Having recently given three teacher training sessions on pronunciation and lexis, I was getting together some background information when I came across a post in EFL Magazine called 5 Top Tips to Read Faster. These are for learners to do on their own outside of class and are good for encouraging independence, but made me think about what teachers can do with learners in class, in terms of exposure to language, practice opportunities and feedback, as well as helping learners to feel more confident and independent. I’ll give some ideas for activities, but first why lexis and phonology can help learners not only to read faster, but listen, speak and write well, too.
The Phonological Loop & Working Memory
In his blog post Why MFL Teachers may have to rethink their approach to foreign language reading instruction, Gianfranco Conti, an English Language teacher, academic and second language learner, outlines how the brain processes foreign language written text.
He writes that top-down models of reading posit that learners apply cognitive structures called schemata (background knowledge of topic and text genre) to make sense of a text. These theories do not require the reader to recognise or decode every single lexical item and morpheme, viewing reading as a game of guessing, predicting and verifying. As an L2 learner, he found that this inferential approach does not work all the time.
More recent cognitive accounts of the reading process are interactive models, which recognise the synergy of top-down (higher order) and bottom-up (lower order) processing. Prior knowledge with the help of accelerated bottom-up processes of letter and word recognition influences the perception, speed and conceptual framework in reading processes. One specific set of lower order skills has received particular attention in recent years – lower level verbal processing in working memory, and in particular, phonological processing.
Essentially, efficient phonological processing correlates with high level reading proficiency (and more efficient reading skills correlate with better speaking skills). Firstly, the establishment of a complete and solid phonological representation of a word appears to be the first and most important requisite in early L2 vocabulary acquisition for a young L2 learner. Secondly, there is clear evidence that when words are learned they are encoded through their phonological representation. When read they are automatically and very rapidly activated and this precedes the retrieval of meaning from long-term memory. That is, meaning activation is mediated by phonology.
In her article Phonology in second language reading: not an optional extra, Catherine Walters talks about how learners don’t necessarily need to transfer skills from L1 to L2, i.e. learn a new set of skills. What they need to do instead is access already existing cognitive skills. The same cognitive mechanisms and processes are involved in the building of a mental structure to a narrative or expository account whether it’s based on reading, listening, looking at pictures or watching silent films. That is, comprehension skills cannot be transferred from L1 to L2, because they’re more than just linguistic. Good L2 readers have reached a point where they can readily access their existing skill in building mental structures and they can easily decode in order to comprehend. Problems with comprehension and reading speed are possibly due to the way phonological information is represented within a component of working memory called the phonological loop. The aim, then, is to increase the processing power or efficiency of working memory. Learners need help to hold the phonological representations of new words in their focal attention long enough to construct more stable, durable representations and build better mental pictures.
The phonological loop is not only linked to word learning, but also such things as the development of productive narrative skills in speaking and writing. Walters says that the availability of adequate representations of sound patterns in the phonological loop is crucial. Basically, most L1 readers store their most recently read material in their phonological loop rather than their visuospatial sketch pad. They hear what they read. So, it’s worth building an L2 phonological inventory in long-term memory. This can help learners distinguish between words that differ by a phoneme, for example. There is a bit more to it than that, of course. Walters also distinguishes between alphabetic L1 readers and ideographic L1 readers. Ideographic readers probably use their visuospatial sketch pad to begin with, so they might find a grapheme-to-phoneme conversion system, linking spelling and sounds, particularly helpful to read L2.
One other point worth making is that where sound matches spelling more regularly, such as Italian or Czech, there tends to be fewer problems with learning to read.
Of course, L1 and L2 learners are different. L1s are younger for a start and learning to structure build. Many L2 are older, possibly with a lower degree of neuro-plasticity, making their minds less receptive to learn a new language, but they make use of more sophisticated learning strategies to compensate. However, I think L2 learners and teachers can learn a lot from their L1 counterparts.
My 8 year old daughter has improved so much in the last 2 or 3 years. Nowadays she reads very well and naturally, often doing voices for the different characters. She is also comfortable reading in silence on her own.
I asked her what has helped her to read faster. She said it’s helpful to have a teacher read with her to tell her which words she gets wrong or doesn’t know how to say. The teacher asks her how she thinks she should say it, encourages her to try again, and praises her when she gets it right. If it’s wrong, the teacher says the word (models it), gets her to repeat, then she carries on reading. Reading with the learners is the most important thing the teacher does. The teacher often tells the whole class to do an activity and takes out one student at a time to read separately for remedial work. Feedback and error correction are vital.
This is pretty much what we do at home, but I tend to listen to my daughter read now, rather than read the book with her. One thing I’ve noticed is that even without looking at the book I can tell when she misses a word or mispronounces one and I can supply the missing word to a good degree of accuracy. Anyway, occasionally she asks how to say a new word and sometimes what it means, which is worth encouraging learners to do.
My 6 year old son is at an earlier stage of development. He asks about new words, but much more often. I tend to read along with him. He often loses his place, so I need to know where he is and, of course, he needs more help with corrections.
