Teaching Reading in Second Language
Learning a foreign language is never easy. Because of phonetic, lexical and structural differences between the foreign language and the native tongue, the process of mastering the former becomes incredibly complicated. When it comes to studying English as a second language, the learning process can turn out rather slow. However, over the past few years, a number of peculiar methods of teaching reading in English have appeared. One of the most innovative methods, the use of literature circles, deserves taking a closer look at, since its popularity is growing increasingly. Despite the fact literature circles approach is a recent strategy, it can reinvent people’s perception of how English reading should be taught.
Before going any further with the discussion of the learning process, it is necessary to define the phenomenon of scaffolding, which the strategy of literature circles belongs to. Defined by Beck as “A changing quality of support over a teaching session in which adults adjust the assistance they provide to fit the child’s current level of performance” (Verenikina, 2008, 169), scaffolding, according to Hsin and Wu, allows students “to participate at ever-increasing levels of competence” (Hsin & Wu, 2011, 657).
The idea behind scaffolding is that scaffold is a temporary construction that helps workers in the process of building and that is removed when the building is completed. However, the given definition seems to be too vague to be used as an official one. Maggioli, in his turn, explains the idea of scaffolding from a behaviorist perspective, claiming that scaffolding is “one more instance of what behaviorists call ‘shaping’ – the provision of stimuli and reinforcement by which a task is simplified so that the novice can master it” (Maggioli, 2012, 39).
Adding the last touch to the provided definition, Maggioli explains that scaffolding is a process that “enables a child or novice to solve a problem, carry out a task or achieve a goal which is beyond his unassisted efforts” (Maggioli, 2012, 39).
As for the literacy circles, the definition for the given strategy is rather simple. A group of students that want to improve their reading skills for a specific purpose, literature circle is a common practice in scaffolding. As Cameron, Murray, Hull and Cameron explain, literature circles represent groups or clubs that are led mostly by students, whereas the teacher remains in the shadow and performs very basic control functions (Cameron, Murray, Hull & Cameron, 2012, i). Within such a circle, each student is assigned with a specific role.
The key difference between a literature circle and a standard reading class is that the above-mentioned roles are distributed and assigned by students. Therefore, it can be concluded that the key difference between a regular reading class and literature circles is that in the latter, students define the course of the lesson instead of teachers.
When considering the benefits that such scaffolding practice as literature circles offers, one must mention the teamwork coordination first. Even though the goal of organizing a literature circle is to teach students read, which is rather obvious, literature circles offer other ample opportunities that concerns rather personal development than the academic one. To be more exact, literature circles allow the students to develop their background knowledge, since in a reading group, students not only read novels and short stories, but also analyze them.
Therefore, literature circles allow to use the knowledge that students already have to construct new one and teach the students the necessary reading skills. Moreover, the fact that the students’ background is stretched considerably with the help of various exercises and additional information, signifies that personal development also takes place along with the learning process within literature circles.
In her research, Wendy Cumming-Potvin proved the significance of literacy circles as a scaffolding practice in improving students’ literacy and training their reading skills (Cumming-Potvin, 2007, 487). In the course of the lesson, the students learn about the process of reading, remembering its basic elements, i.e., phonetic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Once the students remember the pattern in which the elements of the reading process are arranged (e.g., recognizing the letter, then considering the previous and the next letters to pronounce the former correctly, etc.), they will no longer need reading classes, and the scaffolding of literature circles can be removed.
Therefore, reading in literature circles as a specific scaffolding practice allows for not only better reading skills, but also for shaping one’s identity as a reader. The students will not only learn to read and analyze texts, but also develop not only the reading strategies that will help them read and analyze texts faster, but also their own understanding of these texts. It can be assumed that scaffolding helps one develop his/her readiness by helping them comprehend English texts.
According to Combs, “There are two important factors that influence our students’ readiness to comprehend text material: interest and text difficulty” (Combs, 2004, 13). With the help of scaffolding, students will not only learn to handle difficult texts by splitting the reading process into several simple stages, but also to see the message that the author of a text is trying to get across. Thus, it will be easier for students to engage into a dialogue with the author.
