Reading in the Second Language Class

Reading in a second language is not the same as text study

Reading - There is no one method, medium, approach, device or philosphy that holds the key to the process of learning to read.


  1. PRIMARY - The reader must learn to recognise the shape of separate letters, groups of letters and whole words and associate the appropriate sounds with these letters or collection of letters. To achieve this students must respond to SHAPE and ORIENTATION.
  2. INTERMEDIATE - At this stage students must have the ability to handle sequences of letters and whole words and larger units of meaning which are essential skills for fluent readers.

ESSAY TITLE: Intermediate pupils who have been taught with the aid of courses based on intensive text study may often believe that reading English is a very different activity from reading in their own native language. Why is this so? What obstacles will it raise to their aquiring better reading skills in English and how would you tackle the problem of improving these skills?

Few people stop to analyse the skills used in the different kinds of reading they do in their native language. Most adult students of EFL are familiar with the Roman Script before they embark on English Language Courses. General coursebooks capitalize on this familiar ground by using written texts as the main vehicle for developing both spoken & written skills.

In the early stages of learning, the main aim is often to present and practise a body of lexis, grammatical forms and language functions. This serves to give students entry points into the new language - a simple core to assist in the communication (reception and expression) of basic concepts such as number, quantity, spatial relationships, time and modal meaning.

Practice of listening, speaking, reading and writing is often limited to the purpose of reinforcing this basic survival kit. It is hardly surprising that this emphasis on intensive text study fails to represent both the English heard & spoken and the English read & written outside the class. The limited treatment of listening and speaking skills is understandable, since face to face oral interaction is very difficult to script.

However, the failure to represent the kinds of reading we really do, given access to print, pictures and diagrams, becomes far less excusable after 200 hours of teaching.

Ideally, within the 200 hours, the simple text study model should make a growing concession to mid and long-term goals. We need to utilize the reading skills already developed in L1. Prolonged exposure to intensive "reading" of grammar/function/lexis/pronunciation study texts implies the neglect of a variety of text-types and the reading skills strategies required in different types of decoding. Language study texts are prose passages or dialogues in which items pre-selected by the course writer have been embedded. Contextualization of this kind provides mainly a pedagogical purpose for reading.

Outside the classroom students in LT environment encounter a variety of situations in which different reading purposes are inherent. The texts they may meet may include record cards, forms, immigration documents, notices, telephone directories, town plans, letters, tickets, timetables, price lists, menus, newspaper headlines and advertisements. The sum of these should activate many different reading strategies. Application of the equivalent reading strategies in L1 (where equivalents exist) will usually involve some form of cultural adaption, for example familiarization with the conventions of layout in LT or perhaps even knowledge of the London Underground system.

The section on "places" from "Reasons for Reading" (Davies & Whitney) gives good illustration of the cultural problems involved when reading for information. It deals with the London A-Z Street Atlas and index. South Gro. N6 - 3D 29 must never be confused with South Gro. E19 2B 32.

Text-types that can usefully be studied to aid in the transfer of reading skills, may include:

Note "Cue For a Drill" and "Task Listening" contain texts suitable for scanning or skimming, including:

  1. horoscopes
  2. price-lists
  3. school reports
  4. timetables

Other reading materials planted on coffee table could include:

  1. colour brochures for self-catering holidays in rural England with price lists
  2. leisure guides for London & the S.East
  3. London bus maps
  4. illustrated guides to the British Museum and Brighton's Royal Pavilion.
  5. Winter Sports holiday brochures for skiing in Austria
  6. Guides for the Young Traveller (Adult learners have children of school age who may make visits to countries where English is spoken or needed as a passport to travel)

When I teach English in the surroundings of the UK, I emphasize reading for information. I raid the Tourist Information Centre and the bus companies - maps of the Brighton Transport Area for bus and rail. The purpose behind the reading activity is motivated by both NEED and INTEREST. If an area of shared experience already exists (e.g. knowledge of/Interest in TOPIC), it is far more likely that the reading skills used in L1 will be activated.

