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Reading in a Second Language

Abstract and Keywords

Reading in a second language is the essence of this article. The ability to read in a second language is one of the most important skills required of people in multilingual and international settings. It is also a skill that is one of the most difficult to develop to a high level of proficiency. This article highlights the different purposes of reading. People read for a variety of purposes, and many of these purposes require distinct combinations of skills in order to achieve the reader's purpose. Because of this variation, it is not easy to define second language reading as a single notion or a unitary ability. It is true that differing purposes draw on many of the same cognitive processes, but they do so to differing extents and sometimes in different ways. Reading can easily be defined simply as the ability to derive understanding from written text. This article also focuses on how reading as an individual process works.

Keywords: reading, second language, multilingual, cognitive processes

I. Introduction

The ability to read in a second language (L2) is one of the most important skills required of people in multilingual and international settings. It is also a skill that is one of the most difficult to develop to a high level of proficiency. Any current understanding of reading requires attention to a number of basic issues:

  1. 1. Different purposes for reading

  2. 2. Definitional criteria for fluent reading (varying by context)

  3. 3. Processes underlying reading as an individual skill

  4. 4. Institutional and social context influences on L2 reading

  5. 5. Determining unique features of L2 reading (as opposed to L1 reading) and recognizing difficulties central for L2 reading instruction

  6. 6. Using L2 research implications to improve instruction and student learning

These topics will form the framework for the ensuing discussion.

II. Different Purposes for Reading

People read for a variety of purposes, and many of these purposes require distinct combinations of skills in order to achieve the reader's purpose. Because of this variation, it is not easy to define L2 reading as a single notion or a unitary ability. It is (p. 89) true that differing purposes draw on many of the same cognitive processes, but they do so to differing extents and sometimes in different ways. Having said this, I will nonetheless state that the most fundamental ability for L2 reading is the basic comprehension of main ideas from a text. Few purposes for reading disregard this ability, and most purposes build upon this foundation (cf. Alderson, 2000; Grabe, 2009, for other discussions of reading purposes).

Purposes for reading can include the following:

  • To find information (scanning, searching)

  • To learn, critique, and evaluate

  • For basic comprehension (there are other purposes).

In the case of reading to find information, the crucial skill constitutes scanning for a specific word, phrase, form, or number. Meaning in the text is not critical initially, though a reader may slow down to skim (a different purpose) to see if he or she is perhaps in the right neighborhood. This skill is typically carried out at a very rapid rate of words per minute (WPM) processing of the text.

Reading to learn, in contrast, requires reading for the main ideas, but it also requires awareness of many of the details of the text and a strong organizing frame by which to connect information from various parts of the text. Such textual coherence making on the part of the reader increases the text's memorability and aids recall when the relevant information is needed. The cognitive processing is carried out at a relatively slow rate of WPM processing (perhaps around 175–200 WPM for fluent L1 readers, much slower for most L2 readers). Reading to critique and evaluate will require, in addition, reflection on and evaluations of the text information and a strong integration with prior knowledge, including the reader's attitudes, emotions, motivations for reading, and level of topic-specific background knowledge. Reading rate will likely be even slower for this purpose.

The most common, and most basic, reading purpose is reading for general understanding. It is saved for last in this discussion because it is the primary goal of most L2 reading instruction, even though it may not be the easiest type of reading to teach. Reading for general understanding typically occurs at a rate of about 250–300 WPM by fluent readers (but this rate applies to relatively few L2 readers). This purpose satisfies most reading expectations for understanding main ideas and a subset of supporting ideas and information. Although it is often noted as “basic,” and “general,” it is by no means easy to carry out fluently. Reading for general understanding, under normal processing rates, requires a very large recognition vocabulary, automaticity of word recognition for most of the words in the text, a reasonably rapid overall reading speed for text-information integration, and the ability to build overall text comprehension under some time pressure.

This set of processing abilities is the common goal of most advanced L2 reading instruction, though many reading teachers and curriculum developers have only a limited concept of the processing demands of reading for general comprehension under relatively rapid time constraints. Instead, instructors and text materials often end up teaching slow translation of texts; with fairly short texts, they treat reading (p. 90) as problem solving. Reading in this way may, in fact, be a purpose for reading in settings with much more limited L2 educational goals, though such a limitation is not often explicitly recognized. This mismatch among goals is explored in more detail in the next two sections.

