Reading comprehension in the classroom – how to motivate students to read „difficult texts” full of „unfamiliar words”?

Written by: Mariya Bagasheva-Koleva, e-mail:
Senior Assistant-Professor, South-Western University, Blagoevgrad


This topic has been of interest to me for a long time. In my 10-year teaching experience I have been asked the question: „What does this word mean?” quite a lot of times. It is not unusual, though, having in mind that I teach a foreign language. During reading comprehension activities this question appears to be the most frequent one. While tempted to give an immediate reply, I have always asked myself if I should or there is another way. As it appears, there are many various ways to avoid answering this question at once.

So, I decided to present you what I have found about the successful techniques in motivating students to read authentic texts in English and about instruction how to do it. It aims at intermediate to advanced learners of English as a foreign language.

What is Reading Comprehension?

If we say that a student is „good at comprehension”, we mean that he can read accurately and efficiently, so as to get the maximum information from a text with the minimum of misunderstanding. We may also mean that he is able to show his understanding by re-expressing the context of the text – for instance, by writing sentences or paragraphs in answer to questions, or by summarizing the text. (M. Swan, 1992)

According to Françoise Grellet (1991):„Understanding a written text means extracting the required information from it as efficiently as possible.”

As Frank B. May says:”The reading process is an intelligent, active process of observing, predicting, and confirming, with a purpose in mind.”

In a word, reading comprehension means reading a text and then showing that you understand it by doing a number of activities or actions.

We do reading comprehension every day – when we read the newspaper or look for a job in classified advertisements, or want to choose a holiday destination and look through different travel brochures, or read the manual of some appliance to see how it functions. In everyday life we come across different written texts, which we read in order to find some information or we read them just for pleasure. But when we read in life, we mainly do it in our mother tongue. As long as we can read and understand a text and find the needed information, we do not pay attention to how we do it.

Reading in a foreign language, though, and more specifically, reading in a foreign language in the classroom is different from reading in your own language although the reading process and the comprehension techniques we use are the same regardless of the language.

Knowledge of the foreign language is important but not the only factor in successful comprehension: some students who speak and write English very well are poor at this kind of work, and of course people may be bad at comprehension even in their own mother tongue. (M. Swan, 1992)

That is the reason why comprehension instruction is very important in the reading process and English teachers should pay close attention to it so that their students acquire effective reading habits.

Reading Comprehension in the Classroom

Reading in the classroom has several specific features which make it different from real-life reading. First, it is time-limited. There are rarely English classes in which students do only reading comprehension activities. They are generally combined with speaking, listening, writing and grammar exercises. The duration of the lesson is also limited. Second, the text may not be one that students would normally choose to read outside the classroom and the material is always more difficult to understand if it is outside their personal taste, experience and interest.

Third, students are not only expected to read the text but they are required to show their understanding of it by doing a number of activities.

Last but not least, students have to do the required tasks whether they feel like reading or not.

So, the role of the teacher is to motivate students to read the text by giving them useful instruction for effective results.

Observing, predicting and confirming

These are the three stages a student has to go through while reading a text for comprehension. Observing and predicting are set as pre-reading activities, when the topic is introduced and students make predictions about it. Here is how a teacher can do this:

  • To start a discussion about the topic or the author.
    e.g. Before you read the text about Nelson Mandela, discuss what you know about him. Write information about him on the board.
  • To look at the layout/organization of the text and make predictions about its source.
    e.g. Where are the following extracts from?
    a) a letter; b) a newspaper article ; c) an encyclopaedia
  • To use pictures, photographs, cartoons, diagrams, etc. to predict what the text is going to be about.
    e.g. Look at the cartoon in the article „Bringing up a better baby”. Who are the people? What are they doing?
  • To discuss the title/heading of the text
    e.g. You are going to read a newspaper article on „Artspeak”. What do you think this is?

During the pre-reading discussion the teacher should encourage the students to participate and express their ideas on the topic. The teacher can help by providing them with relevant vocabulary because some students may feel diffident to speak out if they do not know how to say it in English.

Confirming the predictions comes after the students have read the text for the first time and before doing comprehension exercises.

When students start reading the text, they inevitably come across unknown words. Some of them are so disturbed by unfamiliar vocabulary that their comprehension of the whole passage suffers. To motivate them to continue despite the unknown words, the teacher should give instructions before they start reading. There are two ways in which the students may read the text for the first time: by skimming or by scanning it.

Skimming – quickly running one`s eyes over a text to get the gist of it.

Scanning – quickly going through a text to find a particular piece of information.

By skimming and scanning the text, students can increase their reading speed and find answers more efficiently.

The instruction to skim or scan the text comes in the pre-reading stage of reading comprehension. This could be done in different ways. For instance,

Skimming (general overview):

  1. Read these remarks by eyewitnesses of three events. What natural phenomena are they describing?
  2. Before you read the encyclopaedia entry for Mount Everest, predict what the following numbers and dates refer to. Then skim the text to see if you were right.
  3. Read through the texts quickly to get an idea of where they come from and what they are about.

