On reading: how do you read?

How are you reading this? This is not a question of environment or media. Whether you are reading this on a tablet, laptop or smartphone makes no difference to how your brain is processing pixels into words with meanings.

As you are reading try to become aware of what is going on as you process pixels. How fast are you reading? Are you reading whole words or are there any, such as perspicacious, where you look again at the cluster of letters to work out the sounds, to get it clear in your mind?
Another question: ask yourself,

Can I hear my own voice saying the words in my head as I read this?

I’m willing to wager that you can hear your own voice. In fact, I’m willing to wager that you cannot read without hearing the words. Unless you have had a severe hearing impairment since birth it is unlikely that you are capable of reading without hearing.

Why is that? There is a short answer and a longer answer. Historians can provide us with the short answer – it’s because we’ve been speaking for far longer. Reading is a subordinate activity to speaking. Although some people argue that Homo Sapiens has always been able to ‘communicate using sounds’, which would date the capacity to speak as appearing around a million years ago, most historians and linguists put the age of syntactic speech at between forty and sixty thousand years.


Ebih-il Nu Banda, c2340 BCE, Louvre Paris

And what about writing? You can argue that the process of putting pen to paper, or reed to rock, goes back 30 000 to the cave paintings of Southern Europe. But ‘true writing’, a system of coding utterances so that they can be reconstructed as speech by someone else first appeared around 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq. It also appeared independently in China and Mesoamerica, modern day Mexico.


Ebih-il Nu Banda, c 2340 BCE, Louvre, Paris

On the shoulder you can see an example of ‘proto- writing’ – a step from ‘true writing’ where logographs are used to convey words. The next step is to translate the speech sounds, rather than words, to symbols. The earliest form of this is cuneiform, which was originally written by pressing reeds into wet clay to make small angular marks. In this example these are scratches in stone:

cunieform 1

Cuneiform Script, c 1500 BCE, Louvre Paris

When symbols represent speech sounds, they can of course be used to code and reconstruct different languages. The example above shows writing in Acadian. Below you can see an early bilingual Acadian Sumerian dictionary, with the two languages both being written using the cuneiform script:


Bilingual Dictionary, c 2000 BCE, Louvre Paris

Cuneiform uses a syllabary: the symbols represent syllables: ba bo bi , ta to ti and so on. Some modern languages still use a syllabary, including Japanese, which uses two. The English language, of course, does not use syllabaries, it uses an alphabet. The next step towards what you are reading here can be seen in the Phoenician alphabet, where the symbols represent consonants, rather than syllables.


1st Millenium BCE, Louvre Paris

It’s easy for us to see the links between Phoenician characters and ours. What looks like a 4 in the middle of this piece of writing will be transformed into A – try looking sideways.

The addition of vowels is the last step to an alphabet. Even if you don’t read Ancient Greek, it’s hard not to pick out the name of the Greek god at the end of this inscription:

Louvre, Paris, Dedication to Dionysus

Louvre, Paris, Dedication to Dionysus

This brings us back to the present day, to here and now, to the fact that you are ‘hearing’ what you read. For this is what reading is: the reconstruction of scratches, squiggles or pixels into speech sounds, to form words that we understand through hearing them inside our head.

The other development in the ‘hear’ and now is that neuroscientists are able to demonstrate this quite clearly. The technology exists to look inside your head and see what parts of the brain are involved in the reading process. And what it shows is that whether you read aloud or silently you always activate the part of your brain that makes articulated language. It is if you are preparing to say the words that you are reading.

But this has been known for longer than functional MRI scanning has existed. The area of the brain that lights up at the front of the brain is known as Broca’s area, after the work of Paul Broca, the French scientist, active in the middle of the 19th century.


The other areas that are active are Wernicke’s area, which is involved in the decoding of language and the angular gyrus, which connects sounds to letters, as well as performing many other functions related to language, memory, numbers and so on.

