The importance of predicting and interacting
with texts in developing learners reading skills
For most EFL learners reading in English is a daunting and demoralising task. They do not enjoy it, are often nervous about it and, if they can, avoid it outside the language classroom. As Stanley (2005) and Harmer (2001) point out such insecurities about reading in English are reinforced by the way reading is usually approached in the language classroom. The authentic purpose of reading is often submerged by the purpose of language improvement (1), moreover, traditional reading exercises tend to concentrate on the unfamiliar in the text rather than encourage the student to rely on what is familiar, which only adds to anxiety and negative expectations. There is then a confusion of aims: the students are not being taught reading and how to develop reading abilities per se, but rather a written text is used as a vehicle for the introduction of new vocabulary and/or structures (McDonough & Shaw 2003).
While language improvement is a natural, highly desirable by-product of reading, reading lessons should be preoccupied with authentic purposes of reading where the attention is on the meaning rather than the language of the text (Nutall 1982). Reading lessons should aim at creating better readers through reading. When teachers choose the right kind of material (and use appropriate teaching techniques) and the students are successful, then the benefits of learning to read are obvious. Harmer (2001) notices that students who read a lot seem to acquire English better than those who do not. They improve their general language competence but also get a lot of affective benefits from reading (which, in turn, foster motivation to learn English); success in reading and its associates skills, most notably writing, makes learners come to enjoy language learning and to value their study of English (Nation 1997). Without much exposure to reading material in class EFL students are unlikely to make much progress.2. Interactive reading, schemata and cognitive reading strategies.
Recently reading in L2 has been described as an interactive process, with the emphasis on the role of the reader and the knowledge s/he brings to the text. Hedge (2000) refers to this process as a dynamic relationship between the reader and the text, in which the reader performs various cognitive tasks and combines his/her knowledge with the information in the text to make sense of it.
The interactive view of reading draws heavily on the schema theory (Carrell 1987, Carrell&Eisterhold 1988) which proposes that readers possess different conceptual frameworks, called schemata (2) which they bring to the reading of a text and which they use to understand what they read. New knowledge can only be processed coherently in relation to existing knowledge frameworks, and efficient readers activate the necessary frameworks to assist in decoding the text being read (cf. Cook 1989, McCarthy 1991).
There is now considerable body of research (e.g.: Alderson & Urquhart 1984 in: David & Norazit 2000) which suggests that teachers need to pay attention to activating schematic knowledge and it is reflected in the emphasis on a pre-reading stage in current reading methodology. Still, it may be the case that a certain level of language competence is necessary before any training in the use of schematic knowledge can be effective.
Making sense of the text is facilitated not only by activating relevant schemata, but also by employing cognitive reading strategies which are determined by the type of the text we are reading, the purpose we are reading for and the type of information we want to obtain. It is impossible to list all the reading strategies, as a lot of them are not accessible for analysis and there is much individual variation amongst readers - each learner uses an individual mix of strategies in relation to a particular text and topic. E xhaustive lists of strategies are given by Munby (1978) and Klein et al. (1991). From the teacher’s and learner’s point of view though the strategies suggested by Harmer (2001) and Hedge (2000) seem to be the most important. These include:
Although most learners use these skills in their L1 (consciously or subconsciously) they do not always transfer them into English. This implies that to be successful readers in English the learners need explicit instruction in recognising the strategies required for a particular text type, and training in their application.
1. E.g. to support the teaching of language itself ; a text helps to present or practise specific linguistic items of lexis or grammar.
2. Two types of schemata most often discussed in reading research are formal schemata (the knowledge of the general properties of text types and differences in genre; e.g. syntactic, morphological knowledge, genre knowledge) and content schemata (the knowledge reader brings to a text relative to the content domain of the text, e.g. sociocultural knowledge, topic knowledge, general world knowledge). Research suggests (e.g. Carrell 1987) that content schemata affect reading comprehension and remembering more than formal schemata for text organisation, i.e. readers will comprehend texts about their own cultures more accurately than texts that are not related to their cultures.
