Types of Reading in ESL

Reading for comprehension involves two forms of processing which are bottom-up and top-down. Bottom-up processing involves pulling letters together to make words, words to make sentences, etc. This is most commonly seen as students sounding out words when they read. The goal is primarily to just read the word.

Top-down processing is the use of prior knowledge, usually organized as schemas in the mind to understand what is being read. For example, after a student reads the word “cat” using bottom-up processing they then use top-down processing of what they know about cats such as their appearance, diet, habits, etc.

These two processes work together in order for us to read. Generally, they happen simultaneously as we are frequently reading and using our background knowledge to understand what we are reading.

In the context of reading, there are four types of reading from simplest to most complex and they are

  • Perceptive
  • Selective
  • Interactive
  • Extensive

We will now look at each in detail

Perceptive

Perceptive reading is focused primarily on bottom-processing. In other words, if a teacher is trying to assess this type of reading they simply want to know if the student can read or not. The ability to understand or comprehend the text is not the primary goal at this.

Selective

Selective reading involves looking a reader’s ability to recognize grammar, discourse features, etc. This is done with brief paragraphs and short reading passages. Assessment involves standard assessment items such as multiple-choice, short answer, true/false, etc.

In order to be successful at this level, the student needs to use both bottom-up and top-down processing.  Charts and graphs can also be employed

Interactive

Interactive reading involves deriving meaning from the text. This places even more emphasis on top-down processing. Readings are often chosen from genres that employ implied main ideas rather than stated. The readings are also more authentic in nature and can include announcements, directions, recipes, etc.

Students who lack background knowledge will struggle with this type of reading regardless of their language ability. In addition, inability to think critically will impair performance even if the student can read the text.

Extensive

Extensive is reading large amounts of information and being able to understand the “big picture”. The student needs to be able to separate the details from the main ideas. Many students struggle with this in their native language. As such, this is even more difficult when students are trying to digest large amounts of information in a second language.

Conclusion

Reading is a combination of making sense of the words and using prior knowledge to comprehend text. The levels of reading vary in their difficulty. In order to have success at reading, students need to be exposed to many different experiences in order to have the background knowledge they need that they can call on when reading something new.

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