| 
  • If you are citizen of an European Union member nation, you may not use this service unless you are at least 16 years old.

  • Stop wasting time looking for files and revisions. Connect your Gmail, DriveDropbox, and Slack accounts and in less than 2 minutes, Dokkio will automatically organize all your file attachments. Learn more and claim your free account.

View
 

Reading Extra

Page history last edited by Martin Warters 9 years, 7 months ago

READING

Introduction

Generally speaking, we read for two reasons: for pleasure and for information. However, the majority of language teaching materials on the market at present gravitate towards the latter; a state of affairs that will be obvious to English teachers working everywhere. This probably has a lot to do with the paramount of examinations and the general trend throughout the western world to follow the American paradigm which has for some years put great stock in quantifying and measuring performance in education. In England, the renewed interest in examinations in state schools is no doubt influenced by events on the other side of the Atlantic and that well-known educational adage 'the examination tail wagging the curriculum dog' has never rung more true.

It is a fact that many language course books are specifically geared towards curriculum/examination aims. Indeed, the market fairly bulges with course books which carry the name of the examination in their titles (First Certificate, Advanced, Proficiency) which suggests that publishers are caught up in the same conspiracy.

This then is the background which colors any analysis of reading pedagogy as one of the four skills. Reading has become a measurable variable itself and again the proof of this is reflected or implied in the titles of the books and even in the terminology of their stated objectives. Simon Greenall and Michael Swan's Effective Reading (1986) is a popular book which promotes itself in the following way:

Effective reading means being able to read accurately and efficiently, and to be able to understand as much of a passage as you need in order to achieve your purpose.
(Greenall and Swan 1986: 2, my italics)

But as language teachers perhaps we would do well to step back from the demands of curricula and examinations and remind ourselves, as well as our students, that language teaching and learning should not be deemed a science which necessarily requires an analytical component. Language acquisition can be fun and if we teach our students nothing else, then perhaps the least we should do is communicate this to our charges. Moreover, with specific regard to reading, this seemingly hedonistic philosophy can actually have positive pedagogical spin offs as Krashen (1995: 5) remarks:

There is impressive evidence that pleasure reading, or Free Voluntary Reading (FRVR) has a powerful effect on the development of literacy-related aspects of language.

In Developing Reading Skills, Françoise Grellet (1981:10) underlines the importance of reading for pleasure and sums up:

A balance should be struck between leaving the students without any help on the one hand and on the other 'squeezing the text dry'! 
(1981:10)

Grellet (1981: 3-4) offers an extensive list of the main text-types we are exposed to:

  • Novels, short stories, tales; other literary texts and passages (e.g. essays, diaries, anecdotes, biographies).
  • Plays.
  • Poems, limericks, nursery rhymes.
  • Letters, postcards, telegrams, notes.
  • Newspapers and magazines (headlines, articles, editorials, letters to the editor, stop press, classified ads, weather forecast, radio/TV/theater
  • Specialised articles, reports, reviews, essays, business letters, summaries, précis, accounts, pamphlets (political and other).
  • Handbooks, textbooks, guidebooks.
  • Recipes.
  • Advertisements, travel brochures, catalogues.
  • Puzzles, problems, rules for games.
  • Instructions (e.g. warnings), directions (e.g. How to use...), notices, rules and regulations, posters, signs (e.g. road signs), forms (e.g. application forms, landing cards), graffiti, menus, price lists, tickets.
  • Comic strips, cartoons and caricatures, legends (of maps, pictures).
  • Statistics, diagrams, flow/pie charts, time-tables, maps.
  • Telephone directories, dictionaries, phrasebooks.

Authenticity

The question of 'usage' and 'use' lies at the heart of the debate over text choice and authenticity. Text choice is by no means a clear cut issue and even experts in ELT find difficulty in pinning it down. Tony Lynch (1996:124), for instance, says that:

The definition that most language teachers accept is that authentic texts are samples of language used by or for native speakers.
(Tony Lynch 1996:124)

but immediately casts doubt over this definition by citing the inauthenticity of the BBC World Service news bulletin:

since the intended audience is predominantly made up of non-native listeners. (David Graddol 1997)

Moreover, in his book The Future of English, David Graddol (1997) projects a post-millennium world in which native speakers are not the principal purveyors of ELT and hints at the notion that native English may not be the desired model in ELT.