3. There is lack of consensus among writers on what exactly is meant by the term ‘extensive reading’. The precise nature of extensive reading will vary with student motivation and institutional resources, but the characterisation might include:
3. Predicting - a skill of an effective reader and a cause of learner problems.
Perhaps the one strategy, or rather skill, that is directly related with the schema theory and the interactive view of the reading process is predicting. As Grellet (1981, also White 1993) points out r eading is a constant process of guessing and what one brings to the text is often more important than what one finds in it. It follows then, that prediction is crucial in reading and to become efficient readers our learners need to develop this skill. Predicting will allow them to react with the text by having expectations and ideas about the purpose of the text, as well as ideas about possible outcomes. Predicting will help them become selective about what is significant and insignificant in the passage and how to pick up the key words in reading, which will ultimately lead to better fluency and reading speed. It also leads the student to become sensitive to contextual and extra-textual clues in creating meaning (McDonough & Shaw 2003).
The importance of this skill is also evident in the fact that it is being utilised throughout the whole time of the reading process, and affects all levels of text processing:
(Ellis, unpublished article)
The inability to predict at different levels of the reading process echoes in various difficulties students face when reading in English. A lot of students avoid reading in English for the fear of encountering too many unknown lexical items. On some occasions this problem might be caused by the choice of the text inappropriate to the level of the students in terms of its lexical and grammatical density (4). In most cases it is the result of the students’ inability to guess the meaning from context which may stem from the lack of knowledge that certain combination of items are more likely to occur than others. From my teaching experience it seems that this problem is particularly noticeable with pre-intermediate and intermediate students who have made or are just making the transition from relying on an L1 dictionary to using a bilingual dictionary and developing higher tolerance of ambiguity, but still having a strong need to understand almost every new word they encounter in the text.
Many students struggle with reading if the topic or genre they are dealing with is unfamiliar to them. Without the right kind of pre-existing knowledge, comprehension becomes more difficult. This is a problem for some EFL learners who have different shared knowledge of cultural reference and discourse patterning in their own language and culture from that in the English variety they are dealing with. Research also suggests that different types of text structure affect comprehension and recall. Moreover, there are differences between language groups as to which text structure facilitates recall better, e.g. Arabs remember best from expository texts with comparison structures, Asians recall best from text with either problem-solution or causation structures (Singhal 1998). The lack of formal and content schemata leaves the learners unable to make any predictions and unable to relate to the text. In result, they perceive it as more difficult and become reluctant to engage with the reading activity. I have personally experienced the lack of students’ engagement when a group of Asian learners were presented with an inappropriate text, heavily laden with European culture referents.
Some learners have negative expectations of reading and assume failure even before they tackle the task. This might be the result of previous bad learning experiences or may be based on inaccurate or false text-type and page level predictions regarding the degree of language and content difficulty.In essence, the skill of predicting depends on several language and culture-specific factors. Non-native readers are at a considerable disadvantage in all of the levels of prediction, due to their imperfect linguistic and socio-linguistic competence in English. The main difficulty for teachers then, lies in the provision of suitable reading exercises aimed at promoting predictive reading and the maximising of contextual and extra-textual clues to meaning.
4. Especially if authentic texts are chosen carelessly.
4. Approaches to teaching reading and overcoming learner difficulties.
Traditional approach to teaching reading was centred around the ‘bottom-up’ model of reading which supported the notion that reading methodology should be text driven, focusing on de-coding written symbols into their aural equivalents and comprehension based on sentence-level reference (White 1993, Nunan 1991). Students were given little (if any) help in developing whatever skills may be needed in order to read efficiently or comprehend effectively. White (1993) refers to this approach as pedagogical and contrasts it with communication approach which sets reading firmly in the context of the communicative use of language and favours top-down view of the reading process in which the reader forms hypothesis about text elements (makes predictions) and then ‘samples’ the text to determine whether or not the hypotheses are correct. The interaction of the reader and the text is central to the process, and reader brings to this interaction their knowledge of the subject at hand, knowledge of and expectation about how language works, motivation, interest and attitudes towards the content of the text. In communication approach to reading students are given a reason for reading and instructions as to how they should go about the reading task (this will depend on the type of reading style we wish them to develop, e.g. scan the text to find information, search for detail) (Vaezi 2005, Nunan 1991).
