A REVIEW ON READING THEORIES AND ITS IMPLICATION TO THE TEACHING OF READING
Universitas Kristen Indonesia
Opinions and suggestions for the improvement of teaching reading to learners of English as a foreign language, whether based on the results of research and experience, are available in language teaching literature. This paper summarizes various theories, findings, and opinions concerning the teaching of reading. An understanding of these topics, especially the theory of top-down, bottom-up, and meta-cognitive, could be used as the basis for improving the techniques of teaching reading. By doing so, the reading proficiency of learners of English as a foreign language could be significantly enhanced
Keywords: top-down, bottom-up, schemata, meta-cognitive, pre-reading, during-reading, after-reading
Among the four language skills, reading is possibly the most extensively and intensively studied skill by experts in the field of language teaching. The results of the studies conducted for many decades on the nature of reading—how people learn to process textual information—have contributed contrasting theories about what works best in the teaching of reading. As a result, language educators should choose among a wide variety of teaching methods and techniques for students learning to read in their second language (SL) or foreign language (FL).
For students who are learning English in an SL/FL context, reading is the most crucial skill to master due to several reasons. According to Harmer (2007), reading is crucial because of two main reasons. First, it is beneficial to the students’ personal life. Reading English texts may have a positive impact on students´ further studies and carriers or it may simply play the role of joyful reading. Second, it is beneficial to their language acquisition for reading improves students´ writing abilities, spelling and vocabulary knowledge.
Realizing how crucial reading is for our students, we can see the great importance of developing their reading ability. To achieve it, we should improve our reading lessons by implementing the best method and techniques provided by theories. This article aims to describe principal theories of reading and examine some tips and guidelines for implementing a theory of reading which will help us develop our learner’s abilities.
Theories of Reading
So far, there are three main theories which explain the nature of learning to read. First, the traditional theory, or bottom-up processing, which focused on the printed form of a text. (2) the cognitive view or top-down processing enhanced the role of background knowledge in addition to what appeared on the printed page. Third, the metacognitive view, which is based on the control and manipulation that a reader can have on the act of comprehending a text, and thus, emphasizes the involvement of the reader’s thinking about what he is doing while reading.
1. The traditional bottom-up view
The traditional bottom-up approach to reading was influenced by behaviorist psychology of the 1950s, which claimed learning was based upon “habit formation, brought about by the repeated association of a stimulus with a response” and language learning was characterized as a “response system that humans acquire through automatic conditioning processes,” where “some patterns of language are reinforced (rewarded) and others are not,” and “only those patterns reinforced by the community of language users will persist” (Omaggio 1993, 45-46). Behaviorism became the basis of the audio-lingual method, which sought to form second language “habits” through drilling, repetition, and error correction.
Today, the main method associated with the bottom-up approach to reading is known as phonics, which requires the learner to match letters with sounds in a defined sequence. According to this view, reading is a linear process by which readers decode a text word by word, linking the words into phrases and then sentences (Gray and Rogers, cited in Kucer 1987). According to Samuels and Kamil (1988: 25), the emphasis on behaviorism treated reading as a word-recognition response to the stimuli of the printed words, where “little attempt was made to explain what went on within the recesses of the mind that allowed the human to make sense of the printed page”. In other words, textual comprehension involves adding the meanings of words to get the meanings of clauses (Anderson 1994). These lower level skills are connected to the visual stimulus, or print, and are consequently concerned with recognizing and recalling.
Like the audio-lingual teaching method, phonics emphasizes on repetition and on drills using the sounds that make-up words. Information is received and processed beginning with the smallest sound units, and proceeded to letter blends, words, phrases, and sentences. Thus, novice readers acquire a set of hierarchically ordered sub-skills that sequentially build toward comprehension ability. Having mastered these skills, readers are viewed as experts who comprehend what they read.
The bottom-up model describes information flow as a series of stages that transforms the input and passes it to the next stage without any feedback or possibility of later stages of the process influencing earlier stages (Stanovich, 1980). In other words, language is viewed as a code and the reader’s main task is to identify graphemes and convert them into phonemes. Consequently, readers are regarded as passive recipients of information in the text. Meaning resides in the text and the reader has to reproduce it.