III. A Definition of Reading

Reading can easily be defined simply as the ability to derive understanding from written text. However, this brief definition belies the complexity inherent in the ability to read (now assuming reading for general understanding as the primary purpose). L2 reading can best be understood as a combination of skills and abilities that individuals bring to bear as they begin to read. The following five abilities should be seen as definitional, though others may be added under a finer specification of reading:

  1. 1. A rapid and automatic process

  2. 2. An interacting process

  3. 3. A flexible and strategic process

  4. 4. A purposeful process

  5. 5. A linguistic process (cf. Grabe, 2009)

First, fluent reading is by definition a rapid process: The various bits of information being activated at any moment in working memory (Baddeley, 2006) need to be active simultaneously if the information (from both the text and the reader's background knowledge) is to be integrated for understanding. Slow reading rates make the assembling of text comprehension a more inefficient and laborious process. Assisting in a rapid and efficient process is the ability to recognize words automatically; reading, in any normal sense, is not possible without this ability.

Second, reading is an interactive process in two ways. Reading requires many skills and abilities—some of which are automatic and some of which are attentional (where one's attention is focused)—to be carried out nearly simultaneously. At the same time, such higher level comprehension processes as identifying the main ideas of the text require an interaction between textual information and background knowledge. This latter interaction is also needed to determine whether immediate goals are being met, whether information is being understood, and whether strategies for reading are being used effectively to achieve the reading purpose.

Third, reading is strategic and flexible in that readers assess whether or not they are achieving their purposes for reading. If not, readers must then flexibly adapt various processing and monitoring activities. This ability to adapt strategically is the hallmark of a good reader (Hudson, 2007; Koda, 2005).

Fourth, reading is purposeful in the ways noted earlier; it is also purposeful in a more immediate way. As readers, we monitor not only our efficiency of processing, (p. 91) but also whether the immediate activity fits with our larger expectations, whether the task is sufficiently interesting to continue, and whether our purposes might be better served by changing the current activity or task. Reading in academic contexts also often has the reading purpose set by the teacher; in such a context, individual students then analyze purposes in terms of prior successes (or failures) with similar tasks. It is also worth remembering that the most central purpose for reading is to comprehend the text.

Fifth and finally, reading is a linguistic process (as opposed to a reasoning process). Fundamentally, we derive understanding and new meaning as we interact with the text information by means of linguistic processing. It is sometimes said that for meaning to be developed from text, reading is primarily a reasoning activity. However, this view is the result of researchers who are fluent readers and who cannot recognize the obvious language struggles that a beginning reader or an L2 reader has with texts. One has only to try to read a text in Chinese when one knows no Chinese characters to realize that reading is first and foremost a linguistic processing activity.

IV. How Reading Works: Individual Processes in Reading

Fluent reading requires efficient cognitive processing. Two basic types of processing are required: lower level processing, and higher level processing (without assuming that either type is more difficult than the other type; rather, understanding that they are simply different). Within lower level processing, readers must be rapid and automatic word recognizers; they must be able to pull out and use basic structural information; and they must begin to assemble clause-level meaning units (Perfetti, Landi, and Oakhill, 2005). Within higher level processing, readers must be able to assemble clause-level information into a text model of their understanding—strengthening repeated and salient ideas and pruning ideas that do not get reactivated. Readers also need to build an interpretation of the text that conforms to their goals, attitudes, and background knowledge (a situation model of interpretation). They also have to make appropriate inferences and determine whether they are staying on task and achieving their reading purpose (Grabe, 2009; Kintsch, 1998).

