(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)
The other day, Mari, an ESL student of mine, asked me if I could help her with an article that she had been assigned for one of her courses. I could see that the article would be quite challenging for her. And I couldn’t help but notice that she had covered the article with translations. It was obvious that she had little confidence that she’d be able to understand any of it unless she translated almost every word, even words she actually knew.
As mentioned in a previous posting • Purposeful reading: Students read faster if they know what they are looking for. , if student know the purpose of a reading assignment, they tend to read faster because they don’t get bogged down in trying to understand unnecessary details and vocabulary. Also, they are more likely to become tolerant of ambiguity. Included in this posting is a unit (an article and study guide) that begins with a focus on the reason students would read the article.
Finding out the purpose of the reading assignment
When I asked Mari why she was assigned to read the article, she only knew that she was supposed to read it. It wasn’t clear to her what she would use the information in the article for. So I started by recommending that she ask her instructor what the purpose was. For example, would she be using information as support in a paper she’d be writing? Would they be tested on specific ideas that the author presented? If so, what aspects should she focus on? Would she be asked to give her opinion about the author’s premises?
If she knew the answers to those questions, Mari could probably have basically ignored sections of the article that were irrelevant to the purpose. And she could have saved herself a great deal of time and energy translating.
Examples of reading purposes
In an ESL reading-skills course that I teach, each reading assignment starts with telling students what the purpose is. The study guide then is designed to lead students to demonstrating their understanding of the “important” parts of the article related to the purpose.
Article: Without Cafeteria Trays, Colleges Find Savings
Imaginary Course: Environmental Studies
Topic: Saving food
Imaginary purpose of the assignment: For a paper that you’ll be writing, you are researching ways that we can stop wasting resources such as water, food, and energy. You will use information from this article to explain how we can waste less food and save more water.
To clarify, this is for an ESL reading course. The “Environmental Studies” course is an imaginary one used to give a realistic purpose to the assignment. In reality, the ESL students won’t be writing a paper.
Article: Happiness: A buyer’s guide
Imaginary purpose of the assignment: Your friend recently graduated from college and is looking for a job. Last week, he got two job offers. One job sounded very interesting to him but didn’t pay much money. The other job was the opposite; it paid a lot of money but didn’t seem as exciting for him. He wants your advice about which job will make him happier. You will use information from the article to help him understand the connection between money and happiness.
To make sure students actually internalize the purpose before they start reading, I include an “Assignment Analysis” question.
Examples of Assignments Analysis
For the Example 1 about cafeteria trays, the question is:
Assignment Analysis. Read the Imaginary purpose assignment above. For this assignment, what type of information will you look for? (Choose the best answer.)
a) Information about ways to grow more food.
b) Information about ways to not waste resources.
c) Information about finding more energy sources.
For the Example 2 about happiness, the question is:
Assignment Analysis. Read the Imaginary assignment above. For this assignment, what type of information will you look for? (Choose the best answer.)
a) Information about why happiness is important for a person’s health.
b) Information about how to find a high-paying job.
c) Information about how money can affect a person’s level of happiness.
Sample Purposeful Reading Unit
To give an idea about how a purposeful reading assignment works, I’m including a complete unit (article and study guide) titled, Animal empathy complete unit