Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

Pre-teens aren’t stupid

A slightly depressing thought.

I spoke to my students yesterday about why we talk about a reading passage after reading it, and don’t just move on. There are 3 of them, aged 12-13, in that class.

Their comments, and the order they came out with them, were quite telling:

  • because we’re going to study future continuous (the grammar point on the facing page)
  • because we need it later (i.e. as adults)
  • just because
  • because it’s about the environment and we need to know about that

When I suggested it might be to help me see how much of the text and the ideas in it they understood, they seemed quite surprised. They certainly weren’t particularly engaged in the topic itself (changes a boy and his family were making to their life to be more environmentally friendly).

[And yes, I know I shouldn’t necessarily have just done the next page in the book, but I’d been at home all morning because there’d been a small fire in my flat!]

Challenges 4

The book in question, and by no means the only one at fault…

Comments on: "Pre-teens aren’t stupid" (17)

  1. thesecretdos said:

    It is a weird thing to do, isn’t it?! There’s very little we -as a profession- tend to know about the teaching of reading. I don’t even know if the teaching of reading in L2 is necessary. Is it all about vocabulary and word recognition/chunk recognition?

    These days I tend to think that this sort of reading could be done at home with students underlining things that they didn’t understand or wanted to talk more about or wanted to try and include in their own writing. Recall activities in class such as summary writing or gapped texts or find the mistakes/extra words etc would enable a check on understanding. But the problem is if they do not understand – how will I know why they didn’t get it???

    A shame too that the texts are so far removed from the daily interests of students – both in content and in format. My kids read books (of course), but probably priority is given to text messaging, instructions on games etc, google returns, summaries of books/films/games, what’s on guides, schoolwork, posters. You would have thought that there was enough there to structure a book around, but…

    I sometimes think that texts would be better if the world they depicted wasn’t so unthreatening and righteous. In the example you give, Sandy, do you think students might have responded better to a gruesome description of what will happen to the world if we didn’t start taking care of the planet? Or how about a finger-pointing text that accused them of thoughtlessly contributing to the extinction of the planet? Or a conspiracy theory that said that the planet was fine and that this was all the work of some nefarious agents who wanted to make money out of our gullibility? It’s my suspicion that kids would respond better to a) horror b) guilt c) suggestions of the illuminati!

    In any event, well done to you for getting in there after the towering inferno (I hope you milked the teaching potential out of that until it wouldn’t yield any more!)


    • I’ve been focussing a lot on listening over the last year or so, and thinking about how and why students find it difficult. Once I’ve finished the book I’m currently on (Metacognition in Second Language Listening – Vandergrift/Goh), I’d like to find out more about the reading process and how I can help students with it.

      My feeling is that pretty much everything we do with reading and listening based on coursebooks is about testing, or to feed into the grammar point on the next page, as my students quite rightly pointed out. That text was so short (150-200 words) and so unchallenging that I don’t think it could be said to be there to teach reading in any way. I agree that there should be more recall activities, although does that test language more than reading ability? What IS reading ability anyway? Reading speed? Or as you say, is it about lexical recognition?

      I love the idea that the texts should be more challenging. As you say, righteous texts are pretty depressing. It all comes back to what sells again. They would definitely have responded to something with more to push them, not just a goodie two shoes saying ‘Look at my family and how great we all are’. Hmmm…thoughts of what to discuss with them in the next class – maybe we’ll talk more about what’s in the book, what they like/don’t like, and how we can make it more interesting for them. I’ve tried it with other classes unsuccessfully, but I think this group would really respond to it. And there’s definitely enough in the list you shared to structure content around, but it’s just not ‘academic’ enough or easy enough to test to satisfy the wider market.

      Looking forward to your first pre-teen textbook, Secret 🙂


  2. Hi Sandy,

    I think this is often the case and not just for reading activities. Students (especially but not only YLs) often don’t know why they are asked to do certain things in class. Taking the time to pause and ask them such questions is an important part of developing their metacognitive awareness.