Nowadays there is no more debate whether reading is a top-down or bottom-up process. To be effective reading methodology needs to embrace both kinds of processes. Schematic processes alone will not suffice in developing students’ reading skills, as knowledge of linguistic features is also necessary for comprehension to take place. In interactive reading various kinds of knowledge and different reading processes interplay (Clanfield 2005).
The standard classroom practice is to approach teaching reading using a 3 stage procedure involving pre-, while- and post-reading activities including follow up activities linked to the text and integrating other skills in a natural response to the text (Hedge 2000). Each of these stages creates opportunities to address the learner difficulties described earlier.
To deal with vocabulary issues we could use the pre-reading stage to pre-teach essential lexis, or use some (unknown) words from a reading passage as part of the procedure to create interest and activate the students’ schemata. We could also devise exercises practising contextual guessing that could be done during the post-reading stage, or set a time limit (e.g. 5 minutes) or a word/phrase limit (e.g. only 5) for students to ask for the meaning of the words they do not know. Also, remembering that reading is a skill the learners take ‘outside’ the classroom, we should introduce authentic texts in the lessons and encourage them to read extensively, as this is the best possible way for students to develop automaticity, i.e. the automatic recognition of words when they see them.
To tackle the problems with unfamiliar topic and genre, (except for choosing a text appropriate to our students’ interests in the first place), teachers could use various ways to stimulate interest in the topic during the pre-reading phase, e.g. by showing them visual or aural stimuli and discussing the topic, by having them to look at the headlines and predicting what story might follow before they read it, by asking them about their own experience in relation to the topic, etc. teacher should use techniques that support learning preferences of her students. Creating interest in the topic/genre is concurrent with activating learners’ schemata. The more alien the topic and genre are to our learners, the more time will have to be spent on creating interest and activating schemata of our learners. As the teachers and learners progress with their course of study more different genres and topics should be introduced to broaden the learners’ horizons and reading experience.
Finally, students’ negative expectations could be counteracted in all three stages of a reading lesson. First, by choosing topics that interest our students and getting them personally involved, e.g. ‘interacting’ with the writer by expecting questions to be answered, reflecting on expectations at every stage, anticipating what the writer will say next, etc. Second, during the while-reading stage by agreeing on both general and specific purposes for the students’ reading. If the students know why they are reading, they will be able to choose how to approach the task and maximise their chances of achieving the purpose of reading. They can be put in pairs or groups to share responsibility for the task, or jigsaw reading technique could be used to emphasise the interactive side of reading. Third, in the post-reading task, by comprehension questions pitched at the right level of challenge, starting from the overall meaning of the text, its function and aim, rather than working on vocabulary or more specific ideas straight away (Grellet 1981). Another way to check comprehension is to ask learners to do a task after reading, e.g. assembling an object from a set of instructions. Successful reading enables a certain task to be completed and it is what most people do in their L1 after reading. Moreover, it enables integrating other skills into reading, which is important form the pragmatic point of view – in real life we seldom read something and not talk or write about what we have read.
Having done research for this paper I have realised that teaching reading should aim to build learners’ ability to engage in purposeful reading and to adopt a range of reading styles necessary for interacting successfully with authentic (or simulated authentic) texts. This implies developing the learners’ linguistic competence in English and knowledge about the world. It also implies developing confidence in using this knowledge to create meaning from a text. Both competence and confidence involve preparation and practice in the supportive environment of the classroom and persuasion to carry on reading in English outside the classroom.
