Thursday, November 19, 2009

Reading Research

It would seem that people who teach reading a lot, over many years, would be in the best position to see what works and what doesn't, in that they operate in a kind of laboratory, and can see, in the long term if not the short term, the success of their actions. Much of what scientific research proves is based on what teachers suspect in the first place, through teaching, but in fact real life puts barriers between teachers and researchers, so it's not that simple.

As a teacher I have always found it necessary to both keep up on the research and carry on rigorous in-class research on what works and what doesn't at least for my own students. My own classroom habits have shown me that it's not hard to distinguish the students who actually work through a reading from the ones who don't; and, it's rare for students who work hard on a reading to not want to tell you how they feel about it. So, a teacher who pays close attention to readers over the years can improve reading choice, tailor it to students' needs, and get readings to fit readers better with time. From this experience I judge the current state of research.

Extended Reading controversy

Krashen once said that all standardized tests, such as the TOEFL, should be abolished and replaced with programs in which students are simply given time to read, and good books to devour. The philosophy of extended reading rests on the fluency one gets simply from reading a lot of anything, starting with a good novel, and is based on the premise that since most good first-language readers became good readers by reading and getting pleasure from a number of novels, second language readers should be able to do the same. This is because fluency and confidence are necessary building blocks; the pleasure that comes from novels is a reward; and reading is really really fun if you get a good novel and a soft chair. Extended reading programs have had varying success worldwide, but the followers of the system basically devote countless hours to researching variations of Krashen's advice and hoping to turn the world's classrooms into reading libraries with soft chairs.

Here are my problems with the extended reading camp. We have tried to make students read novels and noticed that there is no such thing as "pleasure reading" in a second language. Without tests, etc., students are more likely going to fall asleep in a soft chair, than read a novel. Since novels are deliberately written for enjoyment, the more serious textbook readers consider novel-reading a painful diversion that doesn't even take them where they want to go with their reading; they feel an enormous burden (sometimes 10 pages/day), and don't ever get the pleasure out of it that they would if, for example, they were a young schoolchild.

From these programs and from experience I can say they are right about some aspects: first, volume, pure volume of reading, is the crucial variable. Students can and do make themselves read large quantities, since that's what they need, and teachers can help and reward them by noticing their hard work and passing them to a higher level (this can't be done without tests, though, since some students can pretend to read or read poorly and still look a lot like they are reading; such students skew the results and make all efforts appear to be fruitless). But, extended reading would work better if all learners were young, with plenty of time on their hands, and getting pleasure was the main reward they would expect from any given venture; they aren't, and it's not. Second, careful attention to pleasure students do get from any reading is not wasted; whether it is a textbook, news article, or low-level newspaper.

Context clues controversy

A few years ago a friend of mine got fed up with the "context clues" camp and the exercises they put into reading texts, and pointed out that if students don't know much vocabulary, they can't very well apply that skill to what they read. He knew, instinctively, that it's a skill all readers know and use all the time, but mostly when they know 90% or more of the words they are reading; it doesn't work when they are facing more than 10% of unfamiliar words. He suspected that that limit was quantifiable, and went about finding it; he set about proving his theory, and soon did.

I learned several things from this controversy, somewhat by accident. First, using context clues is something that any sentient reader does naturally; we don't have to teach people how to do it. Second, calling it "guessing" is offensively incorrect and is likely to be misunderstood by the vast majority of learners; if it's truly guessing, why bother? Third, there are some "clues" that are genuinely new to learners, such as using text organization to predict topic sentence and support; but, successful use of these skills relies more on being able to do these things as one reads, in other words, not so much being aware of the skill, but being able to practice using it while decoding language simultaneously. Thus I concluded that practice, practice, practice was a better strategy than doing context clues exercises. It is worthwhile to point out that one can use context clues, but students already know that; it's often more productive to point out where they could have done it, but didn't because they were too busy translating.

Folse, K. (2004). "Myths about Teaching and Learning Second Language
Vocabulary: What Recent Research Says." TESL Reporter 37 (2), 1-13.

