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).