Bridging the Reading-Writing Gap in Second Language Learning

Bridging the Reading-Writing Gap in Second Language Learning

Bridging the Reading-Writing Gap in Second Language Learning

Willy A Renandya, Supong Tangkiengsirisin and Flora D Floris

“If reading and writing really were identical and not just similar, then…everything learned in one would automatically transfer to the other” (Fitzgerald & Shanahan, 2000, p. 43).

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Introduction

To beginning second or foreign language learners, all four language skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing can be equally demanding. This is not surprising as beginning language learners have to acquire a completely new linguistic system that is often vastly different from their native language. Consider for example a Thai student learning English as a foreign language. The Thai writing system is completely different from English so Thai students need to learn a whole new set of the English writing system. Thai is a syllable-timed language, i.e., each syllable receives equal amounts of stress. English on the other hand is a stress-timed language, i.e., different syllables receive different amounts of stress with some receiving no stress at all. There are many other differences between the two languages, which can add a substantial learning burden for students at the early stages of learning English.

However, as these learners move up the proficiency scale, they find that the two receptive skills of reading and listening are quite manageable. They become more skilful in dealing with a variety of spoken and written text, i.e., they can read and listen to academic and non-academic texts with a fairly high degree of comprehension. This is often demonstrated by their performance on standardized second language proficiency tests (e.g., TOEFL or IELTS). For advanced level students, it is not uncommon to see scores in the IELTS 8 -9 bands. But the other two skills, speaking and writing, continue to be quite demanding. They continue to speak haltingly and often fumble to find the right words to express their thoughts and ideas, in particular when the topic is quite abstract and complex.

The most demanding skill for students at this level of proficiency is writing. Their writing skills seem to be stuck at the B1 – B2 range and progress beyond this level seems to be very slow and difficult. As faculty involved in screening applications from international students, we have seen a wide range of their English proficiency test scores. The majority have an acceptable overall IELTS score of 7.0 or 7.5 (the minimum requirement for admissions into a graduate programme), but closer inspection reveals higher scores on the reading and listening sections of the test and lower scores on the speaking and writing tests. Their writing scores tend to hover in the 6.0 and 6.5 range. Only a small number are in the IELTS 7.0 – 7.5 bands.

The 2018 IELTS test performance data (https://www.ielts.org/research/test-taker-performance) confirm our observation that the average writing scores for both the academic and general IELTS tests are lower compared to the other three skills. For the academic test, the average writing score is around 5.5, while the listening, reading and speaking scores are around 6.0 – 6.3. For the general test, the writing score is slightly higher, at around 6.1-6.2, but lower compared to the other skills, around 6.5 to 6.8.

A pertinent question for language teachers and researchers to ask is this: why is writing lagging behind the other three skills for students at the more advanced level of proficiency? To address this question, we need to examine the nature of writing and explore its key characteristics that make it difficult for students to acquire.

Why is writing difficult?

It is no exaggeration that writing is perhaps one of the most linguistically and cognitively demanding language tasks. It is difficult for both L1 and L2 learners, perhaps more so for the latter than the former. We outline below some of the key characteristics of writing that can place a great deal of demand on the writer (Hyland, 2019; Lewis, 2009).

  1. Unlike spoken language which allows variations in style and format, written language is more structured (or even rigid) in terms of content, organization and language.
  2. Written language tends to be formal, characterized by the use of standard forms of grammar, sentence structure and vocabulary.
  3. Writing is context independent which means that writers rely solely on the text they have written on the printed page or computer screen. In speech, speakers use their voice, body language and contextual factors to communicate with their listeners.
  4. Sentences are typically longer and more complex in writing than in speaking. Standard text signalling or connecting devices such as however, as a result, therefore, in addition are often used to connect ideas within and between sentences and paragraphs. These text signals help the writer present their thoughts more coherently and help the readers navigate the text smoothly.
  5. Writers have to choose words carefully, making sure that they carry the intended meanings clearly and accurately. In speech, people can use words with loose meanings (e.g., stuff like that, the thing I said before etc.) as the context can help explain what these words mean.
  6. Presenting the contents of an essay is also challenging. Writers must have good understanding of the needs of the audience so that they can include just the right amount of information in the essay.
  7. Academic writing poses greater difficulty to L2 writers. Not only do they need demonstrate disciplinary knowledge, they also need to strictly follow the rather complex rhetorical structures that characterize a piece of scientific essay (e.g., referencing style, standard format of writing the different sections of a research report).
  8. Writing is laborious and painfully slow. It requires sustained physical and mental effort. Student writers have to plan, write, revise and proof-read their essay before it is submitted or published.

