Teaching reading skills to all abilities

Author: Lucy Palmer
Published: 03/05/2023
Teens at the library

Comprehensible input and narrow reading

Given the popularity of Gianfranco Conti's EPI method, you may well be familiar with 'narrow reading', but it's well worth reading his original 2016 blog post with Steve Smith on How to design and use narrow reading. Students read a series of texts on the same topic with small variations in vocabulary and structure, and the idea is that the texts get progressively more challenging, with the previous versions scaffolding the later ones. The repetition also recycles the language chunks and reinforces learning. Narrow reading is based on the principle of 'comprehensible input' – using texts in which learners will already understand most of the language. 

The Teachit resource Narrow reading: la météo by Vicki Brownlee uses this technique in four simple texts with minimal progression in difficulty to support reading skills and language learning for lower-ability French learners at key stage 3 or 4. Although not based on narrow reading specifically, Steckbriefe by Christine Brown is also a great way of recycling language chunks – and of motivating key stage 3 students to read the same input multiple times. Texts (in this case, profiles of young people) are placed around the room, and students have to move around to read them all and complete an information grid.

Moving beyond comprehensible input with a genuine purpose for reading

Conti isn't saying we should use nothing but comprehensible input, and an article from Transform MFL – Lost for words? Where we might be going wrong in the teaching of reading – explains its limitations. The article points out that GCSE and A-level texts contain far less than the 95%–98% comprehensible input usually cited as ideal and that more proficient students can, in fact, cope with a much lower proportion of familiar words. It also emphasises the importance of using texts and tasks that will capture students' interest and provide a genuine purpose for reading – pleasure or gathering information – and that students understand more and learn better from a text when they're engaged cognitively and emotionally.

Presenting information from a text in a different format is a good example of a genuine purpose, as in Describing my school, where key stage 3 French students use the text to label a floorplan. Another is exchanging information, and an information gap activity, like Maria García Pesquera's Biografía de Gabriel García Marquez for A-level Spanish, is a great way of combining question formation, speaking and reading.

Preparing students for trickier texts through language analysis and reading skills

In a blog post on Literacy in MFL – Reading, Adam Lamb, aka Señor Cordero, provides helpful guidance on the language analysis skills that will enable students to tackle more challenging texts, namely recognising parts of speech, using morphology to understand words that are formed from others and learning prefixes and suffixes that indicate the meaning of a word.

Reconstructing a jumbled text from its component paragraphs makes students use their knowledge of synonyms, reference and connectives too, as in La Armada Invencible for key stage 5 Spanish on Teachit.

It can also be helpful to teach skills such as skimming and scanning, and in order to train students for coping with authentic texts, the difficulty of the task can be adapted rather than the difficulty of the text. Heranwachsende von der Schule gestresst for key stage 4 German has three levels of challenge – the first practises skimming for points that are mentioned, the second, scanning for key statistics, and the third, reading for detail – with students choosing their preferred level.

Further advice and resources for reading activities

Kayleigh Meyrick provides a clear and well-structured lesson sequence for teaching reading in her article Reading in the MFL classroom, while Silvia Bastow's blog post Reading and literacy in Languages suggests further ways of exploiting a text for language learning and provides links to resources that encourage reading for pleasure. Steve Smith's article on Using texts recommends a wide range of activities, and you can find a whole lot more by browsing Teachit's reading collection or filtering by key stage.

This article was first published as a newsletter in April 2023.

Lucy Palmer

Senior Content Lead at Teachit and former teacher of English as a foreign language.