Widdowson (1978: 80) distinguishes between "genuineness" and "authenticity" where the former is a "characteristic of the text itself and is an absolute quality" and the latter the "relationship between the passage and the reader and the appropriate response." In other words, Widdowson refers to what we as EFL teachers normally call an 'authentic' text, as 'genuine'. His definition of 'authenticity', on the other hand, is how the reader responds to the text. An example should make this clearer. Imagine that we get our students to read a newspaper article about a war in Africa. We may decide to adapt the text to the level of our students, or we may decide to leave it as the original. Not adapting the text would make it 'genuine' in Widdowson's sense. However, a 'genuine' text is not necessarily better than an adpated text. What matters, according to Widdowson, is the response the reader brings to the text. If the reader is allowed to respond as they would in real life, for example, by expressing shock, horror etc, then we have what Widdowson calls an 'authentic' response.

If, on the other hand, after reading the text, students immediately have to answer comprehension questions of the type 'How many soldiers were killed? and 'Who murdered the Prime Minister?' etc., we are denying our students the chance of an authentic response to the text. Lynch (1996: 124-25) too lays particular importance on the response "as the end to language teaching" and that the language teacher "should not be over-concerned with finding real texts".

This then would seem to justify the Headway example which we referred to earlier in this study. But there will be times when a text is outside the linguistic capacity of the learner and the ultimate objective of the teacher must be to lead the learner in stages towards a general understanding of all written discourse. Two of the most common ways around this problem are:

  • using glossaries, which typically involves the use of definitions to present unfamiliar vocabulary either before or after the text and
  • simplifying texts.

Yet neither of these solutions is totally satisfactory.

There seems to be little doubt among experts that removing vocabulary from a passage denies the learner the opportunity to deduce meaning from textual/contextual clues. Indeed, leaving aside questions of text authenticity, dealing with unfamiliar lexical items by looking for clues within the text is in itself an authentic response since this is very often the way we build up and acquire vocabulary in our own language.

Text simplification is also widely condemned. Grellet (1981: 7) echoes the opinions of many applied linguists when she says:

Paradoxically, 'simplifying' a text often results in increased difficulty because the system of references, repetition and redundancy as well as other discourse indicators one relies on when reading are often removed or at least significantly altered.

Lynch is also critical of simplifying texts and his argument offers a slightly different perspective to Grellet's. He draws attention to the "occasional peaks of information" and the importance of getting "used to spotting the clues in the text that indicate where those peaks are."(1996: 28) It is clear that much of this theory has been taken on board by authors of English language course books and a practical balance between usage and use allied to objectives seem to be the guiding principles at the present. In the New Cambridge English Course (Swan and Walter 1990: vii) for beginners and false beginners the authors comment:

...learning and acquisition should be catered for. This will mean that students will sometimes focus intensively on language items, and sometimes do tasks involving 'untidy' texts where only a part of the material need be understood...

Grellet (1981: 7-8) has the last word:

...getting the students accustomed to reading authentic texts...does not necessarily mean a much more difficult task....the difficulty...depends on the activity which is required of the students rather than on the text itself, provided it remains within their general competence.

Finally, it should be noted that certain non-linguistic features of the text such as presentation and layout have a lot to do with authenticity and aspects like typeface, space and pictures all convey an integral part of the global message. Moreover, and returning to a related theme from the introduction, retaining a text in its original form goes a long way to generating interest and motivation in the classroom.

 

 

 

 

Discussion: WHY READ?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some suggestions:

 

5 main points:

 

(i) Reading improves students’ reading skills (understanding texts, find information from a text)

 

(ii) Reading texts is an excellent way of learning new vocabulary and seeing how it works in context.

 

(iii) Reading texts can be an opportunity to see particular grammar structures in a meaningful context

 

(iii) Reading is interesting!

 

(iv) Knowing the texts will help students answer some Qs in the end-of-year exams

 

 

 

 

3. Planning a reading lesson

 

Refer back to the Lesson Planning Session.

 

Which of the 3 classic plans should be used for teaching a reading lesson.

 

Answer: LMF; Lead-In, Main Activity, Follow Up

 

 

Go through, eliciting as much as possible, the following plan:

 

Model Reading Lesson Plan

 

1. AIMS - improve skills, learn particular vocab, practice grammar, etc.

 

 

2. Warmer (relate to text if possible)

 

 

3. Lead-In: (i) raise interest/awareness of text – use a picture/tell a story/discuss something, etc.

(ii) pre-teach key vocab (without which students cannot understand text) - keep key vocab on board for students to refer to while reading

 

 

4. Main Activity: Set gist (skimming) Qs (do this before reading, so there is direction to the reading)

students read text silently (emphasise this, as in many classrooms, either the T or selected students read texts out loud, thus making it a listening lesson for many students)

students answer Qs (in groups/pairs)

Check answers, write them on board

 

Set detail (scanning) Qs

students read text again

students answer Qs

Check answers

 

 

