ERIC Identifier: ED433729
Publication Date: 1999-08-00
Author: VanDuzer, Carol
Source: National Clearinghouse for
ESL Literacy Education Washington DC.
Reading and the Adult English Language Learner. ERIC Digest.
Concern about adults' reading abilities has grown since the National Adult
Literacy Survey (NALS) indicated that nearly 25% of the U.S. adult population
had difficulty performing basic literacy tasks in English, involving reading
documents (e.g., time tables, forms, and maps) and prose (e.g., newspaper
articles, instructions on medicine bottles) and performing numeracy tasks (e.g.,
computing hours, calculating interest rates) (Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, &
Kolstad, 1993). Although the extent of the literacy problem is under debate,
policymakers, educators, and the general public are concerned that many
adults--both native and nonnative English speakers-lack reading, writing, and
functional skills necessary for living in a literate society (Wiley, 1994). This
digest reviews reading approaches, identifies characteristics of fluent readers,
and makes suggestions for developing reading instruction for adult English
Most of what is known about reading
comes from first language reading research. English as a second language (ESL)
teachers need to consider how this research may or may not apply to reading in a
second language. The following is a discussion of the approaches behind reading
Phonics. The predominant approach to reading in the 1950s and 1960s was
"bottom up," based on the "phoneme" or smallest meaningful unit of sound.
Readers derive meaning in a linear manner, first decoding letters, then words,
phrases, and sentences to make sense of print. Rapid word recognition is
important to this approach, which emphasizes sight reading of words in
isolation. When word recognition becomes automatic, the reader is not conscious
of the process (Gough, 1972). Recent research has again focused attention on the
role that this decontextualized component of reading ability plays in the
reading process (Oakhill, Beard, & Vincent, 1995).
Psycholinguistic. Through the late 1960s and 1970s, the psycholinguistic or
"top down" approach to reading, where meaning takes precedence over structure,
became dominant. Although readers make use of sound-letter correspondence and
syntactic knowledge, they draw on their experiential background knowledge
(schema) to predict the meaning of the text and then read to confirm or correct
their predictions (Goodman, 1967; Smith, 1971).
Interactive. Approaches that draw on schema theory are also referred to as
interactive approaches. The reader and text interact as the reader uses prior
background knowledge and knowledge from the text to derive meaning (Grabe, 1991;
Hood, Solomon, & Burns, 1996). How this happens is still being explored by
second language reading researchers.
Other reading approaches are also considered interactive (Grabe, 1991;
Hudson, 1998). These approaches, often the subject of first language research,
view the reading process as the interaction of both bottom up and top down
skills. They focus on how the various aspects of reading (e.g., word
recognition, eye movement, and background knowledge) contribute to the reading
Critical Literacy. In the 1980s and 1990s, psycholinguistic views of reading
have been questioned by a social theorist perspective that regards reading as
both a social and psychological activity. Critical theorists, including Freire
(1983), Gee (1990), and Street (1993), view reading as a social process that
takes into account the relationship and interaction between author and reader.
Meaning flows fom an understanding of the cultural, social, and political
contexts in which the reading takes place (Hood et al., 1996).
CHARACTERISTICS OF FLUENT READERS
Reading is an active,
complex process of comprehending written language, encompassing many different
skills. The approaches described above grew out of research on reading; they
provide insight into what good readers do and can help adult English learners
become fluent readers in English. Following are characteristics of fluent
readers. Fluent readers
read with a purpose (to get information or for pleasure) and understand the
purpose of different texts (e.g., ads to encourage buying, editorials to present
and influence opinions, recipes to give instructions);
read quickly, automatically recognizing letters and words, maintaining a flow
that allows them to make connections and inferences that make the text
use a variety of strategies, depending on the text, to read efficiently (e.g.,
varying reading speed, predicting what will happen next, previewing headings and
interact with the text, making use of background knowledge as well as the
information on the printed page;
evaluate the text critically, determining whether they agree or disagree with
expect to understand the text and get meaning from it; and
usually read silently.
