December 2000 — Volume 4, Number 4
EFL Academic Reading and Modern Technology: How Can We Turn Our Students into Independent Critical Readers?
Bar Ilan University,
*TESL-EJ is saddened to announce the death of Thea Reves. We will miss her and her contributions to the journal
The study investigated the issue of the development of EFL critical reading skills in a computer-networked environment. The computer-networked environment was seen as a means to combine the security and support of the language learning classroom and exposure to authentic reading material. The subjects of the study were four groups of students participating in EFL academic reading courses at Bar-Ilan University (Israel). The findings of the study suggest that the computerized learning environment contributed to the development of EFL critical literacy skills to a greater extent than the conventional learning environment did. The advantages of the networked computer environment were evident mainly for EFL students at the higher level of language proficiency. The computer environment created a different teacher-student relationship and changed the nature of the EFL teacher’s as well as the EFL student’s role in the academic reading class.
The ability to read academic texts is considered one of the most important skills that university students of English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL) need to acquire. It should be noted that for the most part reading instruction in the ESL and EFL university courses tends to focus on text processing, on the reader’s understanding of the language of the text. To help students cope with texts they may encounter in an academic setting, reading skills and strategies are first taught on the basis of simple texts and then practiced on authentic reading material.
In the current Internet age, however, with its proliferation of information needed for academic purposes, students are exposed not only to conventional text presentation but also to electronic texts. The explosion of information adds an additional challenge to Second Language (L2) / Foreign Language (FL) readers: they must be able to navigate through various text forms and actively create an individualized learning environment that would enhance the creation of meaning.
The type of skills student-readers require in order to cope with academic reading of both conventional and electronic texts comprises basic academic reading skills and strategies as well as critical literacy skills. Critical literacy is defined as the ability to clarify purpose, make use of relevant background knowledge, focus on major content, critically evaluate content, draw and test inferences and monitor comprehension (Palinsar & David, 1991). Critical literacy also includes reflective thinking and metacognition (Calfee & Nelson, 1991).
A number of L1 researchers have encouraged the use of a computer environment for writing and reading instruction (Barson, Frommer & Schwartz, 1993; Kemp,1993; Chun, 1994; Singhal, 1998; Hancock, 1999), as well as for promoting higher level literacy skills (see Trites, 1998, for a review). It was noted that the network computer environment creates a climate whereby learners gain autonomy and thus become empowered for reading beyond the language learning classroom (Peterson, 1997). Trites (1998) suggested that authentic learning situations replicated through the medium of networked computers contribute to the acquisition and implementation of critical reading skills.
The development of literacy and critical literacy skills in authentic-like situations is even more important for second or foreign language learners for whom the transition from reading within the confines of the conventional classroom to reading under authentic circumstances may be difficult. The question of the effectiveness of a network computer environment for the promotion of EFL / ESL critical literacy skills was raised by a number of researchers (Meunier, 1994; Kitao, 1995; Bowman, 1996; Chapelle, 1996; Warschauer et al., 1996; Chun & Plass, 1997; Davis & Lyman, 1997; Peacock, 1998; Calderon-Young, 1999). [-1-]
In terms of Second or Foreign Language instruction, the transition from reading within the confines of the classroom to reading under authentic circumstances may be a difficult task. In conventional ESL/EFL reading classrooms, students work under the guidance and intervention of the teacher and the instruction is carried out in a gradient manner in order to build up appropriate reading skills. The reading situation is different, however, when the ESL/EFL student is called upon to deal independently with authentic texts. In such cases, students may not have someone to provide guidance or to intervene when a reading problem occurs.
While no one questions the need for critical reading skills in L2/FL reading, there is no consensus as to the learning environment in which these skills may be developed by L2/FL learners. Furthermore, the issue of the development of EFL critical literacy skills in the computer-networked environment has not yet been fully investigated. Thus, there is a need to investigate the application of a complete computer-based academic reading curriculum in a non-immersion (FL) situation.
