Number one for English language teachers

Debate: The end of reading? - Part one: What are we teaching, reading or English?

Scott Thornbury questions the relevance of reading activities and whether they just teach us what we already know.

Why do we assign slots in lesson plans, timetables and coursebooks to the teaching of reading? And why do such slots often consist of activities designed to practise the “sub-skills” of reading, especially skimming and scanning, but also predicting, selecting, inferring etc? Don’t our students know how to read already? Have they never skimmed and scanned in their own language? Are they from Mars?

Let’s use the analogy of another, non-linguistic skill, e.g., driving. A person learns to drive in the UK, and, after a period of near-misses, stalling at traffic lights, driving on the kerb, and so on, is soon driving effortlessly, such that he or she can drive in busy traffic while peeling a banana and chatting to a person in the back seat. Or while changing the CD. Or putting on lipstick.

This person (clearly a she) moves to France, where they drive on the right. Does she have to learn to drive all over again, from scratch? Or is it simply a case of making a small adjustment to her existing driving skills to accommodate the local circumstances? Clearly, the answer is that she does not need to take driving lessons in French. She simply needs to transfer her UK driving skills, while making the necessary adjustments so that she can drive on the right as effortlessly as in the UK she drove on the left.

Surely the same applies to reading. A literate adult speaker of, say, Spanish has clocked up years and years of reading, including skimming, scanning, predicting, inferring and so on. When confronted by an article in a Spanish newspaper, this reader automatically uses the headline and other extra-linguistic information, such as photos, to predict the gist of the article. This same reader knows how to then automatically skim the article to confirm his or her predictions. Why should this Spanish reader not do the same when confronted with an article in an English newspaper? Likewise, a Russian speaker knows very well, and without having to be told, that different reading strategies are employed when reading War and Peace as opposed to reading the Moscow phone directory. Why does this Russian reader need to be taught these strategies all over again? Is reading in English so very different?

Of course, reading in English is different, but not because of the reading skills involved (which are the same, and which are transferable) but because of the language (which is different, and not transferable). The Spanish-speaker or the Russian-speaker, when confronted with an English language newspaper article or an English-language novel, may encounter difficulties. But these difficulties derive not from a lack of reading skills, but simply from a lack of English. Reading in a second language is not a reading problem, so much as a language problem. Ergo, we should be teaching language, not reading. And texts should be used as vehicles for the former, not the latter.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • I agree only to an extent, because a learner's instinct to read for information may be inhibited by language obstacles.
    People who have to imbibe a lot of written information in the course of their work may have to learn to skim read in a foreign language before they have time to master a full knowledge of the language. As a teacher, one has to help one's student on both fronts.

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