Adapting Close Reading Questions for the ARC Highlighter Role

The Highlighter role of Academic Reading Circles is language focused. A great deal of research in academic reading and writing has stressed the need for building academic vocabulary (see my previous post for an example of this research). Academic vocabulary is not so easily defined, however. Academic vocabulary differs depending on genre, purpose, audience, and discipline among other factors. Still, there are some commonly used words that apply across most disciplines. Learning these is essential, but a good reader needs to also be able to grasp one-off discipline specific vocabulary. By doing so, it is hoped that they build not only the skills to handle this vocabulary, but actually add it to their own mental lexicon.

The Highlighter role for ARCs does a good job at addressing both types of vocabulary in learner-centered, intensive, and collaborative ways. Students discuss and explore both discipline-specific and academic or general vocabulary, looking at its meaning, usage, and related words. Through discussion, association, and repeated encounters, students are more likely to assimilate, remember, or recall the vocabulary.

However, there is a lot more to vocabulary than a word or phrase’s meaning. It’s usage in context at the sentence- and paragraph-level, its connotation, and the decision to use one word as opposed to another are also important. What’s more, a sentence or group of sentences can affect how a word’s meaning and purpose is understood and interpreted by a reader. While the Highlighter role does stress looking at context and even language usage (“tonal language”), I have found that this focus has either been too vague or too lexically/locally focused. This may not be true for ARC users, but in my experience, unless I am closely monitoring a group, even after much modelling, there still remains a superficial focus for most students.

To address vocabulary and meaning from a difference perspective, I recently experimented with integrating strategies of close reading into the Highlighter role, with great success. I had students keep their focus on topical vocabulary and keywords. However, instead of the “tonal language,” I had students apply close reading questions for specific words, sentences, or passages of the text. These questions were adapted from a close reading guide discussed in a previous post. Each question starts with “Look at ______”, in which line numbers would be written. I asked students to choose three interesting phrases, sentences, quotes, or passages, and apply the questions to them. The questions I adapted are:

  • Quotes or citations: What is their purpose? Are they credible?
  • Language Usage: Look at ______. Why has the author used one word rather than another? How could change the words change the sentence’s meaning?
  • Transitions: Look at ______. What connections do the transitions words or phrases represent?
  • Statements: Look at ______. When you read a particular statement, how does its meaning change? What can you infer from the statement?
  • Background: Look at ______. What are the author’s beliefs or assumptions? How do you know this?
  • Organization: Look at ______. How has the author organized their points?
  • Numerical Data: Why is this data here? Could it be understood differently? Is it believable?

Questions such as these gave students a greater focus on trying to understand how and why language was used – important skills for developing academic reading. I also found that by having students ask these questions, the discussions became a bit more interesting, and involved students really working with the language to try to interpret the author’s meaning. To me, it revealed those who are still struggling with superficial reading based on mental translation or very shallow processing of a passage.

My first few attempts at using these have convinced me that they are worth exploring further. I am wondering what other questions and what other ways would be useful to build a stronger focus on language usage during independent intensive reading and group discussion. In what other ways can the Highlighter role be strengthened?


Research Bites: Implications from Research on Writing from Reading

Grabe, W., & Zhang, C. (2013). Reading and writing together: A critical component of English for academic purposes teaching and learning. TESOL Journal, 4(1), 9-24. [link]

That integrating reading and writing is an essential academic school has been well-documented (and well-discussed on my blog). Grabe and Zhang (2013) explore the research on reading/writing integration and derive a number of important pedagogical implications all EAP and ESL writing instructors should be aware of.

Integrating reading and writing is a skill that is difficult for native English speakers, and particularly difficult for EAP students. According to the research, factors that make this type of writing difficult for EAP students include lack of practice opportunities, weaker reading skills, limited experience integrating reading and writing, poor grammar and vocabulary, motivation, lack of knowledge of organizational patterns, poor writing fluency, less background to use.

Students are likely to encounter a number of different writing tasks at the university level, and it is likely they will not be prepared for them. All of these tasks require text-responsible writing from reading (p. 12):

  1. Taking notes from a text (both at home and in class)
  2. Summarizing text information
  3. Paraphrasing textual resources
  4. Combining information from multiple text sources in a synthesis task
  5. Comparing multiple points of view from written texts and producing a critical synthesis
  6. Answering essay exam questions in writing (both at home and in class)
  7. Writing an extended research paper or literature review
  8. Responding to assigned texts (summary and then critique)

Grabe and Zhang’s article focuses on summarizing and synthesizing skills. The ability to summarize has been shown to be related to reading proficiency and vocabulary. In addition, ESL students struggle with paraphrasing, especially less proficient students, leading to many problems of plagiarism. Limited research on synthesis writing suggests stronger students mine texts more. Research on argument writing showed that stronger readers often include counterarguments and refutations in their writing. All of this research indicated better reading proficiency is related to better integrative writing.

Like summarizing, a key issue of synthesis writing is plagiarism, often due to not knowing how to use source texts correctly in western universities rather than deceitfulness. The authors, citing research, warn against blanket accusations of plagiarism without explicit instruction in not only how to avoid it but correct usage of source texts.