Lower level processes most importantly involve activating word meanings for use in working memory. In this respect reading centrally involves word recognition even though researchers recognize that word recognition itself is not equivalent to the reading comprehension process. However, many researchers argue that reading comprehension cannot be carried out without strong word recognition and lexical access skills (potentially two separable abilities for L2 readers; e.g., Stanovich, 2000). The average fluent L1 reader can recognize 4–5 words per second and can actually take time to look at these words each and every second of reading time. This fact may (p. 92) well be the central miracle of a human's fluent reading abilities. Moreover, the words and meanings are accessed automatically in the vast majority of cases because readers do not take the time to think consciously about what each new word means (Samuels, 2006). Research has shown that fluent readers cannot suppress the activation of known word meanings when they are visually exposed to a word for as little as a twentieth of a second. (Automaticity entails an inability to suppress information.)

The syntax and semantics of clauses in a text also play a role in lower level processing. In fluent reading, as a clause is read, information about word order (and which word or phrase constitutes the grammatical subject), about main versus adjunct phrase, and about relations among phrases in the clause unit are all extracted. Usually this process is attempted quickly in line with certain default expectations, so syntactic information is pulled automatically from a clause, assuming there is no complication that confuses the reader's processing. At the same time, basic information about the word meanings, in combination with the syntactic information, lead to initial meaning units being assembled (propositional units). Unless there is some complication or unexpected outcomes of these processes, they take place relatively automatically; that is, we don't have to think about them (and actually aren't able to think about them very easily; Grabe, 2009).

The higher level processing that a reader carries out includes the combining of clause-level meaning information into a basic text representation (a text model of reading). This text model represents the basic summary of the text, as the reader understands it to be intended by the author. At the same time, a more elaborate copy is created that combines the text model with stronger reader views about the purposes of the author in writing the text, the attitude of the reader to the material in the text, past experiences with reading similar texts, reader motivations for reading, and reader evaluation of the text itself (i.e., the reader's likes, agreements, interests, surprises, supports for opinions, disagreements with the text). This second model is often described as a situation model of text interpretation (Kintsch, 1998; Kintsch and Rawson, 2005). Thus, a good reader creates two levels of comprehension for a text. Both levels of text understanding require processing interactions with reader knowledge; both levels require extensive inferencing and reasoning about the text (and reasoning becomes important at this point). Finally, a fluent reader is able to monitor his or her reading (an executive control process) to decide if it is achieving the intended purpose and, if needed, to take some actions to make adjustments for better understanding.

V. Social Factors Influencing Reading

One outcome of this explanation of fluent reading processing is the impression that learning to read is an individual activity. It is true that at any given moment when a reader engages with a text, reading is primarily a cognitive activity, but the longer (p. 93) developmental process cannot be understood without recognizing social influences on reading development. Social contexts influencing reading include those deriving from the home, the school and other institutions, from peers, and resulting from student-teacher interactions. Much research has shown that home factors in early reading development have a significant and lasting impact, though they do so in many complex ways, depending on the settings and interactants (C. E. Snow et al., 2007). Peer interactions over time and student-teacher interactions also have a major role to play in a developing reader's motivations, attitudes, task successes, and reading experiences. The educational institutional setting more generally also plays a powerful role. Students develop differing proficiencies in reading depending on school administrations, library resources, classroom resources, amount of curricular time set aside specifically for reading development, teacher training, teacher practices and preferences, and teacher interest in books and in student learning. The picture is very complex and difficult to sort through, but that does not give anyone the license to ignore such major influences on a person's learning to read (Grabe, 2009).

In L2 reading contexts, the picture becomes even more complex because readers deal with the following:

  • Two languages

  • Two general educational experiences (including patterns of success and failure on a wide range of learning tasks)

  • Varying motivations and attitudes towards tasks in both L1 and L2 contexts

  • Different impositions by an L2 culture

  • Differing levels of expected success in L2 instruction

Moreover, in many L2 academic settings, the assumption may be made that L2 reading abilities (often poorly defined) can be acquired in a much briefer time span than typically occurs in L1 contexts, creating unrealistic expectations and often destroying motivation for reading in the L2. Complicating the fact that there are unending variations in L2 social contexts for reading, there are also relatively few empirical studies of social context influences on L2 reading. Nonetheless, most L2 reading researchers recognize the powerful impact that social contexts will have on L2 reading development (Koda 2008a; 2008b).