Hence, with the help of literature circles as a scaffolding strategy, the students will be interested in reading texts. The given statement seems quite legitimate; however, Combs misses out an important detail; to be more exact, Combs does not mention the fact that the two depend on each other to a considerable extent. When facing too many difficulties in their reading assignments, a student is likely to feel very upset and, therefore, lose his/her entire interest in the given activity, believing that (s)he is unlikely to achieve any further success in it. Literature circles, however, can shape a student’s attitude, helping him/her realize that his/her problem is solvable.
Moreover, a student will be able to see that (s)he is not the only one to have issue with reading. Hence, it can be concluded that for a student, literature circles not only enhance the development of reading skills, but also contribute to making him/her more interested in reading. As for the improvement of the latter, it can be presumed that in literature circles, the process of reading skills acquisition takes place at a much faster pace because of the element of competition involved into each reading class.
As a matter of fact, not only students, but also teachers can benefit from using such scaffolding technique as literature groups. Warren, Leochko & Begoray (2003) claim that reading groups can be of great use for overworked teachers, and, though the effects of scaffolding techniques application are much more complex, one must admit that there is a grain of truth in their statement. While the teacher still has to develop the program for the class and coordinate the process, the students are able to stream the reading and discussion process the way they want, which increases the students’ participation in the activity and allows the teacher for more spare time.
The latter can be used for coordinating two or more literature circles and work on the ways to improve the skills of each student and come up with a unique plan for every participant. Since literature circles train the students’ self-sufficiency as readers, their participation in the process is crucial. Once students learn the necessary reading skills and train them properly, literature circles will not be needed anymore.
As for the ways to use such scaffolding technique as literature circles, it will be most reasonable to start with introducing the students to the new activity. Cameron, Murray, Hull and Cameron claim that it will be appropriate to offer a literature circle trial. With the help of the latter, students could get used to the idea of choosing what and when to read and, which is even more important, what to discuss:
Many teachers reported that they had had little opportunity to work with their literature circle group, within the time constraints of the trail. On reflection, this may have been advantageous – sometimes trusting the students to be able to cope on their own can bring surprising and pleasing results! (Cameron, Murray, Hull & Cameron, 2012, iii)
Like any other learning technique, literature circles in scaffolding offer a set of tools that should be used in the curse of the lesson for the technique to work. First and foremost, the phenomenon of proper knowledge should be given a proper treatment. Considered the sum of background knowledge that students already have before the teacher introduces the lesson topic, prior knowledge plays an important role in the scaffolding process. Background knowledge helps the students link the new knowledge to the previous experience, thus, understanding the new material better.
Though often overlooked prior knowledge that most students have about a certain phenomenon or theory can be used for the advantage of the latter and help the teacher convey the new information in a more efficient way without getting the students bored out of their minds. As the study conducted by Hsin and Wu shows, the children of 4–5 years already knew a lot about the properties of various metals; as a result, during the lesson, most children managed to distinguish between aluminum and steel: “About half of the 4- and 5-year-olds and almost all the 6–9 year-olds could explain why one object is heavier than another with the same size by appealing to the different materials the two objects are made of” (Hsin & Wu, 2011, 657)..
Another significant element of scaffolding, graphics, must not be underestimated either. Weirdly enough, graphics is rarely emphasized in the learning process, despite the fact that efficient graphics can help the students understand the lecture material in a much better way (Johnson & Freedman, 2005). Using graphic organizers, the students will complete the assignments that are related to the topic of the class and that train the new skills that have been acquired in the course of the lesson. Moreover, graphic organizers help structure the students’ ideas.
After several exercises based on the use of graphic organizers, the students will understand the pattern of organizing new ideas and will be able to organize the new information without the help of graphic auxiliary materials. As a matter of fact, the two elements, i.e., graphics and sounds, are the key forms of information that children obtain in the course of a lesson, which should be taken into account as well.
According to the assumptions of Cumming-Potvin, “Code breaking or understanding the relationships between spoken sounds and graphic symbols is equally important as text participation through which meaningful knowledge is constructed by creating kinks children’s personal worlds” (Cumming-Potvin, 2007, 491). Indeed, providing only the verbal elements of certain information does not seem enough; with efficient visual aids, the learning process becomes much more engaging and fast.
When applied to reading, the strategy of using graphics to make the students construct the knowledge even better. It is important to realize that in the process of reading, a student has to match an image of a letter with its specific sound, i.e., the way a letter is pronounced in a specific situation. Therefore, the methods that involve the use of graphics in scaffolding are priceless; when applied to practice correctly, they prove extremely efficient.
For example, having pictures that explain the positions in which the letter “A” acquires different pronunciations is an example of graphics in scaffolding used the right way. Therefore, for a reading class, it would be appropriate to come up with an exercise on reading, where students have to recognize a specific letter in a specific position and figure out what sound the letter signifies.
Finally, the use of organizers is not to be underestimated. Being a crucial tool for such a scaffolding technique as literature circles to begin with, a graphic organizer is bound to help the students channel their stream of ideas in the right direction. It is also necessary to bear in mind that with the help of graphic organizers, one can tie the two previous tools together for an even more efficient use. As Combs (2004) explains, “provide frameworks in which students, individually or in small groups, can organize their background knowledge and even fill in the missing information as they read” (Combs, 2004, 16).
To be more exact, in a literature circle, organizers can help arrange the work of a certain student in the context of the whole reading group (Daniels, 2002). Thus, it will be possible to take into account the specifics of each student and his/her individual progress, working as well with the group as a whole. In case the prior knowledge of each student is strikingly different from the prior knowledge of another student in the group and the knowledge gaps are quite big, it would be reasonable not to fill the students in on the topic before the classes, but to offer them small bits of information as they are in the reading process.
For example, it is a good idea to offer the students a text with several gaps and suggest the readers to fill in the missing words, choosing from the options in the box below the text. Thus, the knowledge gaps of each student can be taken into account, and, filling in the slots with the words that (s)he already knows, a student will also have to deal with a couple of entirely new ones.
Judging by the above-mentioned, literature circles strategy definitely has potential for further development. Despite its flaws, it offers impressively good results and offers a very strong theoretical background to back the practical aspect up with. Hence, one can assume that scaffolding should be accepted as the key means of teaching students reading in English.
Cameron, S., Murray, M., Hull, K., & Cameron, J. (2012). Engaging fluent readers using literature circles. Literacy Learning: The Middle Years, 20(1), i-viii.
Combs, D. (2004). A framework for scaffolding content area reading strategies. Middle School Journal, 36(2), 13-20.
Cumming-Potvin, W. (2007). Scaffolding, multiliteracies, and reading circles. Canadian Journal of Education, 30(2), 483-507.
Daniels, H. (2002). Literature circles: Voice and choice in book clubs and reading groups. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.
Hsin, C.-T., & Wu, K.-W. (2011). Using scaffolding strategies to promote young children’s scientific understandings of floating and sinking. Journal a Scientific Educational Technologies, 20, 656-666.
Johnson, H. & Freedman, L. (2005). Developing critical awareness at the middle level: Using texts as tools for critique and pleasure. Newark, DW: International Reading Association.
Maggioli, G. D. (2012). Teaching language teachers: Scaffolding professional learning. New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield.
Verenikina, I. (2008). Scaffolding and learning: its role in nurturing new learners. Retrieved from https://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?httpsredir=1&article=1043&context=edupapers
Warren, R., Leochko, D., & Begoray, D. L. (2003). Literature circles: Tools and techniques to inspire reading groups. CM : An Electronic Reviewing Journal of Canadian Materials for Young People, 9(10). ProQuest. Web.