Thursday, 13 August 2009

Learn to Read and Read to Learn

In the previous entries I have been discussing what it is like to teach grammar and vocabulary in the English Classroom. The following list shows a few examples of what students say they do when they meet difficulty in reading comprehension, particularly when they meet a new word (Hedge; Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom: 6):
  • "I think about whether the word is important for understanding the whole text."
  • "I think if there is a Spanish word like it."
  • "I study the words around it."
Before analysing the previous four statements, I would like to clarify that I will agree or not with them following my personal view on reading comprehension in the ESL and EFL classrooms. When students are given a text (or when they bring their own texts to the lesson, which is a great way of encouraging authentic and interesting reading), it is essential for them to know that reading in the English classroom needs to resemble the reading they do in their mother tongue. That is why, for instance, when they encounter an unknown word, there is no need for them to panic or desperately resort to an inmediate translation or definition simply because when we are reading a novel, an article or a story in our first language we do not generally need the help of a dictionary. The first idea listed is one of the best ways for students to go about new words in a text. Unless it is a specific type of text, we always read in our mother tongue to get its meaning, ideas and thoughts and not to make an intensive analysis of its vocabulary. It is of great help for the students to know that unless, the unknown word is essential to understand the whole text, it should be paid no attention. I will certainly (and I actually do) encourage this excellent way of approaching a text since it gives words their most important role in a text: to help you understand its meaning. It is important to highlight, however, that this line of thought cannot be applied to those texts used especifically for intensive reading, in which students are asked to conciously concentrate and work on vocabulary, grammar and form. The second one on the list cannot be said to be of my preference. Apart from implying that the student is concentrating more on vocabulary than meaning, it can most of the times be a misleading tool. Even though it is true that there are some words that are similarly spelled in English and Spanish, it is also true that most of the time words similar in spelling are not even close to being similar in meaning. False Cognates (pairs of words in different languages that are similar in form but different meaning; e.g.: the Spanish word "Librería" vs. the English word "Library") can be really misleading when trusted as tools for understanding new words. Finally, the third one is another idea that I always try to foster among my students. Paying attention to the words around a new one, i.e. to guess its meaning through its context, is a very useful and reliable tool when we encounter an unknown word which has already been decided to be necessary for the understanding of the whole text. Even in our first language, when we face a new word, it is certainly the most natural thing to do to try to understand it with the help of the surrounding words and sentences.

It is now our mission as teachers to raise awareness among our students as regards the importance of reading in building and recycling knowledge. Regardless of what we are learning or studying it is undoubtedly true that it is mainly through reading that we get most of the input we need to succeed in our studies. When we teach English we are giving our students an infinite number of tools and possibilities for them to increase and polish their knowledge and reading is definitely one of the most important ones. We help them learn how to read for them to be able to learn by reading.

Discussion taken from "Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom," Chapter VI, Tricia Hedge.


  1. Great quotation to finish your post!!!
    How challenging it is to teach them to learn though reading!!!
    Wouldn't you consider that if we really want to foster autonomous learning, we should train them in all the strategies that Tricia Hedge presents as students’ innate reactions? I guess that the key point to consider is to train the students in different RC activities with different purposes, but allowing their skills development.

    Great to read you again, keep blogging!!!


  2. Yeap! It's true. All the strategies presented by Tricia Hedge are worth fostering as long as they help our students become independent readers. The problem with some of them, however, is that they do not foster autonomy. For instance, the one in which the student says that he asks the teacher for an explanation. It is great for them to count on us but we shouldn't overencourage that. What we can do is to teach them how to use a dictionary, for example. We help them get at the answer but on their own. We tell them how and not what.
    Thanks for your comment, Yohi! (:

  3. What a thoughtful post, Alez! Most of your views have been supported in my experience, though I would like to make one point: reading in a FL is NOT (and perhaps doesn't need to be) much like reading in our mother-tongue, especially for lower level students, since the ratio between known and unknown words / structures / paralinguistic conventions is totally different. It might resemble the way reading was when we started learning to read, but most of our students have already forgotten what that felt like!

    BTW, I definitely believe teaching students to use dictionaries is a worth-teaching strategy!

    See you around,