This statement jumped out at me recently, from an excellent post by Robin Walker on Pronunciation for YLs. He was reporting from a talk by Catherine Walter at IATEFL 2008, and reading this (perhaps surprising) statement sent me off to find her original research.
In her article Phonology in second language reading: not an optional extra, Walter questions the idea that the skill of reading is something which needs to be taught to second language learners. She argues that successful L1 readers already possess the cognitive skills needed to build a mental structure or representation, which is, in fact, what we mean by ‘comprehension.’ According to Walter, comprehension isn’t actually a linguistic skill, so it’s fruitless to talk about transferring it from L1 to L2.
So why are some learners competent at reading in L1, but struggle with reading in L2? Obviously, lack of linguistic knowledge plays a part. Fascinatingly, though, Walter cites a study (Robertson et al 2000)* which used MRI scanning to show that sentence comprehension and comprehension of a text as a whole take place on different sides of the brain.
Walter doesn’t mention this, but, of course, there has been a lot of speculation about left brain and right brain thinking. Interestingly, sentence level comprehension, or decoding, used the left frontal lobe (associated with analytical, logical processing) and text comprehension uses the right frontal lobe (associated with intuition).
So a learner may have effective (non-linguistic) comprehension skills, and even be able to decode L2 sentences, but still struggle. Why?
According to Walter, it may be to do with how we use our working memories. Part of the working memory is something called the phonological loop:
‘a short-term memory mechanism that stores information in phonological form and automatically rehearses that information by unconscious sub- vocalisation.’ (Walter 2008)
In other words, as we listen, we automatically ‘record’ the last two seconds of what we hear in the memory, like a little Dictaphone. It’s why we can repeat back what we have just heard, even if we weren’t really listening properly to the speaker.
There is also evidence that we do exactly the same thing as we read- that we also sub-vocalise and record the sound of what we are reading. We don’t see it, we hear it. At least, this is true for those of us with L1s that are alphabetic (there is some evidence that learners with non-alphabetic L1s, may use more visual representations).
However, if our phonological representations of what we have just read are unreliable, we may find it difficult to associate these sounds with meanings, and thus find it difficult to keep meaning in our short term memory. This, in turn, will make it harder for us to carry out meaning building processes on the text as a whole.
Walter’s research in this paper concludes that unless learners are also poor at comprehension in L1, we would be better off teaching them to improve how they ‘mentally represent spoken language’ than teaching comprehension skills.
As much exposure as possible to the spoken language- so lots of listening and watching videos in English.
Listening while reading – hearing the spoken version while reading a text. This could mean using sub-titles, or following a transcript while listening, or listening to an audio version of a written text while reading. I would suggest that these don’t have to be instead of our usual listening or reading activities (I’m not quite ready to throw out more traditional reading and listening procedures), but as a follow up.
And finally, explicit focus on features of pronunciation, such as minimal pairs work , and focus on word stress and on how words change in the stream of speech . This kind of work will help learners to develop a more reliable repertoire of L2 sounds, which, Walter suggests, could also help them to hold what they are reading more efficiently in their short term memory, which in turn will greatly help with building up the meaning of the text.
And even if this isn’t the case, it will certainly help with developing fluency in speaking and confidence in listening, so what have we got to lose?