READING ENGLISH
Supporting Criterion 19 in the ESLCPM Manual

Adult ESL learners come to the English language with a multitude of different backgrounds and problems in reading English, that depend on their native languages and alphabets, countries of origin, education, literacy in their own languages, reading habits and types of content in either or both languages, methodology by which they learned to read their own languages and/or English, plus possible dysfunctions such as dyslexia, etc.

In my opinion, reading is a solitary activity, unlike tennis, wrestling or ballroom dancing. I have never ceased to be surprised how many ESL instructors use reading-out-loud as their primary methodology. As I've said before, some students will eventually learn English, regardless of methods used. However, if we are talking about real skill acquisition, the only language learners who will really NEED to learn to read aloud, may include radio announcers, preachers, and storytellers in libraries. For the vast majority of adult humans, the ability to efficiently assimilate the written language directly from the eye directly to the brain is quite enough. This is the normal reading process.

I have offered $10.00 to numerous ESL teachers IF they can truly justify spending so much time having their students read out loud. So far, nobody has collected, although I get reasons such as, "So I can check their pronunciation." or "To find out if they can read." To check speech, unimpeded by the confusing gap between spoken and written English, it is much easier to record a short conversation between the instructor and the student and make notes on the problems. Reading out loud is certainly NO indication of understanding or proficiency. I can read several languages fairly well out loud, including Turkish, which has a high level of graphic/pronunciation correlation, with few errors, and I have little idea of what I'm saying. I am quite satisfied that if a student of mine can read something to himself and then answer written or spoken questions on what was said.

In a class of adult ESL students, following are examples of some of the problems that the teacher may encounter and possible solutions:

1. Mr. Liu is from China. He is able to read English efficiently and answer written questions on the reading. However, he seems to have great difficulty with spoken English and often misses understanding words in spoken English, that he can understand in written English.

SOLUTION: China is one of several countries in Asia, where emphasis in foreign language studies is on reading and translation. Students from China have often had little if any contact with spoken English and few chances to converse. There is strong emphasis on tests, and persons are tested primarily on reading and translation skills. Mr. Liu needs strong training on listening and conversation skills rather than more reading. Perhaps he could spend class time, having conversations with an American volunteer, when other students are working on reading. He also needs to be strongly encouraged to get a good English/English dictionary and to get away from translation as much as possible.

2. Josefina is from Mexico. She reads Spanish well and learned to read some English in school. However, she is not in the habit of reading for pleasure in either language. She needs to learn to read English well in order to find a better job in America.

SOLUTION: Since Josefina is literate in her own language and can already read some English, she needs to be encouraged to read English FOR PLEASURE, outside of class. In the long run, it really doesn't matter what she reads, as long as she is going through the process of reading, as much as possible. If she wants to read "love stories," the instructor or a librarian can help her to find some good love stories, in fairly simple English and to read them at home. Language acquisition is a cumulative process and can be either fun or discouraging. "Serious" reading can be discouraging for some people, who really aren't interested in the subject matter or process. Josefina was from a small town, where the concept of reading for pleasure was rare. Adults can change their habits, particularly if they are motivated to enjoy what they are reading.

3. Saleh is a very bright young man from Yemen, who has learned to speak English more quickly than most persons in his class, because he is gregarious, not shy and not overly concerned about making mistakes in spoken English. He understands much that is said to him and answers with a fairly good vocabulary. However, whenever written work comes up, he is near the bottom of the class on exercises and tests. When he reads to himself, his finger moves slowly over the words and his lips seem to always be moving.

SOLUTION: In many Arabic-speaking countries, the problem seems to go back to how students learned to read their own language. Students are usually encouraged to put their fingers on each letter and recite each syllable out loud. "DA RA SA, ZA RA AH, WA ZA NA." Arabic goes from right to left, unlike English. However, that doesn't seem to be as big a problem as the methods used in most Arab schools of "touch and recite." Persons like Saleh need to be trained to visually scan languages and stop using their lips, in order to cut to the path going directly from the eyes to the brain without mouth involvement. This is best done if one can find another speaker of Arabic, who has learned to read Arabic efficiently, to first tutor Saleh in reading improvement in his own language. It is always easier to go from the known to the unknown. The steps to reading English next, then become much easier. If such a person is not available, Saleh needs some tutoring in scanning text and dropping lip involvement, by a native speaker of English, preferably a reading specialist familiar with his problem. Normally it is best for this to be done on the side, as a supplement to regular ESL classes. For Saleh, reading can't be neglected, or it will become a long-term impediment to a person with good potential.

