ELT and the Crisis in Education: Digital Reading Skills

Monday 6 December 2010

by Nik Peachey

In this post I would like to pick up on some of the issues I have mentioned in earlier posts and start to go into a bit more depth.

I would like to start by arguing that the majority of particularly young people living in developed countries do the bulk of their reading each day on digital devices.

If you doubt this, then have a look at this video made by students at Kansas State University in the US: A Vision of Students Today

If this is indeed the case, as I believe it is, why are the vast majority of ELT course books  and lesson materials still delivered on paper? Feel free to answer that question in the comments section below if you wish to.


We take it for granted as English language teachers that we need to develop our students’ reading skills, but in most cases the nearest our students get to reading online is a printed version of a web page pre selected by their teacher. At best they may actually get to see a pre selected page on the screen of a computer, but is this enough to really develop their digital literacies?

When I think about my own online reading and the processes I go through when I need to know something, it rarely if ever starts on the page where I find the information, instead it goes something more like this.

Arrow image

1. I start at Google.com or some similar search engine. I type in a word or number of keywords or phrases that are related to what I’m searching for and hit the search button.

2. At this stage I’m usually presented with the first page of potentially tens or even hundreds of thousands of links to articles.

3. The first thing I do is identify and dismiss anything that looks like an advertisement or a ‘paid for’ result, and then I start to scan the ‘real’ results. I rarely scan more than the first couple of pages of results, and as I scan I am evaluating the titles and the short text summaries that accompany them and trying to identify links that may be relevant.

4. When I spot a link that I think may be relevant I don’t stop and read it, I open it in a new browser tab and keep scanning the search result for more relevant links. By the time I have scanned a couple of pages of search results I usually have anything between about 4 – 8 browser tabs that I have opened from the search results, so my next job is to go back though those tabs looking at each page very quickly to assess whether it might have any information that is relevant to what I want to know.

5. Again I don’t read the articles or pages in detail, but I scan them quickly to see which ones I can dismiss. It usually involves just quickly scanning the first one or two paragraphs. This might result in me dismissing all of the pages and I might need to start searching again or I might find 4 -5 pages that may have relevant information.

6. It’s only at this stage that I really start to read any of the pages with any concentration. As I start to read through the pages I usually see hyperlinks in the text to other pages or other forms of multimedia such as video or audio that give more information or background to the page I’m reading, so as I read, once again I’ll be opening more new browser tabs that I’ll have to go back through and examine.

7. As I go through this ‘reading’ process I might not actually completely read any of the pages in depth, but this isn’t necessarily because they aren’t relevant, I could just be taking snippets of information from any number of them and synthesizing them into my own knowledge base until I have satisfied my curiosity about what I want to know.

What’s clear to me about this process is that it has very little resemblance to the way I used to read or to the kinds of course book and standard ELT reading activities that are commonly used to develop our students reading skills.

* The information I find very rarely comes from a single text or source.
* Reading is usually combined with listening, viewing and understanding more pictorial or graphical information.
* I rarely completely read any of the texts or sources.
* I’m constantly moving back and forth between a number of texts and comparing and trying to evaluate and assimilate similar information from different sources.

Well if you have managed to read this far and in depth, I’ll leave you with a few questions before I try to deal with these myself in my next posting.

What do you think?
* How can we make the reading we do in the ELT classroom more like the process I described above?
* Is it our responsibility as EFL / ESL teachers to develop these kinds of reading skills?
* Are these skills naturally transferable from the students’ L1?
* How does the reading your students do in your classes resemble the kind of reading process I described above?


Nik Peachey

18 responses to ELT and the Crisis in Education: Digital Reading Skills

  1. Wendy says:

    Hi Nik … well said .. mind you I think that this is exactly the kind of process that YL would use for projectwork or h/w which is done outside the classroom and unless each YL had their own i-pad/notebook it would be hard to ‘teach’ in the classroom.

    Also how many YL in ELT classrooms are in the ‘developed’ world ie with access to IT in the classroom? Certainly the largest countries with ELT learners (YL or other) e.g. China and India probably don’t have … but I too am concerned that paper versions of courses are not meeting the needs of Yl of the 21st C either in developed or developing contexts …

    bfn, Wendy

    • Nik Peachey says:

      Hi Wendy

      Thanks for your comments.