    As for reading, I am often baffled by how reading texts are accompanied by recordings (and often vice versa how listenings are accompanied by transcriptions) and seem to have ‘forced language’ in them relating to whatever the focus of that part of the unit is. One thing I like about the ‘skills’ programme I currently teach with my 11 year-olds is that it is independent from the ‘grammar’ programme so our reading texts are just that – reading passages aimed at a general ability level/age group with no specific langauge points or lexical sets tagged on.

    However, what keeps coming up in meetings? The ‘grammar’ teachers want us to redesign our programme to more closely follow what they are doing so they don’t have to devote time to reading and can focus on more grammar…

    Anyway, you might be interested in this post I wrote about reading last year:


    • The skills programme sounds like it’s ultimately going to be much more useful to your students. The fact that the grammar teachers want to move back to a more traditional grammar-based syllabus just goes to show how little all of these methodologies and approaches that us blogger-types think are so important just don’t filter through, and is another reason why Secret’s comments about talking to mainstream education in the ’10 things I hate about you’ post are so true.

      I’m toying with the idea of trying to get some skills-focussed classes organised at our language school next year, although I’m not sure how easy it will be to sell them initially – if we can get students who find them useful, then word-of-mouth will help later, but starting something like that from scratch could be a challenge.

      Thanks for reminding me about the reading post too – your general approach to your classes is something I want to share with our YL teachers to help them prepare students for exams next year (at the request of parents) in a way that might help them more in the long-term than just being able to pass the exam.
      Thanks Dave,


      • No problem Sandy – if those exams are the Cambridge YLE ones, I have plenty of ideas on the blog for those. 🙂

        The feedback I get from my students suggests they appreciate the chance to make general use of their English rather than feel the pressure of having to recall and correctly apply a specific langauge point. The lessons also help them realise how it is possible to express themselves in more than one way.

        One difficulty I have to deal with/accept, however, is that this carefully developed programme may not last much longer. A couple of colleagues on the skills programme also favour a move to ‘support’ what is being covered in the grammar classes (I dare say because it seems easier to have something specific to focus on in place of allowing langauge to emerge and building a lesson from there). With me leaving in the summer, there is already talk of redesigning the syllabus to reflect this desire of the teachers… I fear this will just lead to more attitudes akin to those your students have expressed.

        (By the way, I like the discussion that has generated here of what is a very brief post – this is something I’ll have to bear in mind for future posts of my own).


        • There’s definitely an inverse relationship between the length of my posts and the discussions they generate 😉 Something I often forget!
          It’s a shame that things are likely to change. On the other hand, you just have to think about all of the kids you’ve been able to help and influence. Good luck with whatever you’re moving on to next.


  3. Hi Sandy,

    I think I read this first and didn’t really clock that it was about the reasons for teaching reading. But I’ve got a comment now, and I’d like to get it out there before I fall asleep.

    I think there are some really good points regarding the choice of text, and therefore how interesting it’s going to be for the students to read, or that they should reflect real life a bit more (as Secret DoS mentions above). I also appreciate, as Dave mentions, that skills-based classes, as divorced from any other factor that structures a course or period of study, can be really important.

    Reading is an odd beast to contend with in the ESOL classroom, as you may often find yourself confronted with a learners who might be communicative in their first language, and might have picked up enough English to get by, or at least make themselves understood, but who can’t read in their first language. At that level, I think it’s important that texts aren’t too heavy, but I never want to dilute them down and make them too ‘EFLy’. I often use the language experience approach ( to create a shared text and then students read this back. It’s good and has a decent track record of helping learners to recognise written language as it focuses on fluency rather than word for word translation.

    However, that’s probably too low a level for you and your pre-teen students. How about an approach of creating and then reading texts with the learners you have? An example of this is Our Lives Press, a not-for-profit publisher that have books written by former ESOL students. They’re probably not the type of material that you’d use with learners like those you have, but the idea might be interesting?


    • Hi Mike,
      Thanks for the comment and the different perspective.
      I really like the idea of the language experience approach, as we’ve discussed before. I agree that it can be more motivating for students, especially if their literacy levels are low or none-existent in their first language. As you say, my students are higher level so it might not be so appropriate or push them so much.
      Those readers look very interesting. When I was at IATEFL I noticed that Macmillan now has a series of cultural readers, with the Ukraine one created by students at a school in Kirovohrad: I really like this idea, and already had it on my list of things to try with my students. I think it could be a great summer project.


