Jade Blue is a teacher and trainer based in the UK, and has taught and delivered workshops and seminars around Europe. In this article, Jade looks at reading skills and the processes that happen as we read written text. She also explores cognitive strategies we can use to find the information we want.
Reading is often broken down into subcategories of skimming (reading quickly to get a main idea of the text), scanning (selectively running one’s eyes over a text in order to find specific information), and detailed, or intensive, reading (used when we need to understand every word in a part of a text). Which combination of skills and subcategories we use will depend upon the type of text and the reason for reading.
But although often talked about as such in language learning and teaching, reading is more than just these skills. As lecturer of English and linguistics Peter Watkins describes, as we read written text, a range of different processes happen very quickly and simultaneously.
Cognitive reading strategies
In order to assist with these processes, readers can draw on a range of cognitive strategies. In using such strategies learners are utilising tools in order to help them find the information they want. Examples of such strategies are:
- asking questions
- thinking aloud
- tapping into prior knowledge
- connecting new knowledge to existing knowledge
- working out the meaning of new words from context
Whereas skills are focussed on the text itself, strategies are focussed on the reader. They are conscious procedures carried out in order to solve a problem (Williams & Moran 1989). But we should not assume that strategies learners apply in reading in their first language are automatically being applied in a second language learning context. Instead, these types of strategies can be taught or modelled by the teacher, and discussed in lessons. Rather than separating strategies from the act of reading itself, they should be embedded in the context, practised together in order that the learner can apply them in contexts outside the classroom.
Metacognitive reading strategies
But beyond these types of cognitive strategies, learners also benefit from applying metacognitive strategies. Metacognition is concerned with conscious learning – an awareness on the part of the learner of the processes taking place while reading, in order that they might better select and apply cognitive strategies to support their comprehension. Learners need to recognise WHAT they already understand, WHEN and HOW they’ve understood new material, and WHY something isn’t known or understood. As Watkins describes, if a learner can sense when they are beginning to lose understanding, they can adopt specific (cognitive) strategies to rectify the situation.
So how do we help to develop learners’ metacognitive strategies? One way might be to encourage learners to self-monitor and be more reflective readers. In learner journals, or in peer discussion, we can encourage learners to consider questions such as:
- What did I understand?
- What didn’t I understand?
- What did I need to find out?
- What strategies did I use to find out what I needed to know?
- How did the strategy connect to my goal?
- What was my experience of using the strategy?
- Will I use it again? Why?
If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Jade’s last piece on Supporting learners with Specific Learning Difficulties.
Grabe, W. (2009). Reading in a Second Language: Moving from Theory to Practice. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Janzen, J. (2002). Teaching strategic reading. In J.C. Richards, & W. Renandya (eds.), Methodology in Language Teaching (pp.287-294). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Williams, E & Moran, C. (1993). Survey review: recent materials for the teaching of reading at intermediate level and above. ELT Journal, Volume 47, Issue 1, 1 January 1993, Pages 64–84.