ERIC Identifier: ED425658
Publication Date: 1998-12-00
Author: Knutson, Elizabeth M.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse
on Languages and Linguistics Washington DC.
Reading with a Purpose: Communicative Reading Tasks for the
Foreign Language Classroom. ERIC Digest.
In describing reading proficiency--the relative difficulty or ease that an
individual reader experiences in reading a particular text--researchers have
recognized the importance of both text- and reader-based factors. This article
focuses on the factor of purpose, as determined by the reader or the
instructional context. Having a purpose means having a reason to read and
approaching a text with a particular goal in mind, whether that goal involves
learning or entertainment. In both real-world and classroom situations, purpose
affects the reader's motivation, interest, and manner of reading.
READING IN THE REAL WORLD
Reading in the real world is
defined here as reading outside the classroom, or nonacademic reading.
Real-world reading is performed for any number of reasons, and the nature of
reading varies according to the reader's purpose and situation. These factors
inevitably determine the reader's approach to the text--the amount of attention
paid, the time spent, as well as what features or parts of the text are focused
Perhaps the broadest distinction commonly made in defining real-world reading
purpose is that of reading for pleasure versus reading for information. Pleasure
reading is most frequently associated with narrative, and in particular, popular
fiction. It is commonly perceived to be the antithesis of academic or serious
reading. By contrast, reading to learn is pursued to gain insight or
information. Reading for information may range from the scanning of documents
and the reading of letters to in-depth reading of articles or books. Whether we
are reading for pleasure or information, the nature of the reading depends on
what we want from the text, as well as situational factors such as time
available or constraints relative to place of reading. No matter what our
agenda, why and where we read inevitably determine how we read.
PLEASURE READING IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE
In second language
acquisition research and theory, Krashen has consistently argued that pleasure
reading is an important source of comprehensible input for acquisition. The only
requirement "is that the story or main idea be comprehensible and the topic be
something the student is genuinely interested in, that he would read in his
first language" (Krashen, 1982, p. 164). To encourage light reading in a foreign
language, foreign language departments can provide a library or resource where
students can browse and take out reading materials of interest. At the high
school or college levels, it is possible to incorporate some free outside
reading into course syllabi. Over the course of a semester, students can be
asked to perform one self-selected reading and report on it in oral or written
form. While the reporting task turns the activity into work, the important
element of self-selection is still retained. Alternatively, students can work
with magazines and newspapers in the classroom or library to create a portfolio
of texts on a topic of interest. In the portfolio, students identify the source
and briefly summarize the gist of each text. In addition, they write a paragraph
explaining their interest in the topic, reactions to certain articles, and
questions they may have. The instructor responds in writing with comments on
both the topic itself and the text collection.
Because reading is valuable input for language acquisition, it makes sense to
take advantage of the fact that many students in elementary courses are capable
of reading far beyond the level at which they speak. Strong language learners
and good readers can benefit from reading longer, narrative texts at earlier
levels of instruction. Unfortunately, readings in elementary textbooks for
commonly taught languages are generally limited to short, informational texts.
Literary and cultural readings in intermediate textbooks are often only
excerpts. As a supplement to introductory textbooks, instructors can assign
universally known stories or tales, or longer authentic texts on topics with
which students are already familiar. Intermediate-level students can read
detective stories or other formulaic fiction.
THE FACTOR OF INTEREST
Wherever possible, instructors
should ask students directly about their interests and provide them with choices
of authentic texts. But reader interest in a text can also be a function of
purpose. Educational researchers have defined several different categories of
interest. Individual or personal interest refers to long-standing preferences on
the part of a particular reader for certain topics or related subject matter
(Schiefele, 1992). By contrast, situational interest refers to interest
generated by situational factors, including the text itself. Text-based
situational interest is generally defined as interest that is elicited by text
through topics or ideas that are of universal or archetypal appeal (Hidi & Anderson, 1992). Another form of situational interest, and one that concerns us
here, is reading purpose.
In a study that sought to determine the effect on interest and recall of
reading with a particular perspective, Schraw and Dennison (1994) found that
focusing readers' attention on selected text information increases what the
researchers term purpose-driven interest and that text segments that are
relevant to a readers' purpose are recalled better than those that are not. The
implications of this study for classroom instruction are clear and significant.
When readers are asked to read a text with a particular focus or angle, both
their reading interest and retention of text material are heightened.
READING PURPOSE IN THE CLASSROOM AND THE CONCEPT OF
Because reading is more interesting and text information is understood
and recalled better when reading is purpose driven, it follows that creating
purpose in the classroom reading situation will enhance readers' interest and
performance. But how narrowly should the concept of purpose be defined? In the
broadest sense, even the most traditional textbook comprehension exercises
provide students with the purpose of reading a text for specific information.
