Working with “Below the Surface”


Some ideas for working with the short story for ELLs “Below the Surface”.

I know I said I would be adding lesson ideas in the comment sections, but as I went through lesson plans and started typing things up, I realized that this was pretty much a full on post on it’s own.  So here are some of the ways I’ve had my students work with “Below the Surface” in class.

While I’m not a big fan of asking comprehension questions after a story–and even less so while they are reading–I do think there are some benefits to having students answer similar questions before a reading. Thoughtful questions posed to learners before reading can help students build a framework (or develop a schema) for making the story easier to read.  Here are few examples of a series of questions I’ve had students think about before reading “Below the Surface”:

  1. Thomas is the main character of the story.  He and his mother live in a small apartment near the ocean.  What special skill do you think he has?
  2. While swimming down to the bottom of the ocean, Thomas finds something strange.  What do you think he finds?
  3. On the day Thomas graduated from high school, he received a surprising phone call.  Who do you think called him?

While part of asking these kinds of questions is to help pull students away from a bottom up reading where they are focused on building meaning from individual words, another goal is to ask the kinds of questions that will leave the students curious about the story itself (Ur, 1999, p.144-145).  If students don’t have a lot of experience reading stories, getting them curious about what happens in the text is going to be a big first step to helping them read successfully.

One of the most difficult aspects of a reading class, at least for me, is keeping the students interest high through multiple readings of the same text.  On a very basic level, repeated reading allows students to develop word recognition skills and develop their reading fluency (Taguchi, Takayasu-Maass, and Gorsuch, 2004).  For that reason alone, I think multiple readings can be an important part of any reading class.  But aside from fluency skills, multiple readings recognizes that a text’s meaning is both revealed through the sentences found in the text and built by the experiences and ideas that our students bring to the text before and as they read.  While a first reading will be heavily weighted to making sense of the text itself, a second, third and even fourth reading will allow learners to bring more and more of their own personal experience to bear on the text.

One simple activity is to have students come up with titles for each paragraph of the text during a second reading.  This allows the students to identify what they believe to be the most salient point of each paragraph.  For lower level students, a selection of pre-written paragraph titles could be provided for the learners to select from.  For the story, “Below the Surface,” titles might include:

  • Meeting a Lonely Boy
  • Thomas Discovers His Talent
  • Thomas Explores the Ocean
  • Thomas Makes a Discover
  • The Phone at the Bottom of the Ocean
  • A Call From Far Away
  • A Graduation Swim
  • A Voice Calling Out
  • Wanting to Learn a New Language

This list includes multiple suggestions for each paragraph.  The actual list could be shorter or longer, depending on the level of your students.

Transformation activities are always a good way to get a student to engage with a story again.  By having the students take the information in a paragraph and change it’s form from words into say a table such as a schedule, or into a picture, students are required to think about the story in a new way, which can give the text a sense of freshness and lead to a deeper level of processing (Craik and Tulving, 1975).  And John Fanselow (n.d.) has even gone so far as to say that when students, “change a picture into language or language into sketches our brains make more connections than if the mediums remain the same.” For “Below the Surface”, students could be required to draw a picture for each paragraph.  Each picture should try and capture as much information about the paragraph as possible.  When I have students do this type of activity, I usually put a strict time limit on how long they have to draw.  If not, I find my more talented drawers can spend most of a class on just one picture.  And while I want the students to enjoy themselves, I also want to bring them back to, and work with, the language in the text.  Once the pictures are drawn, you can have the students share their pictures and use them as a base to summarize what happens in the paragraph.  To make it a bit more challenging, you can set a time and have them try and explain, in English, what is happening in the picture to a rotating set of partners in decreasing time increments (a 4/3/2 activity).

So far, all of the activities have been writing (or drawing based).  But by shifting from silent to oral reading, you can once again up the students interest in the text.  Instead of having them tackle an oral reading of the entire text, you can break it down into a series of mini-tasks, more of which can be found in Joshua Cohen’s excellent 2011 article on repeated reading.  One simple thing to do is to read a paragraph to students out-loud leaving slightly longer pauses between sense groups than usual.  While listening, students insert slashes between sense groups in their copy of the text.  Then, students read the paragraph to each other in pairs, paying particular attention to sense groups.  The student who is listening keeps track of where in a text their partner pauses and at the end of the reading, gives their partner a score of how many pauses were made at the correct location in the text.

