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PISA and the Development of Reading
Literacy in Teacher Training
by Liesel Hermes
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The development of meta-reflection in teacher training

With regard to reading comprehension, autonomy can be described as the faculty to set reading objectives for oneself, to find appropriate methods of reading academic texts of various degrees of difficulty and abstraction, to use cognitive reading strategies, to monitor these strategies and to critically evaluate the outcome of the reading process. The autonomous reader is highly motivated, reliable, oriented towards success, persevering in his/her efforts to succeed, and self-critical when it comes to evaluating the outcome (cf. Williams/Burden 1997: 148).


The ability to reflect about one's own reading processes is not an automatism, but has to be initiated and actually taught in order to develop. Future teachers of a foreign language have to learn as part of their study programmes on the one hand to read academic texts and to reflect about their own comprehension process, on the other hand to analyse learners' texts, looking for hidden linguistic problems and anticipating cultural or other questions their pupils may ask, and then devising methods to guide them through the reading processes. These abilities can be developed through experiential learning, in which the students go through the steps of understanding texts themselves, of solving reading problems and analysing them with a view to their own learning processes.

These processes of reflection and meta-reflection were a constant feature of a didactic seminar on "Reading in a Foreign Language" I taught in the summer semester of 2002. At the beginning of the semester the students filled in a non-anonymous questionnaire in order to prepare them for the processes of reflection. They were asked about their awareness of reading and comprehension problems when reading English texts and if these were related to lack of vocabulary or rather to the difficulties of the texts and which sorts of texts posed special problems for them. They outlined special difficulties with texts for which they lacked background knowledge and non-continuous texts. They were also aware of the importance of cultural knowledge in text understanding.

Specific exercises were done to demonstrate to the students that progress in learning has to be monitored and that reading comprehension can only be ascertained in a communicative process and exchange or interpretation with others. The issues were discussed by the students in a framework of experiential learning.

To begin with, the students were asked to familiarize themselves with the self-evaluation grid ("Gemeinsame Referenzniveaus: Raster zur Selbstbeurteilung") in the publication Gemeinsamer europäischer Referenzrahmen (2001: 36) This grid was used to demonstrate the interdependence of the four skills of listening, reading, speaking and writing. The students analysed and discussed the various reading levels and found out that level B2 (vantage) was more or less their common ground. With a view to levels C1 (effective operational proficiency) and C2 (mastery) however, they were more sceptical. C1 reads in the German translation. "Ich kann lange und komplexe Sachtexte und literarische Texte verstehen und deren stilistische Merkmale wahrnehmen. Ich kann Fachartikel und lange technische Anleitungen verstehen, auch wenn sie nicht in Beziehung zu meinem Spezialgebiet stehen." (2001: 36) The students were very critical about this level of attainment which - they felt - they would not even achieve in their mother tongue. Since most of the students had spent some time abroad (usually at least one semester at a partner university), they were in a position to evaluate their own reading comprehension. Understanding technical instructions, the vocabulary of which may be unfamiliar to the reader, is a daunting objective even in one's own language. All of which goes to show that one has to be critical of texts and the demands made.

Next, general reading methods were discussed, the source being a grid in the publication Umgang mit wissenschaftlicher Literatur (1994: 61). Here three reading methods were explained in detail, among them the PQ4R method (preview, question, read, reflect, recite, review) and the SQ3R method (survey, question, read, recite, review). The former was criticized because it presupposes that the reader asks questions about the text three times. This seemed to be too much of a good thing and not wholly convincing as a realistic technique. The SQ3R method, on the other hand, found favour with the students because it includes a step in which the reader takes note of the structure of the text as well as of its communicative function. Both steps made the students aware of their own roles as readers as well as of their objectives as foreign language teachers.

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