When Foreign Language Learners Read

by M. Daariimaa
Marav Daariimaa teaches basic English skills development courses to English majors at the School of Foreign Languages and Culture, National University of Mongolia. She received an MA from Monash University, Melbourne, Australia in 2005. 

    Most Mongolian English teachers are still using traditional methods regarding reading as a means of language study instead of using it for communicative purposes.  These traditional methods do not motivate students to read. So reading classes are usually boring, and there is no clear purpose for reading texts. Students who are taught English in this way usually read English texts word-by-word, and they consider reading as a way of learning new words and grammatical structures rather than as a way of getting information. In our present era of increased international contact for business, professional, and personal reasons, Mongolian students now have a greater need to read for practical purposes.
   More local and international English language publications are available in Mongolia than ever before, and English is the dominant language of the internet and of business communication. Especially at the university level, students’ focus should shift from learning about English language to using English to learn and communicate about topics that are interesting and relevant to their lives. So, English teachers are in search of the most effective ways of teaching reading.

Some theories on reading: What happens when foreign language learners read?  
    In general, the average person would see that the basic purpose of reading is discerning the meaning of what is printed in a text. Reading is the construction of meaning from a printed or written message. It means that when we read, we connect the information from the written message with previous knowledge to understand it.
    In addition, Taylor, et al, (1988) regard reading as a cognitive process that is centered in the brain. This means that what happens during reading is not only decoding or converting communication signals into messages, but also requiring the reader to be involved in the process by perceiving or grasping information, sorting and organizing, and making connections.
    In the “top-down” approach to reading, the reader actively forms hypotheses to predict the meaning of the text, using both language structures she or he already knows and general knowledge possessed. Therefore, reading is an active process in which the reader brings to bear not only knowledge of the language, but also internal concepts of how language is processed, past experience, and general concepts. (Hudson, 1998).
    In contrast, a “bottom-up” approach is considered as a passive one. The reader starts directly from the print, waiting for more information to flow and ignores hypotheses. According to Nuttall (1996), we can make conscious use of this processing when an initial reading leaves us confused. It can happen if our world knowledge is inadequate or if the writer’s point of view is very different from our own. In that case, we must scrutinize the vocabulary and sentence structure to make sure that we have grasped the meaning correctly. However, full understanding comes when we combine understanding of vocabulary and sentence structure with predicting meaning.  In other words, bottom-up and top-down approaches complement each other. Therefore, these two processes are in fact both essential.
    Basically, L1 or L2 learners go through both processes. So, is there any difference between reading in L1 and reading in L2? Bamford and Day (1998a, p.16) state that there is no essential difference between fluent first and second language reading and they cite C. Wallace as saying “we draw on similar processing strategies in the reading of all languages, even where the writing systems are very different.” However, a problem does emerge in the case of EFL learners. They do not have the background knowledge that should support the meaning negotiation. They lack this background knowledge because they are in an EFL setting where the reader does not use English in daily activities and this fact makes the process of meaning negotiation practically much slower or, in some cases, it does not happen at all.
    The following section will discuss the problems of EFL learners, which mainly focuses on first year university students, aged around 16-20, who live in an EFL setting. As well, some problems commonly faced by them in relation to their reading behavior will be discussed.

Reading problems of EFL students at the beginning level in Mongolian universities
    In my opinion, in a Mongolian university setting, two main factors cause reading failure for beginning EFL students. The first one concerns the fact that they are taught English through the traditional approaches when they are in the secondary schools. These approaches, which use grammar translation and the audio-lingual methods, tend to be teacher centered and are still common in secondary EFL programs in Mongolia. For instance, in these classrooms the students read new words aloud by imitating the teacher, and the teacher explains the entire text sentence by sentence, analyzing many of the more difficult grammar structures while students listen, take notes and answer questions.  They study new words, do grammar drills, answer comprehension questions, and do textbook exercises on pronunciation, grammar, spelling, and translation. In fact, such a course uses readings to develop linguistic knowledge. Therefore, students become slow, inefficient readers who are dictionary dependent. They also develop other poor reading habits, such as paying equal attention to all words, translating word by word, trying to understand each sentence in a text separately instead of seeing the relationship between sentences and they therefore develop a passive attitude towards reading. This means they depend very much on bottom-up processing. It also means that students do not appreciate the power of reading in English to get useful and interesting information.
    Another reason that impedes students’ achievement in reading is the fact that, in many cases,they fail to determine their reading purposes. When this happens, they obtain the lowest level of comprehension.  Therefore, they are not able to make good interpretation of what the writer intended to convey. As well, minimum linguistic capability also encumbers students from being competent readers. The distraction of unknown vocabulary, for example, can be very stressful if the student has no strategy to overcome it. Also, inability to use grammatical contextual cues may contribute to the failure in processing meaning.       
    The second factor relates to the English teachers’ lack of creativity in developing an interesting and challenging reading class environment. The students can be discouraged and consider reading a difficult and useless skill to develop. It is obvious then that English teachers play a key role in managing and developing reading classes which optimize students’ potential in developing their reading skill. Teachers must create enjoyable classroom activities to combat this problem.