The last area is at the bottom, known as the visual word form area. This area has been researched by many, including Stanilas Dehaene. This is an area that is believed to relate the form of words to their sound. What is fascinating is that this area is very active when reading in English, a language that cannot be ‘spoken as it is seen’. For those words who do not sound as they look, the shape and memory of the word is more important than the processing of the letters into sounds.

The area lights up      L’area illumine

By contrast, in languages where you do pronounce words as you see them, such as Italian, the ‘sound to letter translation’ area is more active. This experiment was conducted by a team including Uta Frith. It, along with the results of other experiments, is described in her book , ‘The learning brain’.

So what consequences does this have for language teaching? In my last post, which sprang from an ELTChat summary, I looked at what Krashen has to say about the role of reading in second language learning. What, if anything, does this information about how the brain reads tell us about our learners and their reading?  And what about the ‘reading aloud’ taboo?

Over the next few posts I plan to share some ways in which I’ve tried to adjust my approach to reading with different types of learners based on this information. If you’d like to comment or share any of your own experiences, I’d be more than happy to read and, of course, to ‘hear’them.


Sorry for handing my homework in late … ?

This post is a summary of an ELT Chat on the topic of homework which took place on December 12 2012 at 1300 CET.

The chat participants:


Having both suggested the topic and volunteered to write up the notes, I thought I’d better do some extra homework on homework. I decided to check out the links and watch presentations recommended during the chat. To be frank, I got quite carried away. At one point I was even learning so my about homework that I actually forgot why I was doing it…

So to focus on the task at hand : ‘What are the pro’s and cons of homework’

What are the con’s:

The unavoidable issue is that of ‘homework for homework’s sake’:

I often feel quite conflicted about homework.  Half the time I only set it because I feel it’s required of me. I think left to my own devices I would set homework about 10% of the time that I currently do @teflgeek

teachers often have to assign HW they dont reallly approve of – a major issue @Marisa_C

and parents expect it too @Marisa_C

It’s part of the educational culture @NailiahRokic

Sometimes parents see HW as a way also to follow what’s going on in class and sometimes test teachers @NailiahRokic

and the converse issue, where homework becomes necessary because:

contact time set is often insufficient to cover all important aspects of course @esolcourses

or the opposite reaction:

To those who teach kids in the school system: Don’t they already study enough? Isn’t it too much to ask them to do it at home too? @theteacherjames

a lot of parents in Canada are starting to revolt against HW. Ruining precious family time. Parents getting frustrated with stressed out kids @David_Boughton

and the con’s don’t stop at homework for kids. Homework and adults don’t mix well either.

Teaching adults means I can’t exactly lay down the law, it’s up to them if they do it or not @theteacherjames

that’s my current struggle with busy professionals. Barely time to show up to class @David_Boughton

So we’d expect an analysis of the tweets be mostly negative?

ELT Chat Wordle

(Un)surprisingly not. As @esolcourses put it:

homework is as good (or bad) as the teacher who sets it. Needs to be targeted & purposeful

So how can we best relate homework types to learners and class? I read Marisa Constantinides presentation on Homework vs Busywork. It has lots of great insights and also a really useful framework, which I’ve used here to organise the comments:

ELTChat Grid

Why do we do all of this homework?

I think HW has extremely good benefits when well planned and justified though. @theteacherjames

Makes adult learners more autonomous @SophiaKhan4

Pre-reading and post lesson activities really help to consolidate work covered in class @esolcourses

I do believe in HW, if it complements/improves whats being taught in class, but that also doesnt work if T doesn’t get s interested @NailahRokic


I always set optional extra work to do out of class, & in my experience (with adults and teens) s’s who do it tend to make better progress @esolcourses

And what about those SS who tend ‘not’ to do their Homework? How can we deal with ‘preparation’ homework that only some learners took time to do?

you put learners who haven’t watched it into groups with the students who have, to discuss @David_Boughton

Can you predict the content? Can you interview other SS who saw it and find out?@KerrCarolyn

perhaps an idea might be for class to do something else while indiv Students report to T in tutorial mode @Marisa_C

I sometimes do a quick multiple choice quiz on homework as a warm-up, in groups @esolcourses

How can technology help? Here are some comments on using technology as part of homework:

Tech can often make it more useful/meaningful, as it allows for instant feedback & collaboration @esolcourses

That’s where computer game-like homework can be fun? @FrancesEales

can have an LMS packed with busywork too  – true also.  Important to be discerning @esolcourses

social media can create a useful platform for sharing content between the sts @theteacherjames

I’ve also set up voxopop group topics or vocaroo speaking tasks which sts practise and then record and send to me. @FrancesEales

Should homework focus on more than lessons?

