If you didn’t catch the first blog post about this course, make sure you check it out before you read this one!
So, week one was a crash course in TBLT, covering not only the basics but also providing loads of interesting research to look over. What about week two? Well, week two was very much focused on reading as a skill; that is, understanding what reading is and how it is often done and taught in classrooms. In this post, I will go over what we covered, what I learnt, and the assignment we had to complete.
What is reading?
Seems like a simple question, right? Reading, much like listening, is a skill that is more complex than it seems. This definition from The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language Sciences (2011, p. 699) gives us a broad overview:
Reading is the process of decoding and comprehending written language.
This is what is often referred to as the Simple view of reading. The Simple view actually has a formula:
Reading comprehension = Decoding ability x Listening ability
Basically, if we want to measure someone’s reading comprehension abilities, the result could be determined by multiplying the results of their decoding abilities against the results of their listening comprehension abilities. Of course, there are many factors involved but these are the two main components.
One important thing to remember regarding the Simple view is that the relationship between decoding and listening ability is not additive. That is, RC ≠ DA + LA. If this were the case, then strong decoding abilities would be able to substitute weak listening abilities, and vice-versa.
What is decoding?
In essence, decoding is being able to recognise letter-sound/grapheme-phoneme relationships, recognise words and parse language into syntactic structures. For example, if you are reading this post your decoding ability in English is probably quite good. However, try to read the following Chinese proverb: 小洞不补，大洞吃苦. If you are like me, you probably have not learnt any Mandarin Chinese (yet). Furthermore, these characters are somewhat meaningless and you most likely have no idea how to pronounce them, recognise what actually constitutes a word, or parse the proverb syntactically (ok, maybe you have a chance at this one!). Ergo, our decoding abilities in Mandarin Chinese are largely non-existent. If we go back to the Simple view of reading, both my decoding ability and listening ability are very low /non-existent. This means that my reading comprehension will be very low /non-existent as well. For those of you that are interested, the proverb says: If small holes aren’t fixed, then big holes will bring hardship.
Decoding in our L1 is largely automatised and very well developed, although some children still have issues with this. The fact that it is so automatised in L1 makes it somewhat difficult at times to develop in an L2 – however, not impossible! One of the challenges of reading in an L2 – and consequently should be one of the things we as teachers take into consideration – is being able to decode and understand fast enough, something that takes time, practice and focused attention (both in and out of class!).
Fixations and Saccades
What happens when we are reading? We have looked briefly at decoding, but let’s think about the eyes. When we read, our eyes move across the page, email, etc. in what are called saccades. In essence, these saccades are movements between one fixation to another. What do we do in these fixations? Well, it is here where we decode what we see and extract information and then store this information in working memory. There is a common misconception that we skip words while reading – this is not necessarily true. We generally fixate on between 7 – 9 characters and then move to the next fixation point, which could be in the middle of the next word.
Some interesting facts for proficient readers of a language:
- Fixations usually last between 200 – 330 milliseconds
- The average reading rate is 180 – 240 words per minute
Limited cognitive capacity
We do not have unlimited brain power, unfortunately. If we did, then reading in an L2 would be much easier. As it is, however, reading in an L2 requires learners to focus much more attention on decoding and comprehension than in their L1, in which these processes are largely automatised. As mentioned before, developing reading fluency is a major goal for our learners – from the cognitive perspective this means developing their decoding abilities so that they can free up cognitive capacity to focus on other things, e.g. interpreting the text, continually summarising the text as they read, predicting what comes next, etc.
Reading in and out of the classroom
I think we would all agree that reading in the classroom is quite different to reading at, let’s say, home or work. Our learners are very rarely given the choice of what they read and more often than not they are told how they need to read it! When we read in our L1 or L2 outside the classroom, there are many things we do differently, such as choosing not to finish a text, skipping over large parts of the texts, following up on the text, etc. Furthermore, when we do follow up the reading with questions, etc. most classroom activities focus on linguistic features. This is sometimes referred to as viewing the Text as a Linguistic Object or TALO.
The point they made on the course is that while classroom reading certainly should be different to the real-world at times (for pedagogic reasons), there are no reasons why we should not try to replicate real-life reading as much as possible. Amos Paran, one of the instructors on the course, wrote an article on how we can bring the outside world into the reading classroom – there are plenty of ideas, so I recommend checking it out.
