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I can remember those days clearly. As a student in English Teaching major, I always had problems with English literature and it was hard for me to finish reading an English story like "elephants like white hills" without trouble and difficulty. Once our literature teacher was asking students comments and suggestions about English literature and it was a good time for me to talk about my horrors and troubles with English literature. "Whenever I'm reading an English story or poem, a sense from deep inside my heart tells me that give it up! You don't have to shoulder this heavy burden!" I said. While he had a smile on his face, our dear master answered me: "have you ever seen people who are waiting for sunrise in a dessert to see the beauty of twilight? Do you know that their tolerance is rewarded by the most beautiful scene they can have in whole their lives?" This statement was so masterly stated that forced me to think of the hidden part of the iceberg! So instead of giving up this beauty of twilight, I tried to get familiar with different reading skills and different processes affecting it and manage the hard task of reading. In fact, reading is a complex skill and good readers should approach reading from three major points of view: From teaching point of view, from different strategies needed, and from different processes required for the selection of materials.
Primarily, reading is a skill which is mostly required in academic institutions. To analyze reading from teaching point of view, you should have a clear definition of reading. Different writers and different researchers have different definitions for reading. Christine Nuttall (1996) has given three groups of ideas for reading definition (p.2). The first group deals with reading as a decoding, deciphering, and identifying process. The second one sees it as an articulation, speaking, and pronunciation. The third one has some ideas like understanding, responding, and meaning for reading. We can see that this group of ideas deals with some loaded cognitive processes for reading and it is somehow related to the definition of reading by Perfetti (1984) who defines reading as "thinking guided by print" (qtd. in Chastain 216). Some people think that reading is a passive skill, because there is no production from the reader's side, but Chastain (1988) is against this kind of definition and opposes this group's ideas by stating that:
Referring to reading as a passive skill perpetuates a misconception that can only mislead students and harm their perceptions of what their rule in their reading process is. Reading is a receptive skill in that the reader is receiving message from a writer. In the past various writers have also referred to reading as a decoding skill. This terminology derives from the idea of language as a code, one which must be deciphered to arrive at the meaning of the message. Although this term points out the active role the reader must play in reading describe the reading process in a way that implies active reader intent upon using background knowledge and skills to recreate the writer's intended meaning (p.216).
Sengupta(2002) in her longitudinal study tracing conceptual change in developing academic reading at tertiary level has given an interactive model for academic reading in which the reader's background knowledge, his risk-taking, and meaning making through this interaction are of primary importance in academic reading. Figure 1 clearly illustrates this relation.
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Undoubtedly, in order to be able to read in a foreign language, before anything, one has to be familiar with the signs and sign systems of that foreign language. Like the children learning their first languages' signs, a person who wants to read in a foreign language has to know for example what an "X" sign stands for. But we should have in mind that children go under several preparatory processes before being able to read a text or a story. To get familiar with some of these multilevel processes, Smith and Elley (1997) conducted a study on teaching reading for children in New Zealand and they reported that:
Children are prepared for reading at an early age by listening to stories, being read to, and interacting with adults and others about the stories they hear. This is done not with the main purpose of preparing a child for reading but as a way that parents and others interact with, show affection for, and entertain and educate children. The interaction involves asking questions about what is going to happen in the story, getting the child to complete sentences in a known story, talking about the interesting and scary parts of the story, and generally having fun (qtd. in Nation 3).
As you can see in this example, children primarily pay attention to the meaning the sentences have and the form and pronunciation of the sentences may be of little concern for these little children. This awareness of sentence meaning and the techniques used to teach reading makes this kind of reading interaction largely meaning-focused and Nation (2009) states that it includes shared reading, guided reading and independent reading. In shared reading, "the learners gather around the teacher and the teacher reads a story to the learners from a very large blown-up book while showing them the pictures and the written words." The second type is Guided reading which "can be done silently or with a child reading aloud to a friend, parent or teacher. Before the reading the learner and teacher talk about the book" (pp. 3-4). Several researches have shown the effectiveness of this kind of reading. One of them is the research done by Wong and McNaughton (1980):
Research by Wong and McNaughton (1980) showed that for the learner they studied, pre-reading discussion resulted in a greater percentage of words initially correct, and a greater percentage of errors self-corrected. The teacher and the learner look at the title of the book and make sure that all the words in the title are known. Then they talk about the pictures in the story and make predictions about what might happen in the story and talk about any knowledge the learner already has about the topic. Important words in the story are talked about but need not be pointed to in their written form. So, before the learner actually starts to read the story, the ideas and important words in the story are talked about and clarified. Then the learner begins to read (qtd. in Nation p.4).
The third kind of meaning-focused reading is the independent reading in which "the learner chooses a book to read and quietly gets on with reading it. During this quiet period of class time, the teacher may also read or may use the time as an opportunity for individual learners to come up to read to the teacher" (Nation, 2009, p. 5).