5. Follow Up: vocab work - select items which will be useful - high frequency vocab, not obscure or difficult vocab the students will not use again or remember

 

or:

 

grammar work - focus on particular structures which wil be useful

 

(6. if time, extension work, eg. writing, discussion, pronunciation)

 

So,

 

Main Activity = skills work (skimming Qs build ability to understand general point, scanning Qs build ability to locate specific info)

 

Lead-In & Follow Up = targeted language work - vocab and/or grammar

 

 

Link to sample plan

 

 

 

 

4. Class Discussion 1: Reading aloud?

 

Traditional classroom practice tends to have either the T or a small number of individual students reading aloud (eg.para by para), and then the class sometimes parrot. Teachers might justify this as 'listening practice' or 'pronunciation practice'.

 

However, many believe reading aloud is a flawed exercise. It:

 

(a) is unnatural - the language is not conversational in its vocab or grammar

(b) provides unreal listening practice

(c) doesn't ensure/check understanding

(d) slows down reading, whereas the object is to increase it

(e) provides a small amount of practice for those selected to read and none for those who are not.

(f) can be embarrassing for students

(g) has little practical value

 

Reading silently means that every students is reading, and that they are reading naturally, so they can go back over parts they don't understand at first, so they can practise reading for understanding which means they don't have to understand every word etc.

 

How many teachers actually read out loud outside the classroom, whether it be in Nepali or as a way of improving their own English?

 

 

 

5. Class Discussion 2: What about long texts?

 

Some texts are very long (3 or 4 pages), and therefore may not be done in one lesson. teachers discuss what is the best way of dealing with this...

 

 

Some suggestions:

 

do one page at a time

etc

etc

 

 

 

Practice:

write a lesson plan for a typical text

 

accompany with sample plan

 

 

 

 

 

 

Types of reading task (related to Main Activity):

 

  • Different question types - true or false, multiple choice, written answers, complete sentences, etc.

  • Do what the text says

  • Put illustrations in correct order

  • Put cut-up paragraphs back in correct order

  • Read text and find mistakes in this illustration

  • Read text and list particular items, eg. pros and cons

  • Give headline to individual sections

  • Match headlines to individual sections

  • Reinsert sentences/paragraphs that have been separated from text

  • Write response

  • Solve the problem/dilemma

  • Discuss/write first or last paragraph of text

  • Discuss responses to text

  • Create dialogue/story, etc.

 

Also see Vocabulary Activities for more ideas (link)

 

TEACHING READING

Introduction

Generally speaking, we read for two reasons: for pleasure and for information. However, the majority of language teaching materials on the market at present gravitate towards the latter; a state of affairs that will be obvious to English teachers working everywhere. This probably has a lot to do with the paramount of examinations and the general trend throughout the western world to follow the American paradigm which has for some years put great stock in quantifying and measuring performance in education. In England, the renewed interest in examinations in state schools is no doubt influenced by events on the other side of the Atlantic and that well-known educational adage 'the examination tail wagging the curriculum dog' has never rung more true.

It is a fact that many language course books are specifically geared towards curriculum/examination aims. Indeed, the market fairly bulges with course books which carry the name of the examination in their titles (First Certificate, Advanced, Proficiency) which suggests that publishers are caught up in the same conspiracy.

This then is the background which colors any analysis of reading pedagogy as one of the four skills. Reading has become a measurable variable itself and again the proof of this is reflected or implied in the titles of the books and even in the terminology of their stated objectives. Simon Greenall and Michael Swan's Effective Reading (1986) is a popular book which promotes itself in the following way:

Effective reading means being able to read accurately and efficiently, and to be able to understand as much of a passage as you need in order to achieve your purpose.
(Greenall and Swan 1986: 2, my italics)

But as language teachers perhaps we would do well to step back from the demands of curricula and examinations and remind ourselves, as well as our students, that language teaching and learning should not be deemed a science which necessarily requires an analytical component. Language acquisition can be fun and if we teach our students nothing else, then perhaps the least we should do is communicate this to our charges. Moreover, with specific regard to reading, this seemingly hedonistic philosophy can actually have positive pedagogical spin offs as Krashen (1995: 5) remarks:

There is impressive evidence that pleasure reading, or Free Voluntary Reading (FRVR) has a powerful effect on the development of literacy-related aspects of language.