An experimental study by Zhang looked at the effectiveness of explicit synthesis writing instruction, which was found to outperform the control group in quality, organization, and text-usage.

Implications from Research

  • Students need more practice opportunities to integrate reading and writing, and to build confidence and fluency in this skill
  • Students need a large academic vocabulary
  • Students need explicit reading comprehension activities
  • Students need more explicit instruction for integrated writing tasks
  • Teachers should raise student awareness of tasks and expectations
  • Teachers should include more models of writing that can be analyzed.
  • The entire reading/writing process (reading, evaluation, source selection, citation, etc.) should be modelled and scaffolded
  • Models should put emphasis on text responsibility rather than opinion writing
  • Students should write summaries together
  • Teachers should try to develop more background knowledge
  • Teachers should teach students to “ask about cultural and topical information and reading/writing assumptions hidden in the task and texts” (p. 18)
  • Addressing plagiarism should be proactive
  • There needs to be an explicit focus on organization, including rhetorical signals
  • Teachers can use reading guides or reading journals to help students explore texts in more depth

The authors state that “The best general approach to instruction, therefore, is to begin instruction on reading/writing tasks much earlier, much more explicitly, and with much more iterative practice. Such thinking requires some creativity on the parts of teachers, curriculum developers, and materials writers” (p. 19).

Two practical projects that can help realize implications come to mind. One is a project that is mentioned in the text: learning reading/writing integration from writing and editing Wikipedia projects. This is an especially creative idea, and it is quite useful. For lower-levels, one can even write/edit Simple English pages!

The other idea is an oft-promoted one on this blog: Academic Reading Circles. This project addresses many of the implications mentioned in this article. It is a great place to work with not only academic readings, but integrated reading and writing skills.

All in all, teaching reading from writing is an essential skills, one that clearly needs to be done more carefully, explicitly, and often. The ideas in the article hopefully inspire or reaffirm the need for this type of writing and lead to students who are better prepared for academic study and beyond.

Research Bites: Using Close Reading for Academic Texts and Writing

Freedman, L. (2015). Using close reading as a course theme in a multilingual disciplinary classroom. Reading in a Foreign Language, 27(2), 262. [link]

Leora Freedman, from the University of Toronto, describes a 300-level university Asian Studies class (taught by Janet Poole), consisting of domestic and international students and their approach to reading academic texts, especially theoretical texts from authors such as Foucault, de Certeau, and others. This course was organized around close reading, “a simplified method of reading, sections of a text iteratively and critically” (p. 263). It was argued that such an approach would benefit all students, and both L1 and L2 readers have difficulties with academic texts.

The approach in this course relied heavily on modeling, paraphrase, thinking aloud, and questioning. The course instructor would choose sections of the text that contained key ideas. She would then paraphrase the section, helping students understand the academic vocabulary and expressions. She would analyze statements, look at ambiguities, look at author purpose or perspective, or contrast a statement with something earlier or by another author. In addition, individual words and phrases were analyzed for how nuances of meaning depending on context, purpose, or perspective. After students were familiar with this process, the instructor gave students a worksheet to help them approach texts in the same way, following ideas of close reading:

  1. Organization of points: What seems to be the author’s persuasive strategy? Is it convincing?
  2. Author’s theoretical tendency: Is it stated or unstated? What are the author’s underlying assumptions? What evidence do you see for this?
  3. Quotations: What is their purpose? Are these sources credible? 
  4. Comparisons: How is this idea treated in other texts on this subject?
  5. Diction: Why has the author used one word rather than another? How would changing the diction of a sentence change its meaning?
  6. Terminology: What disciplinary vocabulary is used here? How are these words used differently in other texts?
  7. Details: What is the significance of this detail? How does it relate to the larger purpose of the text?
  8. Numerical data: Why is it here? Could it be interpreted differently? Is it believable? 
  9. Transitions: Where do you see transitional words or phrases? What logical connections do they suggest?
  10. Relationship of parts to whole: How does this passage relate to the overarching purpose of the text or its overall argument?
  11. Further implications: When you reflect on a particular statement, how does its meaning change? What can you infer, even if it’s not directly stated?
  12. Remaining questions: What questions are not answered by this passage or text? Did the author intend to answer them?

(Reproduced from Freedman, 2015)

The instructor moved from reading to writing by explaining (through think aloud) how students can use concepts and readings in their own writings. This part of the course focused on critical thinking and reflection, which was seen as an important starting place for writing.

The author offers anecdotal evidence that this approach does in fact improve students’ reading and writing abilities. This evidence comes from other colleagues in the department who have these students after completing Poole’s course.


In a previous Research Bites post of mine, Leki argued that reading does not have to be an individual activity. Rather, there is more benefit to the social (de)construction of texts. By working together to read, paraphrase, and question key aspects of a text (following some of the principles of close reading) we are more likely to engender really good critical reading behavior in students who typically do not read at a critical or academic level. He approach to dissecting a text, paraphrasing, looking at context, looking at the polysemy of vocabulary – all of these are critical skills. This article shows how they can be tied together in a way that is scaffolded and which easily transfers to writing.