Carrell, P.L., Eisterhold, J.C. (1988) Schema theory and ESL reading pedagogy. In Carrell, P.L., Devine, J., Eskey, D., (Eds.) Interactive approaches to second language reading. (pp. 73 – 100)
Lesson plan - procedure
Aims and Objectives
There are 7 female students in the group: Sumera, Maryam, Jamila, Maryam-Naz, Nadia, Samina and Rhuksana. Their ages range from early to mid 20s. They all have arrived in the UK only recently and are still trying to settle in the local community. Their first language is Urdu; some of the learners also speak Punjabi and Arabic. It is the first ESOL course they embarked on since they moved to the UK. They have been studying together since April and show a lot of enthusiasm, commitment and motivation. They arrive on time, are eager to learn and leave the class reluctantly. We meet twice a week on Tuesdays (9.30 – 12.00) and Thursdays (13.00- 15.00). The course has been planned in response to the learners’ requirements stated in the needs analysis carried out during the first session, and will be supported with a variety of materials. It has been scheduled to run for 10 weeks, but will most likely restart after summer holidays.
The students are all housewives at the moment but are actively looking for employment. They want to improve their English skills to have better job prospects, communicate with family and people in the community and to get a qualification in English (ESOL Entry 3). They have a very positive attitude towards the English language, and although they consider it to be a rather difficult language they all stated they liked it, and using English gives them a lot of satisfaction.
The learners have been educated in Pakistan, however to a different level: Sumera, Maryam and Nadia completed Master’s degrees, whereas Jamila, Samina, Rhuksana and Maryam-Naz graduated high school. Except for this English class, Maryam and Nadia are attending an IT course, and other ladies are thinking of enrolling on a few vocational courses to pursue their different hobbies.
There is some diversity in their English language abilities. Jamila, is the weakest student in the group and needs to put a lot of work in to bring her English competence (which is now at higher-elementary level across all the skills), to the level of the other students in the group. She does however put a lot of effort to keep up with other learners, who in turn are very encouraging and supportive of her. Sumera comes across as a shy learner, who is, nevertheless, quite able, understands a lot and can express her opinions on any subject when prompted by the teacher. Nadia, Maryam and Maryam-Naz are quite confident and fluent though lack accuracy and range of lexis and grammar. If allowed, Maryam, as the most able student in the class, tends to dominate the group. Samina and Rhuksana joined the group only 2 weeks ago and are still trying to assimilate with the rest of the group. The students are very supportive of each other despite their English competence and personality differences.
In the learning needs analysis carried out at the beginning of the course, the students express the desire to work on all four skills of the English language especially speaking. Recently however, they have approached me with the request to change the focus of our lessons and introduce more reading practice.
In terms of their reading skills, Jamila needs the most help; other learners can cope with different text types with medium teacher support. They are keen to work with authentic materials and are not deterred by unknown lexis. We have started working on developing their autonomy and introduced monolingual dictionary into the repertoire of their learning aids.
They are a very lively group, with a good sense of humour and inner dynamics. Using Nunan’s terminology (Nunan 1995), they could be described as ‘communicative’, i.e. they like to learn by listening to native speakers, talking to friends in English and watching TV in English, using English out of class, learning words by hearing them and learning by conversation. The learning style questionnaire I carried out at the beginning of the course revealed that they are fairly balanced in their visual and auditory learning preferences, and none of them is particularly fond of kinaesthetic type activities. They enjoy learning in small groups and appreciate homework.
In the previous lesson the students were introduced to a new language structure, namely the second conditional through a series of listening and reading activities. In the observed lesson the students will be practising reading skills via a simulated authentic text, which will also serve as a springboard to a follow-up speaking activity reinforcing the learning of the second conditional. This lesson will be followed by a session focused on developing the students’ vocabulary related to the topic of film/entertainment.
I have decided to focus on reading skills with this particular class in response to their learning needs and taking upon their initiative to practise reading authentic texts in class. Previous reading lessons revealed that although the learners cope with reading tasks generally well, they need training in reading strategies (especially predicting and inferring) and in improving reading speed and fluency.
The choice of the topic for the text was guided by the principle of selecting materials within the students’ shared world and cultural knowledge and determined by the students’ interests. The students are all following Asian soap operas on satellite TV and are up to date with current Bollywood gossip. Therefore, they should respond well to the article and the interview with Sagneeta Ghosh (an Indian soap opera actress) and, as indicated in part I, the familiarity of content will enable them to activate the schemata they need to process the new information from the text, hence aiding comprehension.