  4. @natibrandi said:

    Wow, this is all very interesting, both post and comments. I agree so much with some of you. I really do think that coursebooks are testing most of the time and also leading up to some language teaching. I wonder if checking out can do statements might help at all, like focusing on helping ss read specific genres, from street signs, to brochures, or even academic papers depending on the level. I’m not sure now, but I felt can do statements included reference to the genres ss should be able to understand at different levels. However, I guess helping them understand certain generes, reinforcing the idea of transferring good reading strategies from l1 to L2, and certain subskills, like identifying key information, are very useful, at least they teach our ss not to freak out when they find unknown words. Who knows? Teaching skills is not easy!


    • Can do statements could be a useful starting point, but I think they are quite differet for a pre-teen and an adult, who the system was originally created for. There’s alos no mention of all the technology whcih we’re dealing with efery day no. Nothing about how to read or write a blogpost, how to write a Youtube comment, how to have a social media conversation, how to undetrstand an app review…I know they’re related to other genres, but they’re still distinct.
      But improving confidence is what we should ultimately doing, and if it’s only testing, that’s never going to happen. Hmmm…


    • I think it is important to present an overivew of a lesson including a reading text before getting started. This can help students see the stages of the lesson and the ‘point’ of the text they are going to read. This can then help them address ‘can-do’ statements later on (provided they are adapted to the lanaguge and age level as Sandy suggests).

      And, Sandy, I have no idea what you are talking about. I have seen several recent coursebooks that ask students to write an email or read an internet article. They even print some browser and functional email buttons on the page, use ‘www’ and ‘@’ symbols and then…. get the students to read as normal and write by hand! :p


  5. Remembered a tweet I’d sent during an ELTchat on receptive skills teaching a while back:

    @Shaunwilden yep. Research says that you need to understand 90+% of a text before being able to transfer reading strategy skills #eltchat

    How can we keep sts engaged in receptive skills lessons

    Maybe Hugh Dellar is right and some skills lessons are just a waste of time?


    • …in that we should be focusing more on giving students language, rather than trying to see if they have developed their reading skills 😀


      • Yep, yep and yep. If a skills lesson is read/listen to a text, then answer some questions, it’s pointless. If it involves some form of strategy training, which I think could be easier in listening (although that could just be because I’ve read a lot more about it in listening), then there’s a point. And we should definitely be giving students more language, but that’s where you need teachers who are confident in expanding on the language that’s on the page/that emerges in class, and I’m still not sure I can say I’m one of those people. I get sucked into the grammar vortex rather too often for my liking.


  6. Really interesting as usual Sandy!

    I recently attended a webinar (thinly veiled sales pitch for a new CUP series) focusing on listening comprehension and how generally course books just test the listening skill and don’t really teach it. The series author, Chris Redston suggested some good ideas to tack on to the end of a traditional listening comprehension lesson. Eg. Listen again for sentence stress, first following the stress pre-marked in part of the transcript and then again to mark the stress in the rest. The course promises to explicitly teach students about weak forms/linking/redundancy/ellipsis etc. I’m still digesting how this approach might be applied to my lessons.

    I seem to remember learning somewhere (prob during the Delta) that the reading skill is the least transferable from language 1. It seems it’s necessary to start again from scratch which I feel is fairly true in my own experience of learning other languages!


    • Hi Roya,
      The CUP course sounds like it might have some interesting things in there, but I find it interesting that the ideas Chris shared are to be tacked on the end of listening comprehension, rather than forming the basis for the listening course, with comprehension added to test progress. I wonder if this is a stepping stone towards a more ‘useful’ listening syllabus which focuses on teaching, not testing.
      As for reading being the least transferable, I’m not sure. From my own experience, I think all skills are transferable, but they require practice, and thinking about how you approach what you’re reading/writing/saying/listening to (this may be influenced by the fact I’m reading about metacognition at the moment!) When I started learning Russian I still used the skills that I already have, despite it being the first time that I’m dealing with a different script. Of course, this may also be because I’m an experienced language learner, and as a teacher too I know a lot of the theory, so I’m probably not representative of an average student!
      Thanks for the comment,


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