(Academic Reading Circles is another great method that employs many of these close reading strategies.)


Close Reading Resources




Integrating Reading and Writing At Lower Levels

In my last few posts on Research Bites, I have focused on the integration of reading and writing. Few would probably argue against this. Writing based on reading is a vital skill, especially in EAP. However, I have heard concerns that this cannot be done at lower levels because students are still working with the basic language and mechanics of writing in English, academic or otherwise.

However, unless they are writing entirely based on their personal experiences and histories, they are likely already using reading to influence their writing. In other words, they are already doing research. The problem, however, is that this research often enters their writing either as plagiarism or as ideas without veracity. Let me explain:

Even at low levels where students are just learning to write paragraphs, students turn to the internet for ideas. While they could generate their own ideas through discussion and conversation, using the internet for research is a fundamental skill and is therefore not necessarily bad. However, it’s the type of sites they use that poses the problem.

A students who is writing about the advantages or disadvantages of social media may brainstorm their own ideas, but they are also just as likely to google it, finding pages from sites like, Quora, and even Yahoo! Answers. Without a framework for both generating their own ideas and evaluating ideas they find on the internet, students are treading dangerous territory. Even if they paraphrase the material, they are reinforcing poor habits of integrating reading with writing.

The good news is that there is at least a framework to start from, even if is not one of citation and attribution as is common in Western academia. This is the place to start, even at lower levels. Because they are already in the habit of doing this, it provides us an opportunity to instill a tradition of evaluating sources, paraphrasing, and eventually acknowledgment. The key, I think, to integrating reading, at any level, is scaffolding.

I have just begun to do this in my own classes and will continue to develop a method to ease students into the habit of properly using reading for writing. Below is a rough outline of what such a method could look like.


1. Choosing the topic

First, students need to choose a broad topic to write about. They might be chosen by a coursebook, the teacher, students, etc. For example, the 2016 Olympics might be an interesting topic to write about.

2. Doing basic research

There are a lot of places to find research, but for lower level students, I’d start with a source such as Newsela, which offers news articles and reports at multiple different levels, including very easily levels that are accessible to beginning learners. My search for “Olympics” turned up these articles related to the 2016 games:

Before reading, students can brainstorm a list of places to find information. Here, you can help students understand what is a good source and what is a poor source and why. It is a chance to teach the basics of source evaluation, which will hopefully help them avoid using sites like and its ilk. In fact, I’d explicitly bring such websites up and explain why and how to avoid them.

3. Reading and discussion

Students should read the articles (here’s an opportunity to teach summary writing if you’d like). and discuss their articles with a partner or group. In this way, they can talk about their topic and set their sights on something interesting within their topic.

4. Questioning

Have students write questions about their topic. The readings should have already influenced their thinking and their questions will likely reflect both the topic and the readings. Here, you can help students write questions and draw the connections between the questions and the organization of their writing (and even the language required for each question). For example, I might want to focus on the negative effects of the 2016 Olympic games. I could ask: “What are the negative effects of the 2016 Olympic games?” This type of question calls for a cause-effect focus, which will require words such as “cause,” “effect,” “As a result,” and so on – language related to that particular rhetorical function.

5. Brainstorming and outlining

Have students put their readings away. This is very important because you do not their readings to be the main influence on their writing. If they focus too much on the readings, their writing will become a summary instead of a well-thought out cause-effect argument. With their articles away, students should start brainstorming any ideas related to the topic. You should stress that they do not have to focus on the articles but instead make their own ideas. Once they have enough ideas, you can help them outline their writing. This can be done however you usually do it. You could read a model and outline that, or you could write one together as a class – however you see fit.

6. Integration

This is where scaffolding and feedback will be very important. You will have to help students determine the best places to integrate the ideas they read about. It will be important for them to understand right away that the ideas they read are not the main ideas of their writing but rather support. This will be easier if students already understand the basic organizational structure of writing (e.g. topic sentence, major support, minor support for a paragraph – evidence often appears as minor support, but works well as major support in an essay or longer writing). This is a good time to teach phrases like “for example” or “for instance”. The point here is students should see where and where not to use their readings in the outline, before writing.

7. Scaffolding citation

It should be made clear that all writing should be students’ own words. Simple paraphrasing activities could help them avoid copy and pasting phrases or sentences into the article. Quoting can also be taught. Because students are still learning basic English writing skills, the idea of citation should be scaffolded so as to not overburden students with work. The way I would start is to have students simply supply the links for any ideas used for the articles. They can do so on those parts using the comment feature in Word or Google Docs or make a simple not of it on paper. After students are used to providing links and paraphrasing, you can teach attribution phrases like “According to person” or “In ‘Article Title’, Author says…”. Phrases that help link using evidence to their sources. As students’ writing abilities progress and as their work becomes longer, more advanced citation skills can be taught.

Method to Practice

In this example, I had students in a high-beginner/lower-intermediate writing course do readings first before picking a topic. I asked students to search Newsela for an article that showed cause, effect, or both. They had to read the article, summarize it, and then discuss it with a partner in class. One student read about the causes of an epidemic of star fish deaths on the West coast. Another student read about invasive rats in Australia. I had students think about their topic in a broader way: the death of coral reefs, invasive species. Students came up with their own ideas about their topics. Others did more research on Newsela to find articles that could help them generate ideas. Students outlined their essays and wrote about their topics. When they outlined their essays, I helped them see (through whole-class modeling and one on one feedback) where and how they could use evidence. The student writing about coral reefs discussed the effects of dying coral on tourism, sea life, and the world. She was able to use the star fish article to add examples of the negative effects on sea life. The student writing about invasive species used the article on rats both in the introduction to provide an example of invasive species and in a paragraph about invasive animals, using rats as one example. These essays turned out quite well, especially being one of the first times integrating reading with their writing. In fact, it was the first time I experimented with the method above.

The method outlined above can be changed and modified in many ways. The goal of this method is simply to find an easy way to scaffold the proper use of sources and help students learn the vital skill of integrating reading with writing. It will definitely help if you model this process with them, reading, brainstorming, outlining, and writing an example together. This way, your expectations are clear. At any step along the way, there are numerous different linguistic, mechanical, and rhetorical skills that can be taught, so there are a lot of ways to expand on the basic method I have outlined.

I hope it is clear that integrating writing with reading at lower levels is not only a good idea, but is feasible. As I continue to work with my lower-level writing classes, I will apply, tweak, and refine the method. Students are already wanting to use the internet to help them write their essays. I want to make sure that they do so in a way that is conducive to good writing and helps them avoid engendering bad habits. In this way, I hope to make their through the complex world of EAP writing a little bit easier.


7 Techniques for Mining Vocabulary

Selecting vocabulary to focus on from a text is not always as simple as reading the text and picking out words. It’s hard to determine the frequencies and relevance of words just from reading. So, I’d like to share several methods I use – often in conjunction – to decide what vocabulary I want my students to focus on.

To Pre-Teach or Not To Pre-Teach?

Whether or not to pre-teach vocabulary is a somewhat contentious issue. I leave it up to the teacher and their context to decide what is right. In my own context, and in my own view, I mostly pre-teach, or pre-expose students to vocabulary. This is because I deal with intensive reading which involves challenging texts that include difficult vocabulary. I want my students to go into their readings armed with enough vocabulary so that they do not feel completely overwhelmed. In addition, since these are challenging texts, and being able to guess words from their context requires knowing 95% of the surrounding words, relying solely on context is not a sound strategy. In addition, vocabulary is learned through multiple exposures. I believe that pre-teaching counts as an exposure. Working with the vocabulary first is likely to lead to greater recognition and internalization than other techniques. Finally, I do not rely on pre-teaching all the time, especially if it is a word that I know they can get from context, inference, or because they know related words. However, pre-teaching works for us most of the time.

1. Starting At the Source

This may seem obvious, but the best thing to do when choosing vocabulary is have a manipulable text. If your text is digital, you are already ahead of the game. All you have to do now is copy and paste. But if you are working with textbooks (readings or transcripts of lectures or conversations), a clean scan is required, followed by an OCR rendering. OCR makes the scanned “picture” readable by making the text recognizable by computers. If you have Adobe Acrobat, there is a built-in function for this. If not, you can use a free online service such as Free Online OCR. With OCR, it is not always 100% accurate. It depends on the scan quality, really. I still get things such as “are” rendered as “arc” or “history” as “h!story” but for the most part this is not a problem, and it is easily fixed in Word.

Starting at the source in Acrobat

Starting at the source in Acrobat

Copying to a text file is essential for some of the tools below.

Copying to a text file is essential for some of the tools below.


How to OCR in Acrobat Pro

2. Word Lists

Because I deal with academic texts, I use the Academic Word List (AWL) and the Academic Vocabulary List (AVL) to find words in the text that are important for academia. I have just started using Lauren Anthony’s free AntWordProfiler to compare target texts against lists. It’s quite simple to use and already comes preloaded with the AWL.

Download and run it (no installation necessary). There are three panes. The top pane is your target text(s). The bottom pane are your word lists. The right pane is the output, which includes the words in the text that are found on the word list, their frequencies in the text, and other pertinent information.

It’s quite simple to use. First, clear out the GSL lists in the bottom pane. That will leave you with only the AWL. You can add the AVL by first downloading it my very simple version of it here, then clicking “Choose” to add it. Click “Choose” in the top pane and select your text (which should be in a .txt file). Click “Start” at the bottom and the results will be printed on the right. Here are two examples:


My text compared against the Academic Vocabulary List. Words such as research, change, following, increase, system, and term have a frequency greater than 1 and appear on the Academic Vocabulary List.

AWL results

My text compared against the Academic Word List. Words such as research, consist, psychology, aware, estimate, function, benefit, etc. have a frequency greater than 1 and appear on the Academic Word List.