Folse, K. (2004). "Limitation of Context Clues in Real-World Comprehension:
A Case Study" Nexus: A Journal for Teachers in Development 7, 1.

P.D. Fard

She is a friend of mine who set out to do research on the component skills of reading. She figured that if the testing companies (ETS, etc.) quantified and measured these skills separately, they ought to at least play out as statistically discrete. But they didn't. The essence of her research showed that, at least as far as discrete skills go, reading in its essence is an intermix of skills relying on grasp of vocabulary, such that as vocabulary grows, the skills begin intermixing rapidly, but never developing discretely. People therefore don't tend to be imbalanced in the skills; nor do they show any particular favoring of one skill over another.

(SCALAR 2007)

Vocabulary research

I used to have much more, but have only this to share. Given the importance of vocabulary, what do we do to help our students remember it, and have it available for use whenever they wish? Much has been written; it has been studied, and here's a place to start.

Llinares, G., Leiva, B., Cartaya, N., & St. Louis, R. (2008, September). Acquisition of L2 vocabulary for effective reading: Testing teachers’ classroom practice. The Reading Matrix, 8, 2

A good reading teacher:

Finds readings that will motivate students to read

Represents English as a gateway to a world of information and opportunity, and shows that to students

Finds or makes readings that are the appropriate level; works with curriculum designers to provide textbooks that aren’t limiting or narrow

Knows about students’ native language, background experience, reading experience, overall goals, and ability to put time in outside of class…

Knows what aspects of the English sound-spelling correspondence are most difficult and frustrating, and helps students overcome this barrier

Knows what in a reading will be difficult for students

Maximizes the amount students read, in class and outside of class

Is aware of different learning styles and how to maximize student learning by reaching students in different ways

Assesses regularly and effectively, using different methods, giving students different ways to learn

Integrates reading with other skills effectively, so that students spend as much time “in English” as possible

Holds students accountable for learning vocabulary steadily, accurately and effectively over time, keeping in mind their changing needs as they reach upper levels

Notices and handles effectively students with reading disabilities and other reading problems

Uses new technology effectively, keeping in mind what students will need, as well as giving them new opportunities to learn

A good teacher:

Gives good simple directions for activities
Is imaginative, cooperative, expressive, open-minded, and optimistic
Inspires both creativity and analytical ability
Makes students enthusiastic about learning
Puts himself/herself in learners’ shoes daily
Develops and nurtures students’ confidence
Pays attention to what motivates students and uses it
Sets high standards and helps students meet them
Teaches students to be independent
Makes himself/herself available to students
Varies activities so that each concept is taught in more than one way
Knows how to correct mistakes without crushing student egos
Is well organized about grading and paperwork
Keeps the class focused on the topic
Uses a variety of teaching methods
Uses visual aids or technology to make the class more interesting
Tries new lessons to add to the repertoire
Is receptive to questions, listens to students’ concerns
Treats students equally & fairly, doesn’t abuse power
Tries to create opportunities for real communication in English
Has patience and a good sense of humor
Returns assignments quickly, begins and ends class on time
Remembers students’ names
Knows his/her own learning styles and preferences as well as students’
Is aware of cultural differences, strives to learn enough not to offend
Makes a clear syllabus and sticks to its promises
Is willing and open to suggestions from peers or students
Keeps the level of anxiety down in the classroom
Deals with both more and less advanced students in ways that help both
Is student-centered
Never gives up hope on students
Broadens students’ perspective
Promotes cooperation and good relations among students in a class
Admits to limitations, isn’t afraid of not knowing or of making mistakes
Understands what the students need
Gives examples before requiring students to present
Controls time effectively
Keeps the purpose of teaching clear
Speaks well and carefully
Evaluates students’ performance throughout the course
Challenges students, but doesn’t expect perfection
Can predict students’ mistakes
Can advise students on future studies
Always upgrades himself/herself professionally, keeps learning
Can keep personal life out of the classroom if necessary