Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Reading-comprehension processing and grammar

At the moment I'm currently teaching an advanced Vocabulary and Reading class in an IEP. I have been working on getting my students to do more main-idea comprehension and summaries from their reading, skills they need in order to carry out the large volume of reading required of them in regular university courses. An issue came up within my class that I found rather perplexing. I discovered that many of the students were distracted from finding the main ideas in their reading by problems with syntactic processing.

In our course textbook, Focus on Vocabulary, by Schmitt and Schmitt (2011), the following excerpt on a unit about influencing the consumer seemed to completely confuse my students:

One of the fundamental principles of consumer behavior is that people often buy products not for what they do, but for what they mean. This principle does not mean that a product's primary function is unimportant, but rather that the roles products play and the meanings that they have in our lives go well beyond the tasks they perform.
Many of my students wrongly identified the main idea in this section as "people often buy products not for what they do" or "a product's primary function is unimportant." What I realized later is that these students were having difficulty understanding "disambiguation processes", which Grabe (2009) identifies as the process of "suppressing alternative meanings, activating semantic priming with clauses that spreads across all lexical items within the clause" (p. 201). Because students did not have the grammatical knowledge that serves as cues to what is most important in the discourse structure, which in this case is the phrase that comes after the alternate meaning being suppressed, they could not identify that the text was trying to show them that the meaning of products and the roles they play are the most important parts of the passage.

The use of correlative coordinators such as not (only) but (also), either [x] or [y], and or neither [x] nor [y] (Biber, Conrad, Leech, 2002) are not what I would consider common coordinators used by L2 writers, so it makes sense that many of my students are unfamiliar with them and how they contribute to meaning within a sentence. This gap in syntactic processing makes a strong argument for including some grammar instruction within the L2 reading classroom. While grammar is not typically thought of as being connected to the receptive skill of reading as it is to the productive skill of writing, I think that when students lack the ability to notice and process grammatical signaling systems in texts they should be explicitly taught how to develop their syntactic processing abilities.


Biber, D, Conrad, S. and Leech, B. (2002) Longman student grammar of spoken and written English. New York: Longman.

Grabe, W. (2009) Reading in a second language: Moving from theory to practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Schmitt, D and Schmitt, N. (2011) Focus on vocabulary 2: Mastering the academic word list. White Plains: Pearson

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