New teachers find that ESL students tend to rely heavily on dictionaries and translators when they are presented with reading material. So they often find themselves giving advice such as “You don’t have to understand every word to understand the reading, try not to look up every word in your dictionary.” Although students may reluctantly follow this advice in the classroom, most will continue to rely on dictionaries or translators when reading outside of class.
This is because many L2 readers tend to draw heavily on bottom-up, or data-driven reading strategies. They believe that successful reading comprehension hinges solely on their ability to understand the written text in front of them.
Background Knowledge – Teaching Reading Skills
Psycho-linguistic models of reading tell us that proficient readers also rely on top-down strategies for reading comprehension. These strategies require activation of appropriate related background knowledge that helps the reader to effectively predict what he or she is about to read, in terms of anticipated text structure, vocabulary, and content.
This knowledge allows proficient readers to quickly check what they are reading against their background knowledge. It is where bottom-up decoding matches existing top-down knowledge, comprehension is quickly and efficiently achieved.
For L2 readers, accessing this background knowledge can be quite difficult. It is because most of their effort focused on decoding a text, word by word. As well, they may lack some of the cultural or world knowledge that requires full comprehension of a text.
Pre-Reading Activities – Teaching Reading Skills
Good reading textbooks will attempt to activate readers’ background knowledge by including “pre-reading” activities, often presenting visuals, discussion questions, and sometimes topic-relevant vocabulary. You can also do this for your students with high-interest articles that you want to use in your classroom.
Rather than present readings ‘cold’ to your students, always include pre-reading activities in your lessons. Pictures, short quotes, or key snippets of information from the reading can provide a basis for a pre-reading discussion. It can help activate background knowledge. Ideally, this discussion will also stimulate interest in your students. It provides a genuine purpose to read. To find out what new and interesting information the article can provide about the topic under discussion.
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