“As a language teacher one cannot escape the feeling that language lessons in and of themselves are not sufficient to bring language learning about and to lead to eventual proficiency” (van Lier 1996, p. 42).

I was curious to find out what people thought about ‘language exposure’ and the role of homework in that so I asked:

I think exposure to English outside the classroom is very important and homework is one way – but is it a good way?

@Marisa_C Immediately responded to this with a link to Steven Krashen’s talk from the Wired In Wired Out conference in Instanbul.


 As part of my homework I watched the video, which was both interesting and entertaining, and well worth the effort. A summary for those of you who haven’t had the chance to see it:

As many of you will know, Krashen is linguist and award winning professor emeritus at the University of Southern California. He is an influencial figure to say the least! He is known for the introduction of the ‘acquisition-learning hyposthesis’. To sum this theory up in a couple of words:

Acquisition is a subconcious process (think of effortless absorbtion) and learning is a concious process (think of working something out step by step). According to his beliefs, activities which are focused on meaning rather than form, for example reading or listening to ‘comprehensible input’, are far more effective in developing second language ability than any other method.

In his talk he discusses reading for pleasure as a fundamentally important activity for language acquisition. The benefits he states are:

–      improved reading skills

–      better writing skills

–      increased ability to handle complex grammar

–      increased vocabulary

–      better spelling


ELTPics @AriannaBasaric

ELTPics @AriannaBasaric



All those who commented on reading agreed with Krashen:

 I always set readers (e.g. for a week) and we have a feedback sess in class. @FrancesEales

I’ve used the ‘book box’ too and extensive reading does indeed help @Marisa_C

@theteacherjames I try to encourage all my students to read as much as possible. Find out what they like, lend them books etc.

Put newspapers in the kitchen and lounge and they are always reading them @David__Boughton

@theteacherjames also provided us with a link to a set of reading circle materials from OUP


But it is not a matter of just setting reading as homework. As @Marisa_C says

may work if motivating pre-reading done in class to whet ss’ appetite and stimulate curiosity

In my experience, reading (and listening) for pleasure is fundamental to progress in language. For my young learners I let them choose from a selection of storybooks with audio and they listen to them for fun in the evenings. I never fail to be impressed at just how quickly these kids progress.

I was greatly interested in what Krashen had to say about adults:

“good readers are narrow readers they stick to one genre at a time, one author at a time and gradually extend it as they go”

I’ve recently started taking Agatha Christie books along to my adult  business learners and am getting a lot of traction with them. Most adults here read them as children and now find them really enjoyable to read in English. One of my learners was enjoying her reading activity so much she literally could not put the book down, and here’s the proof

Agatha investigates


I’m glad I did my extra homework, I’m glad I clicked on all the links, and even though I handed my homework in late, I enjoyed doing it and it is nice to know that the great and the good of linguistics (Krashen et al) agree with ELTChat.

“Those who really engage with the L2 in and out of class will do better. We have no right to force people, but the obligation to encourage them.”

What’s more I’m also glad I got carried away with my homework, I’m glad I spent too much time watching presentations and clicking links to potential homework topics (I watched a TV presenter having a type of stroke). In doing this I proved one of Krashen and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s main theories : that a person learns most when they are so absorbed in what they are doing that they forget why they are doing it. Some people call this ‘flow’: it felt like ‘fun’ to me.

Further reading



http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2011/04/17/guest-blog-h-is-for-homework/ -Guest post by Rob Haines in Oregon (USA)

Cracking the code

Alan Turing would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year.  Turing is mostly remembered for his work on cracking the Enigma code. For some learners authentic material in English is just that:  an enigma. At best difficult to understand, at worst an impenetrable mystery.  After hearing Mark Hancock speak at TESOL France’s Annual Conference I felt inspired to try some of Mark’s recommendations to help learners decode authentic material.

Many people believed Apple’s logo to be a tribute to Alan Turing

Mark Hancock’s presentation, which you can access here, looked at the reasons why some learners find authentic speech difficult to follow, and what can be done to facilitate listening with more ease. In his presentation Mark talked about two main roadblocks for listeners. Firstly, the problem of connected speech (where does one word stop and the next start?) and secondly the  sheer variety of accents, and the resulting variation in pronunciation. For some learners, there is a third problem, and that is within the word itself. Some learners are not able to distinguish between certain sounds, making it impossible to know if a speaker is talking about ‘some flowers‘ or ‘sunflowers’, for example.

I designed the lesson to focus on these three areas. I was interested in helping learners to raise their  awareness of these barriers. I also wanted to provide some helpful and comprehensible input  that would add to their corpus of language. My aim was to facilitate the development of ‘mental pathways’, routes for ‘information’ to follow as it journeys from ear to brain, where it can connect with an appropriate meaning.


The learners were a group of seven adult women attending a one day course aimed at improving listening skills. They all worked at the same company but none of them knew each other. They were intermediate learners, whose exposure to English ranged from working in an international team with English as the Lingua Franca, to using English once or twice a week on the telephone. They all had French as L1 and none of them were bilingual in another language.

I won’t give you a blow by blow account of the lesson, but some of the things I observed may be of interest to you:


I played the Beatles #1 album as background music and handed out sheets of A4 paper each with a different question on them. The learners read the question, wrote their answer and then passed the question to the next person. This enabled the learners to express their objectives, list the types of accents they found difficult and give examples of listening they were exposed to each week (both for pleasure and work). To do this they did not have to decode any sound, the inputs and outputs were silent.

I had been playing ‘Yesterday’ during the opener. I then followed Mark Hancock’s lesson plan for his ‘Wrong Lyrics’ lesson.

Here are my observations from this part of the lesson:

The activity allowed the learners to notice some of the challenges to listening. They identified linking, elision and assimilation.

By correcting the print out of the wrong lyrics they could see and repair the language.

The visuals from the video provided a powerful hook to link the problem and the effect, for example later in the lesson the learners would comment that there was a ‘chateau’ problem in the audio.

It was very entertaining, learners realised that anyone can mishear and it lightened the  weight of the ‘ listening problem’

Using their observations we went to work on other sentences with examples of elision, linking and assimilation. The learners were able to identify what was happening to the words as they were used in connected speech. We worked on a whiteboard and annotated the chunks to show what was happening to the sounds. Although the focus of the lesson was ‘listening’ all of the learners automatically produced the speech as part of the learning process. In Mark’s words:

“there is no better way for a learner to become aware of something receptively than attempting to actually produce it”.


There’s a chateau hanging over me

Early in the lesson I had suggested that we do a listening ‘test’ to find out if any sounds were particularly hard for them to differentiate. All of the learners agreed to this. For this I used the first test from Ann Baker’s book, Ship or Sheep.

Although there was a wide range of responses certain sounds emerged as common problem areas:

/n/  – all of the learners – ‘some flowers’ – ‘sun flowers’

/ʤ/ – five of the learners – ‘jeep’ – ‘cheap’

/ɑ:/ – five of the learners –  ‘hat’ – ‘heart’

/h/ – five of the learners – ‘ill’ – ‘hill’

We worked on these phonemes at various points during the lesson, listening to minimal pairs and using ‘acoustic drilling’ style exercises. I deliberately spread these throughout the day, so as not to overload the learners. The learners were enthusiastic about these exercises and expressed relief at being able to correctly identify the sounds. The learners were able to see their own results and several learners were interested in self-study in this area after the course.