The ESL and EFL textbooks influenced by this perspective include exercises that focus on literal comprehension and give little or no importance to the reader’s knowledge or experience with the subject matter, and the only interaction is with the basic building blocks of sounds and words. Most activities are based on recognition and recall of lexical and grammatical forms with an emphasis on the perceptual and decoding dimension.
This model of reading has almost always been under attack as being insufficient and defective for the main reason that it relies on the formal features of the language, mainly words and structure. Although it is possible to accept this rejection for the fact that there is over-reliance on the structure in this view, it must be confessed that knowledge of linguistic features is also necessary for comprehension to take place. To counteract over-reliance on form in the traditional view of reading, the cognitive view was introduced.
2. The Cognitive View (top-down processing)
In the 1960s a paradigm shift occurred in the cognitive sciences. Behaviorism became somewhat discredited as the new cognitive theory represented the mind’s innate capacity for learning, which gave new explanatory power to how humans acquired their first language; this also had a tremendous impact on the field of ESL/EFL as psycholinguists explained “how such internal representations of the foreign language develop within the learner’s mind” (Omaggio, 1993: 57).
Ausubel (cited in Omaggio, 1993: 58), made an important distinction between meaningful learning and rote learning. An example of rote learning is simply memorizing lists of isolated words or rules in a new language, where the information becomes temporary and subject to lose. Meaningful learning, on the other hand, occurs when new information is presented in a relevant context and is related to what the learner already knows so that it can be easily integrated into one’s existing cognitive structure. A learning that is not meaningful will not become permanent. This emphasis on meaning eventually informed the top-down approach to L2 learning, and in the 1960s and 1970s, there was an explosion of teaching methods and activities that strongly considered the experience and knowledge of the learner.
These new cognitive and top-down processing approaches revolutionized the conception of the way students learn to read (Smith, 1994). In this view, reading is not just extracting meaning from a text but a process of connecting information in the text with the knowledge the reader brings to the act of reading. In this sense, reading is a dialogue between the reader and the text which involves an active cognitive process in which the reader’s background knowledge plays a key role in the creation of meaning (Tierney and Pearson, 1994). Reading is not a passive mechanical activity but purposeful and rational, dependent on the prior knowledge and expectations of the reader. It is not merely a matter of decoding print to sound but also a matter of making sense of written language (Smith, 1994: 2). Goodman (as cited in Paran, 1996), accentuated that reading is “a psycholinguistic guessing game, a process in which readers sample the text, make hypotheses, confirm or reject them, make new hypotheses, and so forth.”
Another theory closely related to top-down processing called schema theory also had a major impact on reading instruction. It describes in detail how the background knowledge of the learner interacts with the reading task and illustrates how a student’s knowledge and previous experience with the world is crucial to deciphering a text. The ability to use these schemata, or background knowledge, plays a fundamental role in one’s trial to comprehend a text.
Schema theory is based on the notion that past experiences lead to the creation of mental frameworks that help a reader make sense of new experiences. Smith (1994: 14) calls schemes the “extensive representations of more general patterns or regularities that occur in our experience”. For instance, one’s generic scheme of an airplane will allow him to make sense of airplane he has not previously flown with. This means that past experiences will be related to new experiences, which may include the knowledge of “objects, situations, and events as well as knowledge of procedures for retrieving, organizing and interpreting information” (Kucer, 1987: 31). Anderson (1994: 469) presents research showing that recall of information in a text is affected by the reader’s schemata and explains that “a reader comprehends a message when he is able to bring to mind a schema that gives an account of the objects and events described in the message”. Comprehension is the process of “activating or constructing a schema that provides a coherent explanation of objects and events mentioned in a discourse” (Anderson, 1994: 473). For Anderson and Pearson (1988: 38), comprehension is the interaction between old and new information. They emphasize: “To say that one has comprehended a text is to say that she has found a mental ‘home’ for the information in the text, or else that she has modified an existing mental home in order to accommodate that new information”. Therefore, a learner’s schemata will restructure itself to accommodate new information as that information is added to the system (Omaggio, 1993).
Content and formal schemata
Schema theorists differentiate formal schemata (knowledge about the structure of a text) from content schemata (knowledge about the subject matter of a text), and a reader’s prior knowledge of both schemata enables him to predict events and meaning as well as to infer meaning from a wider context.
