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The aim of this paper is to reflect upon the efficacy of my teaching of reading in my context and ways of making it more efficient.The structure of the paper is as follows: the first part gives an overview of my context referring to my learners and their language knowledge of English, the place of English in the curriculum, the textbooks that I use to teach this compulsory subject and the way I teach it. Even if it seems that the reading lesson has attained its objectives, I will then focus on the problems that I have encountered while teaching reading such as: students did not transfer what they read to their writing and speaking exercises, they did not answer to comprehension questions correctly, sometimes it took them so long to give an answer or they misinterpreted some parts of the text.
The second section presents a theoretical overview and the research on reading while surveying the relevant literature and providing a definition of this concept, two major models of reading, what efficient reading means and how it can be attained.
Based on the literature review, the final section offers some possible solutions that can be implemented to make my teaching of reading more effective.
I teach English as a Foreign Language to pupils between the ages of 14 (9th grade, intermediate level) and 19 (12th grade, advanced level) in a public senior secondary school. My learners' level of English is different within the same class. For instance, some 9th grade students have studied English for 4 years, others have no previous knowledge of English when they start attending senior secondary school, still they are colleagues in the same class. Probably, this is one of the reasons why a typical class of 28-30 learners will always be a multilevel class, i.e. students' different language level, with the "forever beginners" unwilling to learn English, the almost "impossible dreamers" who try to catch up years of untaught lessons of English, the "caught in time" students, those "I know enough" type and a handful of those who improve their English proficiency.
The place of English in the curriculum
English is a compulsory subject and its status is described in the nationally imposed curriculum which gives details about"attainment targets, reference objectives, learning activities, syllabi and curricular standards of performance" (Mihai, 2003, p.64). Conforming to this curriculum, the Science or Humanities streams influence the status of English as a Second or Third Language, the course materials, number of lessons per week (2 or 3) and what type of final examination in English all students have to sit in order to receive a certificate of linguistic competences according to the Common European Framework of Reference (CEF) level .Students are required to pass a listening test, a speaking one and a written component in English. The written component includes two reading texts of about 300- 500 words each with comprehension questions and one multiple choice exercise and two writing tasks.
The course materials consist of approved textbooks by the Ministry of Education which focus on accuracy heavily and graded according to age and English as a Second or Third Language. For the 9th and 10th grades all textbooks are imposed by the Ministry of Education and the teachers have to teach those textbooks while for the 11th and 12th grade teachers may choose a textbook which is approved by the Ministry of Education and students afford to buy. A typical reading section has a text about 1000 words in length and some general questions about the text, especially true-false questions. There are no pre-reading and while-reading activities in those textbooks.
What and how am I expected to teach English?
In my cultural and contextual reality as a teacher of English, I am expected to teach this language that is linguistically centred on standard British English only while "any differences from British NS variants" are regarded as deficiencies (Jenkins, 2006, p. 43), to teach all four skills when time and coursebook constraints are inevitable and to use an imposed textbook which makes no difference between my learners' language needs and more importantly between their language levels e.g. the same coursebook is used even for those who have not studied English before. In reality, the amount of material is too great to cover in the time allocated to lessons e.g. two classes (50 minutes each) per week for 35 weeks in total and 22-26 units, including all four skills. Sacrificing writing, listening and speaking for the sake of reading and grammar is always a prerogative in the language classroom.
How do I teach reading?
While reviewing the literature, I realized that I tend to use reading "mainly as a support skill in language learning" (Reid, 1993, p.21) and too much time is devoted to "oral skills, grammatical or discourse analysis and acquisition of new vocabulary" (Dubin, Eskey & Grabe, 1986, p.22). I always start my reading lesson by setting a top-down task. For instance, I may ask students to explain the title of the text or predict the content of the text based on the title or an illustration, sequence jumbled paragraphs or assign simple labels to paragraphs. Sometimes, students are required to write a summary or present the main ideas, "produce some kind of outcome based on the response to the text as a whole" or "tackle the interpretation of the text" (Nuttall, 2000, p.150), concentrate on certain grammatical categories or let them ask comprehension questions. I may also delete parts of sentences or words on the right or left side of the text so that students guess or choose other words to give meaning to the text.
In terms of class management, it is a teacher - centred class as the class works with one text and individual work is encouraged.
As a rule, in the 9th grade all texts are translated into mother tongue as a drawback of learners' insufficient knowledge of English. Some texts are translated by me, others are translated by students. Whenever unknown words or difficult part of sentences appear, I try to help them understand the meaning from context or just give them the translation. There are few occasions when silent reading is practiced while oral reading is preferred for reading practice and self-correction.
Since I am the product of a traditional school system, a reading lesson is always non-assessed and it is only about reading fluently and accurately, focusing on correct pronunciation of the written words and correct breaking of the printed words into syntactic phrases.
