Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension, like its listening counterpart, is also a receptive skill, which once again involves the active processing of messages. This time, however, these messages are found in print form. This form differs greatly from oral discourse, too, in that written discourse is characterized by the observance of correct grammatical usage, coherence and cohesion in thought, and wellconstructed sentences which demonstrate the planning and organizing of ideas, much of which is often lacking in oral discourse. Therefore, efficient readers do not only decode and decipher written symbols, but, also, and more importantly, interpret and construct meaning from these symbols. In this process, ideas, thoughts, concepts, and values are actively extrapolated and internalized by readers so as to determine the communicative intent behind the messages. During the reading process, readers search for all kinds of clues and resort to a number of resources in order to assist them in the construction of meaning, using such strategies as, sound-symbol relationships, grammatical, semantic, contextual, and visual clues, their own experiences, and so forth, as a means of determining the meanings behind the symbols. In addition, readers need to be able to relate with the originator of the text, i.e., the author, in order to negotiate the meaning of his/her communicative intent(s). Thus, as with the listening skill, reading comprehension also has a twofold purpose:

  • 1) to participate in discourse, and
  • 2) to obtain information; i.e., reading serves a need or a purpose.

Thus, the kinds of activities and real-life tasks that are used to develop this skill must represent the need for reading a text by employing such processes as problem-solving and information-getting.

To carry out these processes it is important to be able to read for meaning which is contingent upon grasping key contextual clues. Furthermore, without a context, meaning is difficult to interpret, construct, or reconstruct. For second language learners, it is important that they be given a context so that the deciphering and interpreting of meaning can be facilitated. Here again, it is useful to recall the five basic elements of any context (Tremblay, 1989), which are:

  1. the participants;
  2. the relationship existing between the participants;
  3. the communicative intent(s) used for participating in the speech act;
  4. the medium through which the information is transmitted (e.g., personal letter, informal note, instruction sheet, novel, and so forth); and
  5. the significant background factors pertinent to the context which will affect the speech act. (See the section on listening comprehension for further information on these elements.)

As in listening comprehension, each of these elements plays an important role in defining the context that is needed in order to attain full comprehension of what is being read. It is by knowing the importance of context for purposeful reading that teachers can determine the kinds of reading tasks and activities which are appropriate and helpful in developing reading comprehension in the second language classroom. As a result, when choosing reading material it is important to bear in mind its context-appropriateness and the purpose for reading.

At the classroom level, generally two forms of print materials/resources are used: didactic materials or authentic documents. Hammerly (1982; 1986) suggests that didactic materials are prepared specifically for a second language clientele and for instructional purposes only. As such, their intent is primarily to teach and develop language elements, since the ratio of new linguistic elements (e.g., vocabulary, grammatical structures, etc.) to old/already known elements is very high, with limited focus being placed on reading for problemsolving or information-getting purposes in real-life situations. Recently, however, some didactic material is moving in the direction of reading for meaning, but it is important to note, nevertheless, that a real context is often lacking, as is an authentic reason for reading, making the material less purposeful. Teachers need to be aware of this in order to add a viable context and the carrying out of real-life tasks with the reading material that is being presented in these resources as a means of developing the skill appropriately.

Authentic documents, on the other hand, are prepared for a first language audience and should be employed in the second language classroom when an appropriate context allows for their use. These are documents which one would find in real life, such as telephone messages, grocery lists, pamphlets, application forms, poems, novels, and so forth. However, teachers must be aware that the use of authentic documents is often quite time consuming and involves much more planning for their use than didactic materials, since the ratio of new linguistic elements to old/already known elements will be much lower. This is where strategy use becomes a key factor in developing reading comprehension. Students will need to be shown how to tolerate ambiguity by focusing in on what they know and not on what they do not know. As a result, they have to be shown how to use learning strategies to interpret or construct meaning from print. For example, Beginner level students can be shown how to construct meaning through the use of cognates. Advertising often uses a number of cognates which students can be asked to underline or circle. Next, students can use these words to attempt to “guess” the message or messages which are being shared. This type of activity teaches students to tolerate the unknown, by building upon what they already know and gives them a strategy which will assist them in not getting bogged down in the deciphering of each and every word.

The use of authentic documents will also assist in developing “risk takers” who can then become efficient and effective readers, since they can resort to a variety of strategies to enable them to become less frustrated deal with a text which is unfamiliar to them. As with listening, many of the strategies, such as hypothesizing, predicting, and anticipating, which are used naturally in one’s first language, must be brought to a conscious level in a second language in order to develop and enhance reading comprehension. Other strategies which are particular to reading comprehension, such as scanning or skimming for information, will constantly need to be reinforced if students are to be able to use them efficiently. Still other strategies, such as using contextual and visual clues, will assist students in better anticipating the types of messages they will be reading. Students should also be taught how to use bilingual and unilingual dictionaries as a meanings of assisting them with words which are “blocking” full comprehension. Students need to be taught how to use the dictionary judiciously so that they are not looking up every single word which they are unable to discern. This is a time-consuming strategy and should only be resorted to when the word or expression impedes the students’ total comprehension. Students need to be shown how to glean meaning from a text without having to know the full sense of every word. By having access to a number of strategies, then, students can learn to become better and more efficient readers and interpreters of the second language.

However, unlike listening which involves both interactive and noninteractive text types (see the section on the program components – experience/ communication- for the definition of these terms), essentially all reading is noninteractive. In this sense, reading is often more difficult than listening because readers are mostly receiving information via one-way messages. Consequently, they do not have the immediate opportunity to stop and negotiate meaning or do perception checks with the communicator of the intent to ensure the meaning is being correctly understood. Furthermore, oral discourse is often embellished by nonverbal communications which will assist in the comprehension of the message, while written communication is limited, by the very nature of print, unless it is accompanied by a graphic, an illustration or a photograph, in assisting in the general comprehension of the message(s) being shared. For this reason, then, the types of reading tasks the students are asked to carry out must be realistic and purposeful and the types of texts chosen are both appropriate for level and the task. To assist in the development of reading comprehension, three phases are proposed:

  • 1) the pre-reading phase,
  • 2) the actual reading phase, and
  • 3) the post reading-phase.

The pre-reading phase involves two aspects:

  • 1) contextualizing the reading which gives students access to the information required to better understand the text by providing the situation and some background to the text and
  • 2) anticipating the elements of the text which sets the stage for reading by defining the purpose for reading the text, determining what kinds of information might possibly be found in the text, identifying a process which will assist in finding this information and deciding how it will be recorded.

This phase employs students’ past experiences as a means of anticipating the type(s) of information or messages which might be shared. Brainstorming is the most common form of anticipation, since it allows for all students to bring forth the experiences which they have acquired mostly in their first language and possibly in their second with written texts, such as grocery lists, telephone messages, business letters, legends, fairy tales, novels, etc. Further, brainstorming assists students in becoming consciously aware of the fact that different texts convey a variety of messages in various ways. The use of contextualization and anticipation, then, is an important aspect of the development of reading comprehension, since they provide students with an anchor which will assist them in decoding the text and deriving meaning from it.

The actual reading phase is composed of two stages:

  • 1) the verification stage which gives students the opportunity to verify what they have anticipated by using such strategies as skimming and scanning to determine if the information is present or not and where it is generally located and
  • 2) the comprehension of details which requires the students to seek out and identify specific information required to complete the communicative task.

The latter stage also provides students with feedback on their general reading comprehension, i.e. their ability to determine the gist of the main messages being shared. The kinds of activities in which students can be asked to apply what they have been able to extrapolate from the text could be as follows:

  • 1) completion tasks where students are required to supply missing information,
  • 2) summary guides in which students present in written or oral form pertinent information, or
  • 3) question/answer guides which demand more than just the recall of information, but rather focus on synthesis-type questions such as having students determine what would be the succeeding events based on the information they have at the present time, or on evaluation-type questions where students are asked to use their past experiences as the criteria for judging whether or not the passage, as they have understood it, was consistent with their own experiences.

These are just a few examples of the kinds of real-life tasks which students can be given in order to demonstrate what it is they have understood. As such, an important aspect of this stage is to provide students with appropriate and sufficient feedback as to what they have understood, as well as to determine the depth of their understanding, since with abstract texts there is often a fair amount of cultural information and nuances which are present that can possibly hinder or impede full comprehension of the messages being shared. To ensure, then, that full comprehension is being attained, students must be given tasks which will delve into the extrapolation of this information and which are different from those used in either the pre- or post-reading phases.

The final phase is the post-reading phase. This step consists of tasks that require the students to reinforce what it is they have just acquired and to relate it to previously learned material, while at the same time reflecting upon the strategies employed in the pre-reading and actual reading phases. This phase is also important, since it develops the students’ ability to take what has been derived from the reading text and to apply it to either a similar or different context (a form of transfer or “reinvestment”). The tasks used in this phase should be different than those presented in the previous two phases to ensure the recycling of knowledge. These tasks, then, will often require the use of other language skills such as related oral or written production activities. The kinds of oral and/or written production tasks which can be carried out would depend largely on the original reading text. For example, orally, students might be asked to summarize the reading passage or demonstrate their appreciation of the text by giving a critique. Writing tasks might include rewriting the ending of the article or story, writing the information from another point of view or writing an article for the newspaper based on the information presented.

Another aspect of this phase is an extension of learning which involves tasks that add new elements to the context so as to recycle and reuse what was previously learned. Once again, any one of the other language skills can be used to develop this portion of the post-reading phase. Thus, there are a variety of ways in which reading comprehension tasks can be combined with listening, speaking or writing tasks as a means of transposing and transforming the messages which were originally understood. These tasks, however, need to be in keeping with the communicative/linguistic level of the students as well as their cognitive level.


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