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Reading And Reading Processes

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 4780 words Published: 25th Apr 2017

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1.2 Definition of Reading and Reading Processes

It is hardly possible to carry out, or even read, a research on reading without an understanding of the word ‘reading’ and the processes involved in it, and the present study is no exception. Reading plays such an essential role in educational settings that it has been defined as the most important academic language skill (Grabe & Stoller, 2002). It is a psycholinguistic receptive process of written communication in that it starts with a linguistic surface representation encoded by a writer and ends with meaning that the reader constructs (Goodman, 1995). It is a process that involves the reader and the text in a dynamic and complex interaction in which a mental representation is constructed based on the meaning signaled by the writer and the reader’s goals and interests (Rumelhart, 1985; Stanovich, 1980).

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What is meant by the process is “reading proper”, i.e. the interaction between a text and a reader (Alderson, 2000, p. 3). In this process, what the readers do is look at print, decode the written words on the page, and determine their meanings and their relationships. The readers also think about what they are reading, what it means to them, how it relates to other things they have read before and to things they already know. Different readers will develop different understandings of what a text means. This is partly because a text does not contain meaning which has to be detected by a proficient reader as the product of reading.

The product of the reading process is comprehension (Barry & Lazarte, 1995). There may be as many different reading products as there are different readers. This is because readers may differ in their experiences and knowledge. In order for the reading product to be attained, readers employ two different approaches while engaged in the reading process (Nuttall, 2005), namely the bottom-up and the top-down approaches.

Bottom-up, or data-driven, approaches are “serial models” (Alderson, 2000, p.16), where the reader begins with printed words, recognizes graphic stimuli, decodes them to sound, recognizes words and decodes meanings. According to Grabe and Stoller (2002), the bottom-up model suggests that reading follows a mechanical pattern in which the reader creates a piece-by-piece mental translation of the information in the text, with little reference from the reader’s own background knowledge.

Top-down, or conceptually driven, processing is a complementary method of processing written text in which readers draw on their intelligence and experience to understand a text (Nuttall, 2005). According to the top-down model of the reading process, what the reader already knows is thought to determine in large part what s/he will be able to comprehend (Alvermann & Phelps, 1998). The top-down model assumes that comprehending begins when a reader has access to appropriate background experiences and knowledge to make sense of the print. In other words, unlike the bottom-up model, the top-down model proposes that the reader makes educated guesses to predict the meaning of the print.

As a matter of fact, what is emphasized in top-down processing, according to Alderson (2000), is the knowledge that a reader brings to text. This model is based on schema theory, which accounts for the acquisition of knowledge and the interpretation of text through the activation of schemata: networks of information stored in the brain which act as filters for incoming information (Ausubel, 1968; Bartlett, 1932; Carrell, 1983a; Carrell, Devine & Eskey, 1988; Hudson, 1982). In this view, readers activate what they consider to be relevant existing schemata and map incoming information onto them. To the extent that these schemata are relevant, reading is successful.

Nevertheless, neither the bottom-up nor the top-down approach, per se, is an adequate characterization of the reading process (Alderson, 2000). What readers need to employ while attending to texts is a combination of the two approaches, which, in Nuttall’s words (2005), are used to complement each other. This inadequacy led to the introduction of a third approach, the interactive model. The interactive model of the reading process incorporates features of both the bottom-up and top-down models. “In practice, a reader continually shifts from one focus to another, now adopting a top-down approach to predict the probable meaning, then moving to the bottom-up approach to check whether that is really what the writer says” (Nuttall, 2005, p. 17). In this context, Alvermann and Phelps (1998) believe that the interactive model of reading process is a good descriptor of how students typically read their content area texts. They connect what they know about language, decoding, and vocabulary, or bottom-up skills, to their background experiences, prior knowledge, and familiarity with the topic being read, or top-down skills. Interestingly, these skills are compensatory to Stanovich (1980). He argues that when readers lack enough bottom-up skills, they may use top-down knowledge to compensate. Likewise, when they do not have enough background knowledge on the topic they are reading, they resort to their language skills to comprehend the text.

Most of the current models of L2 reading comprehension, according to Nassaji (2007) are interactive in that L2 comprehension is considered to be a process consisting of both bottom-up and top-down processes. However, familiarity with reading models, alone, is not sufficient for the understanding of the factors involved in the reading process. Alongside the significance of the knowledge of the reading process, the importance of reading for ESL learners necessitates the understanding of the variables affecting a learner’s comprehension of texts. Research on reading variables has divided them into two major sections: factors within the reader, and aspects of the text to be read (Alderson, 2000). What is of focus in the present study is the former section, the reader variables.