Issues in teaching reading
Understanding a reading lesson as mainly another way of focusing on grammar and pronunciation has made me consider that the reading class was effective as learners read fluently and accurately. However, beyond this uncertainties laid. I could not explain why students did not transfer what they read to their writing and speaking exercises, why they did not answer to comprehension questions correctly, why it took them so long to give an answer, why they misinterpreted some parts of the text even though students were taught to use different reading strategies e.g. skimming, scanning. As the reading lesson was transformed into a language one, I believe they did not have the change to test them properly and find a balance between what was taught and their internalization of those strategies. In addition, I tried to help them understand the meaning of new words from context. If this did not work I would use a synonym while the ultimate solution being the translation into mother tongue.
At that moment, there was only one possible answer to this problem since students had been instructed to use different reading strategies to extract information from the reading text: their lack of English language knowledge in terms of vocabulary and grammar categories.
After reviewing the literature, I do understand that it was the way I taught them and my expectations that did not deal with reading, but with grammar more.
The next section of this paper explores the reading process in depth, starting with defining this concept, then addressing two important models of reading, bottom-up and top-down which are of great importance to the efficacy of a reading task, an outline of effective reading and how it can be attained.
Reading is "the process of receiving and interpreting information encoded in language form via the medium of print" (Urquhart &Weir, 1998, p.22). Thus, it becomes a problem-solving activity while the reader tries to discover what the writer does mean and at the same time build meaning for oneself because the text is "potential for meaning" (Widdowson, 1979), it does not have meaning. Alderson (2000, p.3) points out that while reading, the readers interact with the text so "the process is likely to be dynamic, variable and different", and differences in the process of reading are observed even in the same readers reading the same text at different times or with different reading purposes. Therefore, meaning does not lie in the text nor in the readers but in the interaction between them. The meaning created depends crucially on the purpose of reading which, in turn, governs how the readers read.
Pupils attending secondary school "may have neither an intrinsic nor extrinsic need to read" (Davies, 1995, p.81), but in real life situations reading is a communicative and purposeful activity (Widdowson, 1984). For different purposes readers read differently and at different speeds, ranging from scanning the text for a definite purpose to slow and careful intensive reading for learning (Pugh, 1978).
Reading is also "a cognitive activity" (Urquhart & Weir, 1998, p.37) and has been a major interest of cognitive psychologists since the 1960s. Different models of reading have been proposed and examined.
For instance, the bottom-up model suggests that the reading process is a linear and unidirectional "mechanical pattern" (Grabe & Stoller, 2002, p.32) which flows in a series of discrete stages, starting with recoding the printed input and working up from lower to the higher levels of processing (Stanovich, 1980).
In the extreme view, it is Gough's model (1972) which describes that at the beginning the readers process each letter which is then recognized by a Scanner and pass the information to a Decoder and a Librarian to transform these letters into phonemes and words with the help of a Lexicon. Afterwards, the readers move to the next words in the same way. After finishing every word in a sentence, the information is sent to a Merlin where the meaning of the sentence is assigned. But, it remains unclear how the syntactic and semantic mechanism is operated (Paraphrased from Urquhart and Weir, 1998, p.40).
According to this view, "readers are passive decoders of sequential graphic-phonemic-syntactic-semantic systems, in that order " (Alderson, 2000, p.17).
If bottom-up model defines the process of reading by starting from a small unit to a larger one, top-down model finds a connection between the readers' goals and expectations, and the text. As Hedge (2000, p.189 ) states top-down processing is the "application of prior knowledge to working on the meaning of a text" which ultimately leads to an emphasis on the activation of schemata , "networks of information stored in the brain which acts as filters for incoming information" (Alderson, 2000, p.17).
Therefore, readers are tempted to rely on context more in order to guess more, but good readers are less dependent on it (West & Stanovich, 1978; Stanovich, 1980; Simpson, Lorsbach & Whitehouse, 1983). "The reader comes to the text with a previously formed plan, and perhaps omits chunks of the text which seem to be irrelevant to the reader's purpose" (Urquhart & Weir, 1998, p.42).
Not only do good readers guess well or sample texts but also their word identification skills are automatic which leads to fluent reading. "Reading flexibly means always keeping in mind how much you need to read in order to satisfy your purpose. This helps you to decide which parts of the text to ignore, which to skim to get the gist, and then which parts (if any) to study closer (Nuttall, 2000, p.48)". Therefore, top-down analyses start with hypotheses, attempt to verify them by checking the stimulus and work their way "down" (Goodman, 1967).
Central to the purpose of reading is the concept of effective reading which involves a great deal of mental activities, some of which are automatic and some are conscious (Alderson, 2000). The conscious strategies of skipping a page or two, reading the headlines or the ending of a story, involve "a deliberate choice of process or task" (Alderson, 2000, p.15).
The other type of activities which are not amendable to consciousness are related to automacity because readers are not aware of every single process that our mind uses so that we comprehend what we read.
Grabe (1991) asserts that effective reading is a cumulus of six components: automatic recognition skills, vocabulary and structural knowledge, formal discourse structure knowledge, content/world background knowledge, synthesis and evaluation skills/strategies and metacognitive knowledge and skills monitoring.
