The Importance of Reading in Teaching L2 Learners

Reading is a commonly offered course in many second and foreign language curriculums…yet it is not a skill easily acquired by students. -Nuttall, 1996

Despite actually having taught a course called Reading and Writing in intensive English programs, and despite understanding that my own writing is only ever as good as the reading I’m putting it, I’ve never found much research on the teaching of reading. This isn’t to say that the body of literature doesn’t exist, though it may be small. Just to say that I had trouble finding it, in part because it isn’t as sizable as the body of literature on writing in a second language. Perhaps this is because receptive skills get less attention than productive ones and because the primacy of speech in L2 studies means that reading—the receptive skill often connected to writing—gets almost entirely forgotten. Or, maybe it’s because we often forget that this literate skill that we take for granted—because we’re such adroit users of it in our daily lives—doesn’t come easy for students working in an L2, as the quote from Nuttall above shows.

This is why I was so excited to see an entry dedicated to teaching reading in Renandya and Widodo’s English Language Teaching Today. Now, I’ve come to have some personal issues with the quality of the material in the book. But, Lawrence Jun Zhang’s chapter on reading still provides some useful gems that are worth considering if you’re at all engaged in L2 literacy education.

The Affectors of Meaning Making

The most significant takeaway was when Zhang (2016) outlined the major influencers of meaning making while reading. They are: 1) textual characteristics (e.g., modality); 2) reader characteristics (e.g., metacognitive strategies and schema); 3) social context for reading (p. 128). As more and more colleges and universities seek to control costs for students—often in the name of affordability or at least lip service to it—textual characteristics will become even more important. For Zhang (2016), textual features include the various properties of the text such as mode of delivery (scanned print-off, professionally produced paper copy, e-reader texts, hypertexts, enhanced text, etc.). At my school, both because of affordability and import regulations, our students most often use digital texts, while I use the paper copies that I purchase while I’m in the States each summer and winter. Our reading experiences are vastly different. Personally, I feel that it’s much easier for me to stay focused on the text’s content and argument in a paper text than in a digital one, where the temptation to be distracted by other APPs is just too high. A pushback to this is that students can always use an e-reader. But, so many of our students don’t buy dedicated e-readers. They buy tablets that they can use for other purposes. Then, it’s just a double-click of the home button to a whole world of distractions, from email to games to videos.

This may, however, have more to do with the various reader characteristics that Zhang discusses as opposed to textual properites. Perhaps we just need to develop effective pedagogical interventions to train students to have the features of a good modern reader. This should, perhaps, not just include how to read critically—considering the where, why, who, what, and how of a text’s production—but also how to be mindful consumers and to avoid distraction while reading. Perhaps part of this means training students to take the time to enjoy reading and to read widely. As a graduate student, I did a lot of reading. It was exhausting, in part because I was reading the same kind of thing over and over again—reports of empirical research. Perhaps one reader characteristic that we need to instill in our students is an appreciation for a variety of text types and to read for fun. For example, I know that my own curiosity about language and linguistic variation is only increased through reading translated fiction and contact literatures. Likewise, my own understanding of my discipline is enhanced when I read outside of my field.

The social context for reading is the exciting new contribution that Zhang (2016) makes. This is done through an appeal to sociocultural theory and setting up the classroom as a place where students better come to understand how to realize and take advantage of their zone of proximal development (ZPD). That is, by helping students to understand where they are currently at in regards to reading proficiency, we can help them better select texts for extensive and/or personal reading that are at the outer edge of their ZPDs. This act can allow students to use reading to take greater agency over their language and literacy education. This, to me, is perhaps one of the most promising contributions of the entire piece. The major question that still remains for me is how to do this. One way is to model the kinds of reading that we expect our students to do and to scaffold their reading with materials that are just beyond their comfort zone. There’s also an important role here for libraries in helping sponsor their information literacy so that they can locate worthwhile readings on their own.

SOURCE MATERIAL

Nuttall, C. (1996). Teaching reading skills in a foreign language. Oxford: MacMillian Heinemann.

Zhang, L.J. (2016). Teaching reading and viewing to L2 learners. In W.A. Renandya and H.P. Widodo (eds). English Language Teaching Today: Linking Theory and Practice (pp. 127-142). New York: Springer.

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