VI. Specific L2 Reading Issues

To this point, the discussion of reading has been general, combining L1 and L2 reading issues. However, the purposes, processes and practices of L2 reading invoke a number of specific issues that deserve attention, including the following:

  • More limited language knowledge of the L2 reader (as compared with the L1 reader)

  • (p. 94) Relative importance of L2 language proficiency versus L1 reading abilities as the strongest factor in L2 reading development

  • Issues surrounding transfer of skills more generally

  • Role of strategy uses unique to L2 learners (e.g., bilingual dictionaries, cognates, mental translation, glosses)

  • Recognition that texts and educational institutions themselves may work differently for L2 learners

  • More limited total exposure of learners to the L2 and to L2 reading experiences

In comparison with L1 readers, L2 readers begin to learn to read without the initial language base that can be assumed to be present among L1 readers. Most L1 readers begin their formal reading instruction with a vocabulary of at least 6,000 words already known in their language and with a firm tacit knowledge of most basic grammatical structures of the language. The L2 reader, in contrast, may have relatively little L2 spoken language knowledge at the time reading instruction begins. A major debate has arisen as to the primary way that a learner gains L2 reading abilities and whether L2 reading development is supported

via L2 language knowledge (i.e., knowledge of L2 vocabulary, L2 structure, L2 task successes, exposure to L2 reading) or

via prior L1 reading skills (i.e., L1reading strategies, metalinguistic knowledge, L1 task successes, L1 word learning skills)

This debate is otherwise known as the language threshold hypothesis. Over the past 10 years, the evidence has grown steadily that L2 language knowledge plays a much greater role until some general (and very variable) threshold of language knowledge is passed, confirming a general version of the language threshold hypothesis. For most L2 students, the key lies in developing a large recognition vocabulary, a reasonable command of language structure and discourse marking devices, and many positive experiences with manageable L2 reading tasks. At some point, most words are recognized rapidly and automatically, and most structural parsing automatically provides the needed processing information. At that point, the reader will be more successful in using the full range of reading skills and strategies that already support successful fluent L1 reading—in other words, reading with greater metalinguistic awareness, monitoring comprehension efficiently, engaging in a range of reading strategies with more difficult texts, and using background knowledge to support appropriate inferences.

More generally, the issue of L1 transfer has also been explored extensively and a useful set of findings may be provided (Dressler and Kamil, 2006; Koda, 2008a; 2008b). L2 readers almost certainly transfer underlying cognitive reading skills such as working memory processing, phonological processing, and orthographic processing for word recognition (Genesee et al., 2006). It appears that L2 readers do transfer L1 syntactic knowledge of various types to their L2 reading, even at relatively advanced stages. Sometimes the transferred knowledge is supportive, and sometimes (p. 95) it causes interference (Koda, 2005). On this issue, L2 reading strongly overlaps with SLA research on transfer. More specifically for reading, research on orthographic transfer seems to show an L1 impact at early stages of L2 reading, though the impact diminishes at advanced L2 levels. Much of this research can be linked to the orthographic depth hypothesis, which states that readers of differing orthographies will develop somewhat different word recognition processing skills, depending on the L1 orthography. There is growing evidence that this hypothesis does reflect the learning behavior of certain groups of beginning L2 readers (e.g., Japanese readers of English, English readers of Japanese, Spanish readers of English, English readers of Hebrew; see Koda, 2008b).

Another area that focuses specifically on L2 reading issues involves the use of certain reading strategies and the role of bilingual resources for reading. In strategy research, for example, it is found that mental translation (a uniquely L2 strategy) is not necessarily a “poor habit” but can be a useful early L2 reading strategy for students who are dealing with difficult texts. Strategies for the use of cognates have also proven to be important for L2 readers, but often only after learners receive explicit instruction in recognizing and using potential cognates. Bilingual dictionaries and the use of word glosses for comprehension purposes are two further useful resources for L2 reading not common to L1 reading instruction. Even though the use of bilingual dictionaries has been an ongoing issue for many teachers, recent research over the past decade suggests that dictionaries can be useful supports for L2 reading. However, students should be trained in the effective use of dictionaries. Recent research on the use of glosses with L2 reading texts has also demonstrated that glosses can provide benefits for comprehension and do not seem to interfere with reading comprehension tasks.

