July 1999 — Volume 4, Number 1
Exploring Second Language Reading: Issues and Strategies
Neil Anderson (1999)
Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle Publishers
Pp. xi + 129
ISBN 0-8384-6685-0 (paper)
To develop a personal philosophy for teaching can be difficult, if not elusive. A book that can help new and experienced reading teachers reach this goal is Exploring Second Language Reading: Issues and Strategies by Neil Anderson, a book in the TeacherSource Series (see reviews of three other TeacherSource books, by Robert Retherford, elsewhere in this issue). The book provides the kind of guidance that a good mentor should. Anderson engages his readers in a principled dialogue about teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) reading. This dialogue explores the different elements of reading instruction with the reader.
The principled dialogue centers around the philosophy Anderson has developed through research and practice. This philosophy is represented with the word ACTIVE, which serves as the organizing mnemonic. ACTIVE consists of the first letters of six of the eight elements of this approach (p. 4):
A – Activate prior knowledge
C – Cultivate vocabulary
T – Teach for comprehension
I – Increase reading rate
V – Verify reading strategies
E – Evaluate progress
The last two elements are: Consider the role of motivation and Select appropriate materials. Using this framework, Anderson examines instructional issues that concern reading teachers in ESL classrooms. He explores these issues from three different perspectives: Teachers’ Voices, where ESL teachers describe their experiences in dealing with the issues raised; Frameworks, where ESL reading theory is discussed; and Investigations, where activities are provided for teacher exploration and reflection. [-1-]
Each element of the ACTIVE framework is introduced through a brief reflection on the author’s experiences with learning something outside of the classroom and relating these learning experiences to the topics discussed. For example, he relates his training and study for marathon running with how vocabulary is learned and how teachers can cultivate vocabulary learning. This approach does two things. It makes the author’s voice more personal. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it relates learning to life experiences that contextualize both teaching and learning activities within the classroom and outside it. This reflective model serves as a means for readers who are learning to teach, or for experienced teachers, to consider their experiences in connection with their teaching.
The book provides coverage of most problems teachers face in reading classes, in particular academic reading classes. Anderson connects theory and practice in a clear and reasonable way, helping teachers visualize how the theory might look in the classroom and then offering other visions through incorporation of teachers’ voices. While the book isn’t rich in the detail of implementation, nor does it have the quantity of techniques and activities that a book like Nuttall’s (1996) does, it is more grounded in the processes of thinking about learning to read and improving the approaches to teaching reading. The book is clearly written by a reading teacher.
An important part of this book is the Teachers’ Voices sections. The teachers are two graduate students and two experienced working teacher coordinators. Their contributions play an important role in bridging theory to classroom realities. Their contributions do not unfailingly support Anderson’s stance, but the differences provide valuable opportunities for teacher investigations. These differences further illustrate Anderson’s comfort with the diversity that occurs when teachers think for themselves in the process of developing and refining their philosophies.
Using the ACTIVE framework Anderson helps the reader visualize the different elements of a reading lesson. He uses this framework to integrate strategy training and reflection into the instructional process. One chapter will be described in detail to illustrate how he accomplishes this. In this chapter, “Activating Background Knowledge,” Anderson illustrates the role background knowledge plays in comprehension by asking the reader comprehension questions on six passages, including passages on surfing and cricket. Difficulties in comprehending the unfamiliar information are related to the problems ESL students face. Next, he describes his difficulties in growing African violets to introduce his reflections on the importance of preparation. This importance is reinforced by the research on background knowledge that is reviewed. Moving from the discussion of the research he explains how he activates background knowledge in his classroom through pre-reading discussions, semantic mapping, activating knowledge about the organization, or having students monitor their use of background knowledge. The chapter continues with one of the four teachers describing her experiments with some [-2-] different strategies for activating prior knowledge, including using provocative statements, followed by the author’s conclusion and some suggested readings. Interwoven within the sections of the chapter are different activities for the reader to undertake in order to reflect upon the kinds of activities used, why they are used, and what changes might be made. The author uses a similar organizational pattern for the other chapters in the book.
The book does a fine job of bringing together the different elements of a reading course and presenting a coherent instructional approach. Anderson reached the conclusion that reading is interactive, consisting of the interaction of top-down processing (making meaning from ideas to text) and bottom-up processing (making meaning from letters, through words, . . . to text), in constructing his philosophy. His book further reflects this philosophy since it is interactive in combining research with classroom practice, including what the author does in his classroom. The book also achieves interactivity through its tone and Anderson’s refraining from prescribing what teachers should do.
There are many things to like about this book. Not only does it present important instructional guidelines, it describes ways to achieve them. Some highlights include: strategies for improving reading rates which make use of the texts being used in the class, strategies for using context in guessing meaning, activities for justifying comprehension, web sites supporting vocabulary instruction, and portfolio assessment. In each chapter experienced reading teachers will find some activities to expand their repertoire, and new teachers will discover activities which they can experiment with and build upon in developing their instructional approaches.
While Exploring Second Language Reading provides substantive help for the reading teacher, it falls short in some areas. It gives many suggestions consisting of activities and guidelines, but there is a lack of detailed guidance for accomplishing them in the classroom. To illustrate, in the “Teach for Comprehension” section, guidelines for the “six Ts” approach to content-based instruction are given, but very little explanation or direction is provided to help the reader visualize the activities better in order to implement them. In a book directed at novice teachers there is surprisingly little discussion of setting up the classroom or managing activities (e.g., the use of individual, pair, or group work). Critical reading gets little more than a mention. Also, the book contains no index, which makes it less reader-friendly than expected from the content and tone. Finally, the role of the writer in texts is not explored. This aspect of interactive reading is one that can help students connect more fully with the text as well as complete the triangle of text-reader-writer. These weaknesses do not fatally damage the book, however; it is still a very fine book. The weaknesses do point to considerations for supplementing the book for any course in which it is used. [-3-]
In conclusion, Anderson has written a concise and very useful book for teachers in training and practicing teachers. It fills a rather empty niche, a book which supports teachers in thinking about their teaching while learning about it in the classroom as students and teachers. Teachers are supported in developing an individual instructional philosophy in a principled and thoughtful way both through the discussion and through the Investigations. Experienced teachers will find a mentor encouraging them to improve and enrich their thinking and teaching. New teachers will find support in making the transition from theory to practice, or in some cases, providing the theoretical background for what they are dealing with in their classrooms. The book is thin, well written, and an important addition to any reading teacher’s bookshelves. It is a book that can be consulted for problems, explored from beginning to end as part of an in-service teacher development program, or just dipped into from time to time for encouragement. Finally, if the other books in the TeacherSource series are of the same quality as this one, teachers have much good reading ahead of them.
Nuttall, C. (1996). Teaching reading skills in a foreign language (2nd ed.). Oxford: Heinemann English Language Teaching.
John M. Graney
Interlink Language Center at
Indiana State University
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