Why reading comprehension tasks can be detrimental to L2-reading skills development

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The enhancement of reading skills proficiency in foreign language learners has never been as crucial to their linguistic and holistic development as in the 21st century classroom, due to the prominent role that digital technology and the Internet play in their lives. The Internet allows foreign language students easier and cheaper access to masses of information without having to purchase or borrow a book, and allows for a vast variety of choice of topics and text-types.

The goals of reading in the 21st century classroom

With this in mind, in this day and age, more than ever, in their daily practice, curriculum planners, L2-instructional material writers and teachers need to have reading proficiency development in their focal rather than subsidiary awareness, striving, as much as possible, to enable learners to become competent autonomous readers. This means ensuring that they :

  1. WANT to read independently – this implies experiencing success and enjoyment in reading tasks in the classroom as well as being conversant with the benefits of reading for the enhancement of one’s overall L2-proficiency;
  2. Have effective approaches to reading independently – this requires learners to have acquired (a) effective reading strategies to compensate for lack of vocabulary knowledge; (b) learning strategies (such as using dictionaries effectively and knowing how to select accurately website resources for reading);
  3. Have a wide enough vocabulary repertoire to be able to read independently;

To this we must add the need for students who may one day pursue a career as translators or interpreters to acquire translation skills.

The problem

To what extent do published instructional materials, MFL departments’ schemes of work and teachers explicitly, regularly and consistently focus on the above? Let us take a look at some of the typical reading activities in foreign language lessons (in totally random order):

  • Word-recognition tasks;
  • Searching the target text for the L2 equivalent of a list of L1 words;
  • Deciding if statements about a text are true / false (or not mentioned);
  • Closed / open-ended questions on a text;
  • Inferring how target grammar structures in a text work;
  • Partial or full translation of a text;
  • Practice of compensation strategies (inferring meaning from context);
  • Reading for gist (students summarize the main points);
  • Reading for pleasure;
  • Gap-fills;
  • Split sentences to match;
  • Matching questions and answers;
  • Looking for information we need to accomplish a typical real-life task;
  • To model the use of the discourse features and conventions which characterize a specific text-type;
  • Jigsaw reading (piecing a jumbled up text back together);

Research strongly indicates that most foreign language lessons in UK school settings focus mainly on reading comprehension tasks such as true or false, (closed) questions and answers, gap-fills, matching exercises and, to a lesser extent, split-sentences and jigsaw reading. Although there is a place for this kind of activities, they hardly serve the goals of reading instruction listed in points (1), (2) and (3) above.

What these activities do, is test students’ comprehension of the written text whilst implicitly modelling a perception that reading is about skimming and scanning texts for answers to questions. These tasks, do have the potential to enhance the foreign language learner’s reading proficiency, do not get me wrong, in that they require students to apply inference strategies to answers the questions they are asked and semantic analysis; moreover, if the students are allowed and encouraged to use dictionaries, they may learn some new language in the process. However, they do not always per se necessarily widen and consolidate learners’ vocabulary repertoire – unless each texts is recycled through a range of activities and has some pre-reading tasks building up to them and some post-reading ones aimed at consolidation.

Even at the level of strategies acquisition the learning gains of this practice may be overestimated. Research clearly indicates that for reading strategy instruction to be most effective, reading strategies need to be taught explicitly – which, in most cases, in my experience, doesn’t happen.

The most detrimental impact of exposing students mostly to reading comprehension tasks, in my view, refers to the affective domain: how do we motivate learners to enjoy reading for reading’s sake by perpetuating such practice day in day out? How can we model real-life-like reading behavior if students carry out reading tasks that do not really occur in the real world apart from trivia-quiz nights? Real-life reading tasks involve (i) comprehending the main points of  text – not necessarily as directed by the questions formulated by the teacher/textbook; (ii) finding information one needs for the accomplishment of a task, to fill gaps in their knowledge or (iii) simply reading to learn new things for the sake of personal enrichment. Such tasks are more likely to motivate foreign language learners than comprehension for comprehension’s sake. Not to mention the negative consequences for the motivation to read when learners who are less good at making intelligent guesses or inferring details consistently score poorly.

The personal enrichment aspect briefly touched upon above is, in my view, the least tapped into in the typical MFL lesson, possibly because it entails that the learners would have to have a higher degree of involvement in choosing what is read in class – which some teachers may disagree with. But if we want to model independent learning, this has to happen and, thanks to the internet and mobile technology, this is easier to implement in the 21st century classroom.

