A task-based approach to reading | Module 2 Reflections

Task based reading.png

This is the second in a series of posts I’m writing to consolidate and reflect on my learning from this Coursera MOOC . This module’s content explored reading as a cognitive, communicative and strategic activity as well as looking into areas such as background knowledge and promoting reading fluency. The lead-in was an interesting online activity which asked course participants to post a picture of something we had read on that day or the day before in L1 or L2, on a Padlet wall. See if you can spot mine – it’s towards the bottom.

Reading as a cognitive activity

My own definition of reading was the ability to parse letters as words, phrases and sentences and interpret meaning from them. The course defined the core meaning of reading as “the activity by which we interpret language messages in written or printed form.” It was suggested that readers need to able to decode words and comprehend the connection between them and that the relationship between decoding and comprehension was not additive but dependent, i.e., strong decoding skills can’t compensate for weak comprehension skills or vice versa.

We read text through a sequence of eye movements that involve fixations and sacchades. The eye is still in a fixation and information is extracted. During a sacchade, the eyes move to the next point of fixation.

We can only extract information from the page while the eye is fixated. And we can only identify with certainty and clarity about seven to nine characters. This is because of the way in which the eye is structured and the structure of the retina, the part of the eye that receives this visual information … The average fixation time varies from reader to reader and from text to text. Some researchers suggest that it is about 200 to 270 milliseconds, although more recent estimates suggest that it is maybe 300 to 330 milliseconds … This means that we read at the rate of about 180 to 240 words per minute. So reading is a rapid process and it also needs to be an efficient process. During these very short fixations, there is a lot of work that our brain needs to accomplish.
Consequently, reading in L2 can be challenging because the nature of reading requires the process to be fast and fluent, with some automaticity in decoding text, “to leave cognitive capacity for comprehension.”
This point is conceptually explained here and here.

Reading as a communicative activity

While I focused on how reading provides the input for communication, in hindsight I realized that my thinking was constrained by the classroom. The course was more interested in how reading operates, to use the popular social media short form, IRL.

They suggest that reading as a process within and outside the classroom are very different. In the real world, the reader determines what he or she reads for the most part. They also get to decide the purpose for reading. We may also process the text in a very non-linear way, skipping, stopping and/or revisiting sections. Post-reading, there may or may not be a follow-up. We may frequently decide to do nothing after reading a text. If we do decide to respond, this response is usually in a spoken format and we often have conversations with people who may not have read the text, in which case we may present a short summary. For example, you read a news article and comment on it to your partner who hasn’t read the article. The follow-up may also be an action such as instructions for taking medicine, following a recipe, or responding to an email or text message.

The situation is completely inverted in the language classroom. While reading in real life is marked by a strong sense of agency on the part of the reader, reading in the language classroom is characterised by a loss of it. While students may be expected to do an initial reading to get a sense of the text, the principal objective is to “dissect it linguistically.” This is referred to by Tim Johns and Flo Davies as the text as a linguistic object (TALO).

The process of reading in the classroom is also highly linear. Students are required to read the entire text. They are not allowed to stop or skip. Skimming and scanning almost always prepare the way for a more detailed reading. We have been indoctrinated to believe that the extension task that follows is sacrosanct because we must the skill into production. Where follow-up is mandatory in the classroom, things are not so rigid in the real world.

Reading as a strategic activity

The strategies I teach are really the usual suspects: pre-reading, skimming, scanning, intensive reading, and critical reading, mostly in a highly stylised sequence which I haven’t actively questioned.

Reading skills are “information processing techniques that are automatic, whether at the level of recognizing grapheme-phoneme correspondence or summarizing a story.”

Reading strategies are “actions selected deliberately to achieve particular goals.”

 Paris, Wasik & Turner (1991)

The course suggested that skimming, scanning and guessing words from context were the most common strategies used by course books but that they present an incomplete picture of reading. Unlike some ELT colleagues who are skeptical about the value of skimming and scanning, the course doesn’t downplay their importance but proposes their utility is in very specific contexts.
They also implied that guessing meaning from words is treated too simplistically in the language classroom, suggesting that it’s a far more complex process dependent on multiple factors. They evidenced this using research from Margot Haines who found that readers were able to guess the meaning of unfamiliar words more accurately “if the clues for the meaning were local, near the unknown words.” Research by Paul Nation proposed that the frequency of the unfamiliar word in the text, the proximity of the occurrences to each other, the number of clues, the density of other unknown words, familiarity of content, among other factors all contributed to the ability of the reader to guess meaning from context.
Grabe’s 14 strategies were introduced as a richer range of processing techniques with the caveat that they may not be as specific or well-defined as the ones we are familiar with in terms of classroom procedure.
Strategies used by engaged readers

