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Why don’t they understand what they read?

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Woman with notepad looking confusedMichael Swan, co-author of the new three-level Oxford English Grammar Course, introduces his upcoming talk at IATEFL 2011 in Brighton, entitled ‘Where grammar and reading meet’, with this article about why written English can be so hard to understand.

Why do people have difficulty understanding written texts?
There are various possible reasons.

For example, they don’t know the language.

Agresti, kunsti sifnit, votrin khaleddanou kaltrop. Vjux snjor!

Or they do know the language, but it’s gibberish.

Garlic and sapphires in the mud
clot the bedded axle-tree.
The trilling wire in the blood
sings below inveterate scars
appeasing long-forgotten wars.
(Eliot, Four Quartets)

Or it may not be gibberish, but it’s outside their conceptual comfort zone.

The resulting structure will then be merged with a null declarative complementiser,
and BE will ultimately be spelled out as the third-person-plural present-tense form ‘are’.
As required, all uninterpretable features have been deleted, so only the interpretable
features are seen by the semantic component.

None of these problems, however, are really our concern as language teachers. What does concern us is another kind of difficulty. Written English can put quite special grammatical obstacles in the way of a foreign reader, so that sentences which are relatively unproblematic for us may be surprisingly hard for our students to decode.

For example:

Money makes money, and the money money makes makes money.
(Benjamin Franklin)

The instructions for the Pin Ball Plinko game Bill Francis has been given say it can
be played by ‘one person or two or an infinite number of people take it in turns’.
(From a note in New Scientist)

What’s the problem? Quite simply, it’s to do with embedding. The main sentence has other material embedded in it, and this has two effects.

1. The subject and verb are separated:

the money [money makes]  makes money.

the instructions for the Pin Ball Plinko game [Bill … given] say

2. Words which don’t seem to belong together are put side by side:

money moneymakes makes

game Billgiven say

Both of these sentences have embedded relative clauses, and in both of them the relative pronoun (that) has been dropped – something that doesn’t happen in most of our students’ languages.  If the relative pronoun is there, the embedding is signalled, and a fluent reader will probably grasp the sentence flow without having to think about it.

and the money [that money makes] makes money.

The instructions for the Pin Ball Plinko game [that Bill Francis has been given]
say it can be played.

If the structural signals are absent, a fluent native reader can still supply them unconsciously: he/she is used to embedding in written language, and knows that there is a relative clause even if that has been dropped. For the less fluent native or non-native reader, however, sentences with heavy embedding may already be quite problematic; if relative pronouns and other structural markers are not there, reading can become very difficult indeed.

Michael will be talking about all this at the 2011 IATEFL Conference in Brighton.

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4 thoughts on “Why don’t they understand what they read?

  1. Interesting article. Thanks for sharing! I guess that makes a lot of sense, and I should be more careful to decode things for my students beforehand.
    Thanks!

  2. I’m in Hong Kong, and you’d be surprised that many born and bred Hong Kong Chinese even with a university education have trouble understanding this sentence:

    “I wear a $38,000 watch that cost me nothing other than the taxi ride to fetch it.”

    Here in Hong Kong, there’s a tendency to lump all reading difficulties into the great dustbin of grammar – which I have to say isn’t always the case.

  3. Nice article. I think this is a good reminder to writers that clarity is vital. This applies not only to writers of EFL material,but to all writers. It is sad that many foreign learners feel that they are at fault if they don’t understand a badly written text.

  4. I agree with your comments. One of my tricks is to have students having difficulty understanding longer sentences blank out the relative clauses in longer sentences so that they can find the main idea. Another grammar structure they have huge problems with is “so that”. Most native speaking writers leave out the “that” and simply write their sentence using “so”. Unfortunately, even students with strong English skills frequently misinterpret the “so” half of the sentence as introducing a result rather than a purpose. If writers were more aware of some of the confusion this causes, there would be a lot less confusion among ESL readers who are geunuinely making an effort to understand what they read.

    Michelle Morissette

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