Scanning (details):

  1. Read the text quickly and find 10 items that you could find in someone’s home.
  2. Read the whole text and complete the fact file.
  3. There is a lot of uncertain information in the text. Which words tell you that the writer isn’t sure of the information?

In my own experience, I can say that students easily succeed in finding answers to such questions, which makes them confident to proceed with the tasks. Students feel they can at least understand what the text is about or they can find  details even if there are unknown words.

Some teachers tend to teach difficult or unfamiliar vocabulary before students read the text because it saves time and they think it helps students understand the text better. But, by giving „ready answers”, they prevent the students from developing their reading skills and enhancing their comprehension abilities. Another problem is that a great number of English words have more than one meaning and you need a context in order to define the concrete meaning. If a teacher gives the meaning of an unknown word before the students have read the text, he/she should also explain the context in which the word has this particular meaning. This takes some time which, I think, is unnecessary. Moreover, students know different words and have different prior knowledge on the topic, which means that some words are unknown for some students, but familiar for others. As a  result, this activity can continue for a long time.

Indeed, sometimes there are vocabulary exercises in the pre-reading stage but they are included only if the text contains some specific or specialized vocabulary, terminology, proper nouns or realias, which will help students to understand  the idea of the text better. They could be unknown to students or they could be part of topic vocabulary introducing the main idea of the text. The explanations are always given in English. For example,

  1. Before you read the next article about rhinos, what do the following words mean: conservation and an endangered species?
  2. Before you read the text about the American school system, make sure you understand the meaning of the following words. Which two of them mean the same thing?
    Compulsory       optional        graduate/graduation       course work
    Mandatory         board of education         federal government
  3. Before you read the text, here are explanations of some of the words and expressions.
    -          The Loch Ness monster may fall victim to Mad Cow Disease (lines 2-3). Fall victim to in this case means to catch a disease. Mad Cow Disease is the popular name given to BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis), a disease which affects cows.

However, as a rule, vocabulary exercises appear in the reading or post-reading stages where the students figure out the meaning on their own.

The role of the teacher here is to motivate students to use different comprehension techniques in order to guess the meaning of a word and successfully complete the reading comprehension task without consulting a dictionary. Students should be aware that in any comprehension exam, the texts will always contain words that they do not know. They shouldn’t panic if there are fifteen or twenty unknown words: if they think carefully and use comprehension techniques, students should be able to understand most of them.

So, what are these comprehension techniques? How to figure out the meaning of unknown words?

  1. To identify the grammatical function of the word in the sentence: what part of speech it is.
  2. To look for clues in the word itself – negative prefixes such as un- or dis-, other prefixes such as re- or sub-, or suffixes pointing out the part of speech of a word, e.g. -ness/-tion/-dom/-er for a noun, -al/-ous for an adjective, etc.
  3. To find clues in the context – the sentence in which the word is used, the sentence before and after it. Does the word seem „negative” or  ”positive”? Does it involve movement? Is it referred to elsewhere by a different name? Could it be a thing, a substance, an emotion?
  4. If they replace the word in their mind with a blank space, remembering its „function”, are there any words in Bulgarian which they could put into this place, which would give a reasonable meaning to the sentence?
  5. If there is still something illogical or strange about what they have read, is it possible that the writer may ironically be saying the opposite of what he or she means?
  6. Does the general meaning which they have deduced from the `unknown` word make sense in the context of the whole paragraph or passage, when they re-read it?

In order to learn how to do this guessing, students should be given appropriate exercises so that asking themselves questions while reading should become part of their reading skills.

These exercises can include separate sentences in which a word has been replaced by a non-existing or nonsensical word and students are asked to figure out the meaning and suggest a real word in English to substitute it. This could be done in pairs and after that a class discussion may follow.

Another type of exercise could be when the teacher prepares sentences containing difficult or low-frequency words (which exist in English) and asks the students to guess their meaning and explain it in English.

Of course, the teacher should monitor the discussion and ask questions to direct the students in the right direction. These questions should show them how to do the guessing and what to pay attention to.

Sometimes there are hidden difficulties which the students may face. For instance, when they `know` all the words, but still find it difficult to understand a sentence or a paragraph.. There can be various reasons for this:

  1. They may have misunderstood the grammatical function. The inflections –s,   -ed, and –ing can always be misleading.
    e.g. This building houses valued items from the last century.
  2. Simple words often have more than meaning.
    e.g. pretty, past, talks
  3. Proper names at the beginning of a sentence cannot be identified by their capital letter.
    e.g. Reading next stop! He closed his book.
  4. Words may be used literally or figuratively.
    e.g. He came thundering into my office like a herd of wild bulls.
    = He came into my office very noisily and angrily.
  5. Words may have to be understood as combinations, not as individual words.
    e.g. Nobody has been granted paid leave before. (holiday with pay)
    Do not exceed the use by date.
    No use by unauthorized personnel.