Knowledge of topic can be discovered by seeing if students can anticipate the contents of the text from the title or a very brief outline of the subject. One of my worst lessons was centred round a text entitled "Centrifugal Governors" from The Structure of Technical English. The students who had been quite knowledgeable about Heat Treatment of Steel and Welding (since they all worked in a steelworks!) did little more than ask me to explain unknown items of lexis to enable them to understand the individual sentences.

A far better response was drawn from a text comparing life in a Stockholm suburb with life in the wilds of Sweden - few "unkowns" which the students didn't succeed in inferring. Their immediate interest showed that their reading was above sentence level. The rhetorical organisation of their discussion points - contrast and comparison related interestingly to the global content of the text. Unfamiliarity with and lack of interest in the topic seems to ensure that students fall back on the worst of their sentence level reading habits.

The question of why sentence level reading habits exist and the task of replacing them with better more global habits can be further examined with reference to the teacher's role in presenting reading texts. A distinction should be made between classroom procedures for efficient reading comprehension and those used in intensive text study. It is important that most READING TEXTS are SILENTLY READ to give students practice in skimming. This involves extracting salient details while discarding unimportant grammatical content.

Students who feel that reading English involves choral repetition after a model voice which booms "Say After Me" in a jolly British accent, may feel that the teacher who watches them read is not earning his keep. Indeed, teachers often have a sense of not playing their part unless they are conducting a chorus. Choral repetition of a text has two unfortunate effects:

  1. Firstly, it gives a definite moment of attention to every word in the sentence. This does not happen in efficient silent reading. The efficient reader repeatedly skips words. Sometimes whole sentences can be anticipated and left unread.
  2. Secondly, a person's natural purpose for reading rarely requires that every word or paragraph should be given equal attention or even read. Choral repetition therefore discourages good anticipation and purposeful reading.

In presenting reading texts, we therefore need to give guidelines which will replace sentence-level, text study procedures:

  2. SKIMMING: Check and extend existing hypotheses and make new ones as to the contents.
  3. READING: Read more carefully (extending your purpose for reading if further hypotheses are developed). Try to answer the questions you have asked yourself.

To understand the point of these new procedures and to specify more closely the reading skills which my students practise, it may be helpful to refer to the nature of discourse. Both spoken and written communication need not be bounded by individual sentences. The latter rarely occur without both linguistic and situational context. In the encoding and decoding processes, units of language are weighted differently in terms of their contribution to the function and meaning of the spoken utterance or written text as a whole.

The efficient reader therefore relates the ideas that are being presented and manipulated by the writer to one another, to the function of the text and to his own experience of the topic / knowledge of the situation. He or she falls back on a host of reference skills. These include:

Together with discourse markers (lexical & grammatical cohesion devices and directional indicators), these help in the active processes of prediction, anticipation and confirmation as well as in the recognition of different levels of generality. We fail to exercise most of the above skills and much of what readers bring to a text, if we remain with or within the sentence. Study at sentence level is a very small part of reading comprehension.

Having correctly presented the reading text, it is wise to try to prevent sentence-level addicts from reaching for dictionaries or demanding instant explanation of unknown items. Interesting material for purposeful reading will probably be authentic. students who are used to structurally graded texts may find the new material frighteningly difficult, particularly if they observe their old procedures. The teacher's pre-questions, detailed comprehension Qs and exercise types may also lead back to sentence level habits unless they are thoughtfully constructed.

It is probably best if the tasks demanded of the students (I.e. exercise types and their content) are suited to the nature of the text. Initial questioning should focus on general function rather than detailed comprehension. Note: Widdowson's "Reading & Thinking In English" - anticipation questions (the ones the students ought to ask themselves!) are planted in the text. I'm not sure how wise it is to guide students' anticipation or 'purpose for reading' to this extent. Another technique is to pre-list 6 or 7 pieces of information. The students are asked which of the items they would expect to find in a text of the given title. They then confirm their hypotheses by reading the text. This is probably preferable to the degree of guidance in Widdowson's Reading & Thinking in English, which to some learners could appear rather condescending, given that the reading skills discussed are ones that my students have fully mastered in their L1. Transfer of skills to LT and practising them in the new language can be achieved without telling students overtly that they are learning reading strategies.