It has been hypothesized at the outset of the present study that in the EFL academic reading class, critical literacy skills can be developed by providing the student-reader with an on-line learning environment in a networked computer classroom. The networked computer environment can be viewed as a setting that incorporates both the security of the classroom and the exposure to authentic text. In the computer-controlled class, the student is offered the opportunity to read authentic texts independently as well as work under the guidance of a teacher when need arises. The computer environment would aid students in developing reading skills for authentic academic purposes. Moreover, by simulating reading conditions outside the physical boundaries of the classroom, it would help ease transition from learned reading skills to authentic reading skills. This in turn would raise the students’ motivation in reading in English as a Foreign Language. It has also been hypothesized that the computerized learning environment would create a different teacher-student relationship which in turn would change the teacher’s as well as the student’s role in such an environment.
The following research questions were posed at the outset of the study:
- To what extent does the use of authentic tools, tasks and environment contribute to the development of critical reading skills and strategies in the computer networked EFL academic reading classroom in comparison to a conventional EFL academic reading class?
- What is the nature of the EFL teacher’s role in the computerized academic reading class?
- What is the nature of the learners’ behavior in the computerized EFL academic reading class and what is the effect of computer mediated instruction on their attitudes and motivation?
Research Design and Procedures
The subjects of the study were 58 Bar-Ilan University students of two groups of Advanced One level of English proficiency and two groups of Advanced Two level of English proficiency (note: students are placed in the two different levels of EFL courses on the basis of the National Psychometric Examination). Advanced One level students took a four-hour per week yearlong course and Advanced Two level students took a two-hour per week yearlong course. The objective of the EFL reading courses at Bar-Ilan University is to prepare university students for their confrontation with professional academic material written in English in their fields of study. This objective is usually achieved through instruction of close, global and critical literacy skills as well as the application of these skills to the reading of limited number of authentic texts. In this study the objective was modified to include the establishment of a computer environment that would create a more independent, authentic-like reading situation. [-2-]
The research design consisted of two experiments and two control groups. The groups (experimental and control) were randomly selected: when registering for the course, the students were unaware which courses would eventually be taking part in the study. The decision regarding division into experimental and control groups was based on the availability of the networked computer classroom. The two experimental groups (16 Advanced One level students and 13 Advanced Two level students) studied exclusively in a networked class while the two control groups (16 Advanced One level students and 13 Advanced Two level students) were taught in a conventional classroom.
The technology provided for the students of the experimental groups included Microsoft Word 3.11, Netscape Navigator and E-mail. The use of these programs was consistent with the plan to establish an authentic reading environment within the classroom itself. The students in the two experimental groups were expected to write in Word, to use Netscape Navigator for locating appropriate academic material, and to submit assignments, questions and requests for clarification via electronic mail. In terms of the instructor, ClassNet enabled the instructor to demonstrate and explain at one computer while projecting via the network to the entire class, and it also provided the teacher with the means of observing individual work taking place at any computer. The ClassNet allowed the teacher one of the three options: to completely control the entire network in order to teach or demonstrate, to observe students’ work in a non-intrusive manner and to assist a student without affecting the other computers and students on the network.
A website was developed for the courses taking part in the experiment. The site contained a number of texts grouped into six topics; each topic consisted of 1-4 texts of varying length. All of the texts were taken as live links from either electronic journals or academic websites. The purpose of the live links was to provide the students with the opportunity to further pursue their reading practice via the authentic links of the texts. Each text in all the topics was supplemented by worksheets focusing on close reading skills, global reading skills and critical literacy skills. The worksheets were made available in electronic form on the computer lab’s server. The topics and their texts were all presented in a similar format:
- An Introduction to the topic
- Links to the electronic texts
- A NetSearch assignment
The Introduction to the content units put all the texts within the unit into context thus demonstrating for the students the need to “see” the connections between the texts as they progressed through the unit. In other words, the students had to be aware of the larger message contained in all the texts together rather than focus only on close and global reading of a specific text. For example, in the unit “The Corporate Media, or What is Wrong with the News,” the introduction dealt with such concepts as lack of objectivity in news reporting, the corporate decisions behind news reporting, how the decisions affect what is reported and how it is reported. The introduction presented the larger message of the unit, and each of the individual texts provided an additional item of information that broadened the picture described in the introduction.
The NetSearch assignment was based on the concept of content reading, where the linked texts provide the background reading and vocabulary needed to carry out the assignment. Thus, it further developed the connection between the texts of the units in terms of topics, ideas and purpose. The NetSearch assignments were constructed in the pattern of academic research. They expanded the issues raised in the individual texts by providing research questions aimed at guiding the students in their search on the Internet. Thus in the unit “Corporate Media, or What is Wrong with the News?” the following questions were asked:
- Which of the following sites provide conventional news and which deal with alternative news?