In short, writing is both cognitively and linguistically demanding. For EFL student writers whose proficiency is still at the lower end of the scale, writing can also be emotionally taxing, a source of anxiety and frustration. Park’s (2020) recent study shows that the pressure of writing academic essays that emphasizes linguistic accuracy led to decreased confidence and increased anxiety among her college EFL students. She suggested that frequent free writing (a form of extensive writing) that focuses more on contents rather than forms can help alleviate students’ anxiety and might in fact help improve their overall writing fluency.

Due to the importance of writing for students’ academic achievements and also the fact that many students have difficulty with writing, the field of L2 writing continues to attract a lot of research attention. L2 writing researchers have investigated a wide range of topics such as the following (see Pelaez-Morales, 2017 for details):

  • examining different approaches to teaching writing (e.g., process writing and genre-based writing)
  • exploring the benefits of different writing approaches to diverse groups of students learning English in diverse contexts
  • experimenting on different ways of providing feedback to students’ writing
  • examining different curricular models for the teaching of writing in schools and universities
  • exploring issues to do with such things as writer identity, authorial voice, cultural dimensions of writing etc
  • examining the relationship between reading and writing

The last bullet point above is the focus of this chapter, i.e., examining the connection between reading and writing. We are interested in exploring in some depth the link between these two skills, in particular on how reading can lead to better writing. We know, as all of you do, that they are related, but what is the nature of their relationship? Is it a reciprocal relationship, i.e., that reading affects writing in the same way that writing affects reading? Is one a pre-condition for the other to happen, i.e., does reading precede writing? Is reading a causal variable, i.e., does more reading results in improvement in writing?

WHAT DOES RESEARCH TELL US ABOUT THE READING AND WRITING CONNECTIONS?

Years of research into the link between reading and writing tell us about the close, but not perfect, relationship between reading and writing. We summarize some of the key research findings below, in particular those that are of relevance to the discussion in our chapter here (Fitzgerald & Shanahan, 2000; Grabe, 2001; Hirvela, 2004; Hyland, 2019; Lee & Scharlett, 2016; Tsai, 2006).

  • reading is closely related to writing, so much so that some would say that they represent two sides of the same coin
  • reading can improve writing; writing can improve reading
  • children learn how to read first and then to write (in that order, at least initially)
  • if a child can’t read, they also can’t write
  • good readers tend to be good writers (but not always)
  • readers can be more strategic so that they can learn the contents and simultaneously acquire the rhetorical, syntactic and lexical features that the author used
  • Reading and writing should not be treated as separate skills; instead they should be integrated and taught together in a single course.

The writing benefits that students can enjoy from reading are widely acknowledged by writing scholars. Summarizing decades of research on how reading contributes to wring development, Stotsky (1995) observed that “reading experience would seem to be the chief source of a developing writer’s syntactic, generic, and lexical knowledge” (p. 773).

However, research also tells us that reading does not automatically lead to good writing. Fitzgerald & Shanahan (2000), among others, observe that “If reading and writing really were identical and not just similar, then…everything learned in one would automatically transfer to the other” (p. 43).

  • reading and writing are not identical cognitively, affectively and behaviourally
  • reading is ‘receptive’; writing is ‘productive’; receptive knowledge does not automatically translate into productive knowledge.
  • L2 learners need to learn to transition smoothly from the reading mode to the writing mode. This process takes time and effort.
  • even more advanced language users need to learn how to write more accurately, fluently and coherently.

It is not difficult to verify the research findings above, in particular on the link between good readers and good writers. Teachers whom we have met in our seminars and works would readily acknowledge the close connection between the two. Our own observations also show that both students and teachers who read a great deal tend to develop greater facility in writing. In addition, the more they read, the easier it is for them to put their thoughts in writing. An English teacher from Vietnam who was an avid reader recounted her experience with self-selected pleasure reading (also known as extensive reading) and concluded by saying “reading makes reading and writing easier” (Nguyen Bach Nga, personal communication). Note that the keyword here is ‘easier’, not ‘easy’ which means that while reading provides a crucially important source of rhetorical and language input (which makes writing easier), students need to further develop their writing skills through guided or independent practice. For the latter, we are reminded of the advice given by Hemmingway that like any other skills, daily practice is indispensable. In Hemingway’s words: “I write every morning”.