Having this information helps me quickly sort through what students likely need to know, what they can figure out, and what they already know.

3. Highlighter

An online tool that is related to the above word lists is the AWL Highlighter. Input text (up to 2400 characters) and select what level of sublist you’d like to search (there are 10, with the first having the most common words) and then hit submit. The website will bold the academic vocabulary. You can also select the gap-fill option to make the academic vocabulary disappear! The AWL Highlighter is a pretty good tool for quickly noticing academic vocabulary in context.

...text comes out

Text goes in…

...text comes out

…text comes out

4. Vocab Grabber

Another one of my favorite vocabulary mining tools is Visual Thesaurus’ Vocab Grabber. Paste in your text and click “Grab!”. It compares the text against its own word lists and then presents the text to you either as a cloud or a sorted list, which can then be filtered by subject and by list level. I typically arrange it as a list by frequency, and then look at each level individually. Levels 1 and 2 are the most common words. Relevant vocabulary typically appears in lists 3, 4, and 5.

What’s more, Vocab Grabber allows you to quickly get the definition of the word, see the word in its contexts in the text, and, being visual thesaurus, get a visual word association map of the text.


Unorganized Text from Vocab Grabber


Sorted by frequency, words from list 4


How words can be viewed: mind map, definition, examples from text

5. Word Clouds

I use word clouds more as an embellishment on my PPT slides, or as a warmer activity, than for actually mining vocabulary. However, visually displaying a text as a word cloud sometimes reveals vocabulary you may have otherwise missed. Tagxedo is the best world cloud generator I have found, especially as it allows you to organize your clouds into different shapes, and it has loads of customization features. Unfortunately, it doesn’t run on Chrome, but Firefox and IE work well.

The article's theme was about sleep, so I made the word cloiud into a "dream cloud".

The article’s theme was about sleep, so I made the word cloud into a “dream cloud”.

6. Manual Mining

Using the above resources is great. However, most of the time, manual mining of a text through skimming, scanning, or reading, is useful. This is especially true for various multi-word phrases that the automatic mining tools may miss. For example, the phrase “sleep debt” appears several times in the article but never appeared in any of the lists as a chunk. I wouldn’t actually define this phrase, as it deciding on the meaning of the phrase would be done via discussion. However, other phrases like sleep deprivation, fight off, cut short, wreak havoc, long haul, etc.

7. Student Mining

Getting the students themselves to do the mining is always a great way to work with the vocabulary they want, as well as giving them valuable pre-exposure too. You can have students scan for new or unfamiliar words (and phrases) and build a list. Then, they can work with another student to discuss unfamiliar words and come up with a list of words neither can define. I also get students to add words to a Google Form (a simple paragraph text input box) so that I can see the most common unknown words and work from there.



How to Use Audacity to Quickly Make Audio Clips

Audacity, a freely available audio editing program, is one of my essential, go-to teacher tools – so much so that it is pinned to my taskbar and enjoys almost daily use.


Audacity is the last icon on the right.

There are many things you can do with Audacity that is useful for teaching. For example, you can slow down audio or speed it up; you can cut, shorten, and manipulate audio (such as TED Talks!); you can record your own audio samples; you can record students; students can make their own podcasts; you can analyze waveforms and spectrograms in a pronunciation class; and you can make really cool listening quizzes (an idea for a future blogpost of mine). Really, the list is endless.

The point of this blog post is to show you how I use Audacity to quickly cut up audio for vocabulary, transcription, and paraphrasing practice. 

The first thing you need to do is download Audacity. In addition, you’ll need to download and install the LAME MP3 codec in order to save .mp3 files (Windows users click here, Mac users click here). Once installed, you’re ready to go.

The quickest way to cut up audio is the use of labels. This allows you to select a section of audio, label it with a name, and then later export all the sections as separate files with a few clicks. I’ll try to give step-by-step instructions with pictures.

  1. Open the program and load the track you want.
  2. Listen to the track until you find a clip you want. Then highlight the clip and press CTRL + B. Give the label a name. In my example, it is “v – addictive”. This means the clip contains a short phrase with the vocabulary word “addictive” in it.
    vocab label
  3. Continue labeling. If there are two sections together or nearby, you may have to zoom in to be more accurate.
  4. When you are finished, Audacity should look like this (zoomed out).
  5. Next, go to File -> Export Multiple. This will allow you to export each clip/label you made separately.
    save multiple
  6. You’ll see a dialog box. Make sure to select “MP3 Files” under format, select a location, and choose whatever other options you’d like. The setup below is what I typically use. It will produce MP3 files in the folder I specified that are named only by the label I used.
    export options
  7. Press “Export” and you will see the box below. This will appear for EVERY label you created, so all you have to do is click “OK” multiple times in succession – unless you wish to read the information for each file.
  8. When the process is finished, you’ll see a list of your files.
  9. Open the folder, and you’ll see something like this:
  10. Now, the fun part…what to do with all those files? Here is an example – a game I play called “Popcorn Vocab“. I simply drag the files I want into a PPT and then arrange them to be easy to use. In class, I’d set up the popcorn game by telling students to list for the vocab (which we have already studied) and JUMP in the air and shout the word when they hear it. The first to jump/shout gets a point. OR, if two students jump/shout at the same time, they are both out. This last change is adapted from the Korean nun-chi game. Check the blog post I linked to to get a better explanation.popcornuse

Research Bites: Rethinking Reading Instruction

Leki, I. (1993). Reciprocal themes in ESL reading and writing. In J. G. Carson & I. Leki (Eds.) Reading in the composition classroom: Second language perspectives (9-32). Boston, MA: Heinle.

