This is part of my series on Intensive and Extensive Learning.
I was recently asked by a local school to talk about using IELTS and TOEFL exercises in the classroom, not only for students preparing for those tests, but also for those who are learning general English. It was sort of a strange topic and one that was difficult to address. Usually, I think that students who are preparing for standardized English language exams are served well by both test prep courses and general English courses, but the other way around didn’t make a lot of sense to me. However, in thinking about it and the difference between the TOEFL and the IELTS tests, I realized that more or less, they illustrate the difference between intensive and extensive learning, which are both important concepts for teachers to know. So I wanted to share some of my ideas here.
For example, most textbooks ask students to do intensive reading. We give our students a text and ask them comprehension questions (Why did Billy go the store?), detail questions (What color was Billy’s shirt?), vocab questions (Find a word in the text that means the same thing as ‘unpleasant’) and even grammar questions (Underline the verbs in the past tense). It’s a very efficient way to squeeze a lot of learning out of one text and it also teaches grammar and vocabulary in context, in a real passage. The IELTS is full of texts with a variety of detailed questions, perfect for teaching students to be intensive readings.
However, intensive reading not a lot of fun for students–they will never learn to love reading if they always have to analyze every text so intensely. Also, while the texts are often realistic, usually in order to be so productive, these readings have to be adapted somewhat or written by textbook writer. So we also should teach students to read extensively.
The TOEFL, for example, tends to ask questions about the main idea of a text and the major supporting points. It might also ask about the structure of the text or rhetorical style. If it does ask about grammar or vocabulary, the questions can be answered by understanding the context, not just looking up a definition in the dictionary. In other words, extensive reading is closer to how we read in our native language. We don’t always get every detail or know every single word when we read a 19th century novel or a newspaper article about the economy. We don’t necessarily get every reference. But we understand the overall sense and what the author is trying to tell us and we use context clues to figure out what we don’t understand on the first try. Students need to be taught these skills so that they don’t go running for their dictionary every time they hit a new word or get frustrated because they don’t understand every single point of the text. So asking main idea questions about a text is a great way to encourage students to read more like native speakers.
You can also give students book reports. Have them choose a book to read over some period of time and then write a report or review of the book. What is the book about? Who are the main characters? How does it end? What did they think about it? Or give them a newspaper article and tell them they have one minute to read it and 30 seconds to summarize it. That way they have to focus on the main ideas only. Also letting students read about topics they are interested in will encourage them to read more fluently because they will not want to stop to reread or check a dictionary. So giving students choices in readings can help them become more extensive readers.
Next time, I’ll talk about how IELTS and TOEFL exercises can teach students to be intensive or extensive listeners.