Another issue that involves L2 readers uniquely concerns the patterns of text organization that may be uncommonly read by learners in their L1 contexts. Students moving to L2 reading may encounter text organization patterns that are unfamiliar to them or to which they have not had extensive exposure and practice. In some cases, the cultural and literacy practices of a culture privilege certain types of text patterns and organization structures, particularly with informational expository prose texts. The point is not that such texts cannot be understood by L2 readers, but that learners will need more explicit instruction in how texts are structured and how information is organized. In some cases, the issue is not a matter of no exposure to rhetorical preferences in the L2, but a need for more practice with such texts. This problem is part of a more general problem of L2 exposure.

L2 readers are almost always at some disadvantage (in comparison with L1 readers) because they seldom have exposure to similar amounts of text for L2 reading purposes. Given that reading efficiency is dependent on rapid and automatic word recognition and a large recognition vocabulary, extensive exposure to L2 texts through reading is the only learning option available to L2 students seeking to develop advanced L2 reading abilities. Yet most L2 students do not receive nearly the amount of exposure to L2 texts that would be necessary for the development of fluent L2 reading skills. A large factor in this L2 issue is that most teachers, curricula, (p. 96) and instructional materials do not recognize the severely limiting impact of relatively small amounts of exposure to L2 reading texts. The solution, theoretically, is obvious and simple; in practice, however, the solution (reading extensively) is quite difficult to implement for a variety of reasons (Grabe, 2009).

Overall, the research on L2 reading shows that the factors that influence reading development are quite complex. One example of this complexity involves transfer: Research shows that the transfer of L1 reading skills and strategies is itself complex. One cannot assume that the transfer of all reading skills and strategies from the L1 is easy, automatic, or uniformly positive. Only three useful generalizations can be made at present:

  • Many instances of transfer lead to interference for L2 reading comprehension.

  • Researchers do not know the full range of situations in which positive transfer does or does not occur, or when transfer occurs.

  • L2 reading ability is the product of the L2 reader's dual-language processing system. (Koda, 2008b)

A second example of complexity involves extensive exposure to L2 reading material. A reading specialist would be hard-pressed to miss the linkage in research between amount of exposure texts and reading development. However, the goal of increasing the amount of learners' exposure to L2 reading material is commonly resisted in instructional practice and curriculum planning, or it is given a low priority (Grabe, 2009). Reliable research on the direct effects of extensive reading is limited, but the great majority of this research points to the benefits of more extensive exposure to print.

A third example involves vocabulary development. Vocabulary knowledge is at the heart of fluent reading abilities—a large recognition vocabulary is essential. Vocabulary consistently ranks as one of the strongest predictors of growth in reading ability. Yet vocabulary growth and vocabulary instruction is not emphasized in many L2 instructional contexts. Admittedly, vocabulary instruction is not an easy instructional focus, but ignoring the need will not solve the learner's difficulties in this area (Han and Anderson, 2009).

VII. Reading Instruction

Based on research in both L1 and L2 reading contexts, a number of general implications for L2 reading instruction can be established. These implications, many of which have been supported in the above discussion, provide guidance for the development of reading curricula and instructional practices (even if each teaching context is unique and requires its own combination of instructional emphases). These 10 implications offer a useful starting point for instructional practice:

  1. (p. 97) 1. The need for a large recognition vocabulary

  2. 2. The need to provide explicit language instruction to help students move through the L2 language threshold

  3. 3. The need for knowledge of discourse organizing principles

  4. 4. The usefulness of graphic representations for comprehension instruction

  5. 5. The importance of metacognitive awareness and strategy learning—the need for students to become strategic readers

  6. 6. The need for practice in reading fluency to develop automaticity

  7. 7. The importance of extensive reading and broad exposure to L2 texts

  8. 8. The benefits of integrating reading and writing instruction in academic settings

  9. 9. The need to develop effective content-based instruction for reading development

  10. 10. The need to motivate students to read

Describing in detail how such implications can be transformed into applications would require another full chapter (see N. Anderson, 2009). However, some comments on these implications are in order. Points 1 and 2 follow directly from research on the reading processes of the individual; a large recognition vocabulary and reasonable structural knowledge are central resources for reading improvement. Points 3 and 4 follow from the need to work with academic texts or text types to which learners may not have received sufficient exposure, particularly in reading-to-learn situations (see also Point 8; Pressley, 2006). Point 5 highlights the need to develop the strategic reader (rather than reading strategies), a key aspect of skilled reading comprehension, especially in academic settings (Grabe, 2009). Points 6 and 7 highlight the importance of reading efficiency, appropriate reading rates, automaticity, and broad exposure to L2 texts (Krashen, 2004; Samuels, 2006). Point 8 stresses the link between reading and writing, the academic and occupational demands that assume this linkage, and the need to develop skills for linking reading and writing (Hudson, 2007). Points 7, 9, and 10 also combine under the need to motivate student to read in the L2. Extensive reading provides learners with opportunities to become engaged with interesting ideas and topics as does the framework provided by effective content-based curricula. Both reinforce motivation for L2 reading, a crucial component of any successful L2 reading instruction. More generally, content-based instruction, if done well, provides an effective curricular framework for carrying out all of the 10 implications for L2 reading instruction as previously noted (Grabe, 2009).

VIII. Further Issues for Consideration

There are a number of additional issues that should be addressed in a longer review of L2 reading. A number of these deserve mention and some brief commentary. These issues include new directions in reading assessment, reading and (p. 98) writing interactions, neurolinguistics and reading, child L2 reading development, reading in new modes and new media (e.g., e-mails, Internet hypertext, blogging, text messaging, Facebook, twittering), teacher training, the role of authentic materials, and motivational factors. Volumes by Alderson 2000, Grabe 2009, and Khalifa and Weir 2009 offer important insights into L2 assessment research and practice. The exploration of reading and writing relationships primarily examines the various type of reading and writing tasks assigned in university settings and the variable abilities that L2 students demonstrate when carrying out such tasks. Grabe (2001) and Hudson 2007 address reading-writing relations in some detail.

Neurolinguistics and reading is a rapidly growing field of exploration (see Schumann elsewhere in this volume). Even a recent volume on L1 comprehension instruction devoted four chapters to this issue (C. Block and Parris, 2008; see also Shaywitz and Shaywitz 2004; Wolf, 2007). Little neurolinguistic research has been carried out involving L2 readers. Child L2 reading development has grown tremendously over the past 10 years. A number of findings involving L1 transfer to L2 reading development have emerged from this research (Dressler and Kamil, 2006; Genesee et al., 2006). The issue of reading from a computer screen, reading new media, and reading new text types is no longer a marginal theme, and research in this area is beginning to appear. As younger readers move through to adulthood, distinct reading processes and reading strategies are likely to become a major locus of research. As present, relatively little in the way of empirical research with L2 students in this context has been carried out.

Another unexplored area for L2 research is the issue of effective teacher training for L2 reading instruction. This theme has become an important one for L1 research in the past 5 years; comparable attention has not yet been given to teacher training for reading instruction in L2 contexts (C. E. Snow, Griffin, and Burns, 2005). Issues of authenticity and appropriateness of instructional texts are addressed very thoughtfully by Day and Bamford 1998 and Widdowson (2004). Both make powerful arguments for rethinking simplistic notions about authenticity for reading instruction and reading materials. Finally, research concerning reading motivation has grown considerably in the past 10 years. The role of motivation in L2 reading development has been relatively untouched but needs serious exploration (Grabe, 2009).

IX. Conclusion

One outcome of a careful review of L2 reading is that it is almost impossible to get a firm grasp on all the issues and complexities that influence learner success or failure, particularly in the endlessly varying L2 settings. But complexity, in and of (p. 99) itself, should not be a cause for despair. The situation of L2 reading instruction may actually be seen to be generally positive. Despite all the complexities and difficulties that can go into reading success or failure, it is extraordinary that so many L1 and L2 learners become good readers. We should celebrate this miracle at the same time that we look for ways to improve this pattern of success for more learners.