Reading skills are rarely needed in isolation from other activities. Therefore there is ample justification to integrate ones teaching of reading with listening, speaking and writing. Although it is useful to specify reading skills, a broader goal may be to develop and practise study skills in LT (the target language). It has been mentioned how selection of interesting texts can lead fairly directly to discussion of topic. Reading as preparation for a role play or a simulation may draw further on internal resources. The link with dramatic activities draws the practice into the realm of interpretation, raises motivation and increases the possibilities for discussion.

Texts describing roles may be interpreted very differently depending on the way the readers adapt themselves to the tasks they have to perform. Role cards will provide clues to character, situation and language but will leave scope for student interpretation. Discussion as to what is salient both within and outside the texts could easily be as useful as the role play itself. Simulations also involve longer reading texts and diagrams representing the main areas of conflict as well as detailed preparation of lexis and language functions (See Heyworth's "The Language of Discussion").

Reading tasks designed to familiarize students with the nature of discourse may not only improve reading speed and efficiency but may also build a bridge between reading and writing. Putting pictures into a satisfactory sequence, matching them with sections from a text which have themselves been taken out of sequence, can focus on the organization of discourse. See jumbled paracgraphs in F. Grellet's "Developing Reading Tasks". To complete this task students will probably need to recognise lexical/thematic cohesion markers, grammatical cohesion markers and other indicators. Removing the visual support will ensure that these recognition skills are developed.

Another way to focus on the rhetorical organisation of reading texts presented to the student is through use of visual aids:

The same visual aids can be used to challenge students to RECONSTRUCT the descriptions/explanations, arguments, stories ORALLY or through WRITTEN PRECIS. A good visual aid has the virtue of focussing both on the global function of the accompanying text and the important points to be included in any transfer of information.

Activities such as 'reading leading to spoken or written summary', note-taking or transfer of information to a grid or diagram, help to emphasize that as in the learner's L1, reading is an active process. Moreover, a given text is only one possible vehicle for carrying meaning (given information). In native reading we constantly extract and reconstitute information bringing our own personalities and knowledge of audience to bear on its future presentation. Our students should be encouraged to bring their own personalities (feelings, experiences, knowledge) to bear, transferring information from one rhetorical mould to the next to suit their purposes.

The language study input need not block out the purpose for reading I.e. the global function of the text. I have used the Cloze procedure and fill-in exercises to test various grammatical items and forms. However, the completed texts can also be taken a whole.

Purely atomistic teaching (e.g. pre-teaching of lexis which could reasonably be inferred or permitting overdependence on dictionaries rather than encouraging learners to guess unknown lexical items) will inevitably lead to inefficient reading. It may be demonstrated to the intermediate student that the purpose for reading is clearly not the comprehension of every word in a text.

Given suitable follow-up tasks (note: complexity of tasks can be varied), authentic texts can also be judiciously selected - ones that bear close resemblance to the natural follow-up we do in L1. The comprehension of authentic reading texts need not prove discouragingly impossible.


  1. Teaching reading NOT the same as text study
  2. Reading should be dealt with as an activity separate from text study
  3. Not teaching a new skill except with some (new script) - We have to teach students to transfer their reading skills applied in L1 to L2.
  4. Culture
  5. Students rarely given a chance to read properly in LT and even more rarely given a chance to read for any USEFUL PURPOSE.

Native speakers:

  1. Know why they're reading
  2. Bring knowledge & interest to the task
  3. Read different types of material at different rates with different amounts of attention

Reading techniques

  1. Survey the whole text.
  2. Identify features which give you a clue to the type, function, style. Fluent readers read in broad phrases skipping unnecessary detail or words that are not vital to meaning.
  3. Unconsciously apply skills for guessing meaning from context
  4. Confidently ignore large parts of the text.
Information and ideas are often carried by maps, charts or tables which supplement and replace the verbal message.

Elements involved in reading:

  1. Recognising conventions of layout/visual/diagramatic input
  2. Structuring of inputs into meaningful stretches
  3. Reference skills
  4. Inference skills - interpretation of inputs.