As you saw, learning to read in the first language seems quite easy, but the way in which you learn reading in second language has its own problems. Taken from Nation (2009), some of these problems are illustrated in table 1(p.7):
Table 1.1 L1/L2 Differences for an Individual Beginning to Read
L1 beginning readers already
know a lot of the language
they are beginning to read
grammar, discourse). L2
learners do not.
Learning to read an L2
involves a great deal of
L2 learners need very
L2 learners need a greater
amount of pre-reading
L2 beginners can already read
in their L1.
L2 beginners have general
They have preconceptions
and attitudes to reading.
They have language
There will be interference
and facilitation effects
between the L1 and L2
L2 beginners do not need
to learn what they can
transfer from the L1.
They may need to change
their attitudes to reading.
Learners may have to
learn a different writing
L2 beginners are usually
older than L1 beginners.
L2 learners have greater
It is easy to transfer L1
L2 learners can use more
explicit approaches and
tools like dictionaries.
This table has been kept simple by focusing on only one learner who is just beginning to read. It is more complicated if you have several learners with different L1s, different L2 proficiencies, different L1 reading proficiencies, and different motivations for reading.
Reading also requires having different strategies. These reading strategies are grouped into different categories, according to the preference of their writers. For example, www.readinga-z.com (n.d), has given the list of following strategies:
Asking and Answering Questions
Skimming and Scanning
Retelling and Summarizing
Connecting the Text to Life Experiences, Other Texts, or Prior Knowledge
The first one is making predictions. By making predictions, you can make the reading more interesting. "Incorrect predictions can signal a misunderstanding that needs to be revisited" (www.readinga-z.com).
In making predictions, you should have these points in your mind:
Look at the pictures, table of contents, chapter headings, maps, diagrams, and features. What subjects are in the book?
Write down predictions about the text. During reading, look for words or phrases from those predictions.
While reading, revise the predictions or make new ones (www.readinga-z.com).
The second strategy is visualizing. In visualizing, the reader uses his mental power effectively and "using shapes, spatial relationships, movement, and colors can benefit greatly from this strategy." This strategy also requires having the following points in mind:
Imagine a fiction story taking place as if it were a movie. Imagine the characters' features. Picture the plot in time and space.
Imagine processes and explanations happening visually. Use nouns, verbs, and adjectives to create pictures, diagrams, or other mental images.
Use graphic organizers to lay out information. Make sketches or diagrams on scrap paper (www.readinga-z.com).
Let's go to the third strategy which is asking and answering questions. Using this strategy you have to ask different questions from yourself while reading and then by answering these questions you can direct your reading. Like the guidelines given in the previously mentioned strategies, readinga-z.com gives the following guidelines to us:
Before reading, think about the subject based on the title, chapter heads, and visual information. Make note of anything you are curious about.
While reading, pause and write down any questions. Be sure to ask questions if there is confusion.
Look for the answers while reading. Pause and write down the answers.
Were all the questions answered? Could the answers come from other sources?Â
Then we come to the skimming and scanning. Lindsay and Knight (2006) give credit to these skills by saying that: "the ability to read something quickly and efficiently is an important skill for learners to acquire. Skimming and scanning are two of this" (p.71).
They define skimming as the reading "for gist" without trying to understand everything in it. In this process, you read through the text to "get a general idea of what it is about", while in scanning "you want to find out about something specific, for example get a particular piece of information from a text" (Lindsay and Knight, 2006, p.72).
The next reading strategy is Retelling and Summarizing during which you have to paraphrase the written materials and summarize it and be able to "discriminate between main ideas and minor details" (readinga-z.com). In this strategy, readinga-z.com recommends us to pay attention to the following points:
During reading, note the main ideas or events. Put a check mark in the book or write a note to point out a main idea.
At the ends of chapters or sections, review the information or story. Note main ideas or events and the details that support them.
After reading, retell or summarize the text. Focus on the important points, and support them with relevant details.
Refer to the book to check the retelling or summarization.Â
The last point to mention in the reading strategies refers to the use of word-attack strategies which "help students decode, pronounce, and understand unfamiliar words. They help students attack words piece by piece or from a different angle" (readinga-z.com).
Using word-attack skills, you can reduce the difficulties of reading process. "Reducing the scale of the problem by ignoring inessential words is the first step. Next, students must require strategies for dealing with lexical items that really block comprehension" (Nuttall, 1996, p.69). Here we shall discuss three kinds of them: the first is the interpretation of structural clues by "looking at the position of a word in a sentence", inference from context is the next which is "a skill we have in our L1 â€¦ and for less fluent students conscious use of it is valuable. By using it, they can get a meaning - not necessarily completely accurate, but enough for their purpose" (Nuttall, 1996, pp.69-72).
Using a dictionary is the last skill the use of which is both discouraged and encouraged. It is discouraged because of the "usual tendency to use them far too often" (Nuttall, 1996, p.76). I think there is no need to explain why a dictionary is encouraged.