1.4 Reader Variables

Research has looked at the way readers themselves affect the reading process and product, and has investigated a number of different variables. Among them, two very important reader variables are topic familiarity (i.e. prior knowledge on topic), or background knowledge, (Bransford & Johnson, 1972; Carrell, 1983a; Carrell & Wise, 1998; Kintsch, 1992; Leeser, 2007; Moravcsik & Kintsch, 1993; Nassaji, 2007; Young, 1991), and vocabulary knowledge (Alderson & Urquhart, 1985; Anderson & Freebody, 1983; Carrell, 1984; Koda, 1988, 2005; Qian, 1999). A definition of these variables seems indispensible to this research introduction.

1.4.1 Topic Familiarity

Prior topic knowledge, and its influence on readers’ text comprehension is one of the variables being investigated in this study with regards to teacher’s intervention in the classroom. Therefore, an understanding of the concept seems essential for the reader. There is a substantial body of research in cognitive psychology supporting the idea that topic familiarity has a facilitative role in reading comprehension (e.g. Bransford & Johnson, 1972; Kintsch, 1992; Moravacsik & Kintsch, 1993). This role has been motivated through schema-based models of comprehension (e.g. Rumelhart. 1977, 1980) which posit that pre-existing schemata control comprehension. In other words, readers’ background knowledge contributes to their understanding of texts. When the term background knowledge is used, what is usually meant is a reader’s prior knowledge of the subject matter of the text. In this regard, Alvermann & Phelps (1998) claim that “What a person already knows about a topic is probably the single most influential factor in what he or she will learn” ( p. 168).

The nature of the knowledge that readers have will influence not only what they remember of text, but also the product, i.e. their understanding of the text, and the way they process it (Bartlett, 1932; Carrell, 1984; Rumelhart, 1980; Alderson, 2000). The development of schema theory has attempted to account for the consistent finding that what readers know affects what they understand. “Schemata are seen as interlocking mental structures representing readers’ knowledge” (Alderson, 2000, p. 33). When readers process text, they integrate the new information from the text into their pre-existing knowledge or schemata. In addition, their schemata influence how they recognize information as well as how they store it (Carrell, 1983a). Researchers have distinguished different types of schemata, which will be discussed in detail in Chapter 2.

Problems arise when a reader has no relevant schemata or an insufficient schema, if relevant schemata are not recalled, or if an existing schema is inconsistent with information in the text. Readers will often ignore ideas in a text that conflict with conventional real world knowledge (Alvermann, Smith, & Readence, 1985). Students with reading difficulties appear to have particular trouble using their prior knowledge to modify misconceptions or to learn new information from reading (Holmes, 1983). Often, a reader who is struggling to understand a difficult text will follow isolated details in the text and as a result employ an inappropriate schema to fill in the gaps. A factor that has strong potential to affect readers’ comprehension, and can cause their misinterpretations is culture (Steffensen, Joag-Dev, and Anderson, 1979). Effects of cultural differences on reading recall, test scores and reading miscues have been consistently found in different studies (e.g., Carrell, 1984b; Dimassi, 2006; Rice, 1980). This will be elaborated on in the next chapter.

1.4.2 Vocabulary Knowledge

The second parameter that is probed in the study, the understanding of which is inevitable to the reader, is vocabulary knowledge. “Successful comprehension is heavily dependent on knowledge of individual word meanings” (Koda, 2005, p. 48). Research confirms a strong connection between readers’ vocabulary knowledge and their ability to understand what they read (Anderson & Freebody, 1983; Davis, 1968; Koda, 2005; Qian, 1999). For example, Koda (2005) argues that there is a reciprocal relationship between word knowledge and comprehension. On the one hand vocabulary knowledge plays a crucial role in text understanding among both L1 and L2 readers, and on the other, vocabulary learning and processing are equally dependent on comprehension. She adds that the precise meaning of a particular word is determined in large part by the context in which it appears, and that this meaning is closely linked with reader’s real-life experience. However, in spite of overwhelming data available on their strong connection there is little consensus as to the exact mutuality between the two (ibid.).