As I argued in part I, in order to develop reading fluency students need exposure to authentic texts. However, in the absence of good authentic materials the use of simulated authentic texts is justified (cf. Widdowson 1979)(1). As finding appropriate text proved to be quite difficult, I decided to design my materials simulating authentic texts, using 2 authentic sources: an internet site article http://www.tribuneindia.com/ and an article from a Bollywood magazine Cineblitz. The texts were relevant in terms of topic and contained natural uses of 2 nd conditional, thus seemed appropriate considering the students’ content and formal schemata. The designed material lends itself to practising the skill of predicting and inferring, and the activities draw on the interactive nature of reading.
Majority of the students have previously studied English via the traditional, grammar-translation method, and have not developed top-down text processing strategies, and rely firmly on the bottom-up, word-for-word reading. It is most evident in their reluctance to read silently. Although they are generally able to create meaning from the text, they are often unable to make predictions about various aspects related to the reading passage, nor can they make inferences if the facts are not stated explicitly. As I argued in part I of this assignment, the ability to make predictions about the text is crucial for successful reading comprehension, therefore, I decided that the problems with this strategy needed to be addressed in the lesson.
The procedure I intend to follow in the lesson is the 3-phase approach with pre-reading, while-reading and post-reading stages. It allows structuring the activities to guide students through the reading process starting with general and moving to more detailed comprehension tasks, reflecting the top-down view of the reading process. The pre-reading phase (stage1 of the lesson) serves to generate interest and activate students’ schemata. It will give me a chance to judge if the students have sufficient linguistic and schematic knowledge to cope with the text and if more time needs to be spent on activating schemata.
In the while-reading phase (stages 2,3,4,5 of the lesson) the students are practising skimming and scanning and are given a chance to see how making predictions can help them make sense of the text. In this stage of the lesson comprehension is going to be checked with a ‘true/false/impossible to say’ questions. The choice of this particular type of questions was dictated by the fact that they are said to be the most accurate gauge of understanding (especially if supplemented with the additional ‘why’ questions, cf. Swaffer 1985(2)) as it does not impose the teacher’s interpretation of the text as the single correct one.
In the post-reading phase (stages 6,7) the reading skills are integrated with speaking skills through a personalised activity which gives the learners a chance to respond to the text and develop their skill of reflection and critical reading. It also serves as a learning reinforcing activity of the previously introduced 2 nd conditional structure.
Throughout the lesson the SS will be closely monitored at all stages of the lesson, and I will make note of any persistent errors or problems to deal with through feedback or in the future remedial and revision work.
1. Widdowson, H.G. (1979) The authenticity of language data. In: H.G.Widdowson: Explorations in Applied Linguistics 2.Oxford: OUP.
1. Swaffer, J. (1985) Reading authentic texts in a foreign language: a cognitive model. The Modern Language Journal 69 (1), 15-34.
Anticipated problems and solutions
Problem: The text is not of interest to some students.
Solution: Interest will be stimulated in the first two stages of the lesson by visual and verbal prompts, getting students to ‘interact’ with the text by asking questions about the character, making assumptions and predictions, and getting involved personally by drawing on their personal experiences.
Problem: Some students are slow readers.
Solution: The text is given to the students in 3 manageable parts to help slower readers to keep up. Also, the teacher will monitor closely and adjust reading time accordingly.
Problem: Timing: reading and/or students’ responses to the text are taking too long leaving too little time for stages 6 and 7 of the lesson.
Solution: Teacher monitors and manages the stages carefully, adjusting the timing to suit the students’ needs. Also, Stage 6 can be done as an open pair activity, with each student asking one question to another student in the group.
Problem: Unknown vocabulary/grammar structures obscure the meaning of the text for some students.
Solution: Teacher will encourage contextual guessing. Particularly difficult vocabulary items crucial for understanding will be dealt with ‘on the spot’ and the record kept on one side of the board throughout the lesson. Other vocabulary queries will be dealt with in stage 5 of the lesson.
Materials and teaching aids:
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