Formal schemata refer to the way that texts differ from one another; for example, a reading text could be a fictional work, a letter to the editor, or a scientific essay, and each genre will have a different structural organization. Knowledge of these genre structures can aid reading comprehension, as it gives readers a basis for predicting what a text will be like (Smith 1994). For example, if a reader knows that the typical format of a research article consists of sections subtitled Introduction, Theoretical Basis, Methods, Results, Discussion, and Conclusion, that knowledge will facilitate their interaction with the article and boost comprehension. On the other hand, if he is not familiar with this formal schema, teaching it to him could lead to improved reading ability with lasting and beneficial effects.
Content schemata refer to the message of the text. One’s familiarity with the content will make more productive and efficient. As Anderson (1994: 469) explains, “a reader comprehends a message when he is able to bring to mind a schema that gives an account of the objects and events described in the message”.
Activating and building schemata
Since the reader plays a fundamental role in the construction of meaning, his age, gender, experience, and culture are important considerations for teachers who want to select readings that will motivate their students. Anderson (1994) notes that when readers cannot locate a schema that fits a text, they may find it incomprehensible. In some cases, readers may not have a schema that is significant to the text, or they may need help to activate the pertinent schema to be able to comprehend the text. In such cases, it may not be possible for the reader to understand the text, and the teacher must be ready to engage in “building new background knowledge as well as activating existing background knowledge” (Carrell, 1988: 248). In parallel with this, Bransford (1994) points out that difficulties in comprehension may be caused by the lack of background knowledge presumed by the text, and he sees the responsibility of instructors as being twofold: to activate preexisting schemata and to help students to integrate isolated “parcels” of knowledge into a schema or to build a new one.
If the texts to be read contain a cultural context that is different from the student’s, the issues of formal and content schemata become even more important. McDonough (1995), explains that, to a higher extent, this is the reason why ESL and EFL students find it difficult to read in a second language with texts that contain cultural assumptions of the target culture. They may lack the culture-specific background knowledge necessary to process the text in a top-down manner. His reports on several studies demonstrate how people outside a given culture may misunderstand events with unfamiliar cultural connotations. (Students from different cultural backgrounds taking standardized tests which assume common schemata for will also face the same problem.)
Applying schema theory to L2 reading
Based on the aforementioned ideas, it is obvious that in order to teach reading effectively, the teacher’s role to activate and build schemata is paramount. To achieve it, he should in advance select texts that are relevant to the students’ needs, preferences, individual differences, and cultures in order to provide meaningful texts so the students understand the message, which entails activating existing schemata and helping build new schemata. Then, after selecting the text, he needs to do the three stages of activities proposed by Wallace (1992) to activate and build the students’ schemata. (1) Pre-reading activities, in which the teacher have students think, write, and discuss everything they know about the topic, employing techniques such as prediction, semantic mapping, and reconciled reading. The objective is to make sure that students have the relevant schema for understanding the text. (2) During-reading activities, in which the teacher guide and monitor the interaction between the reader and the text. One important skill teachers can impart at this stage is note-taking, which allows students to compile new vocabulary and important information and details, and to summarize information and record their reactions and opinions. (3)Post-reading activities which facilitate the chance to evaluate students’ adequacy of interpretation, while bearing in mind that accuracy is relative and that “readership” must be respected as long as the writer’s intentions are addressed (Tierney and Pearson, 1994). Post-reading activities focus on a wide range of questions that allow for different interpretations.
While schema activation and building can occur in all three stages, the pre-reading stage deserves special attention since it is here, during the students’ initial contact with the text, where their schemata will be activated.
Pre-reading activities are aimed to activate existing schemata, build new schemata, and provide information to the teacher about what the students know. In their report on the positive effect various pre-reading activities had on reading comprehension, Chen and Graves (1995, 664), define them as “devices for bridging the gap between the text’s content and the reader’s schemata”. Various activities and materials can help the teacher introduce key vocabulary and reinforce concept association to activate both formal and content schemata. Formal schemata will be activated by employing devices such as advance organizers and overviews to draw attention to the structure of a text. The content schemata will be activated by using various pre-reading activities to help learners brainstorm and predict how the information fits in with their previous knowledge.