For using a dictionary, Nuttall (1996) emphasizes the implementation of the following steps:
The first step towards using the dictionary as a tool instead of a crutch is to decide which word to look up--and to accept that they should be as few as possible. Having decided to look up a word, we want to do it quickly and to make the best use of the information in the dictionary (p.76).
It is necessary to have continual insistence on the use of this skill. "This means you should make frequent use of the dictionary in class (even though it is quicker to give the meaning yourself); and that it should be the student who select the appropriate definition" (Nuttall, 1996, p.76).
Among the others, Krashen and Terrell (1983) outline the following communicative reading strategy:
"1. Read for meaning
2. Don't look up every word
3. Predict meaning
4. Use context" (qtd. in Chastain 225)
Finally, we come to the selection of materials for reading. "Selection of appropriate reading materials is a crucial component in the establishment of a productive reading program" (Chastain, 1988, p.231). Defending the place of the selection of the materials, Doff(1988) has given some factors for the selection of materials to consider:
In normal life, we do not normally read because we have to but because we want to. We usually have a purpose in reading: there is something we want to find out, some information we want to check or clarify, some opinion we want to match against our own, etc. We also have a purpose in reading when we read stories for pleasure: we want to find out how the story develops, "what happens next" (p.170).
As we can infer from the given text, it is the learner's interests and needs which initially shapes the selection of materials, so the first factor to consider in the selection of the appropriate reading materials can be the interests and goals of the learner. Chastain (1988) emphasizes the importance of this point more than linguistic complexity by stating that:
"With the advent of the concept of reading as taking place within the reader's head as he interacts with the words on the page, the reader's willingness to continue the process of recreating meaning until the author's message is understood becomes central to reading process. Thus interest in the content rises to a level of importance higher than that of linguistic complexity because no reading will take place if readers are not interested enough to continue reading. However, if they are really interested in knowing what author has to say, they will make every effort to understand the reading" (p.231).
Here Chastain (1988) raises a question: "students interests cover an enormous range of topics, trying to satisfy all would be impossible" (p.231). Then, what would we do in selecting materials while at the same time we are going to consider the student's interests? The answer is so simple. We can use a variety of procedures to select the reading materials from among the students' interests. For example, "â€¦ they (the teachers) can choose readings with which students have some familiarities", or "they can use prereading activities to generate interest and even enthusiasm for the content of selected reading". They can even survey the students' interests later in the course "and attempt to incorporate into the course reading on some of the mentioned topics" (Chastain, 1988, p.231).
The second factor in selecting the reading materials is the factor of readability which is determined through "linguistic analysis of the author's language" (Chastain, 1988, p.232).
Nuttall (1996) defines readability as "combination of structural and lexical difficulty" and further explains that "since the language of a text maybe difficult for one student and easy for another, it is necessary to assess the right level for students you teach" (p.174). It is obvious that if the text would be beyond the reader's power of comprehension, soon he will be frustrated and he may put it aside and, like what I did with the "the hills like white elephants"! So the text should be analyzed through the factor of readability before being processed by the reader. Readability of a text can be analyzed from many ways. For example computer programs and the way they process the data you when you give the sample from the text. Some readability indexes like Harrison 1980 and Chall 1984 are frequently used to calculate readability (Nuttall, 1996, p.175).
As you pay attention to the level of readability of the text, you should also be aware of the other detriment of reading comprehension: Syntactic simplicity.
"Bernhardt (1948) points out that syntactic simplicity may decrease text cohesion and thereby hinder comprehension" (qtd. in Chastain 232).
Now, we shall go to the last factor in selecting the reading materials which is the use of the authentic materials. Nuttall (1996) comments that "they can be motivating because they are proof that the language is used for real life purpose by real people" (p.172). Chastain (1988) defines authentic materials as follows: "Generally, any text that an author writes to be able to communicate some message is authentic because it has an authentic purpose and it conforms to authentic language use" (p.233).
This definition of the authentic materials is different from the definitions given by some other authors who define authentic materials as those "texts written for use by the foreign language community, not for language learners" (Nuttall, 1996, p.177). Byrnes (1985) clearly explains the reason why some people only label the texts written by native speakers as authentic materials: "Due to the problems students have with such texts because they are unfamiliar with the culture, one may think of material written by native speakers for language users as being authentic" (qtd. in Chastain 232).
Chastain (1988) comments on which types of authentic materials are good for L2 readers specially for students and which types are not by stating that:
Supervisors and teachers of language courses may choose more academic types of reading such as articles, essays, short stories, plays, and novels, and these works certainly are important. One purpose of education is to expose students to high quality writing and to stimulating intellectual ideas from the culture's writers. However, never being exposed to some of the more common types of reading that they do in their native culture such as advertisements, notices, TV schedules, bulletins, manuals, programs, newspapers, and menus may result in students who are unable to read things they will need most to be able to read in the foreign culture (p.233).
In this paper, we looked at reading from three major viewpoints and the impact they could have on improving the reading. I often use the reading strategies just mentioned in this paper, but whenever a story like "elephants like white hills" wants to irritate me, a sense from deep inside my heart tells me that give it up!