From a cognitive point of view, another harmful effect refers to the fact that we do not engage our students in extensive reading often enough. Yet, this is crucial to develop their autonomous competence as readers. Extensive reading, must be actively promoted and scaffolded in class as well at home, as often as possible for it to become a habit to carry over to out-of-classroom student practice. Scaffolding is the key word here, as students will need reminders to read and materials, worksheets, google documents, Edmodo, Padlet or other platforms to log in new words they found, to ask the teacher for clarification, to express their response to the content, etc.

Grammar, too, is rarely linked to reading activities. Yet, recent research has found that readers who are able to analyze the language occurring in a text structurally, i.e. through the application of their knowledge of the L2-grammar rule system do have greater chances to understand a text than those who do not. Reading skills enhancing activities should therefore also include tasks which demand learners to analyze texts metalinguistically (e.g.: sorting specific words in the text into nouns, gender, tense; asking questions as to why an adjective has an ending rather than other, etc.) .

Implications for the enhancement of reading skills

Top-down and Bottom-up processing skills – Reading skills instruction should aim at developing Top-down processing and bottom-up processing skills. The former refer to reading strategies involving using previous knowledge about the topic and context of the text-in-hand to infer meaning. Bottom-up processing skills refer to the way the learner reconstructs a text’s meaning through the knowledge of vocabulary, grammar/syntax and sociolinguist features. In order to practice both sets of skills, just giving students reading comprehension ‘quizzes’, marking them and giving scores is not enough to impact reading proficiency. I advocate the following tactics:

  1. Pre-reading tasks which (a) elicit background knowledge of the topic and context of the target text and model useful reading strategies and (b) present and practice the key vocabulary occurring in the target text;
  2. Recycling of the same text through several activities to exploit its full linguistic potential across the lexical, grammatical and cultural dimensions. Such activities will involve word-recognition; finding target language equivalent in the text of L1 word (see www.frenchteacher.net for examples) ; scanning the text in search of synonyms of a list of L2 words; grammatical analysis; comprehension questions, true or false and gap-fills. Text manipulation activities of the like found on www.textivate.com can also be very useful.
  3. Post-reading receptive and productive tasks aiming at consolidating the vocabulary and the grammar ( odd one outs, categories, gap-fills, split sentences – see www.language-gym.com/work-outs for more example)

Real-life reading activities – in order to enhance student motivation and effectively scaffold independent Internet-based out-of-the-classroom reading, reading activities should also include the same activities the learners engage in real life, whether for pleasure (e.g. reading media gossip about a pop-star, synopsis of a movie, reviews of videogames, short stories, poems, magazines articles ) or to accomplish a task (checking the train schedule; researching information for a piece of homework; finding out where one can buy a given product at the cheapest price, booking a holiday online).

Student-driven text selection -teachers ought to give students a degree of choice as to what is read in the class. This can be done fairly easily in settings where students have tablets, personal computers or mobile devices. When this is not possible, the teacher could carry out a survey to find out what students are interested in and select the target texts accordingly. Teachers should not be afraid to be high jacked away from the topic under study a few lessons per term.

Reading longer texts – This should become a habit amongst our students, starting with simplified readers or using parallel texts of the likes found on the excellent www.frenchteacher.net and culminating in the use of longer short-stories. Reading clubs can be set up with the support of school librarians, parents or older students. I personally have found extensive reading to be very useful in enhancing reading and language proficiency overall.

Web-related learning strategies – students should be made aware of what the most effective approaches to developing reading skills on the web are. This will include advising them on where to find resources suitable for their level of proficiency; modelling ways to exploit such resources effectively; how to use online dictionaries or forums where to seek linguistic support (e.g. the wordreference.com one); how to store and organize effectively the new vocabulary they come across and even how to use it for self-teaching (e.g. by using quizlet or memrise).

In conclusion, textbooks and teachers should be more creative, eclectic and systematic in their approach to reading skills practice and enhancement. The development of an effective and motivated Internet-savvy autonomous L2 reader should be at the heart of any pedagogic approach to reading instruction in the 21st century. This entails providing the learners with effective cognitive tools (reading strategies), adequate L2 declarative knowledge (vocabulary and grammar), an enhanced awareness of how the Internet can help them improve their reading skills (web-related learning strategies) and opportunities for reading-related enjoyment and personal enrichment.