If anyone has any insights or observations around these clusters of problem sounds in terms of sound reception I’d be very glad to hear about it! They seem to be ‘typical’ problem sounds for French speakers but I’d love to know more if anyone has any ideas.


Ship or Sheep, Ann Baker, Cambridge 

The afternoon part of the lesson was focussed on listening materials using accents they had identified  as difficult to understand in the morning session. The most frequently encountered accents were Indian and South African.

I had expected Indian to appear, and had previously prepared some micro-listening based on the Collins English for Business Listening book by Ian Badger. I used Audacity to make very small and repetitive clips of ‘vulnerable’ sounds in action.  Some of the words I had chosen were:

Corporate – vulnerable /r/ is dropped, sounds like ‘coprit’

Rural  – middle /r/ has a ‘w’ quality

Think – /θ/ changed to a ‘t’ – sounds like ‘tink’, even ‘dink’ depending on speaker

Difference – /ɪ/ changes to /i:/ – dee -fer -ents

I used three of the audio files from the Collins listening book, and one video from TED.com on the rise of cricket


The learners were able to ‘pick out’ the words that were different to their expectations on the first or second listen.

The learners were able to identify what was happening to the words and transcribe this using their observations from the earlier part of the lesson.

After the micro-listening, the learners were not only able to recognise similar patterns in subsequent audio inputs, they were also able to mimic the sounds. (This occurred spontaneously, and seemed key for the learners to try to make the sound in order to connect with it).

The learners were then able to recall other words which they thought had sounded different to their expectations. One was ‘solution’ which they described as having an extra ‘y’ ‘sol -iyu-shun’.

To cover off the South African accent I used another listening from Collins. I had not anticipated this accent, but I was able to generate a sort of micro listening by repeating the same stretch of sound over and over. The learners picked out the changes in vowels and noticed the similarities in what was happening with /θ/ and /r/ between the Indian and South African speakers. (We repeated a chunk which mentioned the time ‘four thirty’)


Throughout the lesson I had asked the learners how they felt about the audio. I asked them to rate the difficult on a scale of 0 – 10, where 0 was no problem and 10 was extremely difficult. As the lesson progressed the first listen descended from being around 8 for most learners, to being around 4 or less by the end of the lesson.

The learners were also asked  to fill in a feedback form and to write down three things they had learned during the day and two things they thought they would do differently when listening in the future.

All of the learners reported that they felt ‘more at ease’ or ‘much more at ease’ with the subject

6 of the learners gave the lesson 5/5 for quality of teaching and 5/5 usefulness of the materials and content used. (The other learner rated the lesson 4 and 4, commenting that she would have like to have covered the Chinese accent)

The comments that came back from the learnings were around listening to the key words, understanding better what was ‘happening’ to words in connected speech and realising that accents were not as big a problem as they thought.

When I reflected on the lesson afterwards, I was quite happy in general with the outcome for the learners. Obviously there were things I thought I could have improved on, but I was happy to have taken the risk and tried something new.

One of the things that bothered me was about ‘systems’ and ‘skills’. I remember being taught that listening is a ‘skills’ lesson. But this to me felt much more like a ‘systems’ lesson. In fact it felt like teaching pronunciation in reverse. I wasn’t hoping for an improvement in production or sounds but in ‘reception’ of sounds. When I looked back on the lesson, it had more of a ‘systems’ structure to it than anything I had taught before in a skills lesson.

I would be delighted to hear your observations or experiences in teaching in this area. Please leave me a comment if you have a moment to spare. If you are interested in listening and this type of approach there is a fascinating article by Sheila Thorn on this subject.

There were lots of comments from the learnings feedback. One learner commented that she felt that Indian accents had become less of a mystery, and she felt she could now follow speakers more easily. I was pleased that she had cracked part of the code, and thought back to Alan Turing. Although he was brought up in England, his parents met in India, and Turing’s ancestors can be found in India as early as 1700. Fitting somehow that this was the accent the learners decoded in the lesson.