Text by: Marina Siskou
A rarely defied teaching practice is the random introduction of the target language vocabulary beyond content.
Being presented with a bulk of target language words to ingest might turn out to be functional, if L2 learners are good at memorization. However words need to belong somewhere in order to mean something. Out of context, words can mean virtually anything, thus the possibility of L2 to err seems rather non-existent. All answers can be accepted.
Disconnection of words from the text generates another fallacy: L2 learners develop the conception that grammar is devoid of meaning. The fact of the matter though, is that grammar is brimming with meaning: “The baby fell on the floor during the night”: fellpast simple: The Statement: the baby fell from her crib. The meaning (implicit): She is fine now, the blow wasn’t heavy, whereas: “The baby has fallen on the floor during the night: has fallen present perfect simple: The Statement: the baby fell from her crib (the same action happens in both statements). The meaning (implicit): She suffers from the blow impact, maybe she’s in pain or she has had a concussion.
Two identical statements carry different intended meanings. The difference between L2 vocabulary development and grammar acquisition is that, whereas vocabulary is accessed consciously, grammar is subconsciously processed.
Grammar teaching proves to be more challenging. The employment of the term “comprehension” is rather elusive as well. Even if L2 learners have understood the meaning and the use of a grammar rule, it might take them time before they internalise and use it in appropriate situations. How then can we reliably measure grammar acquisition?
Reading Comprehension and Readers’ Comprehension
Part of the answer might be lying in the meaning of the term comprehension.
According to Snow, “comprehension as the essence of reading involves the process of simultaneously extracting and constructing meaning” (2003).
Factually, it is ubiquitously accepted that there exist as many texts (i.e. versions of the same text) as their readers. Different readers ascribe varied meanings to the same text, and the same reader might take a conspicuously different reading of the same text at different times.
“Print, the visible manifestation of language, defies a meaning fixed in time or space, thanks to challenging historical circumstances to be sure, but also the vagaries of various reading publics (Allen, 1993).”
Paying respect to the above realization, it might not be advisable to felicitate only the readers who perceived the text in the same fashion as we did. It would feel daunting and rather vain.
Preferably though, it would be more encouraging to congratulate every reader in the L2 class for their alternative contributions. With regard to the very digressed reading interpretations that might occur, some more intuitive reading and closer attention to the L2 learner’s understanding could help to unravel the complexity.
Remember that by default, the deliverance of the writer’s intended meaning is a long and strenuous activity, making authentic-let alone instant-understanding of any text a challenging task. No reading activity is free from the reader’s bias.
Henceforth, the amount, the quality of the L2 vocabulary and the schemata each reader is meant to see and retain are liable to subjectivity; which entails that some L2 readers might end up absorbing lexis and grammar other than the intended, and this can be a welcome outcome.
What reading entails and what it generates
Billmeyer (2004, cited in Costa & Bena, 2008) assures that although “reading strategies are helpful, the engagement in reading is not the product of strategies alone but a fusion of strategies with mental disposition”. To communicate a personal conceptualization of the above conclusion, reading encapsulates more than the obvious.
Depending on the kind of reading needed, we might accustom L2 learners to activating skimming, gist-searching, extensive reading and intensive reading.
For Nation, the acquisition of core vocabulary is connected to the notion of extensive reading (and extensive listening). Nation (2011) recommends working with texts and extensive reading for acquiring high-frequency vocabulary. This […] moves away from the ideal of the monolingual native speaker toward the functional bilingual as a more realistic role model for the language learner. (MLA, 2007).
Core target vocabulary organically belongs into fluent language production, be it written or spoken.
Whereas addressing the written context of the textbook has been naturalized especially for L2 learning needs and presents virtually no problems, hindrances or misconceptions, comprehension expectations capsize upon encountering an original L2 text; textbook content is customized and refined to the point of threshold understanding, meant to offer the target language into digestible content for the L2 learners; a wise and effective procedure, as it is structured upon developmental stages, taking into consideration a multitude of educative factors; time allocation, age, level, concentration span, intent for classroom teaching in gradual progression.
Problems might arise when L2 learners encounter authentic L2 material. That is content that has not undergone any adaptation for learners of English. Thus, B2 level learners might not be able to read and process an L2 advertisement independently. Hopelessly, some of them might come to the realization that they are being taught a classroom-devised language, that they are able to communicate exclusively in a classroom-devised linguistic environment; yet this situation was nobody’s desire and goal.
Though it might happen, it is not necessarily a manifestation of blatant malpractice. In the time of ubiquitous internet use and e-learning management systems, quality and original content abounds for appropriate L2 classroom use.
“Extensive reading, or free reading, is contrasted with intensive reading that requires full mastery of all aspects of a text”. (Nation 1997, 2006).
Reading can be active and if incorporated as a predictable classroom practice releases the L2 learners’ speaking, writing and listening potential. Yet it is mostly efficacious when it naturally leads to concentration and observation. In order to ensure those desirable variables, we should be reminded that public, loud reading is counterproductive. L2 learners, when expected to read aloud an abstract, especially an unfamiliar piece, are doomed to grow worried about the way they come across in the classroom rather than about the text process. Therefore, they result in reading distantly, bearing no connection to the writer’s intent.
Instead, it might be more beneficial to assign the reading activity silently and observe the L2 learners’ facial responsiveness (their face muscle contract, their eyes widen, some might gesture), a reliable marker of understanding.
Benefits from Solidifying Reading Skills
Reading is not considered indispensable because it permeates all kinds of examinations; it is dominant in every examination because it is indispensable.
Familiarization with reading and the frequent exposure to a respectable range of genres produces literacy and life benefits.
“Extensive reading has been promoted as a key strategy for literacy skills in general” (Krashen 2004, McQuillan and Krashen 2008) and frequency effects on general reading comprehension, in particular, have supported the hypothesis that learners benefit from exposure to high frequency lexemes identified through corpus linguists” (Nation 2006).
Apart from its centrality in developing literacy skills, L2 learners need to be armoured with a set of life skills to cope with the multitude of unpredictable situations all future generations are expected to face.
Well-developed reading skills are the backbone for global skills. In its simplest sense, the term global skills are the integral skills for rendering the person a life-long learner and able for success in an ever changing world. According to Oxford University Press “global skills are not restricted to any particular subject or curriculum but are transferable across all subjects and to life beyond school” (2019).
The inherent value of personal reading will never become obsolete. Reading, just like writing, expresses compelling human needs of communication that transcend the L2 learning. It is a life skill that is being acquired alongside with the development of the target language. •
Prisca Augustyn, No Dictionaries in the Classroom: Translation Equivalents and Vocabulary Acquisition, International Journal of Lexicography, Volume 26, Issue 3, September 2013, Pages 362–385, https://doi.org/10.1093/ijl/ect017.
Allen, James Smith. “From the History of the Book to the History of Reading: Review Essay.” Libraries & Culture, vol. 28, no. 3, 1993, pp. 319–326. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25542564.
Alexander, P (2004). A historical perspective on reading research and practice. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/255654818_A_Historical_Perspective_on_Reading_Research_and_Practice (last accessed 23/10/2019).
Oxford University Press (2019). Developing Global Skills in the ELT classroom, https://oupeltglobalblog.com/2019/10/11/global-skills-eltoc2020/ (last accessed: 23/10/2019).