Traditionally, the purpose of learning to read in a language has been to have access to the literature written in that language. In language instruction, reading materials have traditionally been chosen from literary texts that represent “higher” forms of culture.
This approach assumes that students learn to read a language by studying its vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structure, not by actually reading it. In this approach, lower level learners read only sentences and paragraphs generated by textbook writers and instructors. The reading of authentic materials is limited to the works of great authors and reserved for upper level students who have developed the language skills needed to read them.
The communicative approach to language teaching has given instructors a different understanding of the role of reading in the language classroom and the types of texts that can be used in instruction. When the goal of instruction is communicative competence, everyday materials such as train schedules, newspaper articles, and travel and tourism Web sites become appropriate classroom materials, because reading them is one way communicative competence is developed. Instruction in reading and reading practice thus become essential parts of language teaching at every level.
Reading Purpose and Reading Comprehension
Reading is an activity with a purpose. A person may read in order to gain information or verify existing knowledge, or in order to critique a writer’s ideas or writing style. A person may also read for enjoyment, or to enhance knowledge of the language being read. The purpose(s) for reading guide the reader’s selection of texts.
The purpose for reading also determines the appropriate approach to reading comprehension. A person who needs to know whether she can afford to eat at a particular restaurant needs to comprehend the pricing information provided on the menu, but does not need to recognize the name of every appetizer listed. A person reading poetry for enjoyment needs to recognize the words the poet uses and the ways they are put together, but does not need to identify main idea and supporting details. However, a person using a scientific article to support an opinion needs to know the vocabulary that is used, understand the facts and cause-effect sequences that are presented, and recognize ideas that are presented as hypotheses and givens.
Reading research shows that good readers
Integrate information in the text with existing knowledge
Have a flexible reading style, depending on what they are reading
Rely on different skills interacting: perceptual processing, phonemic processing, recall
Read for a purpose; reading serves a function
Reading as a Process
Reading is an interactive process that goes on between the reader and the text, resulting in comprehension. The text presents letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs that encode meaning. The reader uses knowledge, skills, and strategies to determine what that meaning is.
Reader knowledge, skills, and strategies include
Linguistic competence: the ability to recognize the elements of the writing system; knowledge of vocabulary; knowledge of how words are structured into sentences
Discourse competence: knowledge of discourse markers and how they connect parts of the text to one another
Sociolinguistic competence: knowledge about different types of texts and their usual structure and content
Strategic competence: the ability to use top-down strategies (see Strategies for Developing Reading Skills for descriptions), as well as knowledge of the language (a bottom-up strategy)
The purpose(s) for reading and the type of text determine the specific knowledge, skills, and strategies that readers need to apply to achieve comprehension. Reading comprehension is thus much more than decoding. Reading comprehension results when the reader knows which skills and strategies are appropriate for the type of text, and understands how to apply them to accomplish the reading purpose.
Goals and Techniques for Teaching Reading
Strategies for Developing Reading Skills
Developing Reading Activities
Using Textbook Reading Activities
Assessing Reading Proficiency
Material for this section was drawn from “Reading in the beginning and intermediate college foreign language class” by Heidi Byrnes, in Modules for the professional preparation of teaching assistants in foreign languages (Grace Stovall Burkart, ed.; Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1998)