In Links We Trust: Net-Like Strategic Reading in L2 Learning Context

In Links We Trust: Net-Like Strategic Reading in L2 Learning Context

Sara Costa (E. Medi Secondary School, Italy & Bologna University, Italy)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-2122-0.ch064

Abstract

The problem of processing texts containing a number of unknown words is relatively common in foreign language learning, especially for students on level A1-A2-B1 (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages). The disorientation raised by such texts usually turns into frustration and demotivation, as most students experience a nearly total block in the comprehension process and soon give up reading the text, while only a few of them have recourse to proper comprehension strategies. This chapter describes an experimental reading activity carried out in a class of Italian students during a German lesson in order to enhance a motivating net-like reading attitude in L2 based on a constructivist-connectionist approach to language processing. The activity was meant to make students realise in practice that they have a wide range of interconnected comprehension strategies at their own disposal, which can be effectively activated to overcome when occurring comprehension blocks.
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Introduction

Processing texts containing unknown vocabulary is a relatively common difficulty in foreign language learning, especially for students lying on level A1-A2-B1 (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages). In my teaching practice of German as a foreign language I have found that unknown words in foreign language reading are for some readers a bigger problem than for others. Some readers are able to overcome this problem having recourse to an active reading attitude, activating a network of (more or less conscious) reading and comprehension strategies, linking different text elements on both micro- and macro-level and making assumptions consistent with meaning. Others, however, are unable to process texts with unknown words and fail decoding the meaning of these lexical items. The disorientation they get from such texts turns soon into frustration and demotivation, as these students experience a nearly total block in the comprehension process with the result that reading is almost immediately given up. As I showed in detail in my analysis of reading comprehension blocks (Costa 2010a), processing difficulty in texts containing a considerable amount of unknown vocabulary are mainly due to two factors: lacking net-like reading attitude on the micro-level of the text and weak strategic awareness. The experimental reading activity described in this chapter shows how proper stimuli based on a constructivist-connectionist approach to language processing can enhance a motivating net-like reading attitude making students realise ‘in practice’ that they have a wide range of interconnected comprehension strategies at their own disposal, which can be effectively activated to overcome occurring comprehension blocks. On a pedagogical level, this also implies helping youth develop greater self-confidence by starting to become aware of the strategic cognitive tools one actually possesses – for instance to face texts in L2 perceived as ‘too difficult’. It should be pointed out that this activity had not been initially planned as a structured research but as a lesson which – considered retrospectively – turned out to be meaningful from a scientific (pedagogical and didactic) point of view, as often happens in education. Accordingly, there was no original attempt to preserve materials to be examined later, apart from teacher’s notes deriving from my personal teaching approach. The activity has proved to be successful as it actually produced an observable generalized change in the students’ reading approach, from initial frustration and renouncing attitude to a fully active heuristic mind-set leading to enthusiastic discovery not only of the text, but also of their own cognitive tools.

This reading activity was carried out in a class of 22 16-year-old Italian students of average socio-economic level attending the third year of a secondary school in the province of Verona. They had been learning German for two years and a half, reaching globally A2/B1 communication skills. The study of German as a second foreign language is set up in the school curriculum. As for my role in the school, I was working with this class as regular German teacher and have belonged to the school’s permanent staff for over ten years, continuously combining my teaching practice with academic research as PhD German linguist.

The purpose of the experiment was twofold: on the one hand I wanted to understand how my students processed a text containing unfamiliar words; on the other hand, from a pedagogical point of view, I wanted to empower their self-confidence and reading awareness by showing them through heuristic cooperative reading that everybody has a range of comprehension strategies which can be activated to succeed in understanding a text despite unknown vocabulary.

A more specific aim of the experiment was to observe the various reading attitudes showed by students when asked to face a text containing unknown vocabulary, so as to see to what extent and in which students such texts can hinder or even block the reading process. Such observations turned out to provide a basis for subsequent research on those students who showed a renouncing manner when dealing with this kind of texts, failing to apply any form of active reading (a summary of my qualitative study on such ‘weaker’ students is presented in Costa, in press).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Comprehension Strategies: General cognitive operations used to facilitate understanding also in specific fields e.g., reading.

Reading Blocks: Powerlessness of a reader in processing ‘difficult’ texts.

Constructivist Approach: Model for learning based on the belief that students construct their own knowledge and understanding.

Inference: Ability to understand implicit information.

Metacognition: Here, strategic awareness of readers.

Connectionist Model: Cognitive theory within the cognitive sciences using neural networks to simulate the holistic net-like information processing in the brain.

Unknown Vocabulary: Words in a text the reader cannot understand.

Active Reading: Reading attitude by which a reader continuously ask the text a range of questions.

L2 Learning: Learning a second language.

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