Teaching Reading in an ESL and EFL Setting: A Comparison

by Chitra Varaprasad

National University of Singapore (Singapore)

Keywords:      discourse-based teaching, schema theory, teaching reading, text structure



This paper explains the use of a discourse-based method to teach reading in ESL and EFL settings and shares insights from the classroom about this teaching experience in both these settings. It compares students’ backgrounds, the teaching methods and materials with a special focus on the modifications made in the EFL setting. It also discusses group dynamics in the EFL classroom and the implications for teaching and learning.



Having used a discourse-based method to teach reading in an ESL setting, I attempted to use the same method to teaching reading to students in an EFL setting. This paper will share insights from the classroom about this teaching experience in both these settings. It will first discuss a few relevant reading theories pertinent to the pedagogy used. Next, it will provide comparative information on students’ backgrounds, the teaching methods and materials used in both the settings, with a special focus on the modifications made in the EFL setting. It will also discuss group dynamics in the EFL classroom and the changes that needed to be made. The paper will conclude with implications for teaching and learning, especially in an EFL setting.


Reading theories

Of the two approaches mentioned in reading research and literature, the bottom-up approach focuses on language elements such as grammar, vocabulary and cohesion, while the topdown approach includes a focus on background knowledge about content and organization, generally referred to as content and formal schemata respectively. A combination of these two approaches is generally known as the Interactive Model of Reading. The pedagogy in this study was based on the Schema Interactive Model of Reading (Simonsen and Singer, 1992).


Text structure and Schema Theory

Text structure or formal schemata is an important concept in Schema Theory. As a cognitive process, reading has been characterized as building a mental representation of text. Readers possess schemata that represent their knowledge of conventionalized texts (Kintsch & van Dijk, 1978). For example, knowledge of the schema of expository texts will enable students to act on the different propositions at the level of the paragraphs to come up with a thesis or the macro-gist of the writer and to see the connections between the gist and the propositions.  According to Kintsch (1987), the successful reader needs to decode text at the “overall, between-paragraph” level (p. 7) to arrive at this coherent whole.

The Schema Interactive Model of Reading considers reading as a communicative act of discourse.  As a result, reading pedagogy incorporated the concept of reading as a discourse act because writers write for a purpose and texts are the result of certain communicative acts. As a result, pedagogy also drew upon assumptions from the Rhetorical Structure Theory of Mann and Thompson (1992, 1988) that writers have certain communicative goals; and readers can interpret these globally (the function of the text) and locally (the function of the different parts contributing to the global whole).


Theory-driven pedagogy

Based on reading theories and concepts explained above, pedagogy focused on activating students’ background knowledge about content and organization, followed by identifying the writer’s thesis, the purpose of the writer at the level of the paragraphs and the connections between paragraphs, based on their purpose. The table below provides a list of the approaches and the relevant strategies against each of the approaches used in strategy training.

Table 1: Approaches and strategies

Approaches Strategies
Top Down # Generating questions from title

# Skimming for content, based on questions generated

# Skimming for writer’s thesis

Bottom Up # Guessing meanings of words from context (vocabulary) # Understanding how language functions in context. E.g. use of modals, tenses

Schema Interactive

(text as discourse)

# Concepts of cohesion and coherence and connections between paragraphs

# Text purpose and purpose at the paragraph level

Features of strategy training

Two features characterized the training procedures. Generally used for teaching writing across the curriculum (Rothery, 1990), the three phases of the Genre Teaching and Learning Cycle of Modelling, Joint Negotiation of Text and Independent Construction of Text (Flowerdew, 1993; Johns, 1997) formed the basis for training.  Teacher modelling, advocated by Janzen, (2002) and Grabe (2002b), was based on talking aloud and demonstrating strategy use. The three phases of the teaching and learning cycle were modified to Teacher Modelling, Joint Analysis of Text and Independent Deconstruction of Text to reflect the reading focus.

Secondly, the questioning strategy advocated by Nuttal (1996) and modelled by the teacher for raising students’ awareness through the use of ‘Wh’ questions, provided the basis for training.  The purpose was to develop in students the habit of raising questions as such questions can trigger students’ mental processes and enable them to see connections between segments of a text.

Based on the analysis modelled, a joint analysis of text was generally performed as a group activity wherein students attempted analysis of paragraphs assigned to them with input, guidance and discussion with the tutor. When confidence level among students was raised, they set out to independently deconstruct texts through analysis. In short, training methods consisted mainly of teacher modelling and group work.