- What are the characteristic features of the classifications?
- Who stands behind these sources and what is their agenda?
In order to answer the questions the students had to locate and search through a list of news sources, such as the American Journalism Review, NBC, Time magazine. The students had to decide which of the offerings, provided by their chosen search engine, could give information relevant to the assignment.
The two control groups studied in a conventional classroom. The students followed the same aim and scope of the course; they were taught by the same teacher and were provided with a hard copy of the same reading materials and the same worksheets that the students in the experimental groups received in electronic form. Daily news was downloaded from the Internet, printed and distributed to the students.
The experimental classes studied according to the following study/lesson plan:
During the first 10-15 minutes of class time, the students were asked to open the website and read a news item of their choice from one of the news links. The rest of the class time was devoted to individualized reading with students working independently on the topic and text of their choice. Each student could determine his/her pace of progress. At the beginning of the course, they were asked to skim each unit and its accompanying texts in order to choose a unit for focused reading. Students had the option of reading all the texts in the unit of their choice and then carry out the WebSearch assignment, or choose a unit, read all the texts and complete the corresponding worksheets before continuing to the WebSearch. The students were told that the purpose of the worksheets was to guide them through the reading process and to assist them in focusing on the ideas and information relevant to the topic of the unit.
The physical setting of the control groups was a conventional classroom. Each lesson began with 10-15 minutes of skimming through the headlines of daily downloaded news, followed by a short discussion of current events. After the initial reading and discussion, the students were given a text to read and were asked to do the assignments on the accompanying worksheet. The instructor, who also set the reading pace for the class, chose the text. Frontal instruction was provided for teaching and demonstrating as well as for overcoming reading problems, such as text structure, language, and questions on the worksheet.
Data Collection instruments comprised:
- background questionnaires dealing with educational background, knowledge of languages, expectations and priorities;
- attitude and motivation questionnaires;
- self- and post-course evaluation questionnaires;
- students’ progress reports; and
- teacher’s logs.
Both quantitative and qualitative findings of the present study indicate that the computerized learning environment contributed to the development of EFL critical literacy skills and strategies more than the conventional academic reading environment.
Differences in the application of close reading skills, global reading skills, and critical reading skills to the advantage of computerized classes were found both at the Advanced One and Advanced Two levels of English proficiency.
The analysis of the independent T-test that was run to identify differences between the experimental (computerized) and control (conventional) groups revealed significant differences in the application of the following global reading skills: skimming of long texts in order to find the main ideas of the text : t(52) = 2.33*, p = .024 (p< .05) ; skimming in order to recognize the writer's purpose : t(52)= 2.73**, p=.002 (p<.01); skimming to identify the writer's conclusions : t(52)= 2.29*, p=.026 (p<.05). [-4-]
T-test Statistics on the Differences Between the Two Experimental and Two Control Groups in the Application of Global Reading Skills
|Skimming to Find Main Ideas of Text
|Skimming to Recognize Writer’s Purpose
|Skimming to Identify Writer’s Conclusion
Self and post-course evaluation questionnaires completed by the students in the computerized classes evidenced a development of better vocabulary recognition skills: t(53)= 2.14*, p=.037, (p<.05) as well as the ability to follow relationships between ideas in the text: t(53)= 3.24**, p=.002 (p<.01). The subjects in the experimental (computerized) groups also testified that the course encouraged the use of critical reading skills, i.e., text interpretation, higher level comprehension and reflective thinking, and thus contributed to their improvement: t(53)= 3.4***, p=.001 (p<.001).
|Improvement in Vocabulary Recognition Skills
|Ability to Follow Relationships Between Ideas
|Motivation and Attitude to Course
|Opportunity for Independent Work in Class
|Use of Critical Reading Skills
The comparison run between the answers on the self and post-course questionnaires provided by the students of the computerized and conventional classes at each of the two levels of proficiency showed differences in the acquisition and application of close reading skills, global reading skills and critical reading skills. Thus, at the lower level of proficiency (Advanced One) students in both the conventional class and the computerized class reported a greater emphasis on the use of close reading skills, i.e., textual decoding and lower level text processing, than on critical reading skills: t(53)= 2.14*, p= .037 (p<.05). At the higher level of proficiency (Advanced Two), however, differences were found between the computerized class and the conventional class with regard to the development of critical literacy. At the Advanced Two level of proficiency the students in the computerized class were able to develop critical reading skills more quickly by taking advantage of the networked environment: t(46) = -2.58*, p= .013 (p<.05) [-5-] .
