Reading comprehension problems of intermediate L2 students and implications for teaching and learning

Co-authored with Steve Smith of

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As a teacher/researcher, I occasionally ‘use’ my students as ‘guinea pigs’ to test new methods and teaching strategies I come up with and to test my ‘hypotheses about language learning. They have become so used to it that some of them are now very proactive in volunteering information about their thought processes, learning problems and successes and have become eager game to my ‘experiments’.

In the last few months, ten of them have helped me figure out the main comprehension problems year 9 students experience when they read and translate L2 texts, in the context of a little piece of qualitative research into their thinking processes.

Difference between translating and comprehending L2 texts

Obviously, comprehending an L2-text and translating it involve different processes and outcomes. Comprehension entails, as an outcome, the understanding of the message conveyed by the text at different levels; translation involves not only the understanding of a text, but also the ability to put every single word into the correct L1 equivalent, in some cases ensuring that subtle nuances are expressed accurately in the translation.

In the typical CLT (communicative language teaching) approach to language teaching adopted in many British schools, students are not asked to translate word-for-word when grappling with a text; and this is understandable if teachers are involving students in reading practice which aims at developing effective comprehenders of written L2-texts.

However, if teachers are using reading to model the use of new language and teaching new words – which is what I believe reading activities should also be about – simply training students in being able to guess intelligently or infer the meaning of a text may not always be an effective approach, for the following reasons:

(1) it may not explicitly focus students on useful/important details of grammar, syntax and lexical usage;

(2) students may understand what a sentence conveys, but not necessarily what each and every word it contains means (as this may not be necessary to answer five or six comprehension questions).

For comprehensible input to significantly enhance acquisition, it would be desirable for students to be able to translate as many words in a text as possible. Moreover they should be focused on any grammatical or lexical details in the written input worth noticing and learning that they are developmentally ready to acquire. However, much reading instruction carried out in UK secondary schools these days does not encourage this.

Take the typical reading comprehension exercise we give our students. The students are required to read a text and answer a few comprehension questions or ‘true or false?’; then the answers are marked and unless the student is inquisitive and asks questions to teacher or peers or uses a dictionary or other resources, not much will be learnt in terms of vocabulary or grammar – especially in the absence of follow-up which recycles the lexis or structures contained in the text.

Thus, the big decision a teacher has to take is: am I to use a reading comprehension to train students in simply comprehending texts or to learn as much as possible in the process? Or both?

In the little ‘experiment’ I discuss below I wanted to find out what problems students experience as they attempt to comprhend a written text and how accurate their translation of the unfamiliar words in the text was. The findings would inform aspects of my approach to reading instruction.

The ‘method’

The subjects

My ‘subjects’ were ten year 9 students of Spanish of mine grouped, based on their general attainment in Spanish, in 3 High Achievers (HAs), 4 Average Achievers (AAs) and 3 Low Achievers (LAs).

The task

The students were asked to answer 8 comprehension questions on a Spanish text. After answering the questions, they were asked to translate the text word for word.

The text is actually the transcript of the voice-over to a level-B1 video entitled ‘Un dia en la playa’ found at:  .

I chose this text because I was looking for a passage of medium difficulty which would contain quite a few unfamiliar words whose meaning could be fairly easily worked out by the students based on their background knowledge (i.e. what one does normally at the beach) and several contextual cues present in the text (e.g. a fair number of cognates, fairly linear sentence structure, predictable linguistic contexts and clear cohesion devices).

The students could read the passage on my laptop and – during the translation task only – had access to an online dictionary,, open on another tab.

The procedure

The ‘method’ I chose to investigate my students’ reading process was a technique, called ‘concurrent think-aloud’ with introspection, which requires the students to verbalize their thinking as they interpret a text; the teacher can interrupt at any time in order to probe into their thought processes with open or less open questions (e.g. what is the problem you are experiencing here? Why did you translate this word as ‘hat’? Can you think of any other way to work out the meaning of this word? What if you read the whole sentence rather than stopping here?).

This investigative method is far from being scientifically valid in terms of portraying what happens in a student’s head, as a lot that our brain does bypasses consciousness; however, it usually yields some very useful – and often unexpected – information. Every time I have used it with my students it has provided me with a valuable insight into my students’ problems.

The findings

The students did very well in terms of comprehension and managed to translate most of the text correctly. As predictable, the HAs (high achievers) did better than the rest but the other subjects did very well, too, with only two of the LAs (low achievers) experiencing some serious mis-comprehension problems. Most of the comprehension issues occurred at word or phrase rather than sentence level.