In this chapter, Leki argues against the separation of reading and writing instruction (something that happens in many institutes today, as it did in 1993 when Leki wrote this). She argues that this separation makes reading purposeless, and, therefore, reading instruction becomes a focus on skills, strategies, and errors rather than an active meaning-based activity in which texts are read to be used for something more.

Furthermore, the selection of a hodgepodge of text topics from numerous different domains leads not to highly interesting topics but a lack of knowledge buildup that can be used to intellectually engage with related texts. In a sense, reading becomes harder because students are not building and reconciling schema.

Reading instruction also puts a great focus on “errors” – comprehension check questions that emphasizes what students get wrong about a text, and then hopes to correct these errors through strategy instruction. This is despite the fact that research shows the meaning of a text is not formed through a single strategy or set of strategies that can be uniformly applied to all texts. Instead, meaning is based on interaction with the text, negotiation of meaning, and often, being situated within the writer’s discourse community. How a text is read – in other words, what strategies get applied, is determined by the purpose for reading, which many readings in reading courses lack. Furthermore, this focus on strategies is coupled with a laser focus on main ideas (Leki compares this to writing’s focus on topic sentences). Leki points to research that shows finding main ideas is not always as straightforward as it seems. Nor is it the most important part of reading. Checking comprehension (via post-reading questions) and teaching strategies does very little to teach students how to actually read, comprehend, or interpret. In fact, Leki argues this approach may actually engender poor reading skills by making students see texts as a puzzle that just needs to be deciphered rather than something that can be negotiated. It also equates reading comprehension to finding the elusive main idea.

In this light, reading becomes a solitary act and a solitary struggle where “It is only when they return to class that they learn, from the teacher, how well their personal struggle with the text went” (p. 29). Purposeless and mechanical, reading courses become a place for “rehearsing but never performing” (p. 19) and the social aspects of reading – students working together to co-construct the meaning through their varied interpretations and attempts to make sense of a text – are ignored.

Leki states that the separation of reading and writing has “impoverished instruction in both domains” (p. 12). However, the benefits of the integration are undeniable. Writing enhances reading because it gives students a purpose. It allows them to focus less on the words and sentences and more on constructing the meaning and intellectually engaging with the text. It promotes real reading (i.e. reading with a purpose) in the present, rather than something that is saved for the future (i.e. when the students take their “real” courses).

There are some glimpses of how such an integration can be realized.

First, reading in the composition classroom can attend to the social aspect of reading, Students can read published texts together in groups and “witness competing meanings and clarify their own misunderstandings through discussion, debate, and the need to translate their understandings into their own words” (p. 23).

Reading should become an active process where students are directed by what is salient and relevant for them, rather than using comprehension questions as a guide.

Students (and instructors) can realize that reading and writing are reciprocal: “the reader can interact more actively with the text by viewing reading as dialogic, and by writing to the text (responding to it, for example, with notes in the margins or in a reading journal)…” (p. 23)

Leki also promotes peer-review of writing. She argues that reading each other’s writing helps students focus more on making sense of what a real person is trying to communicate.

A focus on interactive, meaning-based, and purposeful reading shifts the focus from error correction and treating a text as a puzzle to something that is more social and negotiable. Errors will happen, as will misinterpretations, yet being able to tackle these issues together gives students the ability to “engage in constructing meaning with power and confidence” (p. 24).




Research Bites: Integrating Reading and Writing

Kroll, B. (1993). Teaching writing IS teaching reading: Training the new teacher of ESL composition. In J.G Carson & I. Leki, Reading in the composition classroom: Second language perspectives, 61-81. Heinle: MA.

Kroll’s article discusses a number of important issues, including the problems with a skill separation model in which reading, writing, speaking, and listening are taught as separate skills – a common approach at many language institutions. She also writes about the professional backgrounds writing teachers come from (TESL, composition, or remedial writing) and how most teachers are underprepared to teach either writing or reading. While these are interesting and worthy of focus, the crux of her article is in reaction to the read-discuss-write sequence that was common in ESL composition classrooms in 1993 (and is still common today in 2016).

First, she describes a hypothetical teacher who selects an interesting reading; gives it to students for homework; asks comprehension questions on the following day; focuses on vocabulary, transition phrases, topic sentences, citations, and similar devices; and then asks students to write based on this reading. This process continues with the reading being mostly forgotten during writing, and the writing being forgotten during the next reading, which likely bears no relation to the first reading.