Yet traditional comprehension questions generally address all information in the
text in an undifferentiated manner. This kind of even, comprehensive coverage is
well intentioned but unfortunately results in a leveling of content, as if all
ideas or aspects of the text were equally important. In short, there is no
reading perspective. Rarely in real-world reading do we pay equal attention to
everything in a text, and exercises that lead students to approach a text in
this way may well remove the important element of interest from the reading
process. An alternative to comprehension questions that often accompany textbook
dialogues or cultural texts is to have students write a list based on the text.
Depending on content, this could be a list of places, events, or even facts the
student finds interesting.
Reading with a purpose means approaching texts with a specific goal. When
possible, students can be asked to read a text from a specific point of view,
depending on what the text might suggest. In the classroom, students can be
given reasons to read that approximate their purposes in a variety of real-world
situations. They can read ads for apartments to find one that fits a particular
set of requirements, look through movie listings and reviews to decide whether
to see a particular movie, or respond to a written invitation.
Beyond these comprehension exercise types, purposeful reading can also be
part of whole communicative tasks in the foreign language classroom. Nunan
(1993) defines a communicative task as a "piece of classroom work which involves
learners in comprehending, manipulating, producing, or interacting in the target
language while their attention is focused on meaning rather than form" (p. 59).
Strictly speaking, in task activities, the goal is nonlinguistic. The idea is to
get something done via the language, to read a text and do something with the
information (Long & Crookes, 1992). Whole tasks involve performance of
reading in conjunction with other skills: listening, speaking, or writing. For
example, students in a small group might read a number of texts, such as
brochures, timetables, or maps, and listen to radio weather or traffic reports
in order to carry out the larger task of deciding on the best method of
transportation to use on a trip. In such an activity, each student deals with
one category of information, and all students must communicate their information
to one another to come up with the best plan for the trip.
Still other kinds of communicative tasks may be activities that would not
actually occur in real-world situations. For example, a classroom reading task
might involve students drawing a picture based on a written text, reconstructing
a text that has been cut up into paragraphs, or, in pairs, reading slightly
different versions of the same story and discovering differences through speech
alone. These tasks, while not real world, are still communicative; the focus is
on understanding a text to get something done.
A task approach conveys to students the value of fluent and efficient
reading, because reading for a specific purpose means reading texts in different
ways at different speeds, depending on the information needed and the task to be
carried out. Another advantage of tasks is that students can work with authentic
texts from the start. A complex, unedited text can be made accessible by
adjusting the level of difficulty of the task. The same text can be used at
different points during a semester, each time with a different task or purpose.
In rereading the same text with a different purpose, students derive a sense of
accomplishment from their progressively greater comprehension and more extended
use of the text.
TEXTUAL ANALYSIS: WORKING WITH MEANING AND FORM
reading research points to the benefits of working with texts for the purpose of
drawing students' attention to formal features of written language as well (Long & Crookes, 1992). A communicative or task approach can and should be
combined with analysis of text structure and linguistic features of text;
however, most specialists concur that instructors should focus on textual
messages first. If an individual student cannot perform a task successfully due
to misreading of a text, the student will need to reread problematic segments
and attend more closely to the text structure. If many students in a class
experience difficulty with certain syntactical structures or forms of text
organization, the instructor may choose to conduct a reading lesson that targets
Students can be led from considerations of content to those of form in a
natural manner. In the domain of rhetoric, for example, students can be asked to
identify the discourse features of the text that contribute to its
persuasiveness. They can focus on pragmatic issues of register and audience and
examine the lexical networks that connect text segments and the use of syntax to
establish topic and theme. Textual analysis of this sort is a different kind of
activity from reading to perform a communicative task. Both uses of text are
beneficial, but it is necessary for instructors and students to distinguish
between them. It is also important that a text be apprehended first in terms of
meaning and reader response.
FOREIGN LANGUAGE LITERACY AND ACADEMIC TASKS
advanced-level courses, such as film studies or special topics in literature,
the real-world uses of text are less evident; rather, the focus is on academic
tasks. In most academic tasks, such as presenting a report or writing a paper,
reading plays a significant role.
In discussions of the concept of critical literacy, reading and
interpretation have been defined by a variety of researchers as being able to
talk about a text, which in turn means being able to participate in a
"conversation of readers" (Graff, 1992). In his view, literacy is both a social
and cognitive process.
Importantly, Graff situates reading within the larger communicative context
of academic discourse and emphasizes the primacy of context over text. He argues
that reading a literary text in order to support or counter a particular
critical argument can engage students who otherwise would not know what to think
or say about what they are reading. Thus, in literature courses, an important
sense of purpose can be created by asking students to read from a particular
angle or with a particular argument in mind.