Classroom applications

Training modified in terms of the pre-reading, while-reading and post-reading phases (Urquhart & Weir, 1998) is presented here in a linear form for ease of understanding only. It would be misleading to assume that strategies can be neatly pedagogized and taught to learners in a straightforward manner (Rees-Miller, 1993; Tudor, 1996).  In actual practice, the training was more interactive and less linear as the students became more comfortable with the procedures.

Pre-reading phase: As a first step, students were trained to generate ‘wh’ questions based on the title of the text. For example, if the title of the text was Genetic Engineering, the teacher modeled questions such as “What is genetic engineering? What are its applications? What are the effects?” by talking aloud. In a typical lesson the teacher modeled the skimming procedure twice:  first to obtain answers to the generated questions and the second time to obtain the writer’s thesis or gist. The latter too was done by the teacher talking aloud such as

“I’ll skim through the introduction and conclusion sections, first to get a tentative thesis….”  (The thesis ‘Genetic engineering has found wide applications. Hence all sections of the public should work together to derive the most from it’ would be written on the board).   The teacher would talk aloud again to say “I’ll skim through the paragraphs now to get an idea of what the writer is doing (not saying) and see if the thesis needs to be made more specific . . . . the writer discusses the concerns of the public, so that needs to be part of the thesis”. ( Now the tentative thesis on the board is modified to ‘in spite of the concerns of the general public about GE technology, all sections of the society should work together to benefit from this powerful technology’).

While-reading phase:  At this phase, the purpose of teacher modeling was to raise students’ awareness about the writer’s organization at the level of the paragraphs, the inter-relations between paragraphs and the support provided to the writer’s thesis. Since there were many steps involved in this phase, I coined the acronym SPORM (skim, purpose, organization, relation and main idea) for clarity in application. As such, teacher modelling of the analysis of the first few paragraphs consisted of talking aloud through the questioning strategy using the acronym SPORM as explained below:

S     Skim through the paragraph

P     Identify the writer’s Purpose (based on the concept of discourse structure)

The writer’s purpose refers to the communicative purpose or rhetorical function of the paragraph expressed in acts of discourse such as the writer provides ‘reasons’, ‘causes’ or even expressed as ‘the writer further elaborates’ or ‘brings in a another point of view’.

O     Organization

Identify logical connectors/ key lexical words (textual cues, Urquhart and Weir, 1998)

Identify meaning relations (based on the concept of paragraph structure)

The focus here was on identifying the writer’s claims and supporting  elaboration/evidence.  The analysis was at the level of individual paragraphs but focus of instruction was also on the connections between paragraphs and in relation to the  writer’s thesis as seen in the instruction that follows:

R     Relation

How does this section relate to the writer’s thesis? (based on the concept of genre structure)

How does this section relate to the earlier section? (based on the concept of discourse structure)

The focus here is on raising students’ awareness about the connections between  different paragraphs in the text and also between the writer’s thesis and the different paragraph sections in the text.  The purpose is to enable students to see how these different segments function in isolation and in combination to support the writer’s  thesis.

M     Main Ideas

Using the derived meaning relations as clues, teacher modeling focused on the main  meaning relations such as claims, reasons and conclusion to derive the main ideas of  the paragraphs and to ignore supporting evidence or examples.  The objective here  was to enable students to differentiate between main claims and supporting details.

The above steps were modeled for the first few paragraphs. Modeling (Janzen, 2002) consisted of the teacher talking aloud, elaborating and demonstrating the processes involved in SPORM.  It involved the teacher demonstrating how to work through the strategy.  The steps involved in the acronym SPORM formed the scaffolding activity. Gradually students learnt to work in groups followed by interactions with the tutor resulting in a joint analysis of text.

Discussion also focused on other obvious discourse features such as cohesion and coherence, anaphoric and meta-discourse aspects to show how the writer uses them in that particular context.  Where they were not explicitly signaled, students in their discussions were able to infer.  This was the pattern of activity with the first few texts. When confidence and comfort levels in the use of the strategy was achieved, the students were asked to work on their own as was the case with the last two texts, resulting in independent de-construction of texts (modified version of Genre Teaching and Learning Cycle).

Post-reading phase:  All the above concepts were reinforced by an organization flow diagram showing connections between different parts of the text.  It is at this stage that the writer’s tentative thesis would be either confirmed or modified as students’ understanding of the support provided by the writer at the paragraph levels would be more clear.  See Appendix B for a sample template of the organization flow diagram used in the EFL setting.