Kroll points out that such a common sequence does not represent a good integration of reading and writing, nor good reading or writing instruction in general. What is wrong with this sequence, according to Kroll?

  • There was no introduction to the reading. Focus should be placed on previewing its content, style, potential for writing, etc., which Kroll considers critical. This also includes schema building.
  • Most importantly, there was no purpose for the reading other than writing a paper to get a grade. Purpose shapes how a reader interacts with a text. Kroll argues that teachers must convince students that reading and writing serve a greater, real-world purpose whether that is writing for an audience or writing to learn.
  • The focus on comprehension questions makes reading an exercise in translation and decoding, which is rather limiting.
  • The reading was selected for its perceived ability to interest the learners. This has the danger of turning a writing course into a low-level content course in which writing skills get lost.

Kroll does not think the read-discuss-write sequence is itself impoverished, but argues that a “purposeful context” needs to be provided for it (p. 71). What she recommends is, rather than picking articles through happenstance, teachers work backwards from what they want to final product to be. By starting with the goal, teachers can then articulate a clear purpose and gather materials that fit the goal. Kroll states that framing reading with a clear purpose or goal can prevent turning reading into translation. She then says that the readings can be focused on from a writers point of view, looking at the structure and the ways the writer accomplished their goals.

Thus, Kroll sets up some important guidelines for reading like a writer. Reading like a writer promotes reading not only to learn content but to learn what choices a writer makes when constructing their text. This is often learned incidentally by L1 writers, but clearly needs to be made salient for second language writers. One activity can be to ask students to stop reading after a certain point and get them to predict what will come next, not as a reading strategy in predicting content but as a way to see how the writer sets up (or fails to set up) where they are going. This can then transfer to the students’ own writing (probably through explicit instruction) and how they think about the structure of their own text. Looking at things such as authority and audience are also aspects of learning to read as a writer. Likewise, Kroll suggests learning to write as a reader. This includes the ability to revise one’s writing based on an understanding of a reader’s (real or imagined) needs. This also includes avoiding the problem of writer-based prose, which is writing that only the writer can understand. (She cites the article “The Writing-Reading Connection: Taking off the Handcuffs” for example lessons.)

I enjoyed Kroll’s article because it reminded me that integrating reading and writing does not solely mean writing based on reading but that reading should be undertaken as an activity that facilitates not just writing (as in the act of putting words on the page) but composition (i.e. the thoughtful arrangement of ideas to meet a goal).

Kroll also alluded to a need for consistency between readings and writings; that is, a possible thematic focus for the course. She cites Shuster (1991)as saying these types of classes create a “pinball style classroom that careens madly from one clanging thematic focus to another so that no sustained intellectual engagement is possible” (p. 62). The typical EAP coursebook includes articles from numerous disciplines in hopes to engage various types of students. However, perhaps a more focused theme would be better. After all, focused intellectual engagement is another skill that needs to be practiced.


Research Bites: A Socioliterate Approach (SA) to Writing

Johns, A. M. (1999). Opening our doors: Applying socioliterate approaches (SA) to language minority classrooms. In P. K. Matsuda, M. Cox, J. Jordan, & C. Ortmeier-Hooper (Eds.), Second-language writing in the composition classroom (pp. 290-302). Beford/St. Martin’s: MA. [link]

In “Opening Our Doors,” Ann Johns describes her socioliterate approach (SA) to college-level writing. It is a kind of reaction against humanistic, “personal identity,” and “inward-looking” approaches that seem prevalent in many composition and writing courses (p. 290-291). She sees more value in approaching multiple genres and working with genres that exist in the world around them, not just the world within them. She writes that focusing on personal identity comes as the expense of “other goals much more important to their future lives” (p. 300). Situated within an EAP context, this notion makes a great deal more sense, as writing here is mostly outward-looking.

What she calls a socioliterate approach is based on the understanding that texts are socially constructed and that they are “produced and read by individuals whose values reflect the communities in which they belong” (p. 291). In other words, SA looks at the social function of texts – including the audience, purpose, genre, and language.

Johns makes the bold but apt claim that if students can seek help on grammar elsewhere (e.g. writing centers which are dedicated to proofreading), teachers can focus on more important issues in regards to audience, purpose, genre, etc. Understanding the context of a text and its social construction through analysis is a major principle of the SA approach. This is achieved through analyzing multiple texts within a genre and trying to understand “text-external and text-internal features” (p. 292).