In Developing Reading Skills, Françoise Grellet (1981:10) underlines the importance of reading for pleasure and sums up:

A balance should be struck between leaving the students without any help on the one hand and on the other 'squeezing the text dry'! 
(1981:10)

Grellet (1981: 3-4) offers an extensive list of the main text-types we are exposed to:

  • Novels, short stories, tales; other literary texts and passages (e.g. essays, diaries, anecdotes, biographies).
  • Plays.
  • Poems, limericks, nursery rhymes.
  • Letters, postcards, telegrams, notes.
  • Newspapers and magazines (headlines, articles, editorials, letters to the editor, stop press, classified ads, weather forecast, radio/TV/theatre programmes.
  • Specialised articles, reports, reviews, essays, business letters, summaries, précis, accounts, pamphlets (political and other).
  • Handbooks, textbooks, guidebooks.
  • Recipes.
  • Advertisements, travel brochures, catalogues.
  • Puzzles, problems, rules for games.
  • Instructions (e.g. warnings), directions (e.g. How to use...), notices, rules and regulations, posters, signs (e.g. road signs), forms (e.g. application forms, landing cards), graffiti, menus, price lists, tickets.
  • Comic strips, cartoons and caricatures, legends (of maps, pictures).
  • Statistics, diagrams, flow/pie charts, time-tables, maps.
  • Telephone directories, dictionaries, phrasebooks.

Organizing Principles

The traditional approach

As we have seen from our reading of the Methodology section, there seems to be little doubt amongst experts working in the field of second language acquisition that there is no dominant paradigm in the teaching of languages. David Nunan (1991: 228) sums it up nicely:

...It has been realized that there never was and probably never will be a method for all...

which, incidentally was the conclusion reached nearly three generations earlier when the Coleman Report (1929) was published in the United States (Richards and Rodgers, 1986:11). Nevertheless, one is still surprised especially with so many so called "designer" methods currently in use that the basic tenets of the Coleman Report, which recommended reading

through the gradual introduction of words and grammar structures in simple reading texts.
(Richards and Rodgers 1986:11)

Widdowson distinguishes between usage and use where the first is the extent to which the language user demonstrates his knowledge of linguistic rules, while the second is the extent to which these rules are used for effective communication. He is critical of language courses which centre on usage:

...in most cases the passages produced in structurally graded syllabuses correspond to no normal conventions of language use and are not representative of any type of language discourse.
(1978: 79)

though he later concedes, "passages of this sort are not to condemned out of hand" (1978: 79). Our purpose here is not to pass judgment on any one particular method or point of view, but to raise awareness with regard to the objectives for reading passages in language courses and to appreciate their limitations.

Authenticity

As we have seen, the question of 'usage' and 'use' lies at the heart of the debate over text choice and authenticity. Text choice is by no means a clear cut issue and even experts in ELT find difficulty in pinning it down. Tony Lynch (1996:124), for instance, says that:

The definition that most language teachers accept is that authentic texts are samples of language used by or for native speakers.
(Tony Lynch 1996:124)

but immediately casts doubt over this definition by citing the inauthenticity of the BBC World Service news bulletin:

since the intended audience is predominantly made up of non-native listeners. (David Graddol 1997)

Moreover, in his book The Future of English, David Graddol (1997) projects a post-millennium world in which native speakers are not the principal purveyors of ELT and hints at the notion that native English may not be the desired model in ELT.

Widdowson (1978: 80) distinguishes between "genuineness" and "authenticity" where the former is a "characteristic of the text itself and is an absolute quality" and the latter the "relationship between the passage and the reader and the appropriate response." In other words, Widdowson refers to what we as EFL teachers normally call an 'authentic' text, as 'genuine'. His definition of 'authenticity', on the other hand, is how the reader responds to the text. An example should make this clearer. Imagine that we get our students to read a newspaper article about a war in Africa. We may decide to adapt the text to the level of our students, or we may decide to leave it as the original. Not adapting the text would make it 'genuine' in Widdowson's sense. However, a 'genuine' text is not necessarily bettter than an adpated text. What matters, according to Widdowson, is the response the reader brings to the text. If the reader is allowed to respond as they would in real life, for example, by expressing shock, horror etc, then we have what Widdowson calls an 'authentic' response.

If, on the other hand, after reading the text, students immediately have to answer comprehension questions of the type 'How many soldiers were killed? and 'Who murdered the Prime Minister?' etc., we are denying our students the chance of an authentic response to the text. Lynch (1996: 124-25) too lays particular importance on the response "as the end to language teaching" and that the language teacher "should not be over-concerned with finding real texts".

This then would seem to justify the Headway example which we referred to earlier in this study. But there will be times when a text is outside the linguistic capacity of the learner and the ultimate objective of the teacher must be to lead the learner in stages towards a general understanding of all written discourse. Two of the most common ways around this problem are:

  • using glossaries, which typically involves the use of definitions to present unfamiliar vocabulary either before or after the text and
  • simplifying texts.

