Reading is far from being a passive process, it is a constant process of guessing, hypothesising, anticipating and confirming, in which the knowledge “one brings to the text is often more important than what one finds in it” (Grellet, 1982 in Ball & Hockly n.d.). Consequently, the practices in which we involve while reading in a second language (L2) should resemble the practices of reading in the mother tongue (L1) if we intend to make the L2 reading experience an authentic one.
Types of reading strategies
With regards to the approach to reading, there is a distinction between two main types of strategies that readers use when they are faced with a written text: top-down strategies and bottom-up strategies. Top-down strategies use macro-level cues to decode a text in order to acquire a more global understanding of its contents. These cues may include considering the layout of the text, making hypotheses and anticipating contents. Bottom-up strategies involve the decoding of the passage step-by-step from small textual elements like words or phrases. This process was for several years the traditional way of analysing a text and many courses are still based on this approach to reading.
The problem with an exclusive focus on bottom-up strategies is that the individual parts of the text are given more importance than the text as a whole. According to Grellet (in op. cit.), this might encourage reading all texts at the same speed, which might not be appropriate in all cases, and that there would be a reluctance to infer the meaning of sentences and paragraphs from what comes before the text. This author concludes that it is always preferable to start with the overall meaning of a text (top-down strategy), its function and aim, then move towards a more detailed analysis.
What is an authentic text? A different view of ‘authenticity’
There is an important issue to consider when selecting texts for our learners and it is the idea of authenticity. Widdowson (in Ball & Hockly, n.d.) distinguishes between ‘genuineness’ and ‘authenticity’. Genuineness is a ‘characteristic of the text itself and is an absolute quality’ (op. cit.: 32), it is what teachers usually refer to as authenticity. On the other hand, his definition of authenticity is how the reader responds to the text. Not adapting a text would make it ‘genuine’ in Widdowson’s sense. However, a genuine text is not necessarily better than an adapted text. If the reader is allowed to respond as they would do it in real life we have what Widdowson calls an ‘authentic text’.
In which types of reading activities do we involve in real life?
People read for many different purposes and depending on these purposes we may gist to check if the matter is relevant to us, for example when we read our friends’ post on Facebook; we may read to extract the main idea of a product ad to check it is what we are looking for; we may also read to infer the purpose of a literary text for a class assignment; it is also possible to read just for pleasure and while doing so we may find ourselves reacting to the text or creating mental images derived from it. Whatever purpose we may have for reading, the strategy we use will differ and the same should happen when we are learning to read in other languages.
Reading activities in the language class
According to Greenall and Swan (1986 in Ball & Hockly n.d.: 17-18), reading activities can be described as follows:
- Extracting the main idea (read in a general sense to distinguish between important and unimportant information).
- Reading for specific information (looking for the important information needed to perform a specific task).
- Understanding text organization (recognising how sentences are joined together to make paragraphs).
- How paragraphs form a passage and how this organization is signalled.
- Predicting (see what information is new and which one is known so that there is not an overload of new information).
- Checking comprehension (finding specific information in the passage).
- Inferring (when the writer decides to suggest something indirectly, the reader has to infer information).
- Dealing with unfamiliar words (guessing a word or expression by looking for clues in the context).
- Linking ideas (seeing how different words are related to the same idea).
- Understanding complex sentences (seeing how long and complicated sentences can be simplified).
- Understanding a writer’s style (a number of stylistic devices and features are discussed to appreciate why a writer chooses a certain word or expression).
- Evaluating the text (evaluating why the passage was written and the purposes that certain sentences serve).
- Reacting to the text (separating what the writer says from what the reader thinks).
- Writing summaries (the ability to write accurate summaries requires accurate comprehension of the passage).
- Speed reading (to prevent the tendency ‘to stumble on unfamiliar words’ thereby failing to ‘grasp the general meaning of the passage’).
You can choose one or several activities from the ones mentioned above based on your students’ need regarding reading strategies and use it/them with any type of text, but how about assigning an authentic activity to deal with an authentic text and engage students in authentic reading? By authentic activity, I mean a reading activity which relates to the type of text used and how that type of activity is used in real life. Just think about this, what are the odds that you need to summarize an e-mail? Instead, you should probably need to focus on the subject, the author and the main information (who, what, when, how).
The concept of ‘action knowledge‘ (Barnes, 1976) can help us to support the idea of authentic reading. Students come to school with an amount of knowledge they have incorporated during their lives, they have unintentionally learnt many aspects of the world and how to behave in different types of situations. The same is true for their reading experience in their L1. Even younger learners, whose literacy skills in L1 are in the first steps, have grown up watching their family members reading different types of texts and what they do with them. They have watched their older siblings writing a summary of a History book and they have also observed that their siblings do not do the same while reading a comic.
We may also go back to Grellet’s words in the introduction of this post to support the idea of authentic reading, “(the knowledge) one brings to the text is often more important than what one finds in it” (1982 in Ball & Hockly n.d.). Surely, as a reader yourself you can think about types of reading activity that are ‘natural’ to a specific text type or genre, bring that knowledge and the learners’ knowledge into the class and enhance their reading experience both in the L2 and in the L1.
What types of reading activities would you suggest for a short story? For a piece of news? And for a blog post? Write a comment with your suggestions.
* If you want to read about the differences between reading in the L1 and reading in an L2 click this link to my previous post
Ball, P. & Hockly, N. (n.d.). Developing Language Skills in the Classroom. Funiber
Barnes, D. (1976/1992). From Communication to Curriculum. London: Penguin. (Second
edition, 1992, Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook-Heinemann.)