The act of learning a language involves working on the language skills: writing, speaking, listening, and reading. We cannot rely on students’ background knowledge of reading in their L1 and believe they will transfer all the ones they already have 一 mostly, subconsciously 一 to the additional language. When a reading task comes up, some teachers simply ask students to read the text and do the exercise; they might even explain a few words students do not know. Moreover, there are some who tend to test students’ skills instead of teaching them how to read more effectively. In both cases, it is probably part of the teachers’ beliefs that learners transfer skills from L1 to L2 naturally. Therefore, it is more profitable to use different approaches in order to teach sub-skills and strategies.
Even though reading is a receptive skill, readers do not need to be simple receivers of the message. Silberstein (1994) says that it is the interaction with the text that tends to create meaning. However, the product approach, that most teachers tend to use more often, makes reading a passive process. This approach encourages the use of top-down sub-skills as the first contact with the text to understand the general idea. It is usually a stage to check predictions, find out the topic, read for gist etc. Then, a bottom-up activity would follow, which is often reading for detail or specific information, and finally a follow-up activity.
According to Brown (2001), specialists used to argue that different text comprehension exercises working on bottom-up sub-skills would result in text comprehension. However, later research has shown that we should make use of different types of activities and help students develop a mix of bottom-up and top-down sub-skills. This will value reading as an active process, to get our learners to interact with the text, rather than simply gather information from words and sentences.
It is by applying interactive approaches that learners can dialogue with texts. Eskey & Grabe (1988) claim that these incorporate the use of background knowledge, reading between the lines, context and inferences, etc. while it can also deal with accurate and fast written language recognition. Consequently, interactive approaches work with both top-down and bottom-up sub-skills. To exemplify some of the many sub-skills we can teach using an interactive approach, I will describe three of them below.
1. Guessing meaning from context
As we tend to tell students, they do not need to know all the words in a text to reach comprehension. Silberstein (1994) has argued that knowing how to grasp meaning is one of the most important sub-skill effective readers must develop. Besides helping develop fluency, it also provides ‘semantic links that aid readers in remembering vocabulary items’ (Silberstein, 1994:107). Nonetheless, in order for readers to have enough tools to infer meanings of words, they need to be familiar with 95 - 98% of the lexical items in it. Then, they are capable of making inferences through synonyms in apposition, antonyms, descriptions, examples, glossing, affixation and others.
As there is a minimum of how much readers should be familiarised with the lexis in a text, they need enough aids to make inferences. It might be due to a short-circuit problem. According to Nuttall (1982), this kind of issue happens when learners lack linguistic knowledge to reach a goal. In this case, students sometimes do not have enough previous knowledge of vocabulary. Additionally, some ineffective readers are so used to asking for definitions and consulting dictionaries that they have not developed the suitable strategies to guess meaning from context. Some are also afraid to take risks and do not even try to deduce because they prefer to be safe and resort to dictionaries, the Internet, the teacher or a classmate.
Guessing meaning from context is a sub-skill we should present to our students. A possible way to do so could comprise four steps. Firstly, tell students the list of ways to infer the meaning, which Silberstein cited, and I mentioned above. Then, practice ways to do this at a sentence level: bring three examples of each case, such as She was more than tired; she was exhausted, in which it is easy to infer meaning. Having discussed that, give them the text with the words to be inferred and let them try it individually. If they need help, encourage peer teaching. Only if it is essential, help them. They should notice that they can work by themselves at this stage. Finally, have a decompression moment for the learners to evaluate whether the sub-skill might be useful or if they would like to try again and apply it in other texts.
2. Distinguishing fact from opinion
With the evolution of technology, information, and all sorts of means of communication, people have much more access to texts such as articles, news, and announcements than they did in the past. Nowadays nearly everybody with an Internet connection can post news and articles as they wish. Therefore, our learners must develop sub-skills to distinguish facts from opinions. Not only does it prevent them from taking wrong opinions as truths, but it also develops their critical thinking. These are very important twenty-first century skills. For this, readers must understand the relation between sentences, causes and effects and reasons. They also need to recognise indicators in discourse and marks of subjective language.
A short-circuit problem that may happen when distinguishing fact from opinion is when readers are not aware of discourse markers to show opinion, such as as far as I’m concerned, and indicators in discourse that express a shift from objective to subjective language, for instance lack of evidence. Then, it might be possible to get confused and take opinions for granted. Some basic learners might also lack knowledge of modals of possibility, deduction, and negative conclusion, such as may, might, must and can’t. Besides, the fact that readers might be biased by their own opinions can interfere in their interpretation. This means, they end up grasping points of view as general truths, instead of what they really are 一 personal beliefs. Therefore, we must help learners distinguish between what is meant and what is tendentious.
We need to raise students’ awareness of the discourse markers to express
opinions which are commonly used in the genres they are used to reading, intensively or extensively, and raise critical thinking as often as possible. Then, to deal with discourse markers, let us follow these steps. First, after the lead-in, students watch a video of two people discussing a piece of news. Then, they receive the script and are supposed to highlight discourse markers of opinion. Elicit others to bring background knowledge and encourage peer teaching. After, pull out some sentences from the text and ask some concept-check questions to check whether students think they are fact or opinion. Then, they read the news article the people in the video were talking about to mark facts and opinions. Finally, students are supposed to write a piece of news using discourse markers and being careful when shifting from fact to opinion. After that, get students to think about the importance of this knowledge.
3. Interpreting the text by going outside it.
One of the most important features of the interactive reading process is that readers do not simply read the words and comprehend what the writer meant. Beyond that, they need to rely on extralinguistic features to make the most of the text. By applying top-down strategies, we have a more active reading: schema activation, such as world knowledge and features of genre, are useful to facilitate comprehension. Nuttall (1982) claims that the schemata the text activates in our brains determine the way we will interpret it. According to schema theory research, ‘the greater the background knowledge a reader has of a text’s content area, the better the reader will comprehend that text’ (Carrell, 1988: 245).
A very particular problem that might happen is if students do not have enough knowledge of the world or knowledge of the genre. Therefore, it may get hard for teachers to activate formal, content, or linguistic schemata, depending on the lack of knowledge and on the approach to teaching reading. Problems related to activating schemata in the classroom might be connected to not doing enough of it or doing it too much. Both cases are prejudicial to learners.
To address the issue of lack of background knowledge in a particular group of learners, students can discuss in groups and google some information on the topic whenever they are not able to produce and activate schemata before a text. Moreover, provide students with different exercises to work on top-down strategies. Perhaps, bring more top-down activities than bottom-up activities for a while. But remember that teachers should never focus on only one kind of processing.
I believe this interactive approach to reading might help learners develop more top-down sub-skills over time. These are important because they allow readers to dialogue with the text. A dangerous situation is if the teacher focuses too much on one kind of sub-skill only. What is useful about the interactive approach is that it allows teachers to work with different kinds of tasks.
Brown, H. (2001). Teaching by principles. 2nd ed. Michigan: Pearson ESL, p.299.
Carrell, P. (1988). Interactive text processing. In: Carrell, P. et al. Interactive approaches to second language reading. Cambridge: CUP, p. 245-247.
Eskey, D. and Grabe, W. (1988). Interactive model for second language reading. In: Carrell, P. et al. Interactive approaches to second language reading. Cambridge: CUP, p. 245-247.
Nuttall, C. (1982). Teaching reading skills. 2nd ed. Bedford: Macmillan, p. 7.
Silberstein, S. (1994). Techniques and resources in teaching reading. New York: OUP, pp. 107, 109-111.