      I think it is the kind of process that YLs and all students ‘should’ be doing for homework and project work, but I’m not sure to what extent it ‘is’ done.

      Even if it is done for homework, are the homework tasks we are creating helping to shape and develop the necessary skills? When we do paper based reading in class we work on developing sts reading skills, not only practicing them. Don’t we have to do the same with their digital reading skills, or are we assuming that they will transfer these from L1?

      Is it just the technological skills that are different when we work through this process online, or is there something different about the way of reading itself?

      Also YLs are a particularly difficult area. How many teachers are happy letting our YLs go searching on Google? I remember looking over my daughter’s shoulder as she searched for the Barbie website and being mortified by some of the results. Luckily she got the site she wanted right at the top of the results.

      I agree with you that the vast majority of schools don’t (yet) have the facilities (or any technology for that matter) to provide hands on access to whole classes so that they can develop these skills, but I’m wondering about the ones that do and if / how they are dealing with these issues.

      I’m also wondering about the role of publishers and course books and to what extent they can be expected to address this issue.

      Anyway, in my next post I’ll try to make some suggestions.


      Nik Peachey

  2. Hi Nik,

    What you have described above is the process of finding several reading texts combined with listening and watching to find out something of your interest. I think the key is in why we read/listen to something, as this affects the way we read or listen and the way we select our own reading and listening texts.

    It is a good idea to combine the two skills together, as real life skills: developing both receptive/productive skills together with computer literacy. However, I’m not sure to what extent a traditional coursebook can do this. It might be possible if a specific lesson framework was given – which would be essential because most teachers are not digital natives, and maybe less computer literate than the sts are – instead of the pure receptive skills lesson staging with the texts. Sts would then use this framework with the teacher’s guidance to find the texts with the hyperlinks, etc. they are interested in in finding out more about. It would also be a good idea to then discuss together how they read/listen to each piece depending on their level and of type of interest.

    In my experience of different kinds of coursebooks, however, most of the quaity coursebooks serve the development of receptive skills well. It is rather the teachers who are not always clear on what these are and how they need to be developed. Also, that these skills, are not automatically transferable from L1 to L2, and sts have to be made aware of this.

    What I miss the most from them mostly, are three things one of which you have pointed out as well:

    1. My biggest concern is the lack of developing real motivation in the topic – not easy, i must say – through different pre-reading/listening activities. The activities present in the current coursebooks don’t seem to be engaging enough on a personal level for the sts, therefore the lessons, i.e. the development of the receptive skills, fails right from the start. In TT sessions I found that we had to focus quite a lot on giving teachers support in supplementing material to raise their interest in a particular topic.

    2. The second one I touched upon already briefly, and that is making both teachers and sts aware of what these skils are and what they need to do in order to transfer them into L2. I.e. more awareness raising material combined with the specific reading/listening tasks. Sts who do these types of exercises, in my experience, are much more ready and willing to make an effort in applying the right reading skills, for example, instead of tunnel-reading (reading word-for-word)

    3. As you have pointed out too, I would like to see a topic exploited through reading as well as listening and “watching” materials. At the moment it seems to be that only a receptive and a productive skill is combined in a lesson, i.e. a listening with speaking, or a listening with writing. Some publishers did realise the need for a change and started to add a DVD with films to their coursebooks, which is great, though I don’t think many teachers are comfortable using the two at the same time in a lesson: book and a computer, not to mention the lack of technical equipment in schools in Central and Eastern Europe.

    However, maybe there is a way to integrate these types of educational materials a bit more successfully through…. ????. This IS somthing to to think about. (MAybe some sort of digital book?? Not sure, I’ll have to take some time to think with both a teacher’s and a st’s head at the same time.

    Thanks, Nik, for the great questions you raised. You gave me lots to think about :-)

  3. Nik is writing, of course, about reading skills for study purposes. But in a thread with the over-arching title: “The crisis in education”, techno fan that I am, I feel bound to say – Let us not forget the other kind of reading, which requires quite different skills and, I rather doubt, can be done comfortably on a Kindle or from a monitor. I’m referring of course to the life-sustaining pleasures of reading literature.
    I take that to be such a crucial long-term educational issue – not losing the habit of reading for pleasure – that it might well be worth making a distinction when we are in touch with the young that the skills we are recommending here are essentially information-retrieval skiils. Might it be an idea to call them that and use “reading” for discussing the joys of cuddling up with an old-fashioned object with pages that can only be turned over by hand?

