Teaching Reading at University Level

Changing Perspectives of Teacher and
Dr. Hamoud M. Kadha

Faculty of Science and Arts, King Khalid University , KSA

Key Words : Conventional Pattern of Reading - Perspectives – Changes of Approach

This paper was triggered by heated debates conducted with the students
in the second year English Specialists at the Faculty of Science and Arts,
Bisha , King Khalid University. The discussion was the result of some
enthusiastic questions raised by some students about the conventional
pattern of teaching reading they have used to at school and College and
the changes of approach that have been taking place, adopted by the
researcher in teaching reading to students. The purpose is to raise
awareness and to share ideas rather than to introduce innovation.
Introductory profile
In the last four decades or so , there has been a major shift from the
structure-based approach to the teaching of reading to a more growing
concern with reading for meaning. Reading is not merely the
identification of symbols on the page-a passive decoding process where
the reader soaks up the information provided by the writer. Reading is
characterized as a cognitive ,interactive and psycholinguistic process
where the reader is actively involved with the text and extracts meaning
as a result of the information supplied in the text the purpose of the
reading, and the knowledge of the world that the reader brings to the text.
Hill (1992) points out that
Readers bring their knowledge of the world,
Their own experience with other books, and
their knowledge of the subject to the text.
The text provides signals and clues which help
readers to get new information . Readers use
clues to predict the content of the text (or parts
of the text). In this way, good readers are always
one step ahead . (p 41)

Reading is often considered a communicative activity – a negotiation of
meaning between the author and the reader via the printed material. A
text of any kind is meant to communicate a message or messages and the
reader is also expected to participate in the progressive construction of
meaning .The meaning the reader gets from the text may not be exactly
the same as the meaning the writer of the text wished to convey. Likewise
, the meaning that one reader gets from a text may be different from that
of other readers reading the same text because of individual differences.
In this process , the student - readers is assisted, at least, by two factors:
Knowledge of the World
The teacher should exercise extreme caution in making any assumptions
about how students will interpret a text through the eyes of their own
cultural values (see Grellet 1981). This means that background
knowledge affects the reader’s interpretation and memory of what is read.
As suggested earlier , reading is not just a process of extracting meaning
that exists on the pages ,but of creative interaction of reader and text.
Eapen (1998) emphasises that “Readers bring to each text areas of
schematic knowledge … plus reading strategies) of what happens in the
reading process. While the text remains the same during each reading of
it, the information the reader brings to that text fluctuates as
comprehension grows, thus, the interaction between reader and text is
constantly changing” Language is ,in fact, a way that people relate to
each other and to the world.

Linguistic Competence
As teachers we often try to compensate for students’ lack of language
proficiency by providing texts with restricted vocabulary and simplified
syntax . However , as Baudains and Baudains (1989) have shown ,
concern about unfamiliar vocabulary and syntactic complexity when
choosing reading texts is likely misplaced. They found that students
familiar with the cultural content of a text performed equally well on
texts with differing syntactic complexity. They conclude that syntactic
complexity should be less a concern than cultural familiarity when
choosing texts for EFL/ESL students. A further implication is that
simplifying the vocabulary and grammar of a culturally unfamiliar text
will not make that text more accessible to learners.
Therefore, effective reading cannot take place unless the reader’s mind is
engaged in two types of processing top-down processing, in which he has

to employ his pre- existing knowledge and experience ,and bottom-up
processing, in which he has to use his knowledge of the language in
order to understand the meaning of the text. According to Ibsenberg
(1990)“Students must resort to both strategies in the learning process.
The reader’s prior global knowledge and genre expectations (content and
formal schemata), combined with a knowledge of the target language
(linguistic schemata), will help in comprehending meaning from a text.”