Johns outlines five goals of SA:

  1. Use student background knowledge of genres as a starting point for analysis
  2. Analyze texts in order to develop or revise the mental template for a genre
    1. Johns points out that even within a genre (e.g. summary), the text itself differs depending on discipline (i.e. social purpose)
  3. Work with strategies students use to approach a “task” so that both the teacher and students can understand how they approach different assignments, what works, and what doesn’t
  4. Develop different research skills that focus on texts, tasks, roles, and context. This can include asking and working with their teachers or professors in order to better understand the assignment or their own writing
  5. Developing the ability to talk about texts, i.e. metalanguage

The goals and ideas of SA are a bit abstract. Thankfully, Johns paints a picture of what an SA classroom might include, and then gives some examples from her own teaching. In general, an SA classroom might have the following features:

  • working with multiple genres, familiar and unfamiliar
  • analyze a number of texts from a genre before beginning writing
  • analyze the purpose of texts
  • writing various texts that simulate what is required in university classes (e.g. summaries, abstracts, timed writings)
  • reflection and examining strategies for approaching particular genres

From her own classroom, John provides two major examples of SA:

  1. She had her students work with Newsweek articles. Some of the tasks students did were:
    1. Students used the articles to write texts for different audiences.
    2. Students used Newsweek to practice argumentation and writing from sources.
    3. Students worked together to write a letter to the editor after they read an article they felt misrepresented Asian culture.
      1. The students looked at the construction of other letters to the editor to determine their structure and language usage.
      2. They discussed audience and the factors that go into publishing a letter.
  2. She had her students draft a letter to the university’s president because he was visiting their department.
    1. Students researched his speeches and comments to understand his values (know your audience).
    2. Students discussed their role as the writer writing to the president and the need to be clearly understood. This caused the final assignment to be better written than others.
    3. Students determined the structure and topic of the letter, including introducing themselves, their goals, and their suggestions for improving the university.
    4. The results of this letter was the president asking the department to look into the testing requirements (a common suggestion from the students)

I think that, while Johns’ description of SA seems to be a bit abstract or impractical at times, the principles of it are noteworthy. An approach to writing that focus on the social context of a text, written or read, is important because it leads to a better understanding of the structure and language that can be used while writing, the development of strategies to analyze texts, and – because of its social nature – a more informed understanding of audience. The understanding of audience, in particular, is important. Many have argued that an authentic audience creates a more motivating and meaningful writing experience for students. If an analysis of audience is involved, it may be likely that writing tasks could be crafted for more authentic or realistic audiences, which is a direction I think many writing courses need to go.


Research Bites: The Relevance of the Academic Vocabulary List (AVL)

Durrant, P. (2016). To what extent is the Academic Vocabulary List relevant to university student writing?. English for Specific Purposes, 43, 49–61.

Durrant compares the Academic Vocabulary List (AVL, Gardner and Davies, 2014) to university writing in order to understand how academic vocabulary is actually represented in undergraduate and graduate writing.

The Wordlists

The AVL is a more updated version of the popular Academic Word List. There are some important differences between the two:

Academic Word List (Coxhead) Academic Vocabulary List (Gardner and Davies)
based on a 3.5-million word academic corpus based on 120-million word Corpus of Contemporary American
based on headwords without regard to different meanings caused by changes to word families based on lemmas (“headwords plus inflectionally-related forms”) to take into account the various meanings of world forms
based on General Service List of high frequency general English words which may contain words that also have academic uses (e.g. address) but are not included in the AWL not based on any pre-existing list

The Problem

Durrant’s research is to provide insight into just how relevant the AVL is. Some of the problems highlighted about wordlists are that vocabulary varies too much by discipline to have any list be of value. Another argument is that wordlists are more useful (insofar as they are actually useful) for reading texts, not producing them. In other words, their productive value is questionable.

The Research

The research compared the AVL word list to the British Academic Written English (BAWE) corpus. Durrant looked at overall use of the AVL, as well as variation by student level, discipline, and genre.

The Findings and Conclusion

  • The AVL accounts for about 34% of the lexical words in the BAWE
    • 20% of this is covered by only 313 words
    • The most frequent 32 AVL items account for 5% of the BAWE lexical items
  • The AVL accounts for slightly more usage as their academic levels rise
  • There is wide variation between disciplines
    • While the average for the entire AVL to account for 20% of the BAWE is 313 words, there is great variation by discipline
      • 106 words in architecture account for 20%
      • 1,312 words in classics account for 20%
      • The median is 194
    • There is some overlap between certain disciplines
      • For example, 40 words from the AVL account for 10% of words in linguistics and physics (17% of items are shared)
        • The three words that cover 5% of the BAWE in these disciplines are however, therefore, and theory
      • About 30% of AVL represents shared words which account for 20% of the BAWE
  • There is signficant but small variation between text genres

The Implications

A relatively small amount of AVL words represent a great deal of academic writing while about half have very little contribution in terms of coverage. However, the words that do contribute to a great deal of coverage vary by discipline. Durrant argues that these results may seem to imply discipline-specific vocabulary teaching is a warranted approach. Nevertheless, he argues that is usually not practical nor desirable “given the cross-disciplinary nature” of academia. Durrant recommends focusing on the most frequently overlapping words (427 lemmas) and then moving on to either more discipline-specific lists or, vocabulary strategies such as inferring meaning or skipping unknown words (here, he refers to Nation’s [2011] “Learning vocabulary in another language“).

I have adapted the word list from Durrant’s work into an Excel file. The file contains the most common academic words that are shared among 30 disciplines, sorted by part of speech and frequency. Please click here to download it.