Yet neither of these solutions is totally satisfactory.

There seems to be little doubt among experts that removing vocabulary from a passage denies the learner the opportunity to deduce meaning from textual/contextual clues. Indeed, leaving aside questions of text authenticity, dealing with unfamiliar lexical items by looking for clues within the text is in itself an authentic response since this is very often the way we build up and acquire vocabulary in our own language.

Text simplification is also widely condemned. Grellet (1981: 7) echoes the opinions of many applied linguists when she says:

Paradoxically, 'simplifying' a text often results in increased difficulty because the system of references, repetition and redundancy as well as other discourse indicators one relies on when reading are often removed or at least significantly altered.

Lynch is also critical of simplifying texts and his argument offers a slightly different perspective to Grellet's. He draws attention to the "occasional peaks of information" and the importance of getting "used to spotting the clues in the text that indicate where those peaks are."(1996: 28) It is clear that much of this theory has been taken on board by authors of English language course books and a practical balance between usage and use allied to objectives seem to be the guiding principles at the present. In the New Cambridge English Course (Swan and Walter 1990: vii) for beginners and false beginners the authors comment:

...learning and acquisition should be catered for. This will mean that students will sometimes focus intensively on language items, and sometimes do tasks involving 'untidy' texts where only a part of the material need be understood...

Grellet (1981: 7-8) has the last word:

...getting the students accustomed to reading authentic texts...does not necessarily mean a much more difficult task....the difficulty...depends on the activity which is required of the students rather than on the text itself, provided it remains within their general competence.

Finally, it should be noted that certain non-linguistic features of the text such as presentation and layout have a lot to do with authenticity and aspects like typeface, space and pictures all convey an integral part of the global message. Moreover, and returning to a related theme from the introduction, retaining a text in its original form goes a long way to generating interest and motivation in the classroom.

Types of question

Very often learners are asked to answer questions after reading a text and this too is related to authenticity for it might be thought to lie outside of what is considered to be a typical response. Widdowson (1978: 96) takes up the argument:

We are not in normal circumstances required to submit ourselves to interrogation after having read something, knowing at the same time that the person putting the questions knows the answers...

Widdowson (1978: 96) draws attention to "the artificiality of the exercise" and the difficulty the learner might have in treating the passage as authentic

when the questions and answers that follow it are not themselves authentic language behavior.

Grellet too makes the same point and the need to make exercises correspond to communicative function and whilst she stops short of actually rejecting the use of questions, she emphasizes the importance of integrating reading with the other skills -reading and writing, reading and listening, reading and speaking - for as she puts it,

there are few cases in real life when we do not talk or write about what we have read (1981: 8).

Widdowson is not alone in placing great emphasis on the type of question and he divides questions into four types:

a) wh-question are questions that begin with a 'wh...' word e.g. what, where, who, how, how often etc.

b) polar questions are questions that can only be answered by going outside of the text. In other words, the information required to answer the question is not directly present in the text itself.

c) truth assessment are questions that focus on whether a statement is true - feasible - or not.

d) multiple choice are questions that allow students to choose from a number of possible answers.

He finds type A and B questions unsuitable because:

the skill in composing the required sentence has no necessary connection with (the) ability to understand the passage.
(1978: 97)

He concludes that since type D questions:

may be distracting because of a focus of attention on the comprehending skill as a separate activity, type C would seem to be the most satisfactory.
(1978: 98)

provided they appear within the passage and that some explanation is offered to support the correct choice.

A somewhat more radical solution to the problem of making questions authentic is that of Sidney Whitaker's idea (cf. Lynch 1996: 133) of having learners, and not teachers, think up and ask the questions. Whitaker too is critical of the fact that teachers already know the answers to the questions they ask so that the learners' task is basically one of reading the mind of the teacher. He further criticises the notion that teachers are tuned into particular answers which can close our minds to other interpretations and therefore remove a vital process in the development of understanding a text based on the fact that in daily life we learn by 'interrogating the environment'.

A top down bottom up approach

In recent years much of the research into reading pedagogy has centered on whether top down or bottom up strategies are more important. Top down strategiesuse macro-level cues to decode a text in order to acquire a more global understanding of its contents. These cues might include considering the layout of the text (i.e. title, length, pictures, typeface), making hypotheses and anticipating contents of the text. Bottom up strategies involve the decoding of a passage step by step from small textual elements like words and phrases.

The bottom up process was for several years the traditional way of analyzing a text although many course books are still based on this. The problem with an exclusive focus on bottom up strategies is that the individual parts of a text are given more importance than the text as a whole so that our overall understanding of the text is dependent upon a succession of separate sentences which may or may not be thematically linked.

