In reading, are you a bricklayer or a carpenter?
By Joel Swenddal
Joel Swenddal, an English Language Educator at RMIT Vietnam, holds an M.A. in TESOL and has taught English for Academic Purposes at universities in the US and Asia. His research interests include academic literacy development and classroom interaction.
When we are reading fluently in our first language, it’s very easy to forget that successful reading is a complex, multifaceted cognitive process (William Grabe, 1991). Often, we don’t notice how complex reading really is until the process is interrupted or is not yet automatic, such as when we encounter a difficult text in a new subject area or when we are learning to read in a second language. Hoping to help people read better in their second languages, many reading researchers and educators are interested in comparing the mental processes of successful and unsuccessful readers. We want to identify the characteristics of successful readers that can be shared with the less successful ones.
But how do we peek inside the “black box” of the mind during the act of reading? How can we see what’s really going on behind the scenes? In reading research, many great insights about how people read successfully (or unsuccessfully) come from what are called “think-aloud protocols” – basically, people are trained to talk about their thoughts as they read along, and we study what they say.
One of my favorite think-aloud studies with second language readers comes from researcher Wang Jian, who studied the reading of two academic English students at a university in China (published in the collection Culture, Literacy, and Learning English: Voices from the Chinese Classroom). Although the students scored at a similar level of English proficiency and had tested into the university at a higher level than their peers, a close analysis of the ways they went about reading the same academic text showed some dramatic differences. One of the students turned out to be much less successful at coming to a satisfying understanding of the article and showed a high level of frustration. What their ‘think-alouds’ showed can be very beneficial for other students, who may see in themselves characteristics of one student or the other.
Wang uses a great metaphor to illustrate the different approaches of the students. Liu, the more successful reader, had what Wang calls a “carpenter” approach, while Lin, the less successful one, approached the text like a “bricklayer.” Both students were faced with a challenging academic text that contained many words that were new to them – the metaphor becomes clear when their different ‘construction techniques’ are identified. Below are some of Wang’s findings about the ways these students were reading.
Liu – The more successful reader…
- Speculated about relationships between different parts of the text (like the title and other ideas he was developing about the text).
- Tried to get the main idea (or “the author’s thinking”) of each paragraph and continued reading as soon as he had formed some idea of it.
- Looked up new words or spent time guessing them only when he determined that they were interfering with his understanding of the author’s overall message.
- Used new information from the text to try to articulate an understanding of the text as a whole.
- Posed problems and asked himself questions about difficult parts and then tried to answer them as he continued to develop his ideas.
- Paid attention to discourse markers (like conjunctions) and cohesive devices (such as what pronouns referred to).
- Used his background knowledge about the topic to make judgments about the meanings of words in context.
- Showed a high “tolerance for ambiguity” in guessing new words and interpreted them in light of his developing understanding of the larger meaning.
Lin – The less successful reader…
- Did not make predictions or speculate about relationships between parts of the text.
- Used a translation method when faced with difficulty: he identified almost all new words, looked them up in his dictionary and recorded them on his word list. Then, he translated the sentences into Chinese.
- Focused on getting the meaning of every sentence individually.
- Favored the dictionary definition and did not attend to the context when judging definitions.
- Bypassed important discourse markers like conjunctions and logical connectors.
- Used his background knowledge to make judgments about meanings of new words and sentences, but did not balance that with information from the context.
- Showed an intense desire for perfect accuracy of understanding – trying to get everything in the text.
These different characteristics of their approaches seem to have contributed to a very different end result: Lin seriously misrepresented the text and showed ongoing frustration in reading it. Lui, on the other hand, arrived at a satisfying, cohesive understanding of the text and felt he had learned something new.
Wang understands the difference between these readers as being a matter of approach, and the “carpenter” vs. “bricklayer” metaphor is his way of describing this. Lin was a bricklayer, focused on building up the text in parts, understanding each piece individually, trusting that this would add up to a final perfect understanding (it did not). Liu, on the other hand, was a carpenter, always working to construct a larger understanding for the global meaning and its overall structure (building a ‘framework’). He used information from the text and his background knowledge to help him get an idea of what the author’s project and the larger meaning looked like. He was selective about his use of the dictionary and made thoughtful judgments about the meaning of words and sentences in relation to the larger context.
I think that the observations from the think-alouds of Lui and Lin create a wonderful opportunity for reflection for both students and teachers. If you’re reading in a second language, it’s worth it to think about how you go about the project of putting meaning together. Here are some questions you might consider:
- What are you focusing on as you read?
- How do the parts of the text relate to each other and the overall meaning?
- Which new words are most important for you to focus on? Which are less important?
- Do you judge both the context and your background knowledge when you guess word meanings?
- How might new information fit in with the author’s larger project?
- Do you re-evaluate your earlier ideas about the text as you go along?
If you’re a teacher of students reading in a second language, do you design activities that encourage readers to use (and notice themselves using) proven reading strategies for building global comprehension of texts — or do you give them activities that pre-dispose them to taking a hyper-analytical, bricklaying approach to the task? For example, if the purpose is to understand a complex text, questions designed to build toward main ideas are probably more effective than ones that take a scattershot approach: testing uptake of disconnected facts in a reading.
Reading as conversation?
Perhaps my favorite thing about Wang’s study is found in a final quote from the successful reader, Liu. He talks about the experience of reading as being a kind of conversation with the author of the text.
…this kind of article…it comes to be a talking between the author and me. It tells me something. And I have found something important in his talking. And I have the feeling that I thank him. Before I never had this kind of feeling. This kind of article is no longer abstract. It is from a man’s mind, not from a computer. It makes me feel close to it. (206)
I think Liu’s characterization of the reading process in terms of a social interaction takes reading out of the realm of the cognitive, and makes it the profoundly human, personal act that those who love to read often talk about. He represents it as a kind of conversation, a way of interacting with another human mind through the interpretation of symbols. In Lin’s fixation on getting the meaning out of the text, reading is reduced to the level of a cold and mechanical process. Liu, in contrast, is participating in a dialogue in which his own voice animates the voice of the author – an exchange in which he carries on a conversation of minds that extends beyond the text itself.
In what ways can our various approaches and strategies for reading involve us in such satisfying conversations through text?
Tags: academic literacy development, EFL in Higher Ed, EFL students, higher education, metacognition, reading research, reading strategies, second language learners, second language reading, think-aloud studies
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