The following reading skills are relevant to the teaching of reading:
1) Global reading ( quick treatment of content and
organization of the text as a whole).
a) Expectation ( activating background knowledge and
Developing prediction and interest for reading).
b) Getting an overview of the text content (skimming).
c) Looking for specific information in the text (scanning).
2) Close study of the text( intensive reading).
a) Developing guessing strategies
for the meaning of
vocabulary with the help of contextual cues
b) Developing sensitivity to text structure through discovering
different types of connectives, their functions and meanings
c) Evaluating the material and getting more insights
Into the writer s purpose and style, thus, developing higherlevel thinking skills such as analysis and synthesis
3) Reading outside the syllabus for pleasure (extensive
If the learner-oriented approach needs to be used in the teaching of
reading, the following aspects should be taken into consideration:

Selection of Material
The first critical decision the teacher faces in teaching reading is the
selection of the appropriate authentic texts which are relevant and related
to the students experience for a particular class . As Johnson (1982)
states “ The familiar setting not only arouses student’s interest but also
activates background knowledge that can facilitate reading

comprehension” That means if successful reading depends on what the
reader already knows, then teachers should carefully consider student’s
background knowledge when choosing texts for use in classrooms .The
materials should be challenging for the students but not overwhelming .
This does not mean that they need to understand every word or structure
that they read. The text may be worthwhile even if not every word is
understood ; so long as the student understands the general drift of the
text. Also, it should not be forgotten that many native speaking students
find some texts hard to understand, and yet they are expected to work at
improving their comprehension. Further, there is theoretical support for
the presentation of material ahead of the student’s present ability to
comprehend fully (Krashen 1981), depending on the use of context and
other aids to comprehension to gain further understanding and expand the
students mastery of the language. Class discussion and preparatory work
by the teacher and students can also enhance comprehension of the work
and thus the pleasure in reading it. The purpose of reading , then, is to
help students to learn to use context clues to Interpret unfamiliar
vocabulary and strive for overall comprehension. Silberstein (1989 ) has
reported on a series of studies which confirm that unpracticed readers in a
foreign language tend to use a word-by word approach while more
practiced readers are able to chunk information . Moreover, considerable
care needs to be taken to make sure that the selections are consistent with
the interests and language level of the students as well as with objectives
of the course . In fact , the choice of topics is the key to successful
motivation and this choice as this paper suggests , would be mainly
based on the needs of the class and the teacher’s experience and
As emphasised earlier , at present, there is a tendency for the use of
authentic materials in teaching English as a foreign language. We must
first define the term "authentic materials". There are definitions of
this term available in literature, but in this research, we will use it to
refer to materials which are not specifically designed for language
teaching (e.g. newspaper and magazine articles). The advantages of
using such materials are well agreed upon. They act as a stimulus for
thinking and help to draw out issues in contemporary events. The students
may find it easier to relate the events to their own knowledge or
experience. In the words of Bose (1988), authentic materials,
especially newspaper articles, provide information about current topics,
which "attract the learner's attention and thereby help sustain class
interest" (p. 39). The idea is that students feel more involved and more
motivated if the materials are familiar and interesting to them.
According to Lee (1995), "When learners read an authentic text, their

prior knowledge, interest, and curiosity make it easier for them to engage
with it" (p. 324).

Having said that, we shall now explore some of the issues that
may help in selecting and grading authentic materials.
As already stated, interest is a primary ingredient of motivation.
Williams (1986) asserts that "interest is vital, for it increases motivation,
which in turn is a significant factor in the development of reading speed
and fluency" (p. 42). It is true that different students have different
interests, but through needs analysis, one would be able, to some
extent, to provide topics of common interest. Finding what interests
students, according to Rivers (1976), would ensure efficient learning.
The materials have also to be at the appropriate level
linguistically-to be demanding, but not to be discouragingly difficult.
There is theoretical support for the presentation of materials ahead of the
students' ability. As already pointed out, Krashen's (1985) recent research
suggests that the linguistic level of input should be slightly higher than
the learners' known competence on the ground that this would help them
gain further understanding and expand their mastery of the language.
Although there is no rigid rule as to an appropriate level of difficulty, it
is argued that high student interest can automatically simplify a
difficult reading selection. However, there are two well-known methods
of estimating text difficulty. The first method is to have students read
the selection aloud. If 85% of the words are read correctly, the text is
at an appropriate level. The second method is through a cloze test. If
students can supply 50% of the words correctly, the text is appropriate
(See Bowen, et al., 1985).
On the other hand, it must be said that difficulty of reading
materials often arises from many factors other than simply language.
As noted, background cultural assumptions are often much more
difficult for the learners to handle. An example is the story of "The
Untouchable" used in the proposed programme. This glimpse of the
Indian culture4 can be a principal cause of student frustration since
the cultural background knowledge required for understanding the story
might too great for Yemeni students. In such a situation, the teacher is
obliged to provide students with some information which may form the
background of the text, such as the setting of the story and the social
facts related to the topic.