HOW TO BRIDGE THE READING-WRITING GAP?

Decades of research have provided important insights on the connection between reading and writing; however, we are nowhere close to developing a complete understanding about the reading-writing relations. Some of the key researchers in the field of L2 reading and writing connections (e.g., Grabe, 2001 and Hirvela, 2004) state that a comprehensive and definitive theoretical model is currently not available; but they suggest that we can draw important ideas from available research and use them as a guide for teaching. We agree fully with them, but would suggest that we also draw on our own experience as literacy teachers and writers to help us fill the missing puzzles.

We outline below five key factors that we believe would need to be considered when we try to help students transition smoothly from reading to writing. Table 1 below provides a quick summary of these five factors.

1 Theory of language Genre theory
2 Theory of language learning Input and Noticing hypothesis
3 Teacher Role Use approaches that promote incidental and intentional learning
4 Student Role Use strategies of good readers and writers
5 Language proficiency threshold Upper intermediate level

Table 1: Five key factors to link reading and writing

THEORY OF LANGUAGE

There are many theories of language and it is beyond the scope of this chapter to explore all of them here. Richards and Rodgers (2014) discuss a number of language theories that have influenced the development of the language teaching methods and approaches in ELT. These include the structural, cognitive, functional, sociocultural, interactional, lexical and genre models of language. Communicative language teaching approaches for example were inspired primarily by the functional and interactional theories of language.  Michael Lewis’ (1993) lexical approach, as the name suggests, is based on the lexical view of language. The genre theory has given rise to the popularity of the genre-based pedagogy.

We feel that the genre theory seems to be the most suitable for the purpose of our chapter. It is a well-articulated theory of language that draws on the work of Michael Halliday and his colleagues in Australia. The theory has also been translated into a genre-based or text-based approach to teaching language, which continues to be widely used in a number of language teaching contexts (e.g., EAP, CLIL and Text-based teaching). The main tenets of the theory is summarized below (Feez, 1998, p5, cited in Richards and Rodgers, 2014):

  • Language is a resource for making meaning
  • The resource of language consists of a set of interrelated systems
  • Language users draw on this resource each time they use language
  • Language users create texts to create meaning
  • Texts are shaped by the social context in which they are used
  • The social context is shaped by the people using language

In a nutshell and in more practical terms, it is a theory of language that considers a piece of written text in terms of its purpose, audience, context and language features. The first three elements, i.e., purpose, audience and context, determine the way the text is organized and the grammatical and lexical features that are commonly used. For example, a narrative text is written for entertainment purposes. It is typically organized around 5 elements, i.e., the characters, setting, plot, conflict and resolution, narrated in some chronological fashion. A story can be told in many different ways, but these typical elements are normally present. Typical language features we often see include the past tenses, time sequence markers, direct and indirect sentence structures, etc.

The theory allows us to classify different text types according to their social purposes and also the distinctive language features and conventions associated with them. There are numerous text types (both oral and written), but for language teaching purposes, a small number has typically become the focus of instruction. There include recounts, procedures, descriptions, reports, explanations and expositions. What is important to note here is that typical patterns of organization and recurring grammatical and lexical features associated with these text types can be singled out for focused instruction, thus giving students opportunities to acquire these important text features (Hyland, 2019).

One last point to note is that texts are culturally bound. The texts we read or write usually reflect the cultures where they are created. For example, business emails are written differently by writers from different cultures. As readers, we should understand what writers from other cultures try to convey (both directly and indirectly) through their writing and communicative styles. However, as writers, we can use our styles (based on our cultures) but make sure we can get our message across internationally and interculturally. This ties in with recent trends in ELT that stresses the importance of using language that is internationally comprehensible and socio-culturally acceptable.

THEORY of LANGUAGE LEARNING

The ELT professional literature is replete with theories that attempt to explain how children and adults acquire, extend and maintain language proficiency. Some of these theories are short-lived (e.g., behaviourism) while others are still in use and continue to be used as theoretical frameworks for researching language acquisition (e.g., comprehensible input, social constructivism). We discuss below two SLA theories (comprehensible input and noticing hypothesis), that could be used to help us understand better the connection between reading and writing.