While, traditionally, vocabulary has been viewed as the dominant factor in reading comprehension (Davis, 1968; Whipple, 1925, cited in Hiebert & Kamil, 2005), a more recent view suggests a two-way link where the two are interdependent during their development process (Anderson & Freebody, 1983). Anderson and Freebody evaluated two contrasting hypotheses: instrumental and knowledge. The instrumental hypothesis postulates a direct mutual tie between vocabulary and comprehension, maintaining that word knowledge facilitates comprehension. On the contrary, the knowledge hypothesis assumes an indirect link between the two, positing that their relationship is linked through a third phenomenon, background knowledge. In this view, vocabulary size reflects conceptual knowledge. Once readers have real-world experience, their text understanding is considerably improved. There will be more elaboration on this in Chapter 2.

As was said earlier in this chapter, vocabulary knowledge and background knowledge, or topic familiarity, are two most important variables affecting students’ comprehension. Research has also shown that the most important problems teachers face in a reading class is unknown vocabulary and unfamiliar topic (Cabaroglu & Yurdaisik, 2008). In order to have a better understanding of teachers’ contribution to the reading class with regard to these two parameters, an awareness of the teacher’s role in the reading class, which is another variable in the present research, seems inevitable.

1.5 Teacher’s Role

It is believed that the role the teacher plays in reading instruction is significant in the degree of the effectiveness of a reading program (Blair, Rupley & Nichols, 2007). In this regard, Duffy-Hester (1999) is “convinced that the teacher is more important and has a greater impact than any single, fixed reading program, method, or approach” (p. 492). However, it should be noted that it is not enough for a teacher to be a good person who loves working with students. They must be aware of the reading process and the teaching and learning of reading if they want their instruction to yield good results (Blair, Rupley & Nichols, 2007).

Good teachers understand that students need to be prepared to read before they are asked to (Alvermann & Phelps, 1998). One way to prepare students for reading new topics is presenting basic background knowledge through brainstorming, question and answer, discussion on the topic, or pictures. Another way is providing students with topic related vocabulary and instructing them prior to reading (ibid.). These preparatory activities are usually practiced in the pre-reading phase, which, according to Chastain (1988), is meant to motivate students to want to read the assignment and to prepare them to be able to read it.

Pre-reading activities provide a reader with necessary background to organize activity and to comprehend the material (Ringler and Weber, 1984). These experiences involve understanding the purpose(s) for reading and building a knowledge base necessary for dealing with the content, vocabulary, and the structure of the material (ibid.) Ringler and Weber argue that pre-reading activities elicit prior knowledge, build background and focus attention. In fact, it is in the pre-reading stage that teachers attempt to facilitate and enhance students’ comprehension of reading texts by topic familiarization and vocabulary introduction. Chapter 2 will discuss the pre-reading stage in detail.

1.6 Background to the Problem

There is a considerable bulk of research on the comparison of the effectiveness and enhancing roles of topic familiarity and vocabulary knowledge in ESL reading (e.g. Afflerbach, 1986; Brantmeier, 2003; Carrell, 1987; Hammadou, 1991; Hudson, 1982; Johnson, 1982; Park, 2004a, 2004b; Swaffer, 1988). Studies on these two reader variables reveal that there is little consensus among the researchers as for their functions in ESL contexts.

Some findings have shown a significant, positive effect for topic familiarity as either a main effect or as part of a complex interaction. For example, Johnson (1982) gave ESL readers a passage on Halloween and demonstrated that topic familiarity had a greater impact on comprehension than the pre-teaching of vocabulary. Also, Swaffer (1988) concludes, in her paper, that background knowledge can be more influential in reading comprehension than word knowledge. She further claims that topic familiarity facilitates language recognition, and recall of concepts.

However, some other research in the literature indicates that vocabulary knowledge may be a more significant variable than prior knowledge on topic in ESL readers’ success. For example, Phillips (1990), reported by Hammadou (1991), finds that prior knowledge is insignificant when readers lack vocabulary knowledge and language proficiency. To Phillips, it is only when readers are proficient that high or low background knowledge comes into play and differentiates between readers’ levels of comprehension. But, perhaps the most comprehensive study on the effects of vocabulary pre-teaching and providing background knowledge on L2 reading comprehension was done by Park (2004b). He divided his 180 participants into three groups — the vocabulary group, the background knowledge group, and the control group, with different treatments. The results he attained were a) the scores of the vocabulary and background knowledge groups were significantly higher than those of the control group, b) the vocabulary group scored higher than the background knowledge group, although the difference between the mean scores of the two groups was not significant, and c) the effects of pre-reading activities on L2 reading comprehension differed by achievement level and text type.

