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PISA and the Development of Reading
Literacy in Teacher Training
by Liesel Hermes
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Reading Literacy in Teacher Training

All this has consequences for teacher training. Reading competence means to know and use reading strategies, among others skimming and scanning, global or detailed reading according to the specific text and the reading purpose (Nuttal 1996: 48 f.). It means adapting reading speed to the difficulty and structure of the text. The most comprehensive criterion for adult literacy (Oakhill/Garnham 1988: 7), which one presupposes in undergraduate students, is to be aware of one's reading strategies and to adapt them to the type of text and the reading purpose. The lowest skill is the recognition of words, which in English, more than in some other languages, is only possible through the context. It is followed in a rising cline by the recognition of phrases, syntax, whole sentences and the meaning of a text. The movement is therefore "from lower-level rapid, automatic identification skills to higher-level comprehension/interpretation skills" (Grabe 1991: 383; cf. Grabe and Stoller 2002: 20).

Understanding a text can be defined as the construction of meaning. Meaning is not always on the surface, but very often has to be guessed through "making inferences" (Oakhill/Garnham 1988: 23). In other words: it is often implicit rather than explicit. This guessing of the implicit meaning never starts from scratch, so to speak, since every act of reading presupposes the reader's general world knowledge and special previous knowledge, which are encapsulated in the two psychological terms "schema" and "script".

"Schema theory is a theoretical metaphor for the reader's prior knowledge." (Grabe 1991: 384) Formal and content schemata can be differentiated. They are called "scripts" if they refer to series of actions. Both terms have been criticised, but have proved useful for interactive theories of reading. An interactive model of reading defines the process and the interaction of bottom-up and top-down processes. The bottom-up process starts from the data given in the text, the top-down process refers to the reader's activation of his/her world and/or prior knowledge. Skilled adult readers use various cognitive reading strategies and simultaneously process data (bottom-up) while using their prior knowledge (top-down) and thus understand the text and integrate the information into their body of knowledge. Lastly they use meta-reflection to reflect about the process of their comprehension of the text.

Academic reading literacy

Reading is part and parcel of any university programme, at a general level ("educational use" in PISA parlance) just as well as with a view to the future profession ("occupational use", www.pisa.oecd.org). But universities unquestioningly presuppose that undergraduates can read. This is correct if one has a general reading literacy in mind, but it is generally not known if students come to university as the adult skilled readers they are assumed to be. In training foreign language teachers, next to nothing is known whether the greatest stumbling blocks in reaching the desired level of target language reading literacy come from generally poor reading skills or from weaknesses in target language proficiency. In his essay "Reading in a foreign language: a reading problem or a language problem?" Alderson comes to the conclusion that lack of reading competence in a foreign language may rather be a problem of the foreign language than a problem of reading. Students have to reach a "threshold level of competence" (Alderson 1984: 19) before they become competent readers in the foreign language.

My own reading of the relevant literature and my long-standing observation of students training to become teachers of English have convinced me that students come to university with very little knowledge of the reading process, without any knowledge of meta-cognition and with little independence at that. They have a basic knowledge of types of texts, i.e. literature in the narrow sense like a novel or a poem or didactic or pedagogic literature in the wider sense. They can tell a linguistic from an area studies text. In other words, they do apply their world knowledge to the general contents of a text. But the problem starts with defining the purpose of the text, if it is e. g. a description, an argumentation, an instruction, if the author presents facts or his/her own opinion, if he/she wants to inform or persuade the reader. In the same way students may find it hard to recognize the structure of a text, to determine the introduction, the main part and the ending. Moreover they often seem to be unable to transfer prior knowledge to the reading of a particular text, e.g. historical knowledge to a literary text or vice versa, or linguistic knowledge to a text that deals with methodological problems of teaching a foreign language.

Little is known about what exactly makes an academic text difficult for students. Lexical problems can be solved - or so it seems - quite easily if the students look up the words they don't know. But it is a well-known fact that reading comprehension can tend to zero if too many words have to be looked up and the overall meaning can no longer be comprehended. This may happen with academic specialist or culture-bound texts. If comprehension fails at the level of word recognition, higher-level skills cannot be achieved.

Students may have problems in understanding texts with a high degree of abstraction. Abstraction becomes all the more demanding the more distant it is from the students' world or prior knowledge. E. g. in an introductory seminar on the teaching of English as a foreign language, the Reader (anthology of texts) used may contain examples and quote extensively from works of other scholars whose names the students have never come across before and which they consequently cannot easily integrate into their knowledge basis; they also often lack the historical or theoretical context which would make it easy to classify a particular author. These problems - of course - also occur with texts in the mother tongue, but the foreign language introduces an additional barrier in understanding.

Moreover the students may have serious problems grasping the cultural background, subliminal cultural assumptions, beliefs and values in a foreign text. Thus they may be unable to understand allusions, irony or puns.

Whereas it can certainly be taken for granted that lower-level processing functions, the scope of a receptive vocabulary cannot be ascertained. Therefore the development of a broad recognition vocabulary as a "critical component of reading comprehension" (Grabe 1991: 392) is undoubtedly an objective of primary importance. However, this development is left to the students and is usually - at least to my knowledge - not made a teaching aim, although Grabe has shown that "higher-level processing" must be learnt as well. As he points out, "[b]eginning readers focus on process strategies (e.g. word identification), whereas more proficient readers shift attention to more abstract conceptual abilities and make better use of background knowledge, using only as much textual information as needed for confirming and predicting the information in the text" (Grabe 1991: 377; cf. Grabe and Stoller 2002: 15)). With first term students, it is unclear which level of abstraction they have reached and if lack of comprehension is due to lack of vocabulary rather than lack of intellectual thinking. Students have to employ their sets of schemata and scripts in order to comprehend texts in a foreign language and to overcome remaining linguistic difficulties. Grabe ascertains on the basis of research: "… a high degree of background knowledge can overcome linguistic difficulties." (Grabe 1991: 390; cf. Grabe and Stoller 2002: 12) However, these faculties have to be actively employed as cognitive reading strategies.

Three factors therefore constitute students' academic reading comprehension:

  • a large reading comprehension vocabulary, both on a general and an academic level, which has to be continually broadened by the students through voluntary reading,
  • the use of cognitive reading strategies according to the contents and structure of the particular text as well as the reading purposes,
  • the use of world knowledge, prior knowledge, schemata and scripts, again according to the contents and structure of the text involved as well as the reading purposes.

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