Reading skills and strategies
What are skills and strategies? These two words are often thrown around a little carelessly in language teaching – often used interchangeably. But, there is an important distinction to be made between the two. I have summarised Paris, Wasik and Turner’s (1991) definitions here:
- Skills: Processes that have been automatised (e.g. recognising phoneme-grapheme relationships)
- Strategies: Actions selected particularly to achieve a goal (e.g. skimming in order to get the gist of a text so that we can do sth else – note the importance of achieving something!)
The important thing to remember is that these do not occur in isolation; rather, learners will need to use a range of skills and strategies flexibly to become proficient readers. One thing that needs to be stressed, though, is that learners should always know the reason why they are reading – this will help them determine what strategies they may need to use.
Background knowledge – a blessing or a curse?
When we speak about reading processes, the terms bottom-up and top-down often come into the conversation. Bottom-up processes are the ones we have discussed thus far – decoding, word recognition, etc. Basically, the linguistic information that is presented in the text. Top-down processing, however, is using what we know about the world (background knowledge) to help us interpret the text, its meaning, inferences, etc. Reading is not simply a bottom-up or top-down activity, but rather a mixture of the two.
Let’s take a moment though to think about the importance of background knowledge and what it means for our learners. On the course, we were ask to read the following texts and identify what information would be needed by readers to be able to understand the text.
- Women ‘disappear’ from executive jobs after giving birth
- Flying like a bird (first two paragraphs)
- Not about “Us”: What the Oscars whitewash reveals about some viewers (first paragraph)
Feel free to have a read over them yourselves, but if you do not feel like doing so, then I will briefly go over what came from this. In short, the first text relied less on background knowledge than the second and the third, with the third having comprehension rely most heavily on background knowledge. What does this mean? Well, it means that texts that rely heavily on background knowledge can be difficult to understand in an L1 and therefore are most likely not appropriate for the language classroom – unless plenty of support is provided in understanding the references (although, as with the last text, this would be a lot of work).
If our goal as language learners is to develop automaticity of reading skills, then our goal as language teachers should be to help learners develop automaticity. How can we do this?
Word recognition activities
You are probably wondering why on earth I have a load of animals written as a I do, right? I suppose you can identify the animals that are there – you can recognise which of the graphemes make up vocabulary items. In essence, your word recognition skills are quite good – congratulations! This activity, as simple as it seems, is a great way to help learners develop their word recognition abilities with vocabulary they are working with. Why? Well, it helps them to be able to recognise these words faster in different texts.
I have seen this type of activity in many course books and to be honest I did not know why it was there. Learners enjoyed it, but I did not really see the value in it. Now I do, but not only because of the information on the course, but my own teaching experience. Last week I was carrying out a mock Starters exam with my wee-ones. This is their first year working with the exam so to make the exam less frightening, supported and not a daunting event, we scaffolded many of the activities. For example, in one of the activities they need to look at a picture and write Yes or No. We knew that many of the learners still struggle with writing, so in three out of the four questions we put yes/no. What was interesting is that learners had trouble identifying the yes and the no as they were written. This happened in a later activity also with cat/duck/horse – many learners could not recognise the words unless I blocked the others out and showed them. Of course, this example is extreme – these learners are still learning to read, are very young and still very low proficiency. But it highlights the importance of activities such as these (and ensuring plenty of space between words!).
But what about older learners? Amos Paran spoke about doing the same activity, but making it more complex. For example:
Identify the word follower:
As you can see, I have made it more complex using different fonts, spacing and sizes.
Rereading a text is a way in which learners can develop their reading fluency. This one is obvious, but what was interesting is what they recommended from research. There was a study in which learners read a text five times:
- First time silent, timed reading
- Second and third times, read and listen to text being read
- Fourth and fifth times, silent, timed reading
- Learner write a short report about what they read
What they found was that reading speed increased within the session (unsurprisingly). What was interesting though is that over the course of sixteen sessions, the reading speed for the first reading developed significantly, from 163 words per minute to 261 words per minute.
Perhaps this is not that practical in class, but it is something that could be used within a course or with learners themselves.
Our assignment this week was to create an action plan for the development of teaching reading skills within our context. Again, there was a very short word limit, so I found that a little restrictive, but overall the activity got me to think a lot.
This week was a really interesting week, full of loads of interesting information. I am looking forward to the next week of the course in which we will be looking at teaching reading in a second-language classroom. No doubt we will look at many more specifics!
Paris, S. G., B. A. Wasik and J. C. Turner. 1991. The development of strategic readers. In: R. Barr, M. L. Kamil, P. Mosenthal and P. D. Pearson (eds.) Handbook of reading research, vol. II. New York & London: Longman
Perfetti, C. (2011). Reading. In The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the Language Sciences (p. 699). New York: Cambridge University Press.