Grellet finds fault with this process on the grounds that this might encourage reading all texts at the same speed, which might not be appropriate in every case, and that there would be a reluctance to infer meaning of sentences and paragraphs from what comes before or after. She concludes that it is always preferable to start with overall meaning of text, its function and aim, and move towards a more detailed analysis. McCarthy (1991:168) concurs with this:

The best reading materials encourage an engagement with larger textual forms (for example through problem-solving exercises at a whole-text level) but not neglect the role of individual words, phrases and grammatical devices in guiding the reader around the text.

Authenticity

As we have seen, the question of 'usage' and 'use' lies at the heart of the debate over text choice and authenticity. Text choice is by no means a clear cut issue and even experts in ELT find difficulty in pinning it down. Tony Lynch (1996:124), for instance, says that:

The definition that most language teachers accept is that authentic texts are samples of language used by or for native speakers.
(Tony Lynch 1996:124)

but immediately casts doubt over this definition by citing the inauthenticity of the BBC World Service news bulletin:

since the intended audience is predominantly made up of non-native listeners. (David Graddol 1997)

Moreover, in his book The Future of English, David Graddol (1997) projects a post-millennium world in which native speakers are not the principal purveyors of ELT and hints at the notion that native English may not be the desired model in ELT.

Widdowson (1978: 80) distinguishes between "genuineness" and "authenticity" where the former is a "characteristic of the text itself and is an absolute quality" and the latter the "relationship between the passage and the reader and the appropriate response." In other words, Widdowson refers to what we as EFL teachers normally call an 'authentic' text, as 'genuine'. His definition of 'authenticity', on the other hand, is how the reader responds to the text. An example should make this clearer. Imagine that we get our students to read a newspaper article about a war in Africa. We may decide to adapt the text to the level of our students, or we may decide to leave it as the original. Not adapting the text would make it 'genuine' in Widdowson's sense. However, a 'genuine' text is not necessarily bettter than an adpated text. What matters, according to Widdowson, is the response the reader brings to the text. If the reader is allowed to respond as they would in real life, for example, by expressing shock, horror etc, then we have what Widdowson calls an 'authentic' response.

If, on the other hand, after reading the text, students immediately have to answer comprehension questions of the type 'How many soldiers were killed? and 'Who murdered the Prime Minister?' etc., we are denying our students the chance of an authentic response to the text. Lynch (1996: 124-25) too lays particular importance on the response "as the end to language teaching" and that the language teacher "should not be over-concerned with finding real texts".

This then would seem to justify the Headway example which we referred to earlier in this study. But there will be times when a text is outside the linguistic capacity of the learner and the ultimate objective of the teacher must be to lead the learner in stages towards a general understanding of all written discourse. Two of the most common ways around this problem are:

  • using glossaries, which typically involves the use of definitions to present unfamiliar vocabulary either before or after the text and
  • simplifying texts.

Yet neither of these solutions is totally satisfactory.

There seems to be little doubt among experts that removing vocabulary from a passage denies the learner the opportunity to deduce meaning from textual/contextual clues. Indeed, leaving aside questions of text authenticity, dealing with unfamiliar lexical items by looking for clues within the text is in itself an authentic response since this is very often the way we build up and acquire vocabulary in our own language.

Text simplification is also widely condemned. Grellet (1981: 7) echoes the opinions of many applied linguists when she says:

Paradoxically, 'simplifying' a text often results in increased difficulty because the system of references, repetition and redundancy as well as other discourse indicators one relies on when reading are often removed or at least significantly altered.

Lynch is also critical of simplifying texts and his argument offers a slightly different perspective to Grellet's. He draws attention to the "occasional peaks of information" and the importance of getting "used to spotting the clues in the text that indicate where those peaks are."(1996: 28) It is clear that much of this theory has been taken on board by authors of English language course books and a practical balance between usage and use allied to objectives seem to be the guiding principles at the present. In the New Cambridge English Course (Swan and Walter 1990: vii) for beginners and false beginners the authors comment:

...learning and acquisition should be catered for. This will mean that students will sometimes focus intensively on language items, and sometimes do tasks involving 'untidy' texts where only a part of the material need be understood...

Grellet (1981: 7-8) has the last word:

...getting the students accustomed to reading authentic texts...does not necessarily mean a much more difficult task....the difficulty...depends on the activity which is required of the students rather than on the text itself, provided it remains within their general competence.

Finally, it should be noted that certain non-linguistic features of the text such as presentation and layout have a lot to do with authenticity and aspects like typeface, space and pictures all convey an integral part of the global message. Moreover, and returning to a related theme from the introduction, retaining a text in its original form goes a long way to generating interest and motivation in the classroom.

