Reading, Using Ken Lackman’s prep-free approach for IELTS

A New Way to Teach Reading

In Ken Lackman‘s talk on ‘A New Way to Teach Reading’ at IATEFL 2015, he argued that the way we teach reading is no longer relevant because the classroom isn’t the only place for English–students have access to English texts all the time through the Internet.  They can practice reading whenever they want outside of class and need strategies for doing that.  There is nobody there to spoon-feed them questions to activate their schemata or check their comprehension.  Ken advocates a genre-based approach with student-led schemata activation, gist questions, comprehension questions, vocabulary learning and discussion.

He showed us this through a demo lesson of a short story, but it could work with any genre including restaurant and film reviews or even listening to things like lectures or sitcoms.  Here’s a brief summary of the stages:

1.  Students discuss:  ‘What do you expect from a short story?’

2.  Students write their own ‘comprehension questions’ or what they expect to find out in any short story such as ‘Who are the main characters?’ ‘What happens?’ ‘Was the ending expected?’ etc.

3.  They are given the title and write more questions.  In this case the title was ‘A Secret Lost in the Water’ so things like:  ‘What’s the secret?’

4.  From this list of questions, the teacher guides the students to choosing the best ‘gist’ question.

5.  Students read fast to find the answer to the gist question.  I loved the way Ken had us read fast–we all had to stand up and could sit down when we finished. It really worked to speed up our reading speed, and I’ve used it a few times successfully with students since.

6.  Then students re-read slowly to find answers to all the ‘comprehension’ questions.

7.  Students underline unknown words in text.  Teacher goes through an example of determining meaning from context to see if students can work out their unknown words or if they need to look them up.  The stages Ken suggested are:  determine part of speech, find clues based on word parts, look at adjacent words, look at sentences before and after, guess with a synonym or phrase, and put this synonym in the sentence to see if it makes sense. Students do this in pairs to help with words they know.

8.  Students choose 10 collocations they think would be useful for them from the text.

9.  Students write their own discussion questions to talk about with the class.

Using this with my IELTS class

So if this could work with any genre, could I use this framework with an IELTS reading?  Obviously, not as exam practice, but to get my students to engage more with the text.  My students are really struggling with how to improve their reading skills quickly, and although I believe the real answer lies somewhere between ‘improve your general level of English/vocabulary’ and ‘read more,’ this is not a satisfying response to my students who don’t enjoy reading but need ilets 6.5 by yesterday (sic).

I wanted first of all to detach reading from IELTS so they don’t get so hung up on it and discouraged, as well as see that what we do in class can be applied outside of class to improve their general reading abilities.

So I started by asking my students: ‘What kind of things do you read other than IELTS?’ and then from that list selected ‘articles’ and asked them:  ‘Why do we read articles?’  They came up with ‘to get information.’  I then asked, ‘So how do you know which articles you want to spend time reading’  and they said they look at the picture, title and maybe skim the first paragraph.  So then I gave them the picture, title, and a few key words from the first paragraph of an IELTS reading, and had them imagine they had chosen this article because it had interested them in a magazine or online.  In this case we were doing ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ from Ready for IELTS (McCarter 2010), p 155, obviously not an article that would have grabbed their attention but in another context it might have.

Ready for IELTS (McCarter 2010)
Ready for IELTS (McCarter 2010)

Using just that information (picture, title, a few key words) they had to write 3 ‘facts’ they thought they knew about the topic, or in other words what world knowledge they already had that got them interested in reading the article in the first place.  They came up with things like ‘Children don’t live with their parents in this village in Africa.’  Then they had to think of 3 questions they wanted this article to answer for them, or in other words why they decided to keep reading it.  They came up with factual things like ‘What roles do elders play?’ but also subjective questions like: ‘Are their families similar to families in my country?’

Then they had to read the text to find out if their ‘facts’ were true, false or not given (sound familiar?) and answer their comprehension questions (which also might be not given).

After reading, they underlined and talked about unknown words, chose 5 useful collocations, and had a discussion about the text.

We also did the actual IELTS tasks, which most of them did very quickly and accurately having spent so long engaging with the text first, although obviously not under exam conditions.

I think they found this approach useful because they could see how they could apply this (and in fact already do subconsciously) to non-IELTS readings.  Writing their own questions also helped them to see the relevance of and rationale behind True/False/Not Given and comprehension questions, as well as how they can relate to our general reading habits rather than just an IELTS task to be feared.



IATEFL 2015 Getting your students to lie

Some of the most practical ideas I got from IATEFL 2015 involved encouraging students to lie…in order to get them speaking.  Jamie Keddie presented an idea for getting students to record a video telling a personal anecdote but either telling a true story or lying so when their classmates watch, they have to guess if it’s true.  Jason Anderson presented a whole talk entitled ‘Lying is the best policy…to get students speaking’ and I’m convinced.  Jason explained that lying encourages higher-order thinking because it involves learning at the top Bloom’s taxonomy like creativity and evaluating, allowing learners to process language more deeply.  In addition to this, lying encourages imagination and gives students practice in the interactional function of using language, as opposed to functional.  The one thing I really noticed in his workshop was how motivating these activities were not just for the speaker but for the listener.  You have to listen really attentively to work out if they are lying or not.   Here are some of the ideas he presented that are also in his fabulous new book ‘Speaking Games.’

Question Taboo

Students are given a card with a question and a taboo word.  They mingle trying to answer the question without saying the secret taboo word.  They have three chances and if they answer without saying the hidden word, they get 3 points on their first attempt, 2 on their second, 1 on their third.  Obviously the goal is to collect the most points.


The teacher tells two stories, one true and one a lie.  Students have to listen and decide which one is true and which one a lie.

Secret Sentence

During a discussion activity students have to smuggle in a secret sentence and try to make it sound so natural the others don’t guess that is their secret sentence. 

Truth or Lie

Any discussion board game or list of discussion questions can be adapted to this.  Instead of answering the questions truthfully, the speaker secretly flips a coin, and if it is heads, they tell the truth, but if it is tails, they have to lie.  The listener(s) have to determine if what they are saying is the truth or a lie.  

The most common white lies

Students are given a list of the most common white lies.  They listen to each other saying them and notice intonation, facial expressions and gestures.  

Kangaroo Court

In groups of 3-4, one student is told they are caught red-handed committing a soon-to-be revealed crime and must justify their actions.  (Such as breaking into Jeremy Harmer’s hotel room and getting caught going through his underwear drawer.)  The others must interrogate and sentence them.  

Two Truths and a Lie

This is a well-known TEFL activity and one that I was inspired to use the day after IATEFL because it’s easy and requires no prep.  Students create 3 sentences, two true and one lie, and the others have to guess which one is the lie. It can be used to practise whatever grammar or vocabulary is being covered.