Comparison of ESL and EFL settings

Student background

Student backgrounds in the ESL and EFL settings were very different, especially their language proficiency. The students in the ESL setting were mainly undergraduates from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences who were assigned to take an academic reading and writing module EA1101 at the National University of Singapore (NUS). They were assigned this module based on their Qualifying English Test performance. Prior to taking the module, they had had 12 years of schooling in the Singapore education system, where the medium of instruction is English. Their level of English language proficiency could be rated as intermediate as they would have otherwise been assigned to a basic level English proficiency course.

The students in the EFL setting were Japanese students from Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University who had enrolled for an Academic English Programme at the Centre for English Language Communication, NUS. These students were in their first year of university. Their TOEFL scores were in the range of 400-450. Their English language proficiency could be said be at Grade Seven (American system) or Secondary One (Singapore system) level. Teaching of reading was one component of the programme.


Teaching materials

The length and the difficulty level of the expository texts were also varied. In the ESL setting five academic texts on general issues such as environment and population growth were used for strategy training. They averaged about 800 words in length. These texts were extracts from larger ones, but no changes were made to either organization or language. The students received around 15 hours of training spread over five weeks.

In the EFL situation, four texts on topics such as stress and water pollution were used. The initial text used was about 700 words in length.  Since the text was found to be rather challenging in the first session with no input from the students during strategy training, it had to be modified for length, vocabulary and for explicit organization. For example lexical words representing the rhetorical functions of the paragraphs, such as problem, solution, cause and effect had to be explicitly inserted for easy identification of the writer’s purpose for each paragraph.  Similarly, transition markers such as on the other hand, however and in addition indicating connections between ideas and paragraphs were also inserted. The thesis statement had to be also inserted in both the introduction and concluding sections. In short the text had to be simplified, modified and reduced to a length of around 350-400 words. See Appendix A for a sample of one such text. Lessons on reading were conducted for five hours once a week, spread over four weeks,  constituting twenty hours of classroom teaching, discussion and learning.


Modifications to strategy training

In the EFL setting, a few modifications in approach and strategies had to be made at the pre- and while-reading stage as shown in Table 2.

Table 2: A comparison of strategy training

Stages Strategy Training: ESL Strategy Training: EFL


# Generating questions from title

# Skimming for content, based on questions generated

# Skimming for writer’s thesis

# Generating questions from title

# Skimming for content, based on questions generated







# Paragraph-level analysis

– skimming and identifying writer’s purpose using lexical clues, if any

– identifying paragraph organization

– identifying paragraph thesis support

– identifying relations between paragraphs- Obtaining main idea of each paragraph

– identify language functions in context: e.g. use of modals/tenses.

# Identifying and finding meaning of difficult words

# Paragraph level analysis

– skimming and

– identifying writer’s  purpose using lexical clues

– identifying paragraph organization- identifying connections between paragraphs

– obtaining main idea of each paragraph

# Identifying writer’s thesis

– identifying paragraph thesis support

– identifying language use in context: e.g. use of modals/tenses.


# Information flow diagram # Information flow diagram


While most of the strategies used in both the settings were similar, three modifications indicated in bold had to be made. Firstly, the strategy of skimming for the writer’s thesis at the pre-reading stage was followed for ESL students, but had to be delayed and moved to the while-reading phase for the EFL students. The cognitive demands of using a global strategy as early as at this stage, even before they had become comfortable with the text, was very challenging for EFL students.

Secondly, at the while-reading stage, it can be seen that with the ESL students I was able to delve straight into paragraph-level analysis. However, with the EFL students, I had to take a bottom-up approach by focusing on difficult vocabulary (identified by them) in the text. This is because I noticed that they were psychologically more comfortable only if they had an understanding of the difficult words. Thirdly, identifying the writer’s thesis came in only after the paragraph level analysis using SPORM, as this would give the EFL student some idea of the information in the paragraphs which can help them identify the thesis statement. This understanding from the paragraph-level analysis can also enable them to identify paragraph-thesis support. As can be seen the approach at this phase was more bottom-up.


Teaching methods

I had to modify my speed of utterance in the classroom. Salim (2004) in the context of “anxiety of FL learning” mentions a rise in students’ anxiety levels “when speech in the FL is fast for the listener”. I could sense this anxiety on students’ faces. When asked if students understood some of the explanation, I was asked to slow down. In addition to speaking slowly and articulating words clearly, I also used the whiteboard extensively to write down words and phrases that emerged while I talked-aloud. This was just to make sure that they understood some of them. I sensed that such visual input can lessen their anxiety and serve as explicit aids to their understanding.  The ESL setting, however, did not require me to make such changes.