The input hypothesis states that language learning happens when students received large amounts of comprehensible and interesting language. Three things are worth highlighting. First the theory posits that input is the sine qua non of language acquisition, i.e., it is a precondition for language learning. Without input, language learning simply cannot happen. Second, for optimal effect, students need to be surrounded with massive amounts of language, which in practical terms means daily exposure to easy and interesting language. Over time, students will have seen and internalize the numerous language features and rules present in the input. Krashen (1984) for example puts forth the following argument:

If second language acquisition and the development of writing ability occur in the same way, writing ability is not learned but is acquired via extensive reading in which the focus of the reader is on the message, i.e., reading for genuine interest and/or for pleasure. Just as speech is hypothesized to be a result of comprehensible input, the ability to write is hypothesized to be the result of reading. Moreover, when enough reading is done, all the necessary grammatical structures and discourse rules for writing will automatically be presented to the writer in sufficient quantity. (p. 23)

The other SLA theory that could help link the reading-writing relations is Schmidt’s noticing hypothesis (2010). The main theoretical claims of this theory can be summarized below:

  • Input is important but not sufficient
  • Learners need to consciously notice the language features present in the input
  • Noticing allows learners to turn input into intake, which after further processing gets incorporated into the learners’ acquired linguistic system

While most people agree that noticing is central to language learning, the theory does not provide detailed information about the amount and intensity of noticing, which is critically important to consider when we work with lower proficiency L2 learners. Too much noticing can have adverse effects, resulting in L2 students experiencing information overload. For them, comprehending the contents alone is already quite challenging and take up a lot of their attentional resources. Doing both, comprehending and noticing, might add to their learning burden.

It is therefore important to strike a good balance between the two; instead of asking students to attend to every single language feature and rule, teachers can engage students in more focused noticing. When teaching a recount, for example, teachers can first direct students’ attention to the rhetorical structure (e.g., orientation, record of events in chronological order, reorientation and coda). Once students are familiar with this typical pattern of organization, the teacher can guide students to notice typical language features of recounts (e.g., the past tense, personal pronouns, indirect speech).

Two models that connect reading and writing have been proposed in the literature: the direct and indirect models (Hirvela, 2004). The indirect model suggests that reading alone provides sufficient language input for students’ writing development. Following an extended exposure to language input via extensive or pleasure reading, students’ writing skills will gradually bloom. This model draws heavily on the input hypothesis.

The indirect model on the other hand suggests that reading alone is not enough. Reading increases students’ reading skills, but not necessarily their writing skills. To improve on their writing, they need to consciously attend to the rhetorical, syntactic and lexical features that authors use to present their contents so that they can use these in their own writing at a later time. As we can see, this model is informed by the noticing theory, i.e., without noticing, students will not learn much from the input.

We believe the two models can be combined. Renandya and Day (in press) for example suggest incorporating extensive reading in a writing course. Before students start writing an argumentative essay on eco-tourism, for example, the teacher can first highlight key rhetorical and language features of this text type. A set of relevant reading materials on ecotourism can then be assigned to students for focused reading. More specifically, students are guided to read the texts in a ‘reading to write’ manner (Hirvela, 2004, p 110), i.e., reading nor only for information but also for the language features of the text.

ROLE OF THE TEACHER

It should be clear from the previous discussion that a reading teacher should also be a writing teacher. This is so that the teacher can connect the two in a more coordinated manner. As Kroll (1993) writes, “Teaching writing without teaching reading is not teaching writing at all (p. 75)”. We can extend this by saying: teaching reading without teaching writing is not teaching reading at all. Reading and writing are so closely related that people now use the term literacy to refer to the teaching of reading and writing.

Armed with a good understanding of a theory of language (genre theory), and language learning theories (comprehensible input and noticing hypotheses), the teacher can use pedagogical approaches that promote incidental learning via extensive reading and intentional learning via explicit and systematic teaching of textual features. A lot has been written about extensive reading and its numerous language learning benefits (see Renandya & Day, in press; Ng, Renandya & Chong, 2019), so we will focus more on the genre-based pedagogy that systematically links the genre theory and the noticing hypothesis.

Those of us who have used the genre-based pedagogy are familiar with the standard procedures outlined below

  • Building knowledge about the target text. This simply means explaining the social context and the purpose for which the text is written.
  • Modelling and deconstructing the text. This refers to the teacher showing model texts and highlighting key language features.
  • Scaffolding and joint construction. Here, additional guidance is provided before students write their own text.

It is the second step, modelling and deconstructing, that links with the noticing hypothesis. By drawing students’ attention to the way the text is organized and written, we are essentially telling the students to pause and think when they look at the model text so that they can make a conscious link between the what (contents) and the how (language), i.e., what linguistic resources and choices that author used to produce the text and whether and to what extent they have been successful in communicating the message in the most efficient, eloquent and coherent manner. When systematically done, we believe that there is a good chance that students may be able to express themselves in writing using the language features that they have attended to during classroom instruction.

