Developing meaning-building skills in reading

The default position with regard to exploiting reading texts seems to be comprehension questions. I should start by saying that I am not against comprehension questions as such.  In a previous post,  I looked at a selection of quite traditional tasks and how to write them in such a way that they help guide the learner through the text. As Nuttall (1982) says,

‘The questions that help you to understand are the ones that make you work at the text. They force you to contribute accurately to the process of making sense of it, rather than expecting understanding just to happen.”

However, it is also undeniable that these kinds of tasks are ultimately more about testing than teaching.

Meaning-building is something which happens by interacting with a text, and it is highly personalised. No-one will understand a text in exactly the same way because we all bring our own experience, knowledge, attitudes and so on to everything we read.

As we read, we use our background knowledge, contextual clues and knowledge of the language to build meaning.  It used to be assumed that using contextual information, or information from the co-text (what goes before or after what we are reading) was something that only more confident or capable learners could do. However,  there is some evidence that in fact learners who are struggling to decode a text will also try to use meaning building skills. The difference is that more capable readers will use them to add meaning, less capable or confident readers will use them as a compensatory strategy.

(If you are interested in this last point, have a look at some of the reams of stuff which has been written about Stanovich’s Interactive Compensatory Hypothesis)

Think aloud

One way to find out more about what kinds of interactive processing your learners are doing while reading is to ask them to use a think aloud protocol. This can work very well in small groups. Basically, you get students to read a paragraph, and then discuss with the rest of the group what they think they have understood so far. Tony Lynch, in Communication in the Language Classroom (1996:126), says of this process, ‘My experience is that think aloud tasks make some learners aware of textual clues which other learners in the group have recognised, which would pass unnoticed in individual reading.’

He also suggests following up this task with a round-up where each learner notes something they felt they learnt from the discussion.

Another way of doing this is something called ‘reciprocal teaching’, again mentioned by Tony Lynch. In this version, a different person is chosen to lead the discussion after each paragraph, using four main points:

  • Clarifying any problems
  •  Stating the main idea
  •  Summarizing the content of the paragraph
  • Predicting the likely content of the next paragraph

(Cotterall, S, 1990)


This is a technique which was originally developed for university study, but it works just as well with any slightly longer or more complex text, which needs detailed understanding.

The acronym stands for:

  • Survey: Scan the whole text, looking at any clues in the introduction, titles, layout etc.
  • Question: Decide what questions you would like to be answered by reading the text. Make a note of them.
  • Read: Read the text, trying to answer your questions and note down any other questions that come up.
  • Recite: After each section, stop and see if you can remember the answers to our questions. If not, read through the section again.
  • Review: Once you’ve finished, go back over all the questions and check you still know the answers. Re-read as necessary.


This is an old-fashioned technique, but is actually one of the very best ways of seeing whether students have really understood the salient points of a text. Below is an example from New Total English Intermediate Writing Bank (click to enlarge). It uses an adapted authentic text, but you could easily carry out the same kind of processes on any text you choose.

Alternatively, students could be asked to summarise a text for different audiences. For example, to make it suitable for a child, someone from a very different culture and so on. This angle on summarising means that the students have to think about what background knowledge the reader would need to understand the text- which is a good way into thinking about how they themselves use their background knowledge to build meaning.


Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Exploiting authentic reading materials, Teaching methodology

13 Responses to Developing meaning-building skills in reading

  1. Thanks for this really helpful post! I have been reading and studying about students interacting with texts, and your three practical activities were very helpful to think through in figuring out how to actually make interaction with the text a reality. Thank you!

  2. Hi Rachel,

    Thanks again for a post full of useful ideas. I’ve been avoiding comprehension check questions for about a year now and think the four activities in the post will help me keep avoiding them for some time to come. I’m especially excited to give ‘reciprocal teaching’ a try.

    I’ve got two ideas I’ve been trying out in class as well, but I don’t want to fill up your comments with my stuff. So I’ll take my inspiration and toss up a quick blog post.

    Thanks again,


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  4. Hi Rachel,

    That’s great to know. Glad to be a part of this conversation. And just finished up the blog post. If you get the chance, would love your feedback. Hope you’re having a good weekend.


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