Number one for English language teachers

Reading matters: Decoding texts

Type: Article

Adrian Tennant delves into the detail of how texts are put together and how you can infer meaning. He also covers the presumptions we make when reading texts and how to deal with issues such as vocabulary within a text as well as issues connected to punctuation.

Introduction

In the article What is reading? I discussed how word recognition was not enough to constitute reading and that reading was far more complex. I briefly mentioned the concepts of encoding and decoding the text, i.e. the writer and the reader, and also talked about purpose. These are all key aspects when it comes to reading, both in our L1 and in a foreign language. However, one of the problems in a foreign language is that we often don’t go much further than a surface understanding of words and text, at least not until students have reached a fairly high level of English. I think this is a mistake, as we are not equipping our students with the subset of skills they need to become proficient readers and users of the language. This article expands on a number of these points and offers some practical ideas that can be used with students.

Genre and purpose

I’ve mentioned both genre and purpose before, but what exactly do these terms mean and why are they important? Look at the short extracts below and identify the type of text they come from.

Chop the onion and garlic and cook slowly until the onion starts to become soft. Meanwhile, slice the mushrooms and peppers.

Breathtaking. Once you start reading you won’t be able to put it down!

Dear Adrian,
Apologies for the delay in getting back to you, but as you can imagine things have been fairly hectic here. Unfortunately, …

The first text is obviously from a recipe and is the start of the procedure for preparing a dish. The second is a recommendation that you are likely to find on the cover or back of a book. Finally, the third either comes from a letter or an email that is in response to some kind of query – possibly a job application or something similar. But, how do we know this? What is it about each text that helps us identify the genre and the purpose of the text?

The first element is clearly the vocabulary. In the first text, we are introduced to food items such as onion, mushroom, etc and we also have the words chop and slice. In the second text, the phrase Once you start reading … helps identify what we might be talking about and the snappy nature of the line gives us a clue as to where we might find it. But let’s go a little further with these texts – at least with the third one. Can you predict how the reader might feel when they read the text? Do you think they are going to be happy? Why? Why not? Quite clearly the word unfortunately gives us a lot of information just on its own. By using this word, the writer is clearly setting the reader up for some bad news or, at the very least, a degree of disappointment. So, being able to identify the genre is not enough when it comes to decoding texts. Students need to have an understanding of word meaning and be able to infer information from the words being used.

The relationship between the reader and writer

When someone writes something, they have to think about who is going to read it and how the reader will interpret the text. It is likely that the writer wants to convey a message, so that message needs to be clear. This might sound obvious, but often reading and writing are treated as separate skills and entities in the classroom when, in fact, they mirror each other.

When you are reading a text (whatever that text might be), knowing something about the writer is going to help you understand the meaning. Conversely, knowing about the reader will help the writer when they are constructing the text. So, for example, if you are writing a text for a friend, you will know a little about how they will interpret what you have written. On the other hand, if you are writing something and you know very little about the person or people who are going to read it, you will make some assumptions and these will influence the way you write. Here is an example:

Hiya, running late – you know how it is! Be there soon. xxx

I’m sorry but I will be a little late. Please wait, and I will be there as soon as possible.

These two texts have the same message but are very different in style – why? Clearly, in the first text, the relationship between the writer and reader is close – e.g. they are friends, partners or family – but in the second text the register is far more formal, suggesting a different type of relationship.

In the classroom, our students frequently read texts that weren’t actually written for them. Therefore, what they are doing is the equivalent of ‘eavesdropping’, so they need to try to work out who these people are and what the relationship is between them.

Vocabulary

While genre, purpose and relationships between the reader and the writer are all valid considerations when reading, we can’t ignore the basic issue with texts – vocabulary and the meaning of words. We’ve already seen how the type of vocabulary used helps us identify the type of text we are reading, but what happens if our students don’t know the meaning of these words? Clearly we can’t ignore vocabulary, but we do need to be careful with decontextualizing words. For example, we pointed out that the word mushroom had helped us identify a text as part of a recipe, although it could have been an item on a shopping list! But are we 100% sure? Look at this sentence:

Instances like these have mushroomed in the last few years.