The way the writer expresses himself may also present obstacles to efficient comprehension. Long and complicated sentences are difficult to cope with in a foreign language; even when the words are easy, syntactic complexity may cause a comprehension problem. Some writers favour a wordy and repetitive style, so practice is needed to be able to `see through` the words to the (often very simple) ideas which underlie them. A writer may express an important idea indirectly. In order to understand some texts, the students need to draw necessary inferences from what is not stated directly, which of course is particularly difficult in a foreign language.

How students read a text is also important and the teacher should pay particular attention to this process so that they read efficiently. The reading speed is different with different students. But high speed does not always show effectiveness. Some students find it difficult to `see the wood for the trees`. They may read slowly and carefully, paying a lot of attention to individual points, but without succeeding in getting a clear idea of the overall meaning of the text. Other students, especially those who read quickly, do not always pay enough attention to detail. They may have a good idea of the general meaning of the text, but misunderstand particular points. Sometimes, by overlooking an important small word (for instance, a conjunction, a negation, a modal verb) they may get a completely false impression of the meaning of part of the passage. So the teacher should monitor the process of reading of all students in class and give instruction how to do it effectively. Increasing the reading speed is one of the teacher’s purposes when teaching reading comprehension techniques, but it should not be at the expense of comprehension.

Another reason for failure in comprehension is that some students are `imaginative readers`: especially if they know something about the subject, or have strong opinions about it, they may interpret the text in the light of their own experience or viewpoints, so that they find it difficult to separate what the writer says from what they feel themselves. It is important for students to understand that they should do the reading comprehension activities based on the text according to the text and the writer’s opinion on the topic. Their personal opinion and point of view can sometimes mislead them from finding the correct answer.

In conclusion, I would like to say that although the reading process is  individuall, the teacher is the one who gives instruction and monitors how students proceed with it. The reading comprehension techniques are an essential part of reading instruction and the more students read, the better their reading comprehension skills become. So encourage your students to read information-rich authentic texts on various topics. This will enrich their world knowledge, build up their vocabulary and increase their reading speed, which, eventually, will help them develop their reading skills and enhance their reading comprehension abilities.


  1. Headway – Advanced, John&Liz Soars, 1995, OUP
  2. Paths to Proficiency, Hellen Naylor, Stuart Hagger, 1993, Longman Group UK Limited
  3. Prospects – Upper-Intermediate, Ken Wilson, James Taylor, Deirdre Howard-Williams, 2003, Macmillan Publishers Limited


  1. Grellet, F., (1991). Developing Reading Skills, Cambridge University Press
  2. May, F.B., (1990). Reading as Communication, Macmillan Publishing Company
  3. Pressley, M., (2001, September). Comprehension Instruction: What Makes Sense Now, What Might Make Sense Soon. Reading Online, 5(2). Available:
  4. RAND Reading Study Group, Catherine Shaw, Chair,(2002). Reading for Understanding
  5. Swan, M., (1992). Inside Meaning, Cambridge University Press


Reading Comprehension in the Classroom – Motivation and Instruction

Exercise 1

Identify the grammatical function of the word `PRIN` (which is a word with no meaning) and think of a real word that could replace it.

  1. She makes me so prin I could kick her.
  2. Whenever she prins her cat, it always wants food.
  3. Mary had the fire prinning in no time at all.
  4. He left the prin and walked slowly downstairs.
  5. Although unprinnily full, she managed to eat two more cakes.
  6. Her grandmother was full of good prin which she passed on to her grandchildren.
  7. You have to develop prins to get you out of difficult situations.
  8. He sat, prinned and silent.
  9. Prin her no matter what happens.
  10. She tried to see prin the building but it was too dark.

(from: Paths to Proficiency, Hellen Naylor, Stuart Hagger)

Exercise 2

You probably do not know many of these words: ungainly, boorish, knoll, tacky, shamble, undercoat, glum, notch, washer, gullible.

Look at the way they are used in the following sentences and then say, or write, what you think they might mean. (Do not look in your dictionary, of course.)

  1. She’s a big ungainly girl – always breaking things and falling over.
  2. I’ve never met anyone as boorish as you are – what you said to me yesterday was absolutely unforgivable.
  3. Napoleon rode up on to a little knoll to see the battle more clearly.
  4. Put the glue on the broken pieces, wait until it is tacky and then stick them together.
  5. He must be tired: look at the way he is shambling along.
  6. I can’t go on with painting the bathroom until the undercoat is dry.
  7. You’re looking a bit glum – what’s the matter?
  8. California Pete had thirty-four notches on his gun: one for each sheriff he had killed.
  9. I think we need a new washer. The tap keeps dripping.
  10. She’s amazingly gullible. I told her yesterday that Switzerland had declared war on China and she believed every word.

(from: Inside Meaning, Michael Swan)


  1. This building houses valued items from the last century.
  2. pretty, past, talks
  3. Reading next stop! He closed his book.
  4. He came thundering into my office like a herd of wild bulls.
  5. Nobody has been granted paid leave before.
    Do not exceed the use by date.
    No use by unauthorized personnel.

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