Literacy tasks for upper-level coursework should afford diverse opportunities
for interaction among students: In a discussion of academic discourse and
collaborative learning, Bruffee (1984) borrows the Vygotskian concept of thought
as internalized conversation to argue for "engaging students in conversation
among themselves at as many points in both the writing and the reading process
as possible"--in short, for pedagogical practice that acknowledges and reflects
the social and inter-textual nature of literacy and knowledge. This means less
emphasis on reading as a solitary activity and more on reading and talking with
PRE-READING ACTIVITIES FOR THE ADVANCED LEVEL
background knowledge with respect to text topic and genre is recognized as a
significant factor in text comprehension. As a result, textbooks and pedagogical
practice now routinely include pre-reading activities with authentic texts or
other reading selections. Interestingly, a benefit of such activities is the
focus or purpose for reading that they can provide. The value of pre-reading
work for both comprehension and interest does not diminish at the advanced
level. In literature courses, for example, writing and discussion can serve
equally well as an entry into a whole text or text segment. Pre-reading
discussion can focus on a critical argument or controversy surrounding
interpretation of a text. More simply, discussion or writing tasks can elicit
students' personal views or previous readings on a topic or their expectations
with respect to text content or point of view. In a civilization course,
students familiar with American and French newspapers can be asked to compare
articles from The Washington Post or USA Today on terrorism in Paris with
articles from Le Monde or Le Figaro. Prior to the reading, they can articulate
their expectations about what facts will be highlighted and what perspective or
political stance, if any, the articles will reflect. Discussing these issues
before rather than after reading provides focus, which in turn creates interest
in the texts.
As preparation for reading authentic foreign language texts on a cultural
topic, students can engage in peer reading and debate. In this activity, the
instructor provides students with a topic for debate formulated in terms of a
specific question. Each student writes a short position statement on the topic,
making an argument that may or may not represent their view. In groups, students
read through and discuss all statements, culling what they believe to be the
best arguments for and against each side of the debate. The groups then compare
their results. Again, prior discussion of the arguments provides a focal point
Writing is a particularly effective form of pre-reading activity that prompts
readers to reflect on what they are about to read. Writing activities foster the
development of a sense of authorship, which in turn helps make students more
critical readers. An effective way to promote active response to text is through
assignment of reading journals. In these, students write entries prior to each
reading assignment. In addition to writing their reactions to text passages
already read, they are encouraged to write prospectively, anticipating story
line or character development and formulating questions about what they are
about to read. Journal entries are handed in to the instructor or exchanged with
other students and form the basis for discussion or for other, more developed
USES OF TEXT ACROSS THE CURRICULUM
Ideally, it is the
intended use of texts by learners that should drive reading instruction across
the curriculum. In high schools and colleges, learners' needs may range from
fulfilling a language requirement to language use in travel or study abroad or
general interest in language and culture. Because of this wide range, it is
often difficult to base instruction on a well-defined set of learners' future
needs or target tasks; however, it is possible to place increased emphasis on
learners' potential uses of text. Such a focus might prompt reevaluation of a
variety of foreign language courses and programs, ranging from foreign language
across the curriculum to reading requirements for M.A. and Ph.D. candidates in
At all levels of foreign language instruction, providing students a reason to
pick up a text also gives them a way to read it. In elementary and intermediate
classes, whole real-world tasks that offer other kinds of communicative purpose
convey to students the value of reading for message. In advanced-level courses,
the principle of reading with a purpose means rethinking the conventional "read
and discuss" approach to literary and cultural texts. It means that some of the
classroom discussion that has traditionally taken place after reading would be
better placed before, so students have something to read for. Reading with a
perspective or reading to decide for or against a particular interpretation, not
only creates interest in the text but also provides students with something
interesting to say after reading. At all levels of foreign language coursework,
purposeful reading can enhance interest and recall on the part of students. Just
as important, the concept of purpose provides a useful organizing principle for
the coordination of reading instruction across the curriculum.
Bruffee, K. A. (1984). Collaborative learning
and the "conversation of mankind. "College English," 46, 635-52.
Graff, G. (1992). "Beyond the culture wars: How teaching conflicts can
revitalize American education." New York: W.W. Norton.
Hidi, S., & Anderson, V. (1992). Situational interest and its impact on
reading and expository writing. In K. A. Renninger, S. Hidi, & A. Krapp,
Eds., "The role of interest in learning and development" (p. 215-38). Hillsdale,
NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Krashen, S. (1982). "Principles and practice in second language acquisition."
Long, M. H., & Crookes, G. (1992). Three approaches to task-based
syllabus design. "TESOL Quarterly," 26, 27-56.
Nunan, D. (1993). Task-based syllabus design: Selecting, grading, and
sequencing tasks. In G. Crookes, & S. Gass, Eds., "Tasks in a pedagogical
context: Integrating theory and practice." Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Schiefele, U. (1992). Topic interest and levels of text comprehension. In K.
A. Renninger, S. Hidi, & A. Krapp, Eds., "The role of interest in learning
and development" (p. 151-82). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Schraw, G., & Dennison, R.S. (1994). The effect of reader purpose on
interest and recall. "Journal of Reading Behavior," 26, 1-17.
A longer version of this article was published in Foreign Language Annals
(volume 30, number 1, 1997).