Another aspect is the style of writing. It is obvious that the
learners should work on a variety of texts for different purposes, as
indicated in the previous part. If we consider the types of texts in the
proposed course, we will find that there are three main types : (a)
"narrative" (e.g. the story "The Untouchable"), where the learners must
look for chronological developments in order to understand the
sequence of events/ actions, (b) "descriptive" (e.g. the text "From the
Countryside to the Towns"), where the learners have to understand some
facts related to stative and dynamic description of a situation and (c)
"argumentative" (e.g. the texts "Private Tutoring" and "University
Education"), where the learners must perceive an underlying
argument through reasoning, considering
the alternatives in a
particular problem (See Paltridge, 1996; and McEldowney, 1988 for text
However, the same text may reveal all the three styles of writing
mentioned above. According to Williams (1990), "Authentic texts rarely
follow model patterns of development. Many texts are a mixture of
description, narrative, explanation, opinion etc." (p. 91). Generally, the
reading of such texts eventually helps the learners to tackle similar
materials in real life.
Sometimes, learners may not be able to handle genuine authentic
texts. In this case, adaptation (through replacing difficult words/
structures or omitting unimportant details) will ultimately help them
develop fluent reading skills. If this is not done, the learners tend to
adopt a word-for-word approach or consult the teacher and dictionary
constantly. But we must be aware that adaptation/ simplification may
in some cases make a text more difficult to process (See Campbell,
1987; Grellet, 1981; Hoey, 1982; and Nuttall, 1987).
Before proceeding to the next point, it is important to make it clear
that we should choose passages in such a way that each of them is a
little more demanding than the previous one, thus forcing the students
to gradually extend their linguistic and cognitive skills. We may also
follow Nunan's (1988) suggestion by controlling the difficulty of the task
(question) rather than controlling the difficulty of authentic materials.
This implies that a linguistically complex text, for example, may
be accompanied by simpler questions.
A more important dimension is "authenticity" of response, that is,
the subjective reaction that the student is expected to make to the text.
Morrow and Schocker (1987) point out that "nobody ever reads ...
anything without some reaction to it, and it is this reaction which we

feel is the essence of communication, for this is what the text has
truly communicated" (p. 251). This suggests that the learner may give
authenticity to a text based on his/her knowledge of the topic. In this
context, Breen (1985) maintains that "authentic texts for language
learning ... will serve as a means to help the learner to develop an
authentic interpretation" (p. 68). This actually coincides with
Widdowson's earlier view (1978) that "authenticity is a characteristic of
the relationship between the passage and the reader" (p. 80). In other
words, if the material is meaningful to the learner, in that, there is a
connection between what he/she knows and the material, we could say
that there is some kind of authenticity. This, of course, would depend
on the learner's affective and cognitive involvement with the materials,
his/her perception of their interest value and usefulness, as well as the
types of questions about the content that provoke the learner's personal
It is clear that authenticity is not only related to the materials
taken from real life to be used in the classroom setting, but also
related to different texts, different learners and different purpose.
Instructional Techniques
The traditional approach of teaching reading course has long been
ineffective for students at the University level. It follows a restricted set
of techniques which are primarily teacher-centered (i.e., teachers reading
aloud- translating difficult words- students reading aloud followed by
direct questions about rigid texts). Consequently, we feel that there is an
urgent need for introducing an approach for teaching reading based on
learner-oriented activities , as this approach assumes a less intrusive and
dominant role of the teacher and a considerable range of resources for the
students to work with and investigate.”With globalization and the spread
of English, EFL instruction is ever more important. In addition to a new
language, learners are also exposed to different cultures and ways of
thinking. Thus, EFL classrooms provide ideal contexts for exploring
important critical thinking skills.”( see Yang and Gamble) .
The three main stages undertaken are as follows:

Preparation Activities
This stage may include many activities. It covers the pre-reading stage
and serves to prepare the students mentally and emotionally for the work
to come . At this stage interest is aroused and the students tune in to the

learning context . They direct their mental antennae (schemata and
acceptance ) for what is to come.
To prepare the learners for any
cultural implications contained in the reading, it would be useful to probe
the assumptions they are bringing to it , by showing the class some
illustrations associated with topics in order to elicit reactions to and
experiences with the content of the texts asking for opinions as to what
the writer wants to convey from his drawing shown in the text or posing
some questions that related to the titles of texts activating their minds to
some words relevant to the content area. This kind of
introductory activity gets the class thinking along the lines of the topic
ideas we are going to read and should make comprehension easier.
Another aspect of preparation that is worth devoting some time to before
reading is laying the groundwork for some of the more difficult
vocabulary. One approach is simply to ask students ,first, individually to
extract from the text a few sentences that contain words likely to be
troublesome and discussing and comparing their list with the list of their
partners. This communicative activity encourages careful guessing and
thinking about the significance of words and thus introducing the new
basic vocabulary and concepts necessary for understanding before
reading the whole text. The final preparatory exercise is simply to write
the title of the text on the board and ask the class to speculate on what the
text will be about, to create anticipation. These mental and emotional
activities at the beginning of class will give students a feeling of
involvement ,which helps them in improving their performance in both
cognitive/intellectual and affective/emotional areas of development.
Focused activities
This is the input phase where the students actually read a text and work
with content , but also language. They build up knowledge and language
readiness, what Littlewood (1988 ) calls the pre-communicative stage.
This stage may comprise activities like extensive reading , preliminary
vocabulary exercises , finding facts and exploring ideas in preparation
for the more challenging work to come. In other words, -This stage
provides activities for a detailed study of the text in terms of their
content , organization and structure. The types of activities reflect the
belief that the development of language skills and the development of
reading skills enable the students to read more efficiently by using a
minimum number of linguistic clues to obtain maximum information. The
activities are carefully designed and gradually change the method of
reading from word-for-word to the method of reading for meaning,
using reading strategies for predicting the structure and content of a
passage. Different reading skills are taught in this section : skimming to

get main points and guessing the meaning of unknown words from
context and morphological analysis. The skills of finding cohesion
rhetorical structures and seeing grammatical forms as markers of
meaning are also introduced.

Follow-up Activities
In the final stage, emotions and intellect go together, offering a variety of
possibilities for exploring different types of language and creating an
involvement that is the core of language use , so that words and actions
can be experienced in an authentic manner. That is, the shift itself helps
to develop a wider perspective of different viewpoints on the text in
which the students get a chance to practice and share responses as
individuals and groups.

Changing Perspectives of Teacher and Learner
Students have almost never had a say in the making of syllabuses because
teachers have always known better or because students might have had
views other than those of the establishment as writers often choose to
challenge what the establishment has accepted as orthodoxy. Through
teacher-fronted class, students are trained to depend upon other people’s
views. They are not trained to use their own minds and bring meaning
into operation . This might bring students to the point of hating the matter
being taught because they are always told how to look at it. Through
learner-centered teaching, however, students become self-confident and
active participants at all stages , because they are encouraged to involve
in the process of selection and trained to read and discuss the topics
creatively and argue for their views . From this prospective, teaching
reading can become more student-centered by careful planning and
guidance on the teacher’s part , by being careful with the notion of
facilitator and counselor , which can become a means of investments
and of indoctrinating the students, and giving them the best opportunity
for sustained argument and discussion , by asking students questions on
the content, form and style and urging them to participate in discussion
and exchange of views and thus exploit the benefits of collaborative
learning in the classroom.


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