Nevertheless, to Tuero (1996), unknown vocabulary and prior knowledge play equally decisive roles in reading comprehension. She concludes, in her study, that background knowledge and vocabulary difficulty function independently and affect reading in different ways. Even though prior knowledge facilitates comprehension, vocabulary development is equally crucial to foreign language reading.

As said earlier, unknown vocabulary and unfamiliar topic have been found to be the most important problems that teachers encounter in a reading class (Cabaroglu & Yurdaisik, 2008). Therefore, to ensure students’ comprehension, teachers should concentrate on these two variables, because without comprehension reading would be meaningless. Different learners seem to approach reading tasks in different ways, and some of these ways appear to lead to better comprehension (Tercanlioglu, 2004). Research has shown that learners can be instructed to use appropriate reading strategies to help them improve comprehension and recall (Carrell, Pharis, & Liberto, 1989), and that this instruction should include more pre-reading strategies than post-reading strategies (Cabaroglu & Yurdaisik, 2008).

However, what is of concern to the researcher is the degree of effectiveness of teacher’s instruction of these reading strategies. It is true that unknown vocabulary and unfamiliar topic are the most significant problems in a reading class. But, who should, or can, attend to these problems? Is it the teacher, the student, the author, or other variables that have this responsibility? Although there has been quite a lot of research on topic familiarity and vocabulary knowledge in reading comprehension, unfortunately, to date, there is no data available reflecting on the degree of effectiveness of the teacher’s presence at, or absence from an ESL reading class.

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In fact, the role of the teacher in enhancing students’ familiarity with texts topics and contents, and his/her role in vocabulary introduction have not been investigated yet. It is not clear to what extent teachers’ intervention facilitates students’ performance on reading comprehension and vocabulary tests. What if the teacher is not available for a pre-reading instruction? Does this mean that students have to postpone their reading activities, waiting for the unfamiliar topic and unknown vocabulary to be introduced by the teacher? In other words, should topic familiarization and vocabulary introduction be necessarily carried out by the teacher? The researcher believes this is a gap in the literature, which the present study seeks to fill.

1.7 Purpose and Design of the Study

This study is an attempt to investigate in depth, in an explanatory mixed methods design, the degree of the effectiveness of teacher’s construction of background knowledge and his/her instruction of vocabulary at pre-reading stage in adult ESL reading comprehension. The influence of the teacher on the reading class, his/her contribution to students’ comprehension, and the facilitative role that s/he might play are the important aspects that this study aims to shed light on.

The reason for conducting a mixed methods study is that the researcher attempts to combine both quantitative and qualitative data for more precise results. The explanatory mixed methods design, which is also called the two-phase model (Creswell, 2008), puts emphasis on quantitative data collection and analysis. In this method, the major aspect of data collection is quantitative, and a small qualitative component follows in the second phase of the research (ibid.).

The quantitative phase of the study aims to test the following hypotheses:

Teacher-directed topic familiarization enhances students’ performance on ESL reading comprehension tasks more than written introductions do.

Dictionary use and teacher’s instruction of vocabulary yield the same results in students’ performance on vocabulary tests.

To test the research hypotheses, this study seeks to answer three questions, and for the qualitative part of the research, RQ4 is supposed to serve the purpose. The research questions are as follows:

RQ 1 To what extent does teacher-directed topic familiarization enhance students’

performance on multiple-choice reading comprehension tests?

RQ 2 To what extent does teacher’s intervention help students’ recall of a reading passage?

RQ 3 What are the differences between teacher’s instruction of vocabulary and dictionary use in students’ performance on vocabulary tests?

RQ 4 What are students’ perceptions as to the teacher’s role in an ESL reading classroom?

To answer RQs 1, 2, and 3, quantitative data suffices and serves the purpose, and that is why the researcher applies multiple choice questions and written recall tests. But, for RQ 4, it is deemed necessary to mix quantitative and qualitative data to obtain more detailed , specific information than could be gained from the results of statistical tests. Therefore, a 5-point Likert scale questionnaire is combined with semi-structured interviews to answer RQ 4. Details will be found in Chapter 3.