Fluent readers use automatic recognition skills and have a better vocabulary knowledge which is supposed to be a good predictor of comprehension (Coady, 1997). Similarly, knowledge of syntax is related to comprehension because vocabulary alone is not sufficient (Barnett, 1986).
Formal discourse structure or formal schemata influences effective reading. Research suggests that text organization is a factor in comprehension and recall. Carrell (1984), for instance, stressed that readers produce a better recall of a text if it is organized in such logical patterns as cause-effect, problem-solution, and compare-contrast.
Anderson (2003) argues that background knowledge can help readers organize incoming information, make inferential elaboration, retrieve stored information and so forth. He goes on to conclude that activating schemata before reading enhances both comprehension and recall.
Metacognitive knowledge and skills monitoring is also a crucial component of effective reading helping
(a) clarifying the purposes of reading, that is, understanding both the explicit and implicit task demands;
(b) identifying the important aspects of a message;
(c) focusing attention on the major content rather than trivia;
(d) monitoring ongoing activities to determine whether comprehension is occurring;
(e) engaging in selfquestioning to determine whether goals are being achieved;
(f) taking corrective action when failures in comprehension are detected (Baker and Brown, 1984, p.354).
Fluent readers are also proficient in their synthesizing and evaluating skills and strategies. Carrell (1987) also asserts that strategies are crucial to effective reading. The use of strategies conveys "how readers conceive a reading task, how they make sense" (Singhal, 2001) of a text with the aid of certain clues and what they can do when they do not understand. Strategies, therefore, reveal a reader's resources for understanding (Block, 1986). Van den Broek and Kremer (2000) subscribe to this view and state that reading strategies increase the readers' likelihood to comprehend the text. They advocate that strategies readers use are almost always purposeful and goal-oriented and the meaning achieved is a result of how strategies interact during the reading process.
For Nuttall (2000) efficient reading is related to satisfactory results considering understanding and time spent reading. Understanding is easily accomplished if a series of stages is to be followed. The teacher has to plan every reading lesson appropriately, starting with the objectives, the right chosen material and the resources within the text. Even if the textbook is compulsory in my context, I can adapt the reading material to use the text effectively while guiding my students to practice scanning for a single word or a fact, or skimming for specific questions or say what the text is about. Thus, reading can be effective because it requires using strategies that enable readers "to select texts or parts of texts , that are worth spending on" (Nuttall, 2000, p.49).
Furthermore, I can concentrate on improving reading speed by choosing texts for speed practice which will eventually lead to the decrease in time spent reading. Reading speed is thus influenced by the strategies learners may use. For instance, a poor reader reads word by word while "an efficient reader chunks a text into sense groups, units of meaning each consisting of several words" and "each chunk is taken in by one fixation of the eyes" (Nuttall, 2000, p.55) because a skilled reader has learnt to ignore difficult words that may be safely ignored, inessential words or the reader has acquired strategies for dealing with the lexical items that block comprehension (Nuttall, 2000, p.64).
The above literature review demonstrates that effective reading depends to a great extent on the readers' purposes and their knowledge both about the language and the world. There are other important factors which
What seems to be an effective processing of text requires the use of both top-down and bottom-up processing as cognitive theory suggests. In addition, making "silent reading the goal in the classroom" (Anderson, 2003, p.69) is another factor in achieving the aim of an effective reading lesson: comprehension while reading fluently. Moreover, the research on reading strategy instruction shows that "training metacognitive strategies results in more stable, long-term comprehension gains" (Koda, 2005, p.209). Nevertheless, processing strategies are also key elements which help enhance the learners' reading skills. In conclusion, "the text, the reader, fluency and strategies combined together define the act of reading" (Anderson, 2003, p.68).
Finding appropriate models for teaching reading will remain a time-consuming process as long as teaching of English is not an independent education-driven pursuit. Time, textbook and curriculum constraints will always be a challenge and a reality in my context. Still, it is not impossible to succeed in making my teaching of reading more effective. Instead of setting up high aims to be accomplished in one year, I could design a reading syllabus in stages, each stage having different objectives to be attained. Additionally, I could devote more time for guidance before reading a text and thus changing my way of introducing a text by using those key language items that I used to present in isolation or set another top-down tasks e.g. predict the content of a paragraph I have removed from a text or ask signpost questions on the whole text. What is more, I may break up the text and choose different tasks for different parts or just encourage silent reading for some sections, reading aloud difficult sections and practising skimming with others, to hold students' interest.
What I acknowledge as essential tools in terms of comprehending a text while reading fluently refer to a mixture of the readers' use of processing strategies and my raising learners' awareness of structural clues, cohesive devices such as pro-forms, lexical cohesion , discourse markers, syntax. Overall, effective reading is about maintaining "the flow of information at an adequate rate to make connections and inferences to foster understanding" (El-daly, 2010, p.34).