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Concourse 2

Understanding reading


The best way to improve your knowledge of a foreign language is to go and live among its speakers.  The next best way is to read extensively in it.
Nuttall (1996:128)

If this is true, then one of the greatest benefits we can give our students is the confidence and willingness to read extensively in English.  There are more reasons for this.


What the research shows

It can, of course, be argued that the causation may work both ways.  Frequent readers may read frequently because they have better vocabularies and find it easier, are more motivated in any case and so on.


Reading: the mechanics

For many of us, reading seems such a commonplace skill that we overlook how complex and difficult it is to learn.  A much-cited figure is that it takes around 600 hours of instruction to learn to read with any fluency and some people never truly master the art even in their first language.  We should not, therefore, treat the area lightly or assume that our learners will simply transfer the skill from first to subsequent languages.
Being able quickly to read a text and grasp the meaning and organisation requires a reading speed of around 200 words per minute and a native speaker of English will usually achieve something around 300 words per minute (Nuttall, 1982: 36).  Speeds below 200 words per minute will usually result in non-comprehension because each word is being processed too slowly for the overall meaning to be gathered.
For speakers of languages which do not have an alphabetic writing system or use a different alphabet, attaining those sorts of speeds is a challenge.
This is especially true for people whose first languages use logographic or syllabic writing systems and even those which have an alphabetic (i.e., more or less phonemic) system may use a range of alphabets as well as writing right to left or top to bottom.
For more, see the guide to spelling in English.
To get a flavour of what it is like to de-code an unfamiliar text, try this:
and that is in English.  It's even more difficult in a language you are just beginning to master.


Eye movements and word recognition

When we read, we do not move our eyes smoothly along a line of text but focus roughly speaking about one third of the way along each word for a matter of about 200 milliseconds.  We do this because, so the theory goes, it allows us to focus both on the shape of a word and on its initial two letters which carry so much of the information.  We can view 3 or 4 characters to the left of our main focus and around 6 spaces to the right.  This allows us simultaneously to decode the current word and begin processing the next word.  If the next word is short enough, we can jump over it completely and focus on what follows.  Then, in something like 30 milliseconds, our eyes jump to the next word.  Thus, we work our way along the text in very small and very rapid jumps.  The technical term for this fast movement between fixation points is, incidentally, saccade.

As we fixate on each word, we need, of course, to recognise it very quickly.  Native speakers can do this almost instantly with very well known words but are slower when it comes to unusual items.  We also tend, quite often, to backtrack and re-read function words which allow us to get the connections between phrases.  So, for example, in reading a sentence such as:
    Give me a lift and I'll buy you a pint
we may return to re-read the coordinator and to figure out that it is, in fact, acting as a conditional subordinator in this sentence, not as an additive coordinator which is its usual role.  (The sentence could be rephrased as If you give me a lift, I'll buy you a pint.)

It has been suggested that having an active schema (or set of conceptual associations) allows native speakers to skip large sections of text because we can predict what comes next.  However, research (reported in Schmitt, 200: 47) shows that, in fact, most of the text is focused on and processed in the way described here.


Types of text.  What do we read?

Here's a list of possible text types that anyone might read in a day or so.

newspaper article a novel this web page
bus timetable TV schedule recipe
restaurant bill maintenance instructions news website

Now think about how we read these things.  Do we, for example, read every word?  Do we move logically through the text, line by line?  Do we read very carefully or just glance about?  When you have an answer, click for some comments.


Types of reading.  How do we read?

This is the bus timetable kind of reading.  We scan the text looking for key data such as Destination, Time, Bus number etc.  It's also how we might find a telephone number or scan an encyclopaedia entry to locate a specific bit of information such as numbers or lists of events.
This is how we might approach a TV schedule if we don't know what we want to watch.  We run our eyes quickly across the text to get a general idea of what each programme is about.  Once we find something that interests us, we read it for detail and find out when it's on and where.  We are interested in the gist, not the detail at this stage.
Intensive reading
We deploy this skill when we are concerned to understand as much as we can.  Maintenance instructions, recipes, study texts and so on are the typical things we read like this.  Often we will read things more than once and we will usually try to understand every word of the text.  We almost always use this approach with short texts containing key information.
Extensive reading
We read extensively when we are reading for pleasure and also when we are hoping to get some general information.  In this mode, we usually don't read extremely carefully and we can ignore words we don't know.  We may backtrack sometimes if we get lost but usually we simply read through the text, following the writer's organisation.  Novels, magazines, newspaper articles etc. are all accessed like this.

To see if you have understood what you have read so far, try this short test.

There is a clear implication here:
We need to make sure that we use a range of texts and procedures to ensure that our students get adequate practice in all the reading approaches.

When you are happy that you have understood this page, click here to go on to some teaching ideas.

Nuttall, C, 1996, Teaching reading skills in a foreign language, Oxford: Heinemann English Language Teaching
Schmitt, N, 2000, Vocabulary in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Other references you may find helpful include:
Alderson, J. C, 2000, Assessing Reading, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Bamford, J & Day, RR (eds.), 2004, Extensive Reading Activities for Teaching Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Grellet, F, 1981, Developing Reading Skills, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Hudson, T, 2007, Teaching Second Language Reading, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Sanderson, P, 1999, Using Newspapers in the Classroom, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Urquhart, AH & Weir, CJ, 1998, Reading in a Second Language: Process, Product, and Practice, Harlow: Longman
Wallace, C, 1992, Reading, Oxford: Oxford University Press