Whether in a first or second language, the act of reading involves a complex set of linguistic and other skills. You may think that because reading is an activity which allows us to understand written communication, that it represents a purely linguistic skill. However, much of what we process when we follow a written text in fact uses another set of metacognitive skills, which allow us to navigate messages and obtain information about the writer, the tone and organisation of the writing, giving us a complete picture of what and how we are reading.
More than just a language skill
Almost any written text is by definition intended for someone to read. With the exception of a therapeutic diary or journal, where the act of writing itself is the purpose of the text, the purpose of written language is to communicate ideas from one person to the next. This can be done in several ways: the meaning of the words on the page are obviously key to communicating the message, as is the grammatical structure of the language in the text, and the devices used to link the ideas together logically. However, any communication of meaning beyond these purely linguistic features does not strictly involve linguistic processing. The majority of conscious processing when we read is devoted to ‘understanding’ of other methods of communicating ideas, such as social cues, organisation of content, underlying or implied meaning, register, tone, attitude and understanding of genre.
Consider the following texts, written with the same purpose in mind, to be understood by the same reader, and to achieve the same outcome: to make sure that the weekly shopping is done according to what is needed in the kitchen:
I’m at work this evening, so could you pop to the shops and pick up some bits for the week? We need…
3) To whom it may concern,
In order to provision the food store for the coming week, it is necessary for someone in this family to purchase the following items, ensuring that every item on this list is obtained in order for the smooth running of the family kitchen: bread, one loaf; milk, one half-litre; eggs, one dozen; cornflakes, one packet of five hundred grams; washing-up liquid, lemon scented; potatoes, one kilogram, suitable for baking or boiling.
Brian Desmond Hammond
How we process these texts varies between 1) and 2), due not to the linguistic processing needed to understand what the message is, or what the writer is saying, but due to social conventions: politeness, tone, register, feeling, layout, etc., making example 2) read as a more intimate (even for a shopping list!) text than the simple list in 1). Both of these examples are perfectly plausible (and in one case, authentic) examples of notes left on kitchen fridges across the English-speaking world.
Now turn to example 3), and think about why this may strike you as an unusual way of achieving the same purpose. What aspects of this ‘note’ stand out, and how much of the processing required to answer that question is purely linguistic?
The answer is: less than you might think. Despite the complexity of the note, the only linguistic processing needed to understand the message of the writer is some formal phrases (to whom it may concern, yours - a vocabulary issue), measure words (loaf, grams, dozen, etc.) and the formal word choices made throughout (provision, purchase). The reason these stand out, however, is not linguistic; the reason this shopping list is difficult to process is that it breaks the convention of the simple genre of shopping lists.
Genre and the reader’s prejudice
Genre plays a huge part in reading - our cultural awareness of what kind of language, tone, phrasing, organisation and register to expect in a given text affect how we read it, and where we focus our attention to process it in the intended way. When we approach a text, we have huge amounts of prejudice as readers about what it should look like, according to genre. When these expectations are broken, as in example 3), above, we must go to a deeper set of processing skills to explain the mismatch. In this case, the note could be a running joke between a husband and wife, a satirical comment, or sarcastic shot at another member of the house. We don’t know the relationship between the writer and intended reader, so cannot say this for sure. What is certain is that the writer has subverted the genre of ‘formal letter’ to communicate the same basic information as in examples 1) and 2): a shopping list.
OK, so that was a lengthy example, but now consider the prejudice brought to English-language texts by language learners from other cultural backgrounds. The language, tone, organisation, etc. of an academic article, for example, in Japan looks very different from an article in Spain or Norway, so when learners from these cultures come to read an academic article in English, they may bring with them a hugely diverse range of prejudices about what kind of language and information an article of this kind ‘should’ contain. Even a highly proficient speaker of English, coming from another culture of love letters, may be able to understand a text as being academic in content, but not have sufficient experience with the genre in English to process the text effectively.
