READING: A PASSIVE LANGUAGE SKILL? By Rhona Snelling
Reading is one of the four main language skills, alongside its counterparts Writing, Listening, and Speaking. It is generally accepted to be a receptive skill, in that students are receiving language input through some form of text. It is also commonly labelled as a passive skill, because students are not required to actively generate, construct and produce any language. But can we really describe Reading as passive?
What is ‘Reading’?
This can be defined as ‘the process of recognizing written or printed words and understanding their meaning.’ The process, however, is far from a simple one; decoding written text is a complex interaction of multiple and simultaneous (often automatised) processes. It involves:
• cognitive processes – such as literacy, orthography, word recognition, lexis, syntax, phonology, semantics
• strategies – such as dictionary use, evaluating, predicting, summarising
• application of knowledge – such as world knowledge, cultural familiarity, discourse structure, contextual information
• physical capabilities – efficient eye fixation and eye movement
• and general competence and proficiency in the language of the text.
L2 reading ability = L1 reading ability?
If only this calculation were correct and the processes were that easy – just a simple transfer of established and practised skills sliding smoothly into the L2 and allowing for effortless, undemanding processing of L2 texts. However, as teachers, we know that our advanced-level students will fare better than lower-level students at Reading (and other skills and tasks); after all, they are experienced L2 users with a broader lexicon and an active working knowledge of the language. So, the calculation really needs to acknowledge the role and importance of language knowledge:
L2 reading ability = L1 reading ability + L2 language proficiency.
The inter-relationships of the text also have an impact on reading ability through word count, font style and size, genre, associated tasks, closeness to L1 (i.e. cognate versus non-cognate languages), culture (i.e. will your students understand any socio-cultural references?) and topic (i.e. is the text interesting and relevant to your students?).
What does research tell us about Reading?
The main models and hypotheses are:
• Top-Down (or Concept-Driven) model: Students apply their world knowledge (or schema) to the whole text in order to comprehend it.
• Bottom-Up model: Students decode or use word recognition or phonics to comprehend individual words or chunks of language in the text, and then build their understanding of the overall text from this base. •
Interactive model: This recognises the interaction and importance of both the above approaches. An effective L2 reader will employ all three of these processes to access their text – and an effective teacher and coursebook will facilitate this.
• Short-Circuit Hypothesis: This posits that a deficit of L2 knowledge will prevent students from accessing and activating their L1 reading strategies or abilities.