One of the most important pre-reading activities proposed by schematic theorists is the prediction. According to Goodman (1988: 16), a prediction is important because “the brain is always anticipating and predicting as it seeks order and significance in sensory inputs”. Smith (1994, 19–20) defines prediction as “the prior elimination of unlikely alternatives”. According to him, predictions are questions the readers ask the world and comprehension is receiving the answers. He emphasizes that it is the prediction that makes skilled readers effective when reading texts that contain familiar subject matter. “Prediction brings potential meaning to texts, reducing ambiguity and eliminating in advance irrelevant alternatives. Thus, we are able to generate comprehensible experience from inert pages of print” (Smith 1994, 18).
Another pre-reading activity is previewing, where students look at titles, headings, and pictures, and read the first few paragraphs and the last paragraph; these activities can then help students understand what the text is about by activating their formal and content schemata and making them familiar with the topic before they begin reading in earnest. Semantic mapping is another pre-reading activity that Carrell, Pharis, and Liberto (1989: 651) describe as a useful way to pre-teach vocabulary and to “provide the teacher with an assessment of the students’ prior knowledge or schema availability on the topic”. This activity asks students to brainstorm about the reading topic as the information is displayed on a graphic “map.” As students make associations, the map becomes a thorough summary of the concepts and vocabulary that they will encounter in the reading. It can also help build schemata and vocabulary that students do not yet possess. Again, it is important to know something about the students so the selected texts contain the type of material that is likely to be familiar and interesting to them.
Reutzel (1985) proposes another type of pre-reading activity called reconciled reading lesson, which reverses the sequence presented by many textbooks where the text is followed by questions. Instead, the teacher develops pre-reading questions from the questions that appear at the end of the reading. Smith (1994) criticizes comprehension exercises presented at the end of a reading because they are like memory tests. He argues that using prior knowledge efficiently contributes to fluent readers, and he believes that there is a reciprocal relationship between visual and non-visual (prior knowledge) information; the more the readers have of the latter, the less they need of the former. Although not all the post-reading questions can be easily turned into pre-reading ones, this strategy can be invaluable to activate schemata.
3. The metacognitive view
According to Block (1992), there is now no more debate on “whether reading is a bottom-up, language-based process or a top-down, knowledge-based process.” It is also no more problematic to accept the influence of background knowledge on readers. Research has gone even further to define the control executed by readers on their trial to understand a text. This control is what Block has referred to as meta-cognition.
In the context of reading, meta-cognition involves thinking about what one is doing while reading. Strategic readers do not only sample the text, make hypotheses, confirm or reject them, and make new hypotheses while reading. They also involve many activities along the process of reading, whose stages can be divided into three, i.e. before reading, while reading, and after reading. The activities the readers involve before reading are to identify the purpose of the reading, identify the form or type of the text. In the second stage (while reading), they think about the general character and features of the form or type of the text—such as trying to locate a topic sentence and follow supporting details toward a conclusion, project the author’s purpose for writing the text, choose, scan, or read in detail, make continuous predictions about what will occur next based on information obtained earlier, prior knowledge, and conclusions obtained within the previous stages. Finally, in the last stage, they attempt to form a summary, conclude, or make an inference of what was read.
Guidelines for Effective Teaching of Reading
After discussing the ideas and concepts presented in the three reading theories, let’s see how they are implemented in the tips for helping learners develop their reading competence proposed by Vaezi (2006). The tips are arranged in three sections which are parallel with the three consecutive reading stages: before reading, during reading, and after reading (Wallace, 1992).
Before the actual reading act on a text starts, some points should be considered for making the reading process more comprehensible. First, teachers should ensure that the words and grammatical structures in the texts to read are familiar to the learners. Suppose the texts have unfamiliar words, they could be introduced in pre-reading activities focusing on language awareness, such as finding synonyms, antonyms, derivatives, or associated words. Second, teachers need to make certain that the topics of chosen texts are in accordance with the learners’ age range, interests, sex, and cultural background. If they are not, necessary background information should be provided to the reader to facilitate comprehension. Assigning the class members to brainstorm ideas about the meaning of a title or an illustration and discuss what they know are recommended to conduct this activity.
The followings are some activities teacher can use during the pre-reading stage. These activities do not necessitate a long time to conduct. But, they are very effective to overcome the common urge to start reading a text closely right away from the beginning.
- Teacher-directed pre-reading, which is directed to explain some key vocabulary, ideas in the text, and the text type. In this approach, the teacher the information the students will need, including key concepts, important vocabulary, and appropriate conceptual framework are directly explained. The reason for introducing the text types is that texts may take on different forms and hold certain pieces of information in different places. The students’ familiarity of the text types they are reading will develop their understanding of the layout of the material. Such familiarity will, in turn, enable them to focus more deeply on the parts that are more densely compacted with information. Paying attention to the author’s name and the year of publication, if applicable, may even help the reader in assuming the text meaning.