SUGGESTIONS FOR DEVELOPING READING INSTRUCTION
good readers do and comparing this with the strategies used by learners in their
classes will enable ESL teachers to gauge learners' needs. Adult English
language learners come with varied reading backgrounds and experiences. Some are
fluent readers in their native languages; some are not. Their view of literacy
will be influenced by the literacy practices of their culture. Yet, they all
will share the experience of learning to read in English, and they will approach
reading differently from the way native speakers approach it (Rance-Roney,
1997). The following activities can help learners develop reading proficiency.
The choice of activity, however, depends on the needs of the learners, the
nature of the text, and the demands of the reading task.
READING PROFICIENCY ACTIVITIES
1. Because good readers read
with a purpose, learners should read texts that meet their needs and are
interesting. Teachers can choose texts, or let the learners choose texts, that
are relevant to the learners' lives. They also need to be exposed to texts that
they are likely to encounter in everyday life, such as newspapers and magazines,
work memos, schedules, and medical instructions.
2. In order to develop automatic recognition skills, learners who are
preliterate or literate in a language with a non-Roman alphabet should be given
opportunities to develop letter recognition and sound-symbol correspondence
skills. This should not be done in isolation, but with familiar texts that they
have practiced orally or heard before (Hood et al., 1996). For example, learners
can identify words that begin with a certain sound in a dialogue they know.
Learners who are literate in their own language may find phonics instruction
unproductive unless differences between their native language and English are
pointed out. Spanish speakers, for example, need to know that the letter "a" can
express more than one sound in English. Vocabulary development also plays a role
in automaticity. In texts where vocabulary may not be familiar, teachers can
introduce key vocabulary in prereading activities that focus on language
awareness, such as finding synonyms, antonyms, derivatives, or associated words
(Hood et al., 1996). Modified cloze exercises, where examples of the target
structure (e.g., prepositions) are deleted from a text and learners fill in as
many blanks as they can, are also helpful.
3. Using appropriate strategies for various reading tasks increases
comprehension, but acquiring an array of strategies is a long and difficult
process (Grabe, 1995). Nevertheless, such strategies as skimming for the main
idea, scanning for specific information, predicting what a text is about or what
will happen next, and making use of the context and illustrations to discover
word meanings are critical for English language learners beyond the beginning
4. Prereading activities that introduce the text encourage learners to use
their background knowledge (Eskey, 1997). Class members can brainstorm ideas
about the meaning of a title or an illustration and discuss what they know. The
teacher can highlight cultural assumptions inherent in the writing. Awareness of
various text types and their styles (advertisements, recipes, editorials) is
5. Evaluating texts for implicit values and assumptions is another important
reading skill. Reading texts that present different opinions or different
descriptions of the same situation help develop an awareness of how language
reflects values (Hood et al., 1996). Texts that present an issue without
presenting a solution, such as "Dear Abby" letters (without the replies), can
lead to discussion and writing about differing points of view (Auerbach, 1992).
6. Good readers expect to understand what they are reading. Therefore, texts
should contain words and grammatical structures familiar to the learners (Eskey,
1997). However, it is not always easy to find texts that are both understandable
and interesting for adult English language learners to read. Authentic reading
material can often be found by the learners themselves, who have written pieces
to share with each other.
7. Extensive reading for a sustained, uninterrupted period of time is not
only valuable for developing vocabulary but is also an important way to develop
reading proficiency and language acquisition in general (Grabe, 1991; Krashen,
1993). In class, learners can engage in Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) of
materials they have chosen themselves. They can be encouraged to read outside of
class by maintaining (and periodically turning in) reading logs that list what
they have read and by making one- to three-minute oral presentations
recommending a book, story, or article to their classmates (Dupuy, Tse, &
Much research has been concerned with first
language reading and has generated many approaches to teaching reading. However,
there is a growing body of literature on both foreign language academic reading
and second language reading. All three areas contribute to the understanding of
the reading process and have implications for instructional practice. Teachers
who are aware of these reading approaches can tailor reading instruction to meet
the needs and goals of adult English language learners.
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