    • Nik Peachey says:

      Hi Dennis

      Thanks for the comment. Actually I’m not sure that I am describing a process that only applies to study though to be sure it is different from reading for the enjoyment of literature.

      I agree that reading for enjoyment and the kind of personal development that literature can bring is extremely important, however I’m not so sure that it can only be achieved through a paper book. I’m a big fan of the iPad and I actually really enjoy reading on it, and the way that reading books on digital devices is evolving and opening up so many more avenues to actually interact with the story and other people who are reading it / have read it is a fascinating area.

      I also find the way technology is impacting on the way new narrative is created another fascinating area. There’s an interesting video on BigThink in which Salman Rushdie talks about narrative in video games: http://bigthink.com/ideas/25129

      I certainly don’t think we should let go of reading for pleasure and the enjoyment of literature, but we might some day be letting go of the paper based presence of the book, just as many of us have let go of the physical existence of our CD / record collections.


      Nik Peachey

  4. Huw Jarvis says:

    The significance of reading in an on-line environment is certainly one of the big issues arising out of my recently completed British Council (BC) supported research project.

    Publication by the BC to follow in due course, but for now an overview is available from: http://www.languages.salford.ac.uk/research/centre_applied_linguistics/jarvis_project.php

  5. Lee says:

    Hi Nik,

    This is a great point your making…it does make me despair that we continually teach to a syllabus based on specific assessment criteria set by organisations who are always the last to respond to change instead of responding to the needs of learners, businesses and society in general.

    Digital literacy skills are so important. Evaluating relevance and quality has to become an inherent part of forming that first impression in a way it never had to be with a published book. Who wrote this? When was it written? Does it tell me what I need to know? Does it interest me?
    We are bombarded with information and need to provide learners with a number of tactics to manage this.

    This IS communicating in English (and possibly the most likely method for most future learners).


  6. […] Development – ELT and the Crisis in Education: Digital Reading Skills | Delta Publishing &#821… […]

  7. Mr Darkbloom says:

    Certainly people in rich countries have easy access to the internet, but working in the Middle-East and Africa, I was surprised to see just how ‘on-line’ young people really are in developing countries now… I mean, Facebook and certain ‘free’ media download sites were used constantly by most of my learners!

    If learners are already using the internet a great deal in their free time, this obviously invites a vast range of learning opportunities.

    I think the key for the ‘teaching’ side of this is – like a few people already said – allow learners to find and suggest engaging topics and projects. In my opinion, this has always been a serious teacher’s job anyway (digital world or otherwise). Then, of course, comes the important job of helping learners develop appropriate skills to meet their communication aims. It may well be that suggestions from the teacher or the class can help massively when someone is learning how to exploit and discover things of interest.

    Oh, and a teacher happen’s to be a bit of a technophobe or simply not so interested in the internet, invite your learners to teach you about it!! They will surely have a lot to say…

    • Nik Peachey says:

      Hi Mr Darkbloom

      Like you I have spent quite a lot of time working abroad, especially in North Africa. There does seem to be the idea that digital literacies are only an issue for the more ‘developed’ countries and from my experience this doesn’t seem to be the case. Many countries across the developing world are getting access to digital resources and connectivity and in some cases the technologies being implemented are leap frogging those in the ‘developed’ world, especially when t comes to mobile internet access.

      The truth is that developing countries have so much more to gain by developing digital access. Books are expensive to buy, difficult and expensive to transport and are pretty soon out of date. Giving access to the internet provides learners with access to the biggest library in human history, much of which can be accessed for free.



  8. Hi Nik,

    A lot of good points here – I’m probably going to sound like a Daily Mail reader but I promise I’m not. I think part of the problem is the information seems to have become synonymous with knowledge. The reading process you have described is similar to what I have seen many of my students do; a scouring of the internet for information and ideas which can be assembled into a collage devoid of any real voice of their own. While they have understood the ideas sufficiently to produce a piece of (fairly) coherent text, they are unable to take an idea and apply it to a new situation or to combine different ideas together, to make a synthesis. I think of it as reading in soundbites.

    There is more to reading than comprehension and I think we need to be helping students become critical readers. I’m too old to remember how I learnt/was taught, but I suspect that it wasn’t really an issue since the information was all in books in a library and that took time/effort, which meant I probably tried to do more with less.

