There are two productive skills, speaking and writing, and two receptive skills, listening and reading. Here I’d like to focus on reading.
First of all, let’s consider what differentiates the skills.
For a start, reading and writing, unlike listening and speaking, are concrete. There are words on a page and there may well be images of some sort too. We receive information from what is on the page, for example the font and the layout, the vocabulary and punctuation. Written conventions of style and layout also tell us at a glance if we are looking at a menu, or a newspaper article.
In spoken discourse we have intonation to help convey attitudinal meaning. Our ability to encode and decode intonation will radically affect the message we send and receive. With the written word we are dependent on punctuation (! #?!!) and vocabulary to convey attitudinal meaning.
But above and beyond all that is the fact that spoken language is transient and ephemeral. The written word is concrete.
What are the long-term aims of reading? We want the learners to become more confident readers by completing tasks successfully. We also want to develop their range of language for communication.
Let’s look at some of the advantages that reading will bring to a language learner.
It seems that a person who reads in a language, has a far broader vocabulary resource than a person who doesn’t. For me, this resonates as an argument for getting our learners to read. Added to which, this “concreteness” is helpful in both teaching and learning a language. It doesn’t disappear, it stays there on the page.
How can this “concreteness” be turned to our advantage?
Well, for a start we can teach good reading strategies at primary school. Very early on we can get children to be good guessers when they are reading. By the time they get to secondary school this should be a well-developed strategy.
As the children get older we can expose them to longer and longer texts. Our job is to help them develop their reading ability and approach a text with solid reading strategies. As they get older, we can teach them how to apply previous knowledge to a text. We can avoid them getting ‘tunnel reading’ by showing them how to read for gist. We can help them practise scanning for specific information. We can help them develop an appropriate reading speed.
On top of this, reading will help them to develop their range of language. Starting quite early, we can use texts to focus on language (lexis, structure etc).
We can also teach them to use a dictionary (online or paper) as a language learning tool. In a previous blog post I mentioned the misuse of a dictionary (online or paper) by language learners. Rather than using it as a “tool”, in a conscious, thoughtful way, it is often used as a “crutch” to help them over a momentary difficulty. Like all tools, it can be used effectively or badly.
One of our tasks is to help them become more confident in their ability to consciously use these strategies and tools. We are helping them to be both competent readers of English and competent language learners.