As a final step, students can revisit the text once again, but this time focus on questions or ideas which can help them personalize and interpret the story at a deeper level.  In my class I start by asking the students to answer the question, “Can you be friends with Thomas?” and require the students to find at least three sentences in the story which they can use to support their opinion.  As an example, one student used the sentence, “There were blue fish that swam over the rocks like little flashes of lightening,” to explain that he, like Thomas, liked to look at tropical fish and so they could talk about fish together.   In a more advanced class, I might have the students compose three questions they would like to ask Thomas if they had a chance to meet him.  They could then form pairs, ask each other their questions, and try to answer using a combination of their own ideas and supporting sentences from the text.

When I used to teach a reading class, I was often frustrated by the amount of time my students spent focusing on individual words and building up meaning through a close reading of a text.  A big part of my frustration stemmed from the fact that they seemed to be having a horrible time.  I never saw students smile as they pulled sentences apart, translated them, and glued them back together in their heads.  But as I increased the number of activities in my teacher’s toolkit to let the students interact with a text again and again, the students realized that they didn’t have to understand each every word the first time they read a story.  And this gave them the psychological space they needed to spend more time looking for a personal meaning within the story.  And in the end, that’s what reading is all about.  Because if a learner can’t find personal meaning within a story, it’s just so many words sprinkled across a piece of paper.


Craik, F.I.M. and Tulving, E. (1975). Depth of Processing and the retention of words in episodic memory.  Journal of Experimental Psychology 104: 268-284.

Taguchi, E., Takayasu-Maass, M., & Gorsuch, G. J. (2004). Developing reading fluency in EFL: How assisted repeated reading and extensive reading affect fluency development. Reading in a Foreign Language, 16(2), 70-96.

Ur, P. (1999). A course in language teaching. Ernst Klett Sprachen.

Fanselow, J. (n.d.a), Nveer epxailn gaammr relus or aks your stutends to: tapping the richness of sketches/images/icons for generating language

Cohen, J. (2011). Building Fluency through the Repeated Reading Method. In English Teaching Forum (Vol. 49, No. 3, pp. 20-27). US Department of State. Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Office of English Language Programs, SA-5, 2200 C Street NW 4th Floor, Washington, DC 20037.


5 thoughts on “Working with “Below the Surface”

  1. Love this post, Kevin. Just thought of adding that you actually have another aim when getting learners to think of a title for each paragraph other than recognizing the most salient point, which is reading for gist. Or perhaps it's the same concept worded differently by both of us?You make me feel quite embarrassed about myself for not reading much academic research these days as I did during my postgraduate days. The thing is there's just so much to read at times it becomes overwhelming and I find it almost difficult to strike a work-life balance!Keep posting coz your posts help nudge me gently on days that I feel slow….Ratna


  2. Hi Ratna,Ratna,Thanks for the comment. I think you bring up a good point. If a student reads a paragraph quickly in order just to come up with a title, that would very much be a reading for gist type of exercise. But I think I was hoping my students would spend a bit more time reading to try and get as much information from the paragraph as possible before writing or chosing a title. In this case I think it is more like one step in a series of activities to help students summarise a text. In general, I don't think my students need much help with skimming and scanning and reading for gist. What I would like them to focus on, through all the activities I have in my reading posts, is building a personalized version of the text, a kind of world-of-the-text for themselves. This requires some pretty careful reading at the word level, but also paying attention to the bigger picture of their own experiences and ideas as well as spending a little time thinking about text structure (genre stuff like, is it a newspaper article or a personal essay, if it's a personal essay, what can I expect to find in the essay and where). I often feel like there should be a short moritorium on academic research so I can keep up. Then again, sometimes I just give up entirely and figure I can learn more by just carefully watching what's going on in my classes. So my relationship with academic articles is ambivalent at best.Anyway, glad to be a positive nudge. Kevin


  3. Hi Janet,Thanks for leaving a comment and giving me a chance to visit and get familiar with your blog. Lots of wonderful stuff there.Happy to hear the titling of paragraphs looks like it will work as a fiction reading activity for you and your students. Here in Japan, there's isn't much fiction used in the public/private school systems. Most of the English readings are rather dry non-fiction pieces. I'm hoping that once teachers see that many of the activities and student skill sets needed to deal with non-fiction are usable in a class working with a fiction text, teachers might be inclined to up the amount of fiction they use in their language classes. I know I've seen a much better response to fiction in my classes. Students seem to be willing to dig for meaning and get much more personally invested than with the standard readings.Kevin


  4. Pingback: My Extensive Reading Blueprint ;) | ROSE BARD – Teaching Journal

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