Problems identified with the text comprehension and  translation

1. Misuse or insufficient use of bilingual dictionaries – one set of problems related to the misuse and/or underuse of the dictionary ( Here they are:

1a. Not checking the ‘grammar’ of challenging words – Students rarely checked the word class of the word they were looking up. This led occasionally to incorrect interpretations of the sentences they were processing. When asked what the word-class of the word they had problems with was, they were often (60 % of the time) unsure or took them quite a bit of time to figure it out. I will go back to this issue below

1b. Superficial handling of dictionary entries – The LAs and AAs did not often go beyond the first translation option offered by the dictionary and rarely looked at the examples provided. This also led to occasional misunderstanding of the text. The HAs were more thorough and explored the various options sometimes even referring to the forum threads to confirm their hypotheses.

1c. Reluctance to use dictionary – Although is very easy to operate and the computer was right in front of them, the students, especially the LAs exhibited a general reluctance to using the dictionary, thereby relying almost entirely on their instinct. This occasionally led to mistakes in the interpretation of the text or to a correct overall understanding of the meaning of a sentence, but wrong translation of one or more words. (30 % of the time).

1d. Inputting inflected forms of the verbs in the online dictionary – Some of the students – 3 out of ten – attempted to translate verbs they could not work out the meaning of by entering the verb form they found in the text (e.g. apetecía)– not in the infinitive (apetecer). This led to confusion and occasionally to error.

2. Problems reconstructing the meaning of individual unfamiliar words – Overall, the students exhibited a very good grasp of most of the text and most of them answered all eight of the comprehension questions I asked them correctly. However, when asked to translate the text, their inferencing skills let them down in several contexts in which with a bit more creativity, use of their background knowledge and an analysis of the morphology of they might have guessed intelligently what the words in question meant. The less able students were the ones who particularly struggled in this sense. These were the main issues noticed:

2b. Overly-narrow focus – The AAs and LAs often did not read the whole sentence in order to infer the meaning of the challenging unknown word(s). They only focused on the words immediately surrounding the challenging item; when encouraged by me too look at the sentence as a whole, they managed to work the sentence out 90% of the time.

2c. Inadequate use of L1 words in order to guess intelligently meaning of L2 unfamiliar words of similar etymology- Unless the words were obvious cognates, only two of the learners (both HAs) used English words which shared the same etymology with the Spanish words in the text-at-hand that they were having issues with. So, for instance, when faced with the word ‘crucero’, most of the students failed to relate it to the word ‘cruiseship’; the same happened with the verbs ‘tumbarse’ (to lie down) which only two students related to the English word ‘tomb’and ‘apetecia’ (I wanted; felt like) which was associated with the English word ‘appetite’.

2d. Infrequent use of knowledge of previously learnt L2 words -Only half of the students used their knowledge of Spanish words they already knew to interpret any unfamiliar lexis found in the text. This happened with ‘algunas’ (some; any) and ‘secarse’ (to dry oneself) which was translated successfully by five of the students using the words ‘algo’ (something) and ‘seco’ (dry) to reconstruct their meaning.

2e. Accurate interpretation vs inaccurate word-for-word translation – Students often inferred the general meaning of sentences or phrases correctly; however, the inferences led to the wrong translation of some of the constituents of those sentences or phrases. The best example of this is the sentence: ‘Es necesario ponerse crema para que el sol no queme la piel’. The sense that one should put the sun-cream on in order to protect one’s skin from the sun, was grasped by everyone. However, only one student understood that ‘queme’ means ‘burn’; moreover, none of the students noticed or queried the unusual construction of the sentence (para que + noun + subjunctive) and the unfamiliar subjunctive ‘queme’.

Whilst on a communicative level this may be viewed as an effective handling of the text from an interpretive point of view; in terms of learning this way to go about understanding a text does not lead to much learning, especially considering that only one of the students double-checked their translation of the sentence using the online dictionary.

This impressionistic guessing should be encouraged as a survival and/or test-taking strategies; however, as a learning strategy, teachers should encourage students’ double-checking through dictionary or expert help.

2f. Superficial, insufficient or inaccurate structural analysis – the above problems were compounded by the lack of structural analysis alluded to in the previous paragraph. Only five of the students used their knowledge of grammar (e.g. looking at word-endings, agreement, word order and using dictionary to check word-class) to help them reconstruct the meaning of the challenging words. When structural analysis was used it was successful 80% of the time overall (group mean) but only 60% of the time with the three LAs.

One set of comprehension issues related to small functions words (prepositions, connectives and pronouns), even though in certain instances their meaning seemed pretty obvious, e.g. the word ‘como’ (as, since). Pronouns appeared to be amongst the most challenging elements due, I suspect, to their position in the sentence (different to English) and the absence of the personal pronoun (in Spanish, one would say: ‘it put’ meaning ‘I put it’)

The above are very common issues which are not every easy to address as they require a lot of practice and often of the one-to-one session sort

3. Superficial approach to cognates – To my disappointment, most students were all too happy to translate the more obvious cognates found in the text with the English word they immediately evoked. For instance, ‘precioso’ was translated with ‘precious’ where it actually meant ‘beautiful’ in the text; the same happened with ‘arena’ (= sand) which was translated initially by all of the students as ‘arena’ and rectified only by five of them thanks to the dictionary. Other words this happened with included: ‘flotador’ (translated as ‘floater’ in both instances), ‘algo’ (associated by some with ‘algae’ due to the context, too) and ‘falta’ (associated with ‘fault’).