Types of question

Very often learners are asked to answer questions after reading a text and this too is related to authenticity for it might be thought to lie outside of what is considered to be a typical response. Widdowson (1978: 96) takes up the argument:

We are not in normal circumstances required to submit ourselves to interrogation after having read something, knowing at the same time that the person putting the questions knows the answers...

Widdowson (1978: 96) draws attention to "the artificiality of the exercise" and the difficulty the learner might have in treating the passage as authentic

when the questions and answers that follow it are not themselves authentic language behaviour.

Grellet too makes the same point and the need to make exercises correspond to communicative function and whilst she stops short of actually rejecting the use of questions, she emphasizes the importance of integrating reading with the other skills -reading and writing, reading and listening, reading and speaking - for as she puts it,

there are few cases in real life when we do not talk or write about what we have read (1981: 8).

Widdowson is not alone in placing great emphasis on the type of question and he divides questions into four types:

a) wh-question are questions that begin with a 'wh...' word e.g. what, where, who, how, how often etc.

b) polar questions are questions that can only be answered by going outside of the text. In other words, the information required to answer the question is not directly present in the text itself.

c) truth assessment are questions that focus on whether a statement is true - feasible - or not.

d) multiple choice are questions that allow students to choose from a number of possible answers.

He finds type A and B questions unsuitable because:

the skill in composing the required sentence has no necessary connection with (the) ability to understand the passage.
(1978: 97)

He concludes that since type D questions:

may be distracting because of a focus of attention on the comprehending skill as a separate activity, type C would seem to be the most satisfactory.
(1978: 98)

provided they appear within the passage and that some explanation is offered to support the correct choice.

A somewhat more radical solution to the problem of making questions authentic is that of Sidney Whitaker's idea (cf. Lynch 1996: 133) of having learners, and not teachers, think up and ask the questions. Whitaker too is critical of the fact that teachers already know the answers to the questions they ask so that the learners' task is basically one of reading the mind of the teacher. He further criticises the notion that teachers are tuned into particular answers which can close our minds to other interpretations and therefore remove a vital process in the development of understanding a text based on the fact that in daily life we learn by 'interrogating the environment'.

A top down bottom up approach

In recent years much of the research into reading pedagogy has centered on whether top down or bottom up strategies are more important. Top down strategiesuse macro-level cues to decode a text in order to acquire a more global understanding of its contents. These cues might include considering the layout of the text (i.e. title, length, pictures, typeface), making hypotheses and anticipating contents of the text. Bottom up strategies involve the decoding of a passage step by step from small textual elements like words and phrases.

The bottom up process was for several years the traditional way of analysing a text although many course books are still based on this. The problem with an exclusive focus on bottom up strategies is that the individual parts of a text are given more importance than the text as a whole so that our overall understanding of the text is dependent upon a succession of separate sentences which may or may not be thematically linked.

Grellet finds fault with this process on the grounds that this might encourage reading all texts at the same speed, which might not be appropriate in every case, and that there would be a reluctance to infer meaning of sentences and paragraphs from what comes before or after. She concludes that it is always preferable to start with overall meaning of text, its function and aim, and move towards a more detailed analysis. McCarthy (1991:168) concurs with this:

The best reading materials encourage an engagement with larger textual forms (for example through problem-solving exercises at a whole-text level) but not neglect the role of individual words, phrases and grammatical devices in guiding the reader around the text.

An active process

It should be clear from our discussion of reading at this juncture that it is far from being a passive activity. Reading is a constant process of guessing, hypothesing, anticipating, confirming and predicting in which the knowledge "one brings to the text is often more important than what one finds in it." (Grellet 1981: 7) This final point is pivotal to the understanding of the reading process and one which will be given more attention below. Grellet (1981: 7) summarises the process of reading as follows:

 

Figure 1.2

 

In his book, Communication in the Language Classroom, Tony Lynch (1996: 130-31) relates the story of a reading activity about the life of Ernest Hemingway in which the group were invited to shorten the text by removing what they considered to be redundant information. The following sentence appeared in the text:

(Hemingway) was badly wounded during an attack by the enemy army.

The group wanted to delete "during an attack by the enemy army" but were persuaded not to by a Dutch medical student. Her argument was that since 40% of US casualties in the Vietnam war were caused by so called 'friendly fire', we should not assume that Hemingway had been shot by his own side.