Once students are ready to engage in independent writing practice, the teacher continues to play an important role. This is because writing often involves several rewritings. During this process, the teacher can provide focused feedback on students’ draft essays, pointing out both the strengths and weaknesses of their writing. The teacher can also encourage students to seek feedback from their peers and also learn how to critically assess their own writing.

ROLE OF THE STUDENT

To become good writers, students need to become good readers. This statement flows from our earlier discussion on the two models (i.e., direct and indirect models) that connect reading and writing. The indirect model basically suggests that best ways to become good readers is by reading extensively in the language. The direct model suggests that students need to engage in writerly reading to learn the linguistic resources that writers use to produce their text.

We describe below some activities that can help students consciously and systematically attend to both the contents and the language.

  • First, read a text like a reader. Students should first read a text for meaning, focusing on key ideas and important details. They can do this one or twice, depending on the text they are reading. Reading an academic text for example often requires several readings for deeper comprehension.
  • Second, read a text like a writer. This type of reading is also known as ‘mining or writerly reading’ (Hirvela, 2004, p. 110). This is where students need to apply the ‘pause and think’ technique we mentioned earlier. Their role here is not just as a spectator, but as a participant who actively mine rhetorical, linguistic and lexical features in the text (Hirvela, 2004).
  • Third, write like a reader. Textual coherence is usually determined by the reader. For a text that we create to be coherent, we need evaluation or judgement from the reader. Writing then should be reader-based, and student writers should keep in mind who their target audience is.  As well as being a writerly reader, a student should also be a readerly (or reader-oriented) writer (Myhill, Lines & Jones, 2020).

When reading an abstract of an academic journal article for example, they should pay attention to its overall structure. The first sentence often provides the context of the study, the second sentence is about the purpose of the study which is then followed by the research methodology (i.e., participants, instruments, procedures), then results and implications. They should also notice the words, sentence structures, the tenses and other relevant language features.

Students will soon find that abstracts tend to be written in a rather formulaic manner. They will start noticing and remembering common phrases and expressions that writers use to craft their abstract. In time, they will be able to use these in their own writing. If they need further help, there is a very useful website that compiles hundreds of formulaic phrases and sentences found in academic writing. When introducing the importance of their research topic and inadequacy of past research, authors often use the following formulaic expressions (Source: http://www.phrasebank.manchester.ac.uk/)

Importance of your research topic

A key aspect of X is …
X is of interest because …
X is a classic problem in …
A primary concern of X is …
X is an important aspect of …
X is at the heart of our understanding of 

Inadequacy of past research

Previous studies of X have not dealt with …
Researchers have not treated X in detail.
Most studies have only focused on …
Such approaches have not addressed …
Past studies are limited to local surveys…
Most studies failed to specify whether …

Once students have developed deeper understanding of key rhetorical and syntactic features, they would need to engage in extensive writing practice, which can be done in the classroom under the guidance of the teacher, or out of the classroom where students do their independent writing practice. As we pointed earlier, daily writing practice is needed to help students write more fluently, accurately and coherently.

LANGUAGE THRESHOLD

The ideas we outlined above are generally applicable to students of different proficiency levels. Regardless of their proficiency levels, they can benefit from a systematic switch from a meaning-focused to form-focused mode of language learning; from a semantic to a more syntactic mode of processing. However, for academic writing, which is linguistically and cognitively more challenging than other types of writing, a certain level of proficiency may be needed. Higher proficiency students (B2 or C1) would benefit more from the noticing ideas discussed here. The reason is simple. These students have already had sufficient academic and linguistic background knowledge. What they need to do is to set aside their spare attentional resources to attend to important language features that writers use in the different sections of their academic papers. Further research is needed to determine the more precise threshold of proficiency above which EAP students would find writerly reading beneficial for their academic writing development.

CONCLUSION

We have discussed the relationship between reading and writing focusing in particular on how the former can be used as a springboard to develop the latter. In order to bring the two closer together, we suggested that we consider the genre-based theory of language and two well-established language learning theories, i.e., the input and noticing hypotheses. We conclude our discussion by offering the following pedagogical recommendations.

First, reading and writing should not be treated as two separate skills and taught in two separate courses. Students can learn more from an integrated literacy course under the guidance of a capable literacy teacher. This integrated course should ideