A Critical Assessment Of An Authentic Text English Language Essay
The aim of this essay is essentially to provide a critical assessment of an authentic text (i.e. a text which has not been written for EFL purposes) and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of this text in relation to presenting this text to an E2 (English as a second language) or EFL (English as a foreign language) class, in terms of developing their vocabulary and reading skills. Moreover, in reflecting upon the appropriate literature, this essay examines how this text could be modified and improved upon (in relation to reading and vocabulary skills) when implemented in the language classroom.
The authentic text chosen for analysis is,
Approaches to Language Teaching
The traditional approach to language teaching ('bottom-up') viewed language as a system that could not be broken down and taught part by part; accuracy being the focal point of language teaching. As Wilkens states (1972, p.2):
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Parts of the language are taught separately and step by step sp that the acquisition is a process of gradual accumulation of parts until the whole structure of language has been built up.
However, while this approach might equip students with accuracy skills, learning through this model might well result in defective communicative skills needed for everyday interaction with native speakers.
As a result of morpheme studies conducted in the 1970's and 80's, serious doubts were raised to ways English had been previously been taught (see Watkins, 2004 (a), p.3). From work conducted by theorists such as Krashen and Terrell (1983), a communicative model of language learning emerged ('top-down'). In relation to this Celce-Murcia and Olshtain argue that the two most important methodologies in the last two decades to influence language teaching and learning have been, 1) to use a natural approach to formal language teaching; and 2), to stress the importance of using authentic materials in the process of language teaching (2000, p.17). Hence, the essence of the communicative model lies in encouraging students to engage in meaningful interaction, in the absence of grammar correction and a focus on accuracy. In this case learning is student-orientated.
However, by using a purely communicative approach, it is often the case that whilst students are effective communicators, they use defective language. As a result many educators and langue teachers have tended to adopt a reduced form of the communicative approach. By doing so, a balance is found between language in a communicative context and a focus on language form. In relation to this, Long, although agreeing with Krashen that a comprehensible input is essential for language acquisition, argues that it is 'modified interaction' which promotes language acquisition, i.e. a balance between interaction and comprehensible input (see Spada and Brown, 1993, pp.29-30).
In recent years, a more popular approach in EFL teaching is to take what is known as a 'weak' interface position, in which a combination of both top-down and bottom up processes are used. This entails that whilst there is emphasis on communication, instruction is also viewed in some cases as effective (see Spada and Lightbown, 1993, p29). As Doughty and Williams recognise, 'Focus [on form] must occur in conjunction with - but must not interrupt- communicative interaction (1998, p.114).
Reading an Vocabulary Skills:
The Need for Reading Skills
According to Celce- Murcia and Olshtain, 'in alliterate society skill in reading is imperative since so much of what one needs to know is communicated via written text' (2000, p.118). They go on to suggest that reading in a second or foreign language may be potentially even more important than in one's mother tongue since in many instance it is, 'the only readily available exposure to the target language' (2000, p.118). Moreover, whether reading for information or pleasure in the target language, learners are exposed to the liertaure and culture of that particular country, possibly not accessible by any other means (see Celce-Murcia and Olstain, 2000, p.118).
As Carrel explains, this is more so with the English language and its status as a world language. As a result, the ability to read through the English medium has become paramount across large spectrums of professions, as well as in academic institutions. This is the case in countries where English is the L1 (i.e. mother tongue or first language) and elsewhere across the globe, whereby English medium companies, schools and universities, etc, are becoming increasingly common (1988, p1). In addition, carrel goes as far to suggest that for many students, reading is by far the most important skill to acquire, above speaking, listening and writing (1988, p.1). Hence for a skill which is considered so important by learners, effective teaching is essential.
Approaches to Reading Skills
Goodman defines reading as (cited in carrel et al, 1988, p12) as:
...a receptive language process. It is a psycholinguistic process in that it starts with a linguistic surface representation encoded by a writer and ends with meaning which the reader constructs.
From this quote, one might suggest that reading is very much an interactive process, rather than a passive one. However, the traditional assumption of English language reading was related to the bottom-up approach (supported by the likes of Gough (1972) that emphasised vocabulary building, students' ability to recognise keywords quickly, grammatical knowledge and manipulating cohesive devices (Celce-Murcia and Olshtain, 2000, p.119). Hudson defines this approach to reading as a series of stages that proceeded in a fixed order from sensory input to comprehension' (cited in Celce-Murica and Olshtain, 2000, p.119). In this sense, reading was viewed as a rather passive activity. If problems did arise, these were explained in terms of a difficulty with decoding the text, i.e. deriving meaning from the actual print (see Carrel et al, p.2; and, the work of Rivers, 1964))
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In contrast, the other approach to reading (top-down), relies more heavily on the importance of the socio-cultural meaning of texts and background or prior knowledge (i.e. schemata) of students (see Celcia-Murcia and Olshtain, 1988, p.1). Other important factors include a student's 'script', which Yule defines as a 'pre-existing knowledge structure for interpreting event sequences' (1996, p.134) that helps students to recognise an expected sequence of actions in an event when reading a particular text (see Yule, 1996, p.86).
Fries believes that if students do not have the ability to relate the linguistics meaning of a reading text to cultural factors they are unable to acquire full comprehension of the text (see Carrell, 1988, p.3). This is a weakness of the bottom- up approach, but an issue that a top-down approach seeks to address. The top-down approach to reading helps learners enrich their background knowledge, whether it be cultural, topical, etc, and 'teach learners to ask relevant questions about a text, the result of which reading becomes more focused and hence, eventually easier' (Celce-Murcia and Olshtain, 2000, p.119). in fact a number of theorists who take a psycholinguistic approach to reading (learner -centred and emphasis on prior knowledge) have been extremely influential in bringing about change to the teaching methodologies in EFL classrooms today (see Richie and Bhatia (eds.), 1996, p.269).
Carrell purports that (1988, p1):
Interactive approaches to reading hold much promise for our understanding the complex nature of reading, especially in a foreign language and culture. Hence, as a balance between top-down and bottom-up learning strategies has emerged in EFL teaching in general, the same can be said about approaches to teaching reading (amongst the other skills), in particular. Stanovich (1980), was amongst the first to call for a more interactive view of reading, using a combination of both approaches. He believed this would help students develop 'meta-cognitive' strategies (i.e. an awareness of the purpose for reading and how to do it effectively) to become skilful readers.
According to Coady and Huckin (1997, p ):
In recent years, second language vocabulary acquisition has become an increasingly topic of discussion for researchers, teachers, curriculum designers, theorists, and others involved in second language learning.
The importance of teaching vocabulary in the E2/EFL classroom should not be underestimated, especially within the context of a reading lesson. It may be argued that, if students are unaware of the meaning of new vocabulary presented to them in a new text, how is it that they will be able to understand that very same text with ease and effectiveness. If this is a potential problem for L1 readers, what about L2 readers?
The amount of vocabulary an L2 learner has acquired will certainly affect his or her progress in reading comprehension and hence, surely those learners with a higher acquisition of vocabulary are more advantaged than those who have not.
Coady and Huckin go on to argue, "No text comprehension is possible, either in one's native language or in a foreign language, without understanding the text's vocabulary ... it has been consistently demonstrated that reading comprehension is strongly related to vocabulary knowledge, more strongly than to the other components of reading" (1997, p).
One can conclude, therefore, that the English language teacher should not take for granted the importance of incorporating vocabulary effectively into a reading lesson. This point is highlighted by Hiebert et al's categorization of what should be considered when planning a reading/vocabulary lesson. They state (2005, p):
Four issues are particularly persistent in discussion among vocabulary instructions, (a) the number of words that should be taught (b) the particular words that should be taught (c) the vocabulary learning of two groups of students- English language learners and potentially at-risk students, (d) the role of independent reading in vocabulary learning.
In this sense then, the English language teacher should be well aware of the vocabulary they are teaching, why they are teaching a particular choice of words (i.e. the desired outcome; for example, that students will learn the vocabulary items which will benefit them not only in reading comprehension, but across the four skills; reading, writing, speaking and listening), and how to teach them effectively. This would include, for example, exposing learners to different strategies enabling them to infer meaning, such as context clues (reading the sentences around the target word to see if there are clues to its meaning) and word-part analysis (breaking the target word down into its root, prefix, or suffix to help figure out its meaning).
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The importance of vocabulary in acquiring the skill of reading at an acceptable or even high level is also emphasized as they go on to argue (2005, p);
The casual relationship between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension is reciprocal- it goes both directions. Having a big vocabulary does contribute to being a better reader. But being a good reader also contributes to having a bigger vocabulary.
Furthermore, they explain the usefulness of acquiring vocabulary effectively by stating (2005, p);
Vocabulary knowledge contributes to metalinguistic awareness.
Metalinguistic awareness contributes to word recognition.
Vocabulary also may contribute to word recognition.
Metalinguistic awareness may contribute to reading comprehension through means other than enhancing word recognition.
Most if not all of these relationships may be reciprocal (hence the two-headed arrows)".
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