Clearly the Dutch medical student's knowledge of the world, in this case history which might have been relevant to her studies, brought new information to the text which ultimately changed the group's understanding of it. This is an example of how Schema theory works and it has important implications for reading and learning in general. F. C. Bartlett (1932: 219) suggested that the human memory organized the various pieces of knowledge and experience into cognitive structures called schemas which not only allow us to remember better but also allow us to predict what may happen in a future context. Each person's schema contains a unique bank of experiences built up throughout life and this is triggered when a related event or piece of information presents itself as in the case of the Dutch student. Schema theory will be given closer attention in the next chapter under the skill of listening.

Finally, one idea which has gained currency over the last few years and one which brings a new dynamism to the teaching of all four skills is that of cooperative learning. Cooperative learning is a methodology which emphasizes the sharing of knowledge in groups within the classroom setting so that stronger, more able students assist their weaker classmates. This, it is thought, is beneficial to both parties since the weaker students will learn from their more able colleagues while the stronger students are given the opportunity to rehearse and clarify their existing knowledge. By moving away from teacher-led activities to working in groups, cooperative learning embraces the notion of reciprocal teaching and responsible learning which thus creates a more equitable, and at once more authentic learning environment.

Activities

Greenall and Swan's (1986: 3-5) Effective Reading outlines most of the activities/micro skills to be found in current reading materials in ELT:

  • Extracting main ideas: 
    The exercises encourage you to read in a general sense rather than for the meaning of every word in order to distinguish between important and unimportant information. This is sometimes called 'skimming.'
  • Reading for specific information: 
    It is not always necessary to read the whole passage and these exercises concentrate on the skill of looking for the information needed to perform a specific task. This is sometimes called 'scanning.'
  • Understanding text organisation: 
    The exercises in this section give practice in recognising how sentences are joined together to make paragraphs, how paragraphs form the passage, and how this organisation is signalled.
  • Predicting: 
    This type of activity makes it easier to see what information is new to you and what information you already know which ensures that you are not overloaded with too much new information as you read.
  • Checking comprehension: 
    This is more of an examination skill which requires you to find information in the passage.
  • Inferring: 
    A writer may decide to suggest something indirectly rather than state it directly. The reader has to infer information, which may well be one of the passage's main points.
  • Dealing with unfamiliar words: 
    This is one of the commonest problems facing the learner and it is often possible to guess a word or expression by looking for clues in the context.
  • Linking ideas: 
    Exercises here give readers practice in seeing how different words are related to the same idea.
  • Understanding complex sentences: 
    It is easy to loose sight of the general sense of what is being said if the writer has a complicated style. In this section, the reader is given practice in seeing how long and complicated sentences can be simplified.
  • Understanding writer's style: 
    A number of stylistic devices and features are discussed to appreciate why a writer chooses a certain word or expression.
  • Evaluating the text: 
    This section helps to develop the reader's more critical faculties in evaluating why the passage was written and the purposes that certain sentences serve.
  • Reacting to the text: 
    In this section practice is given in separating what the writer says from what the reader thinks.
  • Writing summaries: 
    Although this is strictly speaking a productive skill, the ability to write accurate summaries requires accurate comprehension of the passage.

The only skill which might be added to Greenall and Swan's list is that of speed reading (though this is arguably encompassed within the skill of 'extracting main ideas'/'skimming') which is justified in Grellet's (1981: 16), Developing Reading Skills, to prevent the tendency "to stumble on unfamiliar words" thereby failing to "grasp the general meaning of the passage".

Conclusion

At the start of this section we considered the question of authenticity and noted Widdowson's (1978) distinction between 'genuineness' and 'authenticity'. It seems that many language experts lay greater emphasis on the latter where an appropriate response to the text is all important. This then would seem to pave a pedagogical way for the use of simplified texts and we should not ignore the positive effects upon motivation and confidence in students, especially at lower levels, which may be derived from their use. This then appears to be the vindication underpinning the tremendous growth in simplified readers over the last decade.

Nevertheless, it is not always necessary to simplify 'genuine' written discourse. Grading is a viable option. Moreover, we should perhaps recognise that for a good deal of learners their target will be to understand 'genuine' written discourse and therefore a gradual introduction to this type of text by means of careful guidance from the teacher would seem to be a practical way forward. In understanding a text we have seen that a 'top-down' approach is desirable and that what the reader brings to the text is central to the skill of reading (i. e. Schema theory).

Finally, let us finish by drawing attention to something we noted from the outset. We read for information and for pleasure. Let us not be led by purely pedagogical motives. Reading can and should be fun!

 

Additional Information About Teaching Reading: 

 

http://www.davidenglishhouse.com/journalpdfs/vol3no1/sections/spring2002reading.pdf

 

http://www.nclrc.org/essentials/reading/reindex.htm

 

http://42explore.com/skim.htm

 

 

Comments (0)

You don't have permission to comment on this page.