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Reading: Preparing Intermediate Students to Tackle Authentic Texts
by Alex Case - 2

What do people read?

This can range from information on packaging to academic articles. Looking at language learners, during the lesson mentioned above students concentrated their questions and answers exclusively on the reading of literature. I have been unable to form any conclusion from this, but it is also true that although the student library at my school contains a mix of fiction and non-fiction, the fiction is far more popular. Possibly this is because it is written to be read for pleasure, it does not feel as 'heavy', but also because reading a book in L2 gives a feeling of achievement that finishing a newspaper never could.
What, though, do we want our students to read? In general, I find that the most important factor is variety. Especially at higher levels, a variety of reading can show in all areas of language ability. At lower levels, though, it is simply a case of getting students to read anything, especially in the case of authentic texts. There are general tests of the difficulty of texts, such as the ease of completion of random cloze (a text where one in every five words has been removed). Based on my own experience, successful recommendations include 'mid-brow' newspapers such as the Daily Mail and Metro (a free daily newspaper in London),and books that are neither too old or too modern, such as the works of George Orwell. In terms of interest, the best recommendation must surely be- whatever they like reading in L1.

How do people read?

The most complex question by far is how people read; how do they understand texts and how do they read quickly and efficiently? Just by asking this question we are forced to look as reading as a process, and it becomes clear that only examining the product of their reading, i.e. their final comprehension, does little to answer this question. Ways of examining the process of reading include simply watching readers reading, and asking readers to reflect on how they went about the process.
One answer is that readers anticipate the text. As soon as something arrives in the post or a cover of a book is seen, the reader starts making assumptions that will aid comprehension. This continues throughout the process, ' Once upon a time' gives expectations of a fairytale and 'I look forward to hearing from you soon' need not be read at all. In a similar way readers anticipate the ends of sentences ('In 1649, King Charles I put his head on the chopping ________' ) and even stories. Of course, non-native readers are at a considerable disadvantage in all of the above (with the possible exception of the story ending), due to their lower levels of linguistic competence ( e.g. the collocation of 'chopping block') and socio-linguistic competence (the knowledge of western history in this case) . It goes without saying that the teacher tries to increase the students' linguistic and socio-linguistic competence, and just as much so that this is a long and complicated process.

As well as linguistic and socio-linguistic competence in reading, readers have strategic competence- reading strategies such as skimming quickly for general meaning, scanning for specific information, ignoring or guessing words they do not know from context etc. I would suggest that this is transferable from L1 to L2, in other words students that are better at these in their own language will be better at this in English, but at the same time students often seem unable to transfer strategies such as guessing from context into L2. Sometimes this can quite simply be a lack of awareness that this is what they are doing when they read a text in L1, and therefore a desire to 'understand every word' in L2. Another factor is that these skills need to be far more strongly developed to tackle a text in L2, where the amount of unknown vocabulary etc. is almost certain to be greater. Also, an inability to skim quickly is more likely to result in L2 in complete abandonment of a piece of reading due to the difficulty and time it takes.

Given the aim of preparing our students to tackle authentic texts, how can classroom time be most usefully spent? In my experience, the quickest progress made in student reading in L2 is by the teaching of reading strategies rather than focusing on language, if only because the number of skills needed are limited, and the language clearly not. Having said that, depending on student needs there is language that occurs often enough in writing that it can compete in the 'time spent in class against improved reading' equation. Examples that spring to mind are sentences stems in formal letters and verbs that commonly occur in newspaper headlines.

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