1.8 Significance of the Study

Through his experience as an EFL teacher, the researcher has noticed that many EFL students face challenges whenever the reading comprehension process is altered by any unfamiliar reading task or assignment. He has also noticed that pre-reading instruction activities, including prior knowledge construction of unfamiliar topics, and teaching new vocabulary, play an important role in preparing students for the task and can help them become more aware of the characteristics of reading that are important to the task. This study will help teachers and educators find out the effectiveness and significance of teacher’s presence at, or absence from, the reading class. It is an attempt to explore teachers’ contribution to students’ reading comprehension, and tries to answer the question of whether or not, or to what extent, adult ESL students could be independent readers. This research will investigate, for the first time, the effectiveness of dictionary use as compared with the teacher’s vocabulary instruction in enhancing students’ vocabulary knowledge in the reading class. Another significant viewpoint of the study is that, again for the first time, the teacher’s skill in familiarizing students with unfamiliar topics at pre-reading stage will be compared with the efficacy of written introductory data doing the same job of providing students with background knowledge on unfamiliar topics, hence the applicability of written pre-reading information in helping students’ text comprehension. All this will have implications for educators, teachers, practitioners, and researchers in the field of L2 reading comprehension, and will also help them design reading skill courses accordingly. It is hoped that the present research will make a positive contribution to the field of teaching second language reading.

1.9 Methodology

The study was conducted with newly registered postgraduate students at the University of Malaya, Malaysia. The Institute of Graduate Studies (IGS) at UM administers regular English Placement Tests for those new students who do not possess any scores on either the TOEFL or the IELTS as the prerequisite for the registration for the university programs. Based on the students’ scores on the university Placement Test, the participants were assigned to two treatment groups, Group A and Group B, comprising 35 students each.

To find the answers to RQs 1, 2, and 3, the participants were provided with three reading passages of unfamiliar topics and contents, which they read and were tested on, with a week’s interval between the tests. The difficulty levels of these passages were measured through the Flesch Readability Test (Flesch, 1948). A typical session ran as this: The participants in Group A received no teacher’s intervention. They were provided with some brainstorming questions, to which they received no answers, a list of the text concepts, and a written introduction, which were meant to help them construct background knowledge on the text they were going to read. The text this group read had a title, which is believed to have a role in helping students to construct prior knowledge (Hammadou, 1991). They were also given a list of the key vocabulary, and were encouraged to use their dictionaries to check words meanings. In short, Group A received any information which was thought to be necessary in reading the text, but in the form of written input.

Group B, however, underwent teacher’s intervention. That is, it was the teacher who, in some pre-reading activities, familiarized them with the topic and content, and taught them the key vocabulary. Moreover, their text did not include a title, and no dictionary use was permitted in this group. This procedure was repeated for all the three passages.

The participants were then assessed on comprehension and vocabulary after finishing each text. Each reading passage was followed by a free written recall test and a set of 20 multiple choice questions, 10 on comprehension and 10 on vocabulary. In fact, in the three treatment weeks, the students took three written recall tests, 30 comprehension and 30 vocabulary MCQs. Also, to find the answer to RQ4, on the students’ perceptions of the teacher’s role in a reading class, a 5- point Likert scale questionnaire was administered, and then through purposeful sampling, 20 of the participants, 10 from each group, were selected for an interview.

Applied as one of the data collection tools, the free recall test is a measure in which readers write down as much as they can remember from what they have just read, without looking at the passage. According to Johnston (1983) and Bernhardt (1983), the recall measurement is a valid means of evaluating foreign language reading comprehension. This technique has been widely used in second language reading research (e.g., Carrell, 1987; Dimassi, 2006; Leeser, 2007; Young, 1999)

Multiple choice tests, as another research tool, are common instruments for assessing reading comprehension (Alderson, 2000). To Koda (2005), they are the most popular format used in standardized reading comprehension tests. MCQs have been employed extensively in L2 reading assessment (e.g., Bugel & Buunk, 1996; Carrell, 1987; Carrell & Wise, 1998; Oded & Walters, 2001; Park, 2004; Yazdanpanah, 2007), and, therefore, have been coupled with the free recall test to measure the participants’ reading ability.

In addition, Likert scale questionnaires and interviews are two common techniques in measuring perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs in second language teaching and learning (DeVellis, 1991; Turner, 1993), and have been used widely in the literature (See Brown, 2006 & 2009; Richardson, 1996; Williams & Burden, 1997; Yamashita, 2004, for Likert scale questionnaires, and Barkhuizen, 1998; Cabaroglu & Yurdaisik, 2008; Conteh & Toyoshima, 2005; Li & Wilhelm, 2008, for interviews). Thus, the study has applied these tools to find the answer to RQ4. Details on the research instruments will be revealed in Chapter 3.


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