4. Muniza is a woman from Afghanistan who failed to receive a formal education, because of the Taliban period, in which women were discouraged from going to school. She is the mother of two and is anxious to learn English and fit into her new environment. She is neither able to read the Arabic alphabet, which is used with her native Dari language, nor the Roman alphabet, which is used in English. On the plus side, she has a phenomenal memory and picks up new vocabulary and structures more quickly than most of her classmates. This is a result of having to remember EVERYTHING, because she can't write or read. Imagine her going to the marketplace in her country and remembering all that she had to buy without a list!

SOLUTION: Muniza should be kept in the class, where she is acquiring listening and speaking skills. She should be encouraged to at least attempt to write individual words as they appear on the marker board, perhaps with assistance from classmates. She is a natural candidate for the Laubach Literacy materials, that use universal visual references to each word; a snake is superimposed over the letter S, a cup is superimposed over the letter C, etc. It is always better to teach persons how to read their native language first, if this is feasible. I'm familiar with one situation, in which there was a British training program for illiterate speakers of Arabic. They needed to read simple English instructions. The company quickly designed an accelerated Arabic reading program, that had these students fairly functional readers in three weeks. The transition to reading English was much easier after that and the whole language acquisition process was successful after a shaky start.

5. Mr. Kim is an engineer from Korea. His technical reading is excellent, however his reading is 98% restricted to engineering subjects. He hopes to be an American citizen and participate fully in this society. He has learned to understand and speak English fairly well. However, he is limited in his ability to understand reading matter outside of his subject area and perhaps, like many technical people, has not been motivated up to this point.

SOLUTION: Mr. Kim needs to expand his ability to read general English. The transition from technical materials to other reading matter can be difficult for a person who is going to be in an English speaking country for the forseeable future. His instructor needs to encourage him to broaden his reading habits to enhance his ability to cope with broader and complex reading needs in a new culture. He will need to keep up with news and current events, contracts, agreements, correspondence, and perhaps assist his children in their schoolwork. A librarian can assist him to search his interests and expand his reading horizons.

6. Otto Schmidt is from Germany. He studied English in Germany in a private institute of languages, where listening, speaking, reading and writing were all stressed and taught in that order. As a result, even though his English is SOMEWHAT limited in vocabulary, structure and pronunciation, his limitations are fairly evenly divided between the written and spoken languages. His company has sent him to the U.S.A. for one year of language and acculturation, so that he can deal better with American business clients in Germany.

SOLUTION: Since Otto has been in a balanced ESL program in his country, he will not need special treatment in reading skills. However, if he is going to deal in the future with Americans in the business world, he would probably benefit from reading American business textbooks to get a better sense of how Americans do business and interrelate with each other in a business context. It would also be good for him to read some fiction set in a business context. Some Germans tend to see Americans as being too informal and overly friendly, too quickly in negotiations. Some Americans tend to view their German counterparts as "cold" and "inflexible." Both sides need to grasp the realities that come from dealing with two cultures that operate quite differently. Otto can best accomplish this mission through carefully selected reading and as much interpersonal contact with Americans as possible.

CONCLUSIONS: ESL instructors need to know as much about their students as possible, perhaps in particular relating to reading. This not only makes instructors more competent in dealing with speakers of other languages, it makes them more empathetic with students who come from so many different backgrounds. Even if all of your students are from one country, there can be enormous gaps in their experiences in life and both the assets and liabilities that they bring to your classroom.

You have to look at their backgrounds AND find out what they plan to do with their lives, to help them to better determine what their responsibilities should be, in and out of the classroom. It is very easy to develop "routines" in ESL classes that seem to fit everybody's needs. However, the probability is that each student comes from and is going to a different place in life. You can directly and indirectly make the difference for them.