Friday, March 14, 2008

Reading Strategies That Keep "Language In The Teaching of Second Language Reading"

Our ESOL students bring much to the table when approaching the task of reading. It is our responsibility as reading teachers, then, to provide explicit instruction in strategies to capitalize on their strengths, thus increasing and maintaining motivation to read and to develop good reading habits and providing a low-stress learning environment. In addition, strategy instruction is critical in assisting our students in their areas of weakness by providing opportunities for improvement to better achieve the goal of reading comprehension. What kinds of reading strategies are needed to assist in this process?

Students need to have access to both top-down and bottom-up strategies. Top-down strategies include such things as using background knowledge, previewing and predicting, guessing the meaning of words from context, and skimming and scanning. Bottom-up strategies include decoding (sounding out words), encoding (spelling), using capitalization to infer proper nouns, recognizing sound and word patterns, etc.

Teachers are generally really effective at teaching top-down strategies, but too often the teaching of bottom-up strategies is neglected. Why is this? Is it because teachers feel inadequate to instruct students in decoding strategies because they either did not learn to read in the same way, or because they are not well-versed in the methodology of how to teach decoding skills? In a sense, when we neglect teaching bottom-up strategies, the language is taken out of the teaching of second language reading.

Of course, bottom-up (or decoding) strategies should not be taught at the expense of teaching top-down strategies. Rather, a balanced approach to integrating both kinds of strategies proves to be the most effective approach.

To illustrate this, let’s apply both top-down and bottom-up reading strategies in reading the following text:

"The kenlig coddlers canly kimpled in the cumpy kegs."

Now answer these six questions:

1. What kind of coddlers where they?
2. What did the coddlers do?
3. How did they do it?
4. Where did they do it?
5. In what kind of kebs did they kimple?
6. What is the subject? What is the verb?

What reading strategies did you use to enable you to answer these questions? Perhaps you utilized your background knowledge of parts of speech. Perhaps you utilized your linguistic knowledge to come to the conclusion that these are nonsense words and that you can still answer these questions without knowing the meaning of these words. Do you comprehend this sentence? You may be able to read the sentence, but that doesn't necessarily mean you comprehend its meaning.

Now, what if these were real words? How would you know how to read or spell them? Now think of what your students experience when they come across unfamiliar words in their reading. Do you have adequate knowledge as their teacher to know how to sufficiently instruct your students in the decoding skills necessary to help them read this sentence accurately? Remember that more accurate reading improves fluency, and increased fluency improves reading comprehension.

How about spelling? Notice the different spellings with c-initial and k-initial words. Do you know the rules for when a word is spelled with C versus a K? Is there a rule to guide the reader? Yes! Some teachers do not feel that English has a systematic approach to reading English because there seem to be too many exceptions to the rule. I’m pleased to tell you that there is some hope, however. There are resources available to instruct students in such things. For example, how do you know when a word will start with a “c” or a “k”? In other words, if you hear the /k/ sound at the beginning of a word, how do you know if it begins with a “c” or a “k”?

This is the rule: Listen for the sound of the vowel that follows. If the sound /k/ is followed by the vowels a, o, or u, it will always be spelled with a “c”. If you hear the vowels i, or e, it will always be spelled with a “k”.

This rule works 100% of the time, with the exception of some names (i.e. Kay, Kate, Katherine), words of foreign origin (i.e. kangaroo, kayak, karate, kung fu, Hong Kong), and other proper nouns, such as restaurant or company names that are trying to be creative in their spelling.

Read the sentence again and notice the spelling of the C and K words. Does this rule fit? Yes, it does. We can explicitly draw our students' attention to these rules in their reading texts to increase their awareness of how to apply such bottom-up strategies autonomously in their effort to read fluently and comprehend text.

In conclusion, I want to re-emphasize the importance of incorporating explicit bottom-up strategy instruction into your reading curriculum. As mentioned previously, of course top-down strategies are likewise important. It is well to consider, however, a balanced approach to teaching reading, where both bottom-up and top-down strategies are explicitly taught according to students' needs.

David Eskey asserts:
“…The lack of attention to decoding problems has, I think, produced a somewhat distorted picture of the true range of problems second language readers face (95)....

“In practical terms, my concern is thus to keep the language in the teaching of second language reading. That may not sound very controversial, but I think that in promoting higher-level strategies--like predicting from context or the use of schemata and other kinds of background knowledge--some researchers have been sending a message to teachers that the teaching of reading to second language readers is mostly just a matter of providing them with the right background knowledge for any texts they must read, and encouraging them to make full use of that knowledge in decoding those texts.

“Though that is certainly important, it is also, I think, potentially misleading as a total approach…We must not, I believe, lose sight of the fact that language is a major problem in second language reading, and that even educated guessing at meaning is not a substitute for accurate decoding” (97).

Reference Cited:
Eskey, D. (1993). Holding in the bottom: An interactive approach to the language problems of second language readers. In P. Carrell, J. Devine, & D. Eskey (Eds.), Interactive approaches to second language reading (pp. 93-100). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.


  1. Heidi,

    I read with interest your blog about reading and ESOL. It is a major interest of my own and I really think that early and quantitative encounters with text AND voice at the appropriate level is what's needed.

    There is a major shortcoming that I see time and time again and which your quote from Eskey points towards -- many teachers try to teach reading to L2 learners like they would in the L1 classroom. Lots of self-reading (no voicing/audio), a lot of focus on what you term top down strategies.... (and I don't like the distinction -- where is up and where is down????). On the other hand you have teachers advocating a focus on metalinguistics, decoding and rules/order.

    I agree we need a balanced approach but I also think we don't need "a system" . Each learner is unique and we just need to provide them with the opportunity to purposefully engage with text along with the audio . A multimodal approach to reading which I promote through the use of karaoke and reading. Krashen just fluffed it up -- this has always been the secret to good teaching like a mother reading to her child.....

    Thanks for your thoughts.


  2. David,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I completely agree that each learner is unique and that they need to be given opportunities to learn IN the language--not just ABOUT the language.

    You also mentioned that we don't need a "system" when teaching reading. I feel that the danger to using a "system" is not necessarily the system itself (depending on the validity of it), but how we subject our students to the system. The danger lies in using a system inappropriately, whether it be 1) teaching L2 reading in the same way that L1 reading is taught (as you mentioned); 2) teaching students in exactly the same way, failing to make appropriate accommodations based on students' individual differences in learning styles, areas of weaknesses, etc.; or 3) using a system simply because we favor it or are told to use it rather than adopting the system because it fills the needs of our students.

    I also like the idea of a "multimodal approach" where a variety of approaches are used in teaching reading to best help fill our students' needs. Your approach using karaoke with reading sounds interesting!

    Thank you again for your comments.