- Interactive activities, in which the teacher leads a discussion by drawing out the information students already have and interjects additional information considered to be necessary to an understanding of the text to be read. The teacher can also overtly link the students’ prior knowledge and important information in the text.
- Reflective activities, which is directed to guide the students to realize the purpose and objective for reading a certain piece of written material. This can be done at the initial stages, but this strategy can be left to the students when they have become better readers. For example, the students may be guided to ask themselves, “Why should I read this text? What benefits can I get after finished reading this? Their awareness of the purpose and goal to read, later—in during-reading activities—will enable them to determine the correct skill(s) to employ: skimming, scanning, reading for details, or critical reading.
The activities carried out in during-reading stage include taking notes, reacting, predicting, selecting significant information, questioning the writer’s position, evaluating, and placing a text within one’s own experience. Due to the fact that most attention is often paid to dictionaries, the text, and the teacher in English reading classes, these processes can be the most complex to develop in a classroom setting,. To encourage active reading, the teacher is recommended to let the students to practice the followings are tips.
- Making predictions: Students should be guided to master the skill to predict what is going to happen next in the text because it is necessary to enable them to integrate and combine what has come with what is to come.
- Making selections: Proficient readers are more selective in what to read.
- Integrating prior knowledge: To facilitate comprehension, the schemata activated in the pre-reading section are required to be called upon.
- Skipping insignificant parts: The more proficient a person reads, the more he will concentrate on important pieces of information and skip unimportant pieces.
- Re-reading: Students should be made aware of the importance of re-reading to increase their comprehension.
- Making use of context or guessing: encouraging students to define and understand every single unknown word in a text is necessary. They should also be taught to use the context to guess the meaning of unfamiliar words.
- Breaking words into their component parts: To read more efficiently, students should analyze unknown words by breaking them into their affixes or roots. Such analysis can help them guess the meaning of a word so that they do not need to consult a dictionary and keep the process of comprehension continuing.
- Reading in chunks: To read faster, students should practice reading groups of words together. Such an act will also improve comprehension.
- Pausing: Good readers do not read with the same speed from the beginning to the end. At certain sections, he will pause to absorb and internalize the material being read and sort out information.
- Paraphrasing: Some parts of texts might need to be paraphrased sub-vocally to verify what it means.
- Monitoring: Good readers always check their understanding to evaluate whether the text or the reading of it, is meeting their goals.
Post-reading activities are essentially determined by the reading purpose and the information type extracted from the text. According to Barnett (1988), post-reading exercises first monitor students’ comprehension and then lead them to a deeper analysis of the text. In the real world, the reading is not directed to summarize a text content or to memorize the author’s viewpoint. The true goal of reading is to see into the author’s mind or to engage new information with what one already knows. To let the students check the information they did not comprehend or miscomprehended, holding a group discussion is recommended.
Vaezi (2006) accentuated that post-reading can stage generally take the form of these activities: (1) discussing the text: written/oral, (2) summarizing: written/oral, (3) making questions: written/oral, (3) answering questions: written/oral, (4) filling in forms and charts (5) writing reading logs (6) completing a text, (7) listening to or reading other related materials, and (7) role-playing.
Researches, opinions, and suggestions regarding the teaching of reading exist in extensive amount, and this summary of reading theories is by no means exhaustive. However, with a basic understanding of the theoretical basis of top-down and bottom-up processing, teachers can better take advantage of the most useful methodologies associated with the different approaches. It should be underlined that relying too much on either top-down or bottom-up processing may cause problems for beginning ESL/EFL readers. Thus, to develop reading abilities, both approaches should be considered, as the meta-cognitive approach suggests. Based on my own experience in teaching reading to Indonesian students, it was obvious that the students who managed to read English text effectively are those who approach texts in a painful, slow, and frustrating word-by-word manner. By improving their decoding skills, they are freed to concentrate on global meanings. So, both the psycho and the linguistic aspects must be emphasized in EFL reading classes.
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Note: This paper was presented in Bimonthly Collegiate Forum of the English Department of FKIP-UKI held on June 27, 2008.
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