Perhaps the most important ability that a non-English-speaking student
of science needs is reading. Such an ability is a crucial tool that
aids the learning process, as without it the student cannot deal with
the enormous bulk of literature he has to read during his period of
study in an English-medium faculty. However, adequate ESP materials
that can be used to develop this ability are sometimes not
commercially available. Thus, teachers are confronted with the task of
preparing their own materials to meet their students’ needs.
Developing an ESP reading course for non-English-speaking science
students is not easy. Four main problems face the materials developer.
1. deciding on the purpose of the reading in order to determine the
level of reading difficulty required by the target group;
2. deciding on the cognitive level(s) of comprehension;
3. selecting texts with the right level of difficulty for both
students and teachers;
4. deciding on the appropriate length of the texts.
This article suggests some possible lines of approach based on the
experience of teaching reading to science students at Kuwait
University, where English is the medium of instruction in the
faculties of science, engineering, and medicine. The students are
native speakers of Arabic.
The purpose for and types of reading
Three reading skills (or types of reading) recognized as essential
by most language instructors are: scanning, skimming, and intensive
Scanning. Scanning is a type of reading that involves
finding a particular piece of information located in material that is
otherwise of no interest to the reader. Knowing how a text is
organized helps a student locate information quickly. Since science
textbooks have an index at the end, knowing how to use this index
helps students find information easily.
Skimming. Skimming is reading rapidly through a text to get
a general idea about the subject. A science student can look quickly
at the headings, subheadings, or bold-type words that mark the
introduction of new concepts.
It is important to point out that skimming a science text is not
the same as skimming any other text. Science books have a different
layout and follow certain techniques to make reading at all levels
easier. For instance, most science textbooks use headings and
subheadings to indicate main ideas and subpoints. They also use
numbering systems consistent with these divisions. For example, the
heading may be “Bonding between Atoms,” which is number 10. This
heading is then divided into 10.1 molecular acids, 10.2
macro-molecular solids, 10.3 metallic solids, 10.4 ionic solids (Lewis
and Waller 1983).
Studying the layout and organization of a science textbook aids
comprehension. At the skimming level this organization enables the
students to see the whole as well as the parts. Skimming quickly
through a chapter, for instance, does not necessarily mean that a
student has to read the chapter quickly to look for topic sentences to
find the main points. By studying the organization of the text and by
looking for the headings of sections, for boxed information, and for
points written in a different color, the student can get a clear idea
of the main points the text deals with. Looking at the end of a
chapter for rules, conclusions, or summaries also aids reading at the
Although science textbooks vary in their layout, they are generally
organized quite systematically. For example, when a concept is
introduced for the first time, it is written in italics, in capital
letters, or in bold-type letters. Examples are often written in a
different color. Theories and definitions, on the other hand, are
usually written in boxes. Some textbooks have the main points written
in the right-hand margin.
To sum up, skimming a science text can be made easier if students
are made aware of the general organization, the layout, and the
details that science textbooks adopt in order to facilitate reading.
Here is a list of points that students can be exposed to in order
to facilitate skimming:
1. Studying the organization of the textbook as a whole by looking
at the table of contents.
2. Studying the organization of each chapter and the layout of
information by identifying the method(s) the author adopts in
3. Studying the use of color in a textbook.
4. Looking for boxed information.
5. Studying the use of capitals and slanting and bold-type letters.
After reading at the skimming level, students can be expected to
generate an organizational outline that shows the main points of a
Intensive Reading. Intensive reading is better utilized if
preceded by skim-reading. Skimming a text introduces the student to
the whole. In intensive reading, the emphasis is on details that
support the main points picked out at the skimming level. Since
scientific writing is characterized by conciseness, and because the
concepts are related and sometimes dependent on each other, it can be
difficult to read, understand, and relate the ideas in a scientific
text. Therefore, understanding how language is utilized to present
thought is essential. At this level, knowledge of the types of writing
and the methods of development used in a text is vital. Knowing that
what s/he is reading is a physical description, for example, helps the
student relate and remember information. Knowledge of the methods of
development also helps. For example, cause-and-effect relations,
exemplification, definitions, comparisons, and the connectors
associated with some of them can aid comprehension and play a
retentional role, which aids learning.
Not only is intensive reading a must for science students, so also
at times is slow reading. Science textbooks are usually heavily
illustrated, and sometimes illustrations, which are visual forms of
communication, replace verbal communication and need to be carefully
“read” and comprehended. Thus, caution is needed when attempting
speed-reading, which is possible within limits dictated by the subject
matter and the way it is presented.
