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Reading and the Adult English Language Learner
Carol Van Duzer
This digest reviews reading approaches, identifies characteristics of fluent readers, and makes suggestions for developing reading instruction for adult English language learners.
Reading ApproachesMost of what is known about reading comes from first language reading research. English as a second language (ESL) teachers need to consider how this research may or may not apply to reading in a second language. The following is a discussion of the approaches behind reading instruction.
Phonics. The predominant approach to reading in the 1950s and 1960s was "bottom up," based on the phoneme or smallest meaningful unit of sound. Readers derive meaning in a linear manner, first decoding letters, then words, phrases, and sentences to make sense of print. Rapid word recognition is important to this approach, which emphasizes sight reading of words in isolation. When word recognition becomes automatic, the reader is not conscious of the process (Gough, 1972). Recent research has again focused attention on the role that this decontextualized component of reading ability plays in the reading process (Oakhill, Beard, & Vincent, 1995).
Psycholinguistic. Through the late 1960s and 1970s, the psycholinguistic or "top down" approach to reading, where meaning takes precedence over structure, became dominant. Although readers make use of sound-letter correspondence and syntactic knowledge, they draw on their experiential background knowledge (schema) to predict the meaning of the text and then read to confirm or correct their predictions (Goodman, 1967; Smith, 1971).
Interactive. Approaches that draw on schema theory are also referred to as interactive approaches. The reader and text interact as the reader uses prior background knowledge and knowledge from the text to derive meaning (Grabe, 1991; Hood, Solomon, & Burns, 1996). How this happens is still being explored by second language reading researchers.
Other reading approaches are also considered interactive (Grabe, 1991; Hudson, 1998). These approaches, often the subject of first language research, view the reading process as the interaction of both bottom up and top down skills. They focus on how the various aspects of reading (e.g., word recognition, eye movement, and background knowledge) contribute to the reading process.
Critical Literacy. In the 1980s and 1990s, psycholinguistic views of reading have been questioned by a social theorist perspective that regards reading as both a social and psychological activity. Critical theorists, including Freire (1983), Gee (1990), and Street (1993), view reading as a social process that takes into account the relationship and interaction between author and reader. Meaning flows from an understanding of the cultural, social, and political contexts in which the reading takes place (Hood et al., 1996).
Characteristics of Fluent ReadersReading is an active, complex process of comprehending written language, encompassing many different skills. The approaches described above grew out of research on reading; they provide insight into what good readers do and can help adult English learners become fluent readers in English. Following are characteristics of fluent readers.
Suggestions for Developing Reading InstructionKnowing what good readers do and comparing this with the strategies used by learners in their classes will enable ESL teachers to gauge learners' needs. Adult English language learners come with varied reading backgrounds and experiences. Some are fluent readers in their native languages; some are not. Their view of literacy will be influenced by the literacy practices of their culture. Yet, they all will share the experience of learning to read in English, and they will approach reading differently from the way native speakers approach it (Rance-Roney, 1997). The following activities can help learners develop reading proficiency. The choice of activity, however, depends on the needs of the learners, the nature of the text, and the demands of the reading task.
ConclusionMuch research has been concerned with first language reading and has generated many approaches to teaching reading. However, there is a growing body of literature on both foreign language academic reading and second language reading. All three areas contribute to the understanding of the reading process and have implications for instructional practice. Teachers who are aware of these reading approaches can tailor reading instruction to meet the needs and goals of adult English language learners.
ReferencesAuerbach, E.R. (1992). Making meaning, making change: Participatory curriculum development for adult ESL literacy. Washington, DC and McHenry, IL: Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta Systems.
Dupuy, B., Tse, L., & Cook, T. (1996). Bringing books into the classroom: First steps in turning college-level ESL students into readers, TESOL Journal, 5(4), 10-15.
Eskey, D. (1997). Models of reading and the ESOL student. Focus on Basics, 1(B), 9-11.
Freire, P. (1983). The importance of the act of reading. Journal of Education, 165(1), 5-11.
Gee, J.P. (1990). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses. London: Falmer Press.
Goodman, K. (1967). Reading: A psycholinguistic guessing game. Journal of the Reading Specialist, 6, 126-135.
Gough, P.B. (1972). One second of reading. In J.F. Kavenaugh & I.G. Mattingly (Eds.), Language by Ear and by Eye (pp. 331-358). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Grabe, W. (1991). Current developments in second language reading research. TESOL Quarterly, 25(3), 375-406.
Grabe, W. (1995). Dilemmas for the development of second language reading abilities. Prospect: A Journal of Australian TESOL, 10(2), 38-51.
Hood, S., Solomon, N., & Burns, A. (1996). Focus on reading: New edition. Sydney, Australia: National Centre for English Language Teaching and Research.
Hudson, T. (1998). Theoretical perspectives on reading. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 18, 43-60.
Kirsch, I.S., Jungeblut, A., Jenkins, L., & Kolstad, A. (1993). Adult literacy in America: A first look at the results of the National Adult Literacy Survey. Washington, DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement. National Center for Education Statistics. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 358 375)
Krashen, S. (1993). The power of reading. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.
Oakhill, J., Beard, M., & Vincent, D. (Eds.). (1995). Journal of Research in Reading, 28(2).
Rance-Roney, J. (1997). The ESOL adult and the push towards meaning. Focus on Basics, 1(B), 17-18.
Smith, F. (1971). Understanding reading: A psycholinguistic analysis of reading and learning to read. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Street, B.V. (1993). The new literacy studies. Journal of Research in Reading, 16, 81-97. Wiley, T. (1994). Estimating literacy in the multilingual United States: Issues and concerns. *ERIC Digest. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education.
This document was produced at the Center for Applied Linguistics (4646 40th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20016 202-362-0700) with funding from the U.S. Department of Education (ED), Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE), under Contract No. ED-99-CO-0008. The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of ED. This document is in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.