The kids’ school encourages parents to read with the kids every day. We’re asked to spend time on prediction and inference activities, describing pictures, what they think will happen, asking about characters, how they might have felt in the story, what the child would do in their shoes, how the ending could be different. Quite often I just get the kids to repeat or summarize the story. Just as important as having the kids read to us, we read also to them every night. They like to ask questions and talk about the stories, and they love listening to audio books, particularly books that they’ve already read, like the Roald Dahl stories, which are fun to read.
I’m no expert on L1 reading skills, but I think about it a lot and I do think most L1 activities are just as valid for L2 learners, so I did a little search and found these links, amongst others, that are worth a look to compare with L2 strategies. They overlap a lot. Essentially, L1 and L2 learners are trying to achieve the same goals.
Fluency: Instructional Guidelines and Student Activities by Reading Rockets.
5 Surefire Strategies for Developing Reading Fluency by Scholastic.
Practical Classroom Activities
So what do successful L2 readers do? What can be done to help them?
Gianfranco Conti is one such successful learner. He recommends in the blog post above:
Prediction and inference to activate schemata. Perhaps reading similar articles in L1.
Metalinguistic tasks, e.g. identifiying parts of speech.
Extensive practice in the recognition of discourse markers.
Narrow reading tasks with similar texts on same topic.
Metacognitive retrospective tasks reflecting on issues that impede understanding of a text.
Enhancing phonological awareness.
Oral, interactive communicative tasks.
In To Read Better, Improve Your Pronuciation? by elt-resourceful, which also refers to the work of Catherine Walters and her talk at IATEFL 2008, the main advice offered is listening while reading, and explicit focus on features of pronunciation, such as minimal pairs, word stress and connected speech.
I tend to combine L1 & L2 strategies and cherry pick the best, depending on the group size, learner abilities and available assistance. Smaller groups are arguably easier to manage. I think that ultimately it comes down to what learners need.
I recently worked with group of three young Arabic guys. They chose Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp, in the Oxford Bookworms library app, and I airplayed the first chapter from an iPad onto the TV in the study centre. We talked about the pictures. They asked about vocabulary. We read & listened to the accompanying audio. I read some parts and the learners read out loud. I corrected pronunciation and modelled how I say it. I got them to summarize the story. I wrote up new vocabulary on the whiteboard, marked it up for difficult phonemes, stress, and connected speech. I made sure they copied the notes into their exercise books. Their feedback was great. Another teacher runs a book club with reading circles, discussions and vocabulary work. This is also very well received.
Maybe the affective filter for my mini-group was low and the learners felt safe in the class. Ordinarily, they might be shy or get easily embarrassed when it comes to reading and writing in public. Their filters may tend to be high, interfering with the reception and processing of comprehensible input and probably their willingness to produce. The point is that learners also need an environment that helps to facilitate their learning.
Conclusion & General Principles
Firstly, learners already know how to skim and scan, so avoid teaching them how to do it. By all means, use these sub-skills in exercises, but generally speaking, work on an increase in the efficiency of learners’ working memory to comprehend written texts better.
Work with texts, the lexical chunks they contain, and phonology to help learners decode more easily. Increase learner familiarity with lexical items based on more exposure to target language. Teach learners to recognise phonemes, or commonly confused ones, like minimal pairs. Model the pronunciation of a word and get learners to repeat it. Look at sound and spelling relationships, stress patterns and general phonological characteristics. These are clear and manageable goals.
Get learners to read with advanced/proficient users, like homestay families.
Rather than doing work on a single skill, combine skills work.
Listen and read. Watch a video with audio and read the subtitles. Always allow students to do a final listening to read along with the audio script. This will also help learners to become more confident listeners.
Speak and read. As I’ve said, read to students & have them read to you. Maybe large classes are difficult to manage. I like my daughters suggestion of setting the class an activity to get on with and then doing individual work. Make sure you read to the class as a model text, or play audio, and then get students to read out loud. With larger groups, perhaps do a choral reading all together. Turn it into a cloze reading. Everybody reads together. The teacher sets the pace and occasionally misses out words, which the learners then supply.
Listen, write, speak and read. Two of my favourite activities are dictations and dictoglosses, which combine even more skills. If you’re pressed for time, short or micro-dictations of sentences with confusable words are also good.
Promote learner independence and learning strategies for outside of the classroom.
Encourage extensive reading and listening. Learners can listen to the radio, podcasts, or music. They can read more books, magazines, and blogs or watch TV and films. This is all really obvious stuff, but extremely valid as homework, particularly for flipped lessons.
Encourage learners to keep good notes. As well as getting them to gloss over unknown words and guess their meaning, which is good when a dictionary is unavailable, get learners to note unknown words and check them in a dictionary, so many of which are online, free and give information about pronunciation.
The biggest takeaway, though, is make sure you give feedback throughout lessons, as well as at the end. In my opinion, one of the teacher’s primary roles is to give feedback. This is what students really need and why they take classes. They want instruction, but they also want their teacher to correct them and feel this is key to their progress.