Some suggestions for Mongolian English teachers
    What can Mongolian English teachers who teach in universities do to promote their students’ competence in reading and to encourage them to read more? The following suggestions are drawn from the materials that I have read to write this paper and from my own experience as an English teacher in a Mongolian university.
    Most importantly, students should be motivated to read. When they want to read, they do so more often and with more effort, and they become engaged in reading. In other words, reading promotes their competence and vice versa. As better readers, they have a larger vocabulary, are familiar with the syntactical structures found in books and have a broader knowledge. This competence motivates them to read more difficult books and even to become better readers.
To motivate students, teachers can:
  1. Use new teaching techniques, tasks and various communicative activities,
  2. Promote students’ independent reading outside of class,
  3. Select suitable material for the students,
  4. Create a classroom environment that is fun and suitable for students’ needs and
  5. Help students to develop as strategic readers.
  •      Teachers can use various techniques and content-based tasks to guide students to concentrate on the meaning of the text rather than have students approach reading as a vocabulary exercise. For instance, before students read the text, teachers can elicit their ideas on the topic of the reading with a picture, chart, problem solution or questions and pre-teach key vocabulary. Also, teachers can encourage students to use reading strategies appropriate for the task. During the post-reading activities, students can apply information to solve a problem and discuss the answers in pairs or groups. By using various tasks, the reading class will not be boring.
  •      Independent reading or extensive reading can be effective in improving general reading ability, and it can help students to get into the habit of reading in English and to enjoy it. At the  university level, extensive reading can be a bridge to building their store of relevant background knowledge.
  •      For a program of extensive reading in which students learn to read by reading, the most important thing is to provide books and other reading materials interesting to the students and which they will be able to read without difficulty. Students have different interests, so teachers need to investigate their own students’ interests through questionnaires, interviews, and observation. The teacher plays an active role in helping students find a book that is at an appropriate level of difficulty. In addition to providing books, teachers should be aware that some low level students need more help in choosing books.
  •      The classroom environment is one of the main factors of the successful reading class. So teachers should make their role clear. Are they acting as facilitators or evaluators? Most of the time a teacher should be a facilitator, so that students can ask questions and admit that they do not understand something without fear of being judged. As well, teachers need to create an environment that encourages students to share and extend their reading with others. As for the physical environment, it should be, of course, comfortable.
  •      Reading strategies range from bottom-up vocabulary strategies, such as looking up an unknown word in the dictionary, to more comprehensive actions, such as connecting what is being read to the reader’s background knowledge. Strategies help to improve reading comprehension as well as efficiency in reading. More proficient readers use different types of strategies. Therefore, teachers should teach students reading strategies.
    To sum up this section, using different activities, bringing a variety of books into the classroom, allowing students to choose their own books, selecting suitable materials for the students, freeing the classroom environment from evaluation-related anxiety and helping students to develop different reading strategies are keys to turn Mongolian EFL students into readers.

It is obvious that whatever approaches are used to succeed in a reading class, the teacher is the one who holds the key. Therefore, teachers should read a lot themselves to improve their methodology for teaching reading skills.

Did this article motivate you to think about your own methodology when it comes to teaching reading skills?  EXCEL graduates and students can get more information in Becoming Good Readers:  Interacting with the Author, which is found in the EXCEL Year “A” Second Semester Methodology Reader.  This article is a review of some of the information found in the Reader.

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Bamford, J., & Day, R.R. (Ed.). (1998a). Extensive Reading in the Second Language Classroom. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Bamford, J., & Day, R.R. (1998b). Teaching Reading. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 18, 1998, 124-141.
Day, R.R. (Ed.). (1993). New Ways in Teaching Reading. Alexandria, VA: TESOL.
Hudson, T. (1998). Theoretical Perspectives on Reading. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 18, 1998, 43-60.
Nuttall, C. (1996). Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language. 2nd ed. Oxford: Heinemann.
Taylor, B., Harris, L.A., & Pearson, P.D. (1988). Reading Difficulties; Instruction and Assessment. Toronto: Random House, Inc.