension questions treat all information as if every idea and detail were equally important. And, thus, when students read, if they don’t understand absolutely every word, they don’t feel like they “really understand” the article. In other words, they don’t have a tolerance for ambiguity.
For example, a student once left behind an article in my ESL class that she had been assigned for a different class. The article was about the emotional stress that people in certain positions can experience when they are forced to constantly smile. The article referred to a researcher who was a “professor of industrial organizational psychology.” I noticed that, above the word “industrial,” the student had written the translation. I’ll go out on a limb here and predict that there is a 99.999% chance that no instructor, in this context, would think that the word “industrial” was important for the student to understand. So basically, she wasted time and energy looking up a word– time and energy that could have been better spent focusing on the important points of the article had she known more specifically what she was supposed to focus on.
To introduce students to this purposeful concept, I give them this short exercise:
Reading with a Purpose Exercise
The purpose for reading this passage: Imagine that you are planning to attend a college in the U.S. You are trying to decide where you would like to go. In the paragraph below, circle three sentence numbers that have the most important ideas about McCoy University that will help you decide if you want to attend that university or not.
1 McCoy University was founded in 1889.. 2 Richard R. McCoy, who made a fortune through oil, donated the land for the campus. 3 He was also responsible for recruiting the first instructors from prestigious eastern universities. 4 For the first thirty years, the university was all male, most of whom were studying to be engineers. 5 Today, there are 6,000 students enrolled including over 200 international students. 6 The beautiful campus is surrounded by trees and includes plenty of open spaces for students to play sports and relax. 7 The current university president, Dr. Ruth Collins, has developed a five-year plan to improve all aspects of the campus. 8 The university is famous for its English, Engineering, Foreign Languages, Business, Art, and Psychology Departments. 9 The writer, Ryan Tisdale, is a resident scholar. 10 Salem, a city of 50,000 people, is within walking distance of the campus and is rated as the safest city in the state.
Even traditionally slow readers complete this task relatively quickly. Since nobody chooses Sentences 1 and 2 as important, we can point out that there is no need for them to waste time looking up words that they may not understand in them, for example, “fortune” and “donate.”
Here is the link to this activity. It also includes an activity for getting the meaning for context. purposeful-reading-activity
Also see • Purposeful Reading: Read faster and create a tolerance for ambiguity, (sample unit included), I shared a complete unit which includes an article, a brief explanation of the purpose for reading the article and a study guide.