    So, my problem with coursebooks is a little different. I do want them to acknowledge that what/how people read has changed, but I want them to do so in a way that will help students read in ways that go beyond a superficial understanding.



    • Nik Peachey says:

      Hi Pete

      I think the issue of superficial understanding isn’t one that is linked to the shift from paper based reading to digital format reading. I think students can just as easily and perhaps more easily deal with text in a superficial way with paper based resources. After all, many students and teachers seem to look at paper based publications in a very uncritical way and assume that if it is in print it is correct /the truth. That has NEVER been the case. History and news has been written and rewritten many times to suit the purposes of the predominant culture. So I believe that the growing awareness, brought about by greater access to digital publishing, of the need to question the authority, validity and honesty of sources is a very positive step forward.

      I do agree with you though that there is a problem, but I believe the problem is caused by the tasks and purposes assigned to students for their reading, not by the process of reading itself. I think Ken Robinson describes this problem very well when he talks about the need for a ‘change in education paradigms’. There’s a good video here where he talks about this in detail: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U

      I think what we need to do in ELT and education generally is to start giving students more engaging reading tasks that demand that they process and apply information in a more practical way in order to turn it into knowledge. Easy for me to say of course, but much harder to do.



    • Brynell says:

      That’s the best answer by far! Thanks for contrbuiitng.

  9. Adrian says:

    Hi Nik, although the articles in this series are interesting and thought provoking, I’m not sure the title … The Crisis in Education is applicable. I can think of far more pressing issues that can be labelled with the word Crisis. Definitely agree with you when you say that current ELT practices are ‘conservative’.

    • Nik Peachey says:

      Hi Adrian

      I think t get a sense of what I mean by Crisis you should have a look at the introductory video I posted here: http://vimeo.com/17076946

      Yes, there are many other Crises in the world besides the ones I’m describing, but many of these come back to education or the lack of it. Providing access to better education around the world could go a long way towards combatng some of the world’s ills and I believe that technology and its informed use is a way we can attempt to deal with these problems. So, really I don’t think the crisis we face is anything so new, but I think what is new is that we do have the means and opportunity to start to do something about it, as long as we can make the right decissions.

      I know, I’m very optimistic.


  10. […] Court controversy or at least debate with a blog.  British Council / BBC’s TeachingEnglish does this to an extent with monthly guest bloggers but Delta publishing are a case study in how a smaller organisation can use social media to punch above its weight. Highly engaging guest bloggers with a brief to get the conversation going.  This month Nik Peachey is addressing the ‘crisis’ in digital reading skills. […]

  11. phil says:

    I have experienced the challenge of ‘dull reading’ or ‘surface reading’ in 2 difficult situations. The first was teaching a HBR (Harvard Bus Review) case study analysis class for 2 hours a week to foreign students. The second was teaching and leading debates in China. Both courses demanded high level reading, understanding, critical analysis and the development of opinions and ideas from the texts. Not to mention a great deal of intenet research.

    Each of these courses was by far not a standard EFL class and did not aim to be, rather an advanced discussion class (from my perspective). However, all the students viewed them as real content classes. Therefore, in HBR students discussed the situation using what they had read to reconstruct the main points and then from their feedback I simply chose the underlying problem/situation for further work. For example, a takeover case led to a role play simulation based on the text. This then necessitated more analysis of the text and internet research. The output was a speaking activity followed by a writing (minutes or letter) posted online which was then followed up by a reply for homework. All of this involved authentic reading for real use.

    The debate course had students reading and researching topics for homework in preparation for class debates. Of course, this started as students just copy and pasting FOR and AGAINST arguments. Nonetheless, through class discussion, analytical skill work, group preparation and role play students began to analyse texts and arguments. They could take a FOR text and criticise it which trust me is a very hard skill for most Chinese students. Further online debates then followed as students were opened up to the joy of ‘engaging with reading texts’ and ‘interrgoating’ them (sorry, forgot who said this but here are some silmilar ideas: http://www.mondofacto.com/study-skills/writing/how-to-critically-analyse/05.html).

    Yes, reading can be dull on the net but if it is for a reason and that reason is purposeful to the students then it can be interesting or even FUN.

  12. […] Nik Peachey In my last posting ‘ELT and the Crisis in Education: Digital Reading Skills’ I took a look at how I feel the process of reading has been impacted by digital technologies and […]

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