1. Reading selectively according to goals

2. Reading carefully in key places

3. Re-reading as appropriate

4. Monitoring reading continuously, being aware of whether or not they are comprehending the text.

5. Identifying important information

6. Trying to fill in the gaps in the text (through inference & prior knowledge)

7. Making guesses about unknown words

8. Using text structure information to guide understanding

9. Making inferences about the author, key information, and main ideas

10. Attempting to integrate ideas from different parts of the text

11. Building interpretations of the text as they read

12. Building main-idea summaries

13. Evaluating the text and the author and as a result forming feelings about the text

14. Attempting to resolve difficulties

Grabe (2009)

This section was concluded with the disclaimer that effective readers don’t use strategies in isolation, as they are often encouraged to do in the classroom. “Instead, they use multiple strategies in a flexible manner, choosing from their repertoire of strategies to make sense of the text according to the purpose of their reading.”

The role of background knowledge

A lot of the approaches discussed so far have been bottom-up but we have to acknowledge the role of compensatory processes as well. If you have some degree of familiarity with the topic, you may be able to compensate for a lack of linguistic knowledge
In this respect, schema are claimed to help readers in the comprehension, retention and inferencing of texts. Schema are

Previously acquired knowledge structures. Carrell and Eisterhold (1988)

Related sets of knowledge linked together in an established frame.  Grabe (2009)

Background knowledge could take the form of:

  • general knowledge of the world
  • topical knowledge
  • cultural knowledge
  • specialist expertise knowledge

However, background knowledge can also cause interference. This was attested to referencing a study where American and Indian test subjects were asked to read two letters, one about an American wedding and an Indian wedding. The readers misunderstood, mis-remembered or forgot facts and details from the wedding whose cultural context they were unfamiliar with.

Background knowledge interacts with other areas such as language proficiency, motivation and purpose to enable the reader to process texts more effectively. However, the significance of background knowledge is currently underplayed among researchers but the course seemed to suggest that we ought to be paying it more attention. In easing learners into a text, we often focus on linguistic scaffolding through the pre-teaching of vocabulary. However, preparing learners to face unfamiliar topics is done minimally through brief pre-reading discussions.

Automaticity and word recognition

The module started off by suggesting that automaticity is critical for effective reading and concluded by focusing on some research in this area. Akamatsu (2008) conducted a study in which she presented participants with word strings, each containing 5 words with no spaces:

sunbendgivebearpen

shallsattheeatclaimhome

snakepastwellshiftnone

In each training session, participants were exposed to 150 words or 30 strings and they had 90 seconds to recognize individual words. There were seven sessions over seven weeks with one session a week and students were able to improve their word recognition ability significantly.

Greta Gorsuch and Etsuo Taguchi focused on the effectiveness of repeated reading in their research. Participants were asked to read a section of a short story while timing themselves. They then reread the same section two more times while listening it to be read aloud. They then read the section silently two more times, once again timing themselves. Lastly, they wrote a brief report on the text they’d read.

This week’s assignment sought four specific actions for improving reading at your institution based on this week’s material. Here’s my submission:

————————————-
A lot of the concerns with reading as it is currently taught and conducted, are issues that I am familiar with and have discussed and debated with peers. While I acknowledge the problems with the linear, stylised way in which we treat reading activities, I continue to use the often seemingly mindless sequence of prediction, gist reading, specific reading and extension task. Why? I’m not really sure but I suppose it’s all boils down to what’s practical. Of course, I want my learners to read things that they select for themselves. But that sort of Dogme-style approach doesn’t always work out IRL! Only 4 out of 10 will bring in a text and of the four at least one might be inappropriate for whatever reason. And what about the fact that not all learners want to bring in texts. Providing choice in how learners to process a text sounds great conceptually but in practice may lead to readers who lose attention and might not get the maximum value from the lesson.


Paradoxically, the assignments that I peer-assessed prescribed actions from the standard ELT guide to reading … from now on, at my school, I will do a prediction exercise, then make my students skim the text, then scan … You see this where this is going. It felt like we were on different courses. I suspect this might be because a plurality of language teachers use an even more traditional approach to reading such as the one that’s prevalent in Indian schools: one student reads aloud while others follow along with their finger (the finger is very important). Then, students work individually to answer comprehension questions. If this constitutes a reading lesson, a more conventional ELT approach is perhaps quite innovative. However, the course seems to be suggesting something completely radical. It remains to be seen if this theoretical direction will be translated into realistic task types in the upcoming modules.
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One thought on “A task-based approach to reading | Module 2 Reflections

  1. Pingback: A task-based approach to reading | Module 3 Reflections – Immersivities

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