This is a very common issue which may have to be dealt with at the very beginning of instruction to ensure that student understand the differences between the native and the target language from the very outset of L2 learning. L2 learners must be made aware of the existence of false friends and of the semantic and cultural differences that cognate words often carry.

4. Cross-association of homophones – This is a very minor issue, but one which may require some attention as it may have repercussion for learning if it is not dealt with. ‘hambre’ (hunger) and ‘hombre’ were cross-associated by the weaker learners, thereby creating some initial confusion which was eventually resolved without my intervention. Homophones (words sounding similar) or near homophones co-existing in the same text can cause issues in terms of interpretation giving rise to errors or slowing down comprehension. This is a more important issue in L2 French or English learning where this phenomenon is more recurrent.


The above findings cannot be generalized to the whole L2 student population and it would be interesting if other teachers had a go at trying my little ‘experiment’ out to see if they observe similar phenomena. In my experience, though, what I found points to issues that are very common amongst L2 learners of this age and proficiency level and that language teachers, myself included, do not tackle systematically enough. For teachers who may have students who experience similar issues, these are my recommendations.

(1) Through the use of think-alouds or other modelling techniques, teachers may want to train students in the use of bilingual dictionaries, targeting in particular the areas (1a to 1d) identified above. A non-time-consuming way of doing this involves the use of checklists reminding the students to:

– use the dictionaries as often as possible ;

– look at the word class of the target word;

– examine the examples provided by the dictionary;

– check the meaning of a verb using its infinitive form.

Obviously, teachers need to ensure that they do model the use of any checklists they devise in order to scaffold the process and reward every instance in which the students demonstrate their use.

(2) teachers may have to train students in the deployment of the following inferencing strategies:

– Applying structural analysis to challenging words and surrounding linguistic contexts (e.g. What word class does this word fall in? Is this an adjective or an adverb?)

– Searching the whole sentence in which the challenging item is located for cues to its meaning (not just its immediate vicinity);

– Creatively using their knowledge of the L1 to infer L2 words (if the two languages share common etymologies);

– Using other previously learnt L2 words to draw inferences about the meaning of an unfamiliar L2 lexical item.

Such training should occur in frequent sessions for it to pay dividends and impact students reading strategies. One-off sessions don’t result in strategy uptake.

(3) students should be made aware of how ‘tricky’ cognates can be and teachers should attempt to provide regular exposure to ‘false friends’ from the early stages of instruction to drive home and reinforce this awareness.

(4) Teachers ought to ensure that reading tasks do not stop at comprehension questions but regularly feature

– requiring students to translate the meaning of individual words (e.g. what does word X on line 4 mean?) or match a set of L1 words to their L2 equivalent in the text-at-hand;

– analysis of the grammar of the words and sentences in the text (e.g. identify the adjectives and adverbs found on line 3? Why does adjective X have a plural ending? Why is verb Y in the subjunctive?). These ‘old school’ questions get the students in the habit of analyzing the way words relate to one another and how they affect each other;

– ask them to identify L2 words in the  text that resemble L1 words that they may relate to semantically (e.g. find a word in the passage that reminds you of ‘cruise ship’. Answer: ‘crucero’).

(5) instruction should focus much more on the teaching of function words, especially connectives and pronouns in general. Connectives often cued the HAs and AAs to the understanding of unknown words. Unsurprisingly so, as they direct and signpost discourse.

Finally, teachers may want to prep students prior to reading the text-at-hand by designing tasks which, with the above issues in mind, activate any necessary knowledge of the world thematically related to that text. With the reading passage used in the experiment in mind, for example, one could ask them to brainstorm in Spanish as many activities people carry out during a day on the beach as they can think of. How many L1 cognates of the Spanish words they have just brainstormed can they come up with? How many objects can they think of in Spanish that one would bring along to the beach?  Can they think of any other objects that they would need but they do not know the Spanish equivalent of and look them up using an online dictionary? Etc.

Concluding remarks

My little ‘experiment’ identified some of the typical problems L2 intermediate students encounter in grappling with texts which contain a fair number of unfamiliar words. The lesson I learnt from my findings is that inferring the meaning of such words is not as easy for learners at this level of proficiency as one might expect. Hence teachers should ensure that they prep the students adequately by training them in the use of inferencing strategies which address the deficit areas my ‘experiment’ identified.

You can find more on this topic in the book ‘The language teacher toolkit’ I co-authored with Steve Smith and available for purchase at