The cognitive levels of comprehension
Another problem for a materials designer preparing reading
materials is deciding on the different levels of comprehension to aim
at. Unfortunately, this aspect is much neglected not only in teaching
English but in other disciplines (Terenzini et al. 1984; Rida 1975).
These levels of comprehension are usually determined by the kinds of
questions asked, and by the type of information these questions elicit
and the type of thought processes they stimulate (Kissock and
Unfortunately, reading comprehension, especially in the ESP field,
is too often kept at the low level of recalling information learned or
of simply locating information explicitly stated in a text. This is
partly due to the fact that the language teacher finds the scientific
content difficult to tackle in depth. Also, in an ESP course the main
emphasis is on language use, language functions, and terminology;
thus, content is kept at a low level so as not to constitute an
obstacle that interferes with language teaching. In addition,
comprehension questions are manipulated to elicit certain grammatical
structures or language functions. The question is: Is this really
When designing a reading course, it is extremely important to
strike a balance between content and language. Questions asked about
the content must vary in their cognitive level to allow for
intellectual involvement on the part of the student.
Bloom’s taxonomy in the cognitive domain can be used to determine
which levels to aim at. The taxonomy includes knowledge,
comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation (Bloom
1956). The taxonomy is hierarchical. It is not possible to answer
higher-level questions before being able to answer questions at the
lower level. It is the teacher’s responsibility to determine the
levels of comprehension he aims at, and to prepare questions that
elicit certain thought processes consistent with these levels.
The table on the next page shows some types of questions asked in
science textbooks, along with the language functions and cognitive
levels associated with them. This table can be used as a guide when
preparing reading materials. Such materials can be used at the
remedial, intermediate, and advanced levels. By following the
cognitive approach, which calls for spiral curricula, it is possible
to expose students to the same material at different levels (Good and
Type of text and level of difficulty
A recent trend in language teaching and learning has been the
growing concern with authentic texts (Lynch 1982). Authentic texts
selected from science textbooks lend themselves perfectly to the
previously discussed points of reading and comprehension levels. Such
texts, however, should have the right level of difficulty. In other
words, content should not be low-level. Easy content is demotivating
to college students. A chapter or a section from an introductory
college textbook on chemistry, physics, biology, computers, or
mathematics is adequate. The criteria for selecting the topics should
be the student’s interest and needs (Cooper 1980).
It is important to indicate here that vocabulary, which constitutes
a sizable and important part of any reading course, also plays an
important role in selecting the topics. The vocabulary needs of a
group should be met in a reading course.
Length of texts
The length of a text depends on the subject. Any reading text
selected must deal with a topic fully and comprehensively. A section
that deals with the “digestive system,” for example, is adequate.
A chapter that deals with “matter” is also suitable. This kind of
text reflects all the characteristics of a typical scientific text. It
enables the reader to see the whole as well as the parts, and lends
itself to the three types of reading: scanning, skimming, and
More importantly, such a text reflects scientific logic and
therefore can be utilized fully when it comes to writing questions at
different cognitive levels.
To summarize the previous discussion, an outline of a reading
course that meets the needs of science students at Kuwait University
would be as follows:
I. Levels or types:
3. intensive reading
B. length and source
complete sections or chapters
from college textbooks
I have tried to shed some light on major problems a materials
developer encounters when preparing a reading-comprehension course for
non-English-speaking students of science. I have also outlined a plan
that pinpoints several important aspects to be considered before
materials for a reading course are attempted. I have not dealt with
details of the types of exercises for developing certain micro-skills,
which are outside the scope of this article.
Bloom, B., ed. 1956. Taxonomy of education objectives: The
classification of education goals, Handbook 1, Cognitive Domain. New
York: Longman Green.
Cooper, M. 1980. Reading for meaning. ELT Documents, The University
of Malaya ESP Project, British Council, pp. 1-16.
Good, T. and J. Brophy. 1980. Educational psychology: A realistic
approach. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Hart, R. 1984. Chemistry matters. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kissock, C. and P. Iyortsuum. 1982. A guide to questioning. London:
The Macmillan Press.
Lewis, M. and G. Waller. 1983. Thinking chemistry. Oxford: Oxford
Lynch, A. 1982. “Authenticity” in language teaching: Some
implications for the design of listening materials. The British
Journal of Language Teaching, 21, pp. 9-20.
Rida, J. 1975. University teaching methods. In Seminar on the
credit hour system. Kuwait: Kuwait University Press.
Terenzini, P., C. Theaphilides and W. Lorang. 1984. Influences on
students’ perceptions of their academic skill development during
college. Journal of Higher Education, 60, 5, pp. 621-36.