Group dynamics

In the EFL setting, unlike in the ESL, group work was one area where I had to make several changes. The initial reaction of the students to group work in the first morning session was total silence with no verbal contributions forthcoming. I could see anxiety and lack of understanding writ on their faces.  This is when that afternoon during lunch time, I made all the changes to the teaching materials mentioned earlier such as shortening and simplifying the text.  While the tension in the afternoon session had lessened, I could sense a struggle and hesitation in students to express themselves as they looked at each other and struggled for words.  Horowitz et al. (1986) identify apprehension of verbal communication as one expression of FL anxiety.  I sensed that they were cognitively and linguistically challenged. Empathizing with this situation, I asked the students to use their first language (Japanese in this context) during discussion and to also use their electronic bilingual dictionary (Japanese English/English Japanese), which they all had. I told the students that while the discussion in groups could be in Japanese, the reporting to the class had to be in English. The use of the first language to address FL anxiety is supported by Ganschow and Sparks (1996). This approach worked wonders and gradually contributed to their comfort level and confidence as they gradually resorted to using English, but with the help of the dictionary sometimes. Initially, I had to give them ample time to process their understanding of the text and to verbalise their thoughts.


Implications for teaching and learning in an EFL Setting 

Theoretically, while a top-down approach was effective with ESL students, with the EFL students I had to use a more bottom-up approach because they needed the focus of teaching to be on the word and sentence level. This could be because of their limited linguistic resources.

Though cognitively challenged by the content, the use of their L1 enabled them to understand content and to express this understanding in English in spite of their language constraints. Allowing them to use their L1 and the bilingual dictionary transformed the classroom atmosphere into a more participatory setting.

It is obvious that materials have to be learner and learning-centred as the lessons and lesson plans were driven by the students and the classroom situation. However, the reading strategies used in both the settings remained unchanged. It was the order in which they were introduced that had to be changed to suit the situation. The students easily identified with the acronym SPORM. This enabled easy analysis of texts at the paragraph levels.



Teaching reading to EFL students can be a very challenging experience. It is also a humbling experience wherein the teacher needs to be as much a learner willing to be part of her students’ learning experience. He/she needs to be flexible with her teaching materials and methods, try to make the classroom atmosphere less threatening for the students. This can make teaching and learning more rewarding both for the teacher and her students respectively.



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Appendix A Text One: Water – Everybody’s Problem

Text Pre-reading While-reading Vocab /language
1 People in almost every part of the world have had their problems with water. Developed and developing countries alike are now talking about a water crisis. However, fortunately, the water problem is being tackled.

2 Specialists in many countries are developing methods to improve supply and protect the quality of water, and a number of ambitious programs have been started. Good forecasting – including predictions of snow, rain, river levels and soil loss can help scientists prevent, or at least cope with, floods. Canals can ease one of the major water -related problems: drought.

3 Research into removing salt from seawater also continues along with inventing new and improving existing desalination methods although no method can yet promise truly low-cost fresh water. Fossil water — underground water dating from the ice age – could be drilled for in some areas, but supplies are non-renewable. Work continues in all these areas. It is obvious that a lot of time, money and research are going into finding solutions for some of the problems.

4 However, worldwide, the ugly fact remains that something like 250 million new cases of water-borne diseases are discovered every year – and 25,000 people die from them every day. Pollution continues to affect us – all of us. Whether polluted by industrial waste, sewage or other pollution, water supplies can allow deadly water-borne diseases to develop when safety and purification methods are poor.















5 The water crisis will continue to become worse as people continue to pollute the waterways and as the demand for clean water increases. Although some solutions are currently in place and others may be coming in the near future, most are costly and may be only partly effective. They also mainly deal with the effects and not the causes of the crisis.

6 To solve the problem, we also need to reduce the wastes that go into our rivers and lakes and reduce the pollution that goes into the air, which can cause acid rain and erratic weather patterns. Only with a wide range of solutions can the crisis be solved.








Appendix B

Post-reading strategies

Information flow diagram


About the Author

Chitra Varaprasad is a senior lecturer at the Centre for English Language Communication (CELC), National University of Singapore. She has taught academic literacy, communication and language proficiency courses. Her research interests are teaching methodology and materials development. She has presented and published several papers on teaching reading and writing. Chitra’s doctoral thesis was on reading for macrostructure. She is currently CELC’s Head of Professional Development.

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