Number one for English language teachers

Debate: The end of reading? - Part two: Evidence from personal experience and research

In the second part of this debate, Scott Thornbury shares his personal experience of learning Spanish and digs into the research of L2 reading skills.

My doubts about the value of teaching reading stem in part from my own experience as a reader in Spanish, which is not my first language. On arriving to live in Spain I was keen to find out what was going on (and also to pass as Spanish). So I bought the national daily, El Pais, and read it daily. I skimmed and scanned, and read intensively and extensively, and for pleasure and for information. I spoke not a word of Spanish, initially, but I knew how to read the newspaper. I was using the same reading skills I had acquired for reading in English. Of course, my lack of Spanish was a severe handicap in terms of what I got out of the newspaper, but as my Spanish improved, my reading became more fluent. But, note, it was not my reading skills that improved: they were already in place. It was my Spanish that improved – and partly as a result of my reading. If anyone had come along and said, This is how you should read the newspaper. First you skim, then you scan, then you… , etc., I would have been offended. It would have been like someone telling me how to hold a knife and fork.

And yet, as teachers, we are doing this constantly: This is how you should read this text. First you skim, then you scan, then you…etc.

It was these doubts about the received wisdom regarding the teaching of reading that prompted me to look at the research into L2 reading skills, and these are some of the findings I dug up:

Alderson (1984) raises the question... whether reading is a reading problem or a language problem. He concludes, unsurprisingly, that it is both. Much depends on the stage of L2 development. In the early stages L2 knowledge is a stronger factor than L1 reading ability. L2 readers need a minimum threshold level of general L2 language competence before they can generalise their L1 reading abilities into L2. Where proficient L2 learners are good readers in their L1, the consensus view (based on a wide range of research studies and teachers' observation) is that reading abilities can, indeed, be generalised across languages even in the case of differing scripts.

What the research seems to suggest, therefore, is that reading skills do transfer, but that they do this best when learners have a critical mass of language knowledge. Without this critical mass, they remain on the wrong side of the threshold, and their L1 reading skills fail to transfer. This accounts for my slow start as a reader in Spanish. 

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