Now set aside all of the non-linguistic, social and cultural conventions involved in any text, and consider the amount of work which needs to be done to understand the basic message of a text - the grammar and vocabulary choices made, and the overall meaning of what is written, and we can see that reading is a potentially enormous and complex undertaking for someone learning a language.
How can we develop the broad set of skills involved in reading?
We have looked at many aspects of a text which can be used to fully process it as intended by the writer, and these are all potential areas of focus in class, depending on the types of text which you select for reading skills work. The most important thing to remember when doing reading work with language learners, however, is: Always ask students to read to a clear task. Just having students ‘read paragraph one’ is NOT a reading task, and will result in some very unfocused, redundant and surface-level appreciation of the text. Any task given to students while reading should be focused on clearly defined reading sub-skills, as presented above. Reading for purpose is different from reading for pure comprehension or tone - students will be looking for different text features to think about each of these aspects, so design your reading questions with this in mind.
How you approach structuring these tasks into a lesson depends on the way you want to organise the class, but to work with a text on several different levels throughout a session, a top-down approach works well.
Top-down support for reading skills
A top-down approach means taking a series of analytical steps to work with the text first at a broad, whole-text level, then working down to paragraph-level features, and finally focusing on key sentences (and even individual word choices) to finish the process.
Top-down reading typically starts with an appreciation of ‘big-end’ text features such as genre (identified through shared assumptions about layout, organisation and instantly noticeable features), the text’s purpose and the writer’s broad thesis (the main idea being presented by the writer). In English-language texts, these features can often be identified by taking a look at the ‘shape’ of the whole text and reading the first paragraph, which usually serves as an introduction or first contact with the reader.
‘Top-end’ reading such as this can be followed by prediction tasks, which ask students to predict the kind of content, ideas and functions which they think will appear in the rest of the text, based on the opening paragraph. Prediction tasks sharpen the mind for what comes next, and further reading is more likely to be focused with expectations such as these in the learners’ minds.
Following whole-text work, the focus can be drawn to individual paragraphs, the top end content of which can often be understood from the first sentence, or topic sentence. A good activity is to remove the content of each paragraph and just supply the introduction and topic sentences of a text. Ask the class to list three points which relate the introduction to each topic sentence, and they will be further prepared to read on more deeply.
Once the paragraph-level information has been processed, it is important to look at the transitions within paragraphs, linking the detailed ideas together to construct the content of the text. This may involve some work with conjunctions and referencing, as well as pure comprehension work. Notice that it is at this level that the pure language skills of reading come into play. At higher, top-end levels of processing, information is often understood at metacognitive and other non-linguistic levels.
Finally, the sum of the different levels of processing from the lesson can be checked by looking at the purpose of the text and its component parts. Asking about the function of different paragraphs in the context of the whole piece moves learners back up to the top end of the processing scale to consider why the writer might have produced the text in the way that they did, and whether it achieves its purpose effectively.
Reading with different language levels
The process outlined above may seem more appropriate for higher-level learners working with critical reading and text analysis, but the same sets of skills are equally practicable at lower levels of study - simpler texts also have genre, purpose, organisational features, main ideas and details, and it is not difficult to grade the question: ‘what is the writer’s intended effect on the reader?’ to ‘How did the text make you feel? Why?’. There is no reason why the same top-down process cannot be adapted for shorter, simpler texts with the same engagement with aspects of the writer’s message.
In all, ESOL reading is so much more than simply asking students to read a text and answer comprehension questions which can be labelled ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Without focus on the different ways of processing texts, both linguistically and non-linguistically, it is difficult for learners to develop a broad set of expectations about the nature of texts, a situation will prevent them from developing free, holistic reading skills with the different texts they meet in their futures.
Tom Garside is a teacher trainer, education developer and development consultant with over 20 years of experience in the UK, China, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Malta. He is Course Director for the Language Point / Trinity College London blended CertTESOL course, which is held on-site at partner locations around the world, and has written a reader-friendly e-resource for developing teachers: TESOL, A Gateway Guide, and a pronunciation teaching resource pack: Pronunciation Card Games.
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