Clearly the word mushroomed here isn’t referring to a vegetable. After all, it has -ed added to the end so it’s being used as a verb. But how can our students deduce the meaning of the word from such a limited amount of information?

One of the things we need to teach our students is what they can do to understand texts when some of the vocabulary is unknown. We need to give them strategies that they can employ. For example:

  • Look at the rest of the text. Can you understand the overall meaning without needing to understand the meaning of that particular word?
  • If you think the word is key to understanding the meaning of the text, then, if there is more text, read around it and see if this helps you to work out the meaning.
  • If this still doesn’t help, do you have access to a dictionary?

Grammar

Decoding texts is much more than simply knowing the meaning of words (or being able to find out the meaning) and knowing about the genre and purpose. Aspects such as grammar and punctuation also play an important role in the meaning of a text.

In the article What is reading? I mentioned that texts are often used in teaching as a means of introducing a particular grammar point or some vocabulary, and I was quite critical of this. However, this doesn’t mean that grammar should be, or can be, ignored. Instead, grammar should be looked at in terms of how it affects the meaning of the text and not as a goal in itself.

Syntax

In terms of text, one of the most important aspects is syntax. Looking at similar sentences where the syntax obviously plays a key role is one way of presenting this issue. For example:

The dog bit the boy.

The boy bit the dog.

Trying to understand the meaning of each by building a context can really help. So, start by creating a story. Show a picture of a boy delivering newspapers, then a dog chasing him down the street. Next the dog catches the boy and bites his arm. The boy is so angry he turns around and bites the dog! Not only is this quite an amusing way of presenting grammar, but it really illustrates the importance of syntax.

Another way of looking at this type of language in text is through newspaper headlines where word-play and the way in which sentences are constructed often leads to funny (mis)interpretations.

Pronunciation

One area of text that is often ignored is punctuation, and only early on is there some focus on capital letters and full stops. When we teach defining and non-defining relative clauses, we pay attention to the use of commas (at least as one way of distinguishing between the two types) but, other than that, punctuation is simply neglected! But how important can punctuation really be when it comes to decoding text? Have a look at the two classic examples below that display the way in which punctuation can completely alter the meaning of a sentence where an identical set of words are used.

A woman without her man is nothing.

A woman: without her, man is nothing.

The first sentence, without punctuation, expresses the fairly derogatory comment that women are nothing without men. However, add the punctuation and the meaning completely changes. Now it is (the) man who is being derided.

 

Other points to remember are that:

  • Punctuation can also change the meaning of a word – or, in fact, mean that it’s a completely different word.
  • English punctuation has its own rules.
  • It’s difficult to learn all the rules connected to English punctuation.
  • The use of an apostrophe – its vs it’s – means that we actually have completely different words, and some people may even argue that it’s is actually two words – it is – with a contraction being indicated with the use of punctuation.

Conclusion

In this article, I’ve only really been able to touch on some of the key issues in terms of decoding text. There’s so much more to consider: from discourse analysis to pragmatic meaning, from paragraphing to linking ideas. Of course, some of these are issues that emerge when we talk about writing – after all, any text you read has been written by someone. As teachers, the important thing we need to understand when we are dealing with reading in the classroom is that it’s a very complex issue. It’s not simply a matter of looking at words and sentences – after all, I can read most languages written with the Latin script, and I can even decode the meaning of some of the words and sentences by using my knowledge of various European languages, but that is not the same as understanding the meaning of the text. ‘Real’ reading – where the intended meaning is grasped – is something that needs to be learnt, practised and developed.

In terms of practical ideas, take a look at the other Reading matters articles in the series.

Happy reading!

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  • Short and useful!

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