September 2003 — Volume 7, Number 2
English L2 Reading: Getting to the Bottom
Barbara M. Birch (2002)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers
Pp. xii + 200
English L2 Reading: Getting to the Bottom is both theoretical and practical. The author is very explicit in her knowledge of current reading research and theory, yet quite insightful in the importance of bottom-up processing for the second language reader. This book is intended as a text for MATESOL and teacher trainers, as well as for reading researchers in the ESL/EFL area. Within these reader-friendly pages, Birch illustrates how attention to low-level reading skills can be an important and effective supplement to top-down approaches and methodologies. This book can help fill the gap many teachers find in whole language instruction of second language learners.
The text is divided into ten concise chapters and includes ample reference and sample appendixes. Each chapter begins with pre-reading discussion and study guide questions, which stimulate interest in the topic for that chapter, as well as aid in comprehension. Discussion questions at the end of each chapter help the reader apply the concepts that were presented. Another innovation in this book is the inclusion at the end of chapters three through nine of a section called “Spotlight on Teaching.” Some of these are scenarios with inquiring questions; some are examples and exercises to complete. These sections are definitely a positive addition to this text.
In the first chapter The Expert Decision Maker, reading is introduced as an interactive, top-down and bottom-up, process. Reading entails both information flowing upward and downward to successfully understand the text. Birch says that teachers should “discard the “reading-as-a-psycholinguistic-guessing-game” metaphor because many get stuck in an early stage of sound-letter recognition and need direct instruction in order to move forward” (p. 7). Phonological knowledge is crucial for fluent alphabetic reading with comprehension.
Chapter two, Writing Systems, discusses the differences of various writing systems around the world. There are basically three types of writing systems: logographic (Chinese), syllabic (Japanese), and alphabetic (Greek). The author also points out that most of the literature in second language reading disregards the importance of the L1 writing system. [-1-]
The next chapter, Low-Level Transfer of Reading Strategies, talks about how no other writing system is like English. Birch challenges the notion that L1 and L2 reading processes are the same. She states that processing strategies develop in response to L1 and if they do not transfer, there will be no facilitation, but also no interference. If they do, there could be either facilitation or transfer. Successful strategies for reading English may not develop without direct instruction. This is illustrated by four sample cases using speakers of Spanish, Arabic, Greek, and Chinese.
In chapter four, Listening Skills in Reading, the relationship between pronunciation and reading, and the importance of accurate listening comprehension for successful reading is discussed. Most languages have fewer vowels that English. The English consonant and vowel sounds are reviewed, along with some contrasts with other languages. The charts and other graphics are a real asset in this chapter.
The English Spelling System is the title of chapter six. The author labels the English writing system as ‘opaque” because there is not a one-to-one relationship between graphemes and phonemes. This is primarily due to borrowing from other languages and other historical changes in English. Birch sees phonics instruction as instruction in the most common graph-grapheme-phoneme connections in English writing. Readers of different alphabets must learn the Roman alphabet in order to be successful readers in English. Birch also states that spelling rules have some similarities with reading rules.
People think the English writing system is irregular because of their expectation of what an alphabetic writing system should be. “Unless ESL readers are reading an abundance of English inside and outside of the classroom, they may not develop efficient grapheme-to- phoneme knowledge and processing strategies” (p.88). ESL students should be encouraged to read as much as possible, but “it may be helpful to provide direct phonics instruction in the classroom as an entry point to enable them to do extensive reading without frustration” (p.88). Birch goes on to say that this phonics instruction should include accurate listening activities along with visual recoding of the graph into a phoneme.
Chapter seven is perhaps the most revealing section of this book. In Approaches to Phonics, several approaches to L1 (English) phonics instruction are described. Birch asserts that teachers should “teach phonics to expose the beginning readers to the predictable consonant grapheme-to-phoneme correspondences and contextual information in English writing” (p. 92). Many whole language teachers assume beginning readers will learn phonic generalizations on their own through exposure to print. The purpose of phonics-based reading is to acquire low-level reading skills. Teachers do not need to choose between whole language and phonics: they can do both. “Phonics can be taught in an efficient way if we understand how readers read, and it can be embedded as one element within a whole language reading program” (p. 94). Sounding out new words is an important skill for ESL/EFL students, but they often do it poorly. Teachers can model this skill easily. Also, texts should be very easy, but age-appropriate. Read-alouds to the teacher and a supportive group must be noncompetitive. Comprehension questions should wait until students have had the opportunity to read silently and study a text by themselves. Other strategies to be incorporated are read along silently with a tape and shadowing, pairing a beginning reader with a more advanced.
In chapter eight, English Morphophonemic Writing, a very clear explanation of morphemes is given by Birch. The author also presents a comparison of morphology in other languages. When dealing with non-native English speakers (NNS), direct instruction in the derivational morphemes may be extremely helpful, though time-consuming. This is especially helpful if they are pursuing higher education. [-2-]
The ninth chapter, Vocabulary Acquisition, is another extremely important section of this book. The author stresses that although many reading texts stress higher-level cognitive reading strategies (pre-reading, etc.), a lack of vocabulary is still one of the major obstacles for the ESL/EFL reader. Birch also debunks the myth of “skip the words you don’t know and get the gist of the meaning.” This type of teaching does not advocate vocabulary building. She is also quick to point out that no texts condone this strategy, but that many teachers adopt this philosophy in the classroom. “The simple truth is that if readers skip the words they don’t know, they don’t learn them, and often they don’t understand the texts they need to understand” (p. 131). The author goes on to describe other variables in vocabulary acquisition.
Chapter ten, Getting to the Bottom of English L2 Readings, is an epilogue and a summary of the book. Birch reiterates a few important themes in this last chapter. One of them is that the first step in learning to read is listening comprehension. Another is that “the bottom of the reading processor serves the top because the more efficiently and ‘quietly’ the bottom functions, the more attention there will be for higher-level processing . . . ” (p. 146). Birch closes by stating that extensive practice with readings that are easy and that they enjoy are the best way for ESL/EFL students to acquire solid bottom-level processing. Native-speaking English children take a variety of time to be ready to read; the same applies to the ESL/EFL students. She reminds us that early reading must be carefully controlled to be at the students’ comfort level, yet challenging. In this way, the ESL/EFL students will be active in building their low-level knowledge base in order to become productive readers in the future.
This is a highly innovative book in theory and in practice. I highly recommend this book for all ESL practitioners and teachers-in-training everywhere.
University of Cincinnati
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