With regard to attitude and motivation the students’ answers indicated a more positive attitude and higher motivation in the computerized classes than in the conventional classes: t (53)= 2.7**, p=. 009 (p<.01). The students in the computerized classes appreciated the opportunity to work independently in class and indicated that the course allowed them adequate time for practice: t(53) = -2.21*, p=.031 (p<.05).
T-test Statistics on the Students’ Answers on Self and Post-Course Evaluation Questionnaires on Each of the Two Levels of Language Proficiency
|Emphasis on Close Reading Skills
|Development of Critical Reading Skills
Qualitative data are based on the subjects’ regular progress reports and teacher’s observation log in the computerized classes and the teacher’s observation log in the conventional classes.
In the experimental groups, the students’ progress reports and teacher’s log referred to each student’s reading behavior in the classroom. The students reported on what they planned to read during each class session, on reading problems they encountered, from where they received assistance and what they managed to accomplish in terms of quantity by the end of the lesson. As the course progressed, students at both levels of proficiency reported an increasing awareness of their reading abilities, such as planning their work, identifying reading problems, more self-confidence, i.e., less reliance on the teacher’s help. The teacher’s log indicated that students invested time, beyond the allotted class time period, in fulfilling the course requirements. They began to work before the beginning of class and remained to complete their work beyond the end of class. Furthermore, students preferred to avoid distractions, such as chatting with classmates, to accomplish their reading assignments.
In the conventional classes, the teacher’s log revealed the following observations regarding the students’ classroom reading behavior. As in any conventional teaching environment, the teacher controlled the classroom activities, that is, the teacher planned what the students should read, located the students’ reading problems, and decided what kind of help to extend and to whom. The teacher’s log showed gradual increase in the amount of reading accomplished in class, in the students’ ability to work in groups, and a decrease in their need to resort to the teacher for help.
The progress reports and teacher’s log in the experimental classes as well as the teacher’s log in the conventional classes showed that the relation between the students’ self-perception of reading aptitude and progress in the course was different at the two levels of proficiency, regardless of the course format. At the Advanced One level of proficiency, the progress reports and the teacher’s log indicated noticeable improvement: as the course progressed, the students’ behavior showed increasing independence. At the Advanced Two level of proficiency, on the other hand, students were able to complete most of the assignments independently very early in the course.
It should be noted, however, that the difference between the conventional classes and the experimental classes, regardless of the proficiency level, was mostly noted in terms of self-motivation, self-sufficiency and text discriminating ability. The experimental classes, as the course progressed, assumed more responsibility for completing the assignments and for locating appropriate material for the NetSearch assignments, thus indicating their self-motivation and text-discriminating ability. Their self-sufficiency was evidenced in their decreasing reliance upon the teacher for direction and assistance. This growing independence resulted in a greater quantity of reading in the experimental classes than in the conventional classes, as reflected in the progress reports and teacher’s logs, as well as a greater proficiency in selecting and evaluating reading material for the experimental students. [-6-]
The research findings indicate that the computerized reading environment may contribute to the development of EFL critical literacy skills more than the conventional reading environment (Research Question One). This development may be due to the fact that the NetSearch assignments call for independence in reading and decision making. Using the individual texts from the content unit as a source of background information, students must read through a number of web pages in search of the information requested. This selection process is based on the application of global reading skills, on the ability to make use of relevant background knowledge, to focus on major content, to critically evaluate that content, to draw and test inferences. In other words, it suggests that critical reading skills may play an important role in the development of independent reading ability.
The differences found between the computer classes and the conventional classes with regard to the development of critical reading skills may be attributed to the advantages of the network environment. The use of computers enabled the students and the teacher to isolate problematic sections of text, highlight them in order to focus on specific points that needed elaboration and to copy/paste from two or more texts to illustrate points that required comparison. This method of working with texts on computer screens helped students at the Advanced One level of proficiency in acquiring and practicing lower level reading skills which were needed before continuing onto the NetSearch assignments. For students at the Advanced Two level of proficiency, text decoding might have been almost automatic so that in the computer class they could spend most of the time on the NetSearch assignments which necessitated the application of critical reading skills. It should be noted, however, that these findings for EFL learners differ from conclusions drawn by L1 researchers who did not find significant differences in reading-gain scores between computer-assisted practice groups and text-based practice groups (Kuehner, 1999; Peterson et al., 1999).
With reference to Research Question Two, i.e., the teacher’s role in the computerized academic reading classroom, as compared to the teacher’s role in the conventional classroom, a noticeable difference was observed. In the computerized environment, the teacher’s role could be described as that of an observer and facilitator. Through the use of ClassNet, the teacher could interact with each student during every class meeting. As a result, the students in the experimental groups had more opportunities to get individual assistance, to clarify points and/or discuss problematic issues. Moreover, the teacher-student interaction was conducted in complete privacy thus allowing for a free exchange of critical comments. The student could disagree with the teacher in a variety of cases, but this disagreement did not create problems in the networked classroom; it rather led to discussion, mutual understanding and assistance.
In the conventional class, the role of the teacher was much more authoritative. While in the computer class students could take initiative and work on the material of their choice, in the conventional class it was the teacher who decided upon the content of the lesson, as well as on the order and pace of work
The Third Research Question referred to the students’ behavior in the computerized class. Most of the students in the experimental (computerized) classes worked most diligently at their computers throughout the class period. They could read materials of their choice and were willing to carry out WebSearch assignments. The element of novelty undoubtedly played a significant role in their motivation: for the first time in their EFL learning experience, they were able to apply the skills and strategies of reading to authentic assignments. The use of computers enabled the students to isolate problematic sections of the text, highlight them in order to focus on specific points that needed elaboration and to copy/paste from two or more texts to illustrate details that required comparison.
The atmosphere in the computer classes was that of cooperation and collaboration: students assisted each other in handling the computers as well as in finding shortcuts in locating material for the NetSearch assignments. There was hardly any opposition on the part of the students to the need to put in extra hours, beyond class time, in order to carry out NetSearch assignments.
In the control (conventional) classes, a number of students often complained of having to spend too much time doing their homework. The students’ behavior in the control groups may have been due to the fact that it was not possible to engage each student in every class session, nor was it possible to customize the lesson according to individual needs. The teacher dictated the pace of work and the students were expected to follow it. [-7-]
The following conclusions can be drawn with reference to the Research Questions:
- The computerized learning environment affects the development of EFL critical reading skills and strategies to a greater extent than the conventional environment.
- The networked computer environment provides the learner with the possibility of authenticity in academic reading. It simulates conditions outside the physical boundaries of the class thus easing the student’s transition from the learned reading skills to authentic reading skills.
Working in a networked computer environment, students at a lower level of proficiency can identify their reading problems, manipulate the text in order to highlight the problematic sections and thus deal with close and global reading skills. This work prepares the student for higher level critical reading skills. Students at a higher level of proficiency can proceed at their own pace, focus on major content, draw and test inferences, monitor their progress and critically evaluate their reading.
- The teacher’s role in a computerized EFL classroom is mainly that of mentor and facilitator. Through the use of ClassNet, the teacher provides assistance when it is appropriate and necessary without interfering with the students’ initiative regarding the choice of material and pace of work.
- The computerized environment enables and encourages the student to take initiative and to assume responsibility for her/his own progress, to make sense of the texts read and create meaning. The findings revealed in the study should justify further large-scale research addressing the issue of computer-assisted academic reading instruction.
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About the Authors
Adina Levine holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. She is Director of the EFL Program at Bar-Ilan University and author and co-author of a number of articles on various aspects of English reading comprehension. She is co-author of two books on reading comprehension for university students published by Collier-Macmillan.
Orna Ferenz is a Ph.D. student in the English Department of Bar-Ilan Univeristy where she teaches undergraduate and gradate EFL reading and writing classes.
Thea Reves held a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. Until her untimely death, she was senior Lecturer of English at Bar-Ilan University until she passed away, and Supervisor Emeritus of TEFL, Ministry of Education, Israel. Dr.Reves was the co-author of an oral proficiency test-battery introduced as the national school-leaving examas well as author and co-author of numerous articles on various aspects of language education.
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