More on developing meaning-building skills in reading

This post follows on from Rachael Roberts’ great article on developing meaning-building skills in reading. 

As Rachael says, comprehension questions have their place but they also have their limitations. Tasks that develop meaning-building skills, which you could use alongside/instead of comprehension questions, encourage learners to engage with a text in a deeper and more personalized way. They also give teachers a better insight into how their learners process information in a text. This can highlight learner strengths or areas for development, hence inform practice.

Part of my remit as the co-author of Startup Level 8 (Pearson) was to create the reading skills lessons for each unit. The publisher had prioritized these meaning-building tasks at higher levels (this was C1+). They still wanted comprehension questions, but meaning-building tasks were the main focus.

I’ve learnt a lot from this…

Personally, I found that writing tasks to develop meaning-building skills was great professional development for me. I learnt that…

  • I knew more about this type of task than I thought
  • I use more of these tasks in class than I thought
  • There were so many more tasks for meaning-building that I hadn’t heard of or used
  • There were so many more of these tasks that I need to experiment with in class! I reckon my learners would find them really useful.

My classroom practice has certainly been enhanced by this writing process (and reading Rachael’s post) – I feel I’m addressing learner needs much more now, and I’m noticing impact on the learning (based on richer discussions in class, deeper questioning of information in a text, etc), especially for my teen learners actually!


Examples: Rachael’s tasks for developing meaning-building skills

Rachael lists these three tasks in her post, two of which I featured in my coursebook resources:

  • Thinking aloud protocol
  • SQ3R
  • Summarizing

We do quite a bit of summarizing in class. Tasks may vary depending on text type, but I’ve found the most useful summary technique for the learners has been ‘explain like I’m 5 (year’s old)’. This used to be one of my favourite subreddits. People post questions and redditers answer in the simplest, clearest way possible. Summarising a text in this fashion is a great way to help learners identify the main idea and supporting information, plus it checks that they have grasped key concepts.

SQ3R was a new technique to me. Since reading Rachael’s post, I’ve introduced this in some classes to generally good effect, although my task setup at times could be clearer.


Other tasks for meaning-building

Here are some of the tasks for developing meaning-building skills that we opted for in the coursebook. These mainly came from an in-house list of suggested strategies. Said list is a goldmine of great ideas – whoever originally authored it deserves a pat on the back!

KWL Chart

This is a great way to help learners connect existing knowledge of a topic with new knowledge gained from a text. It’s featured in the input on most training courses I’ve taken, and is explained well here. Basically, learners record what they already know about a topic, what they want to find out, and finally reflect on what they’ve learnt.

This technique doesn’t feature much (at all) in coursebooks I’ve used. I think that’s partly because the expected stages in a coursebook spread can sometimes be prescriptive, and the KWL approach doesn’t exactly ‘fit’. That’s where you need understanding editors who are willing to tweak things to make it work – I was lucky on this occasion!

Impact on learning/teaching: It may be well known, but I don’t use this technique enough in my own classes. It’s featured a lot more this term, and I’ve noticed that discussions during reflection stages at the end of class are far richer.


This task is kind of similar to the KWL approach.

As learners read the text…

  • They tick facts that they already know
  • They underline new and useful info
  • They annotate the text with questions they have
  • As they read, they tick off any questions they had that have been answered later in the text.

The annotated text is a good visual. It helps learners realize the value of the knowledge they bring to a text, how they can build on that knowledge, and how further inquiry can deepen learning. For teachers, the questions are a great insight into how learners are engaging in a text, and their level of inquiry.

Impact on learning/teaching: This last point for me is why check-underline-question is a particularly effective technique to use with teens, to help them develop their inquiry/critical thinking skills.

Read like a writer

I love this at higher levels. Basically, students are encouraged to make notes while reading the text about the writer’s choice of vocabulary/grammar, possible clues related to tone or attitude, text organization techniques. They can discuss with classmates the features they’ve identified, and the effect this might have on the reader.

Impact on learning/teaching: One thing that my learners tend to overlook is tone and/or attitude. This technique encourages them to look for clues in the text that reveal tone/attitude and notice how much can be inferred from word choice. When introducing a text in class, I tend to draw attention to purpose/tone/attitude far more than I used to – I think teaching learners to employ this strategy has probably improved my own ability to apply it!


This technique involves ‘re-presenting’ the text in a personalized way to help consolidate understanding. I see lots of examples of this on Twitter actually – Matt Noble has shared some great visual notetaking before, which is one of the many ways that learners might personalize a text.

Impact on learning/teaching: In our classroom, acting out a text through role play works wonders. This works really well with teens and adult learners. Rather than using role play as a follow up task after standard comprehensions questions, why not devise role play activities we are themselves a demonstration that learners have processed the main ideas of a text?


So, there are some great techniques to help learners develop meaning-building skills. What else would you add to the list?

Photo by Claudia on Unsplash

Categories: General, materials writing

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8 replies

  1. Interesting post, Pete. It’s great to see tasks like this are featuring more and more in course books. Have you ever done the ‘task-based reading’ course on Coursera?


  2. Awesome, and great new tips here, thanks! So glad we’re moving away from the skim&scan method. The thinking aloud is I think what my sts naturally do in listening. Also, in monolingual classes translation is worth exploring, but I guess not in books for the international market. The other day as we were reading a text, I first read it aloud for my st, then I translated it aloud and my st took notes of new words (much faster than if the sts translate) and then it was much easier to process the text in English (target language). This wouldn’t get me points on CELTA but was really effective. Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha! The Celta really pushes the no L1 thing, right?! My level of Thai is only about pre-intermediate at best (very best!), but good enough for some translation at times at lower levels. The elementary students really appreciate it I think, and sometimes it’s a necessity just to keep lesson flowing.
      Your approach re: translating the text sounds good to me – must be awesome for the learners to have a teacher who is able to do that.
      Glad you found the post useful, let me know if you try anything out and how it goes 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • It only works in monolingual classes. I have a class full of ppl who speak Russian, and a new student who doesn’t, and suddenly everything changes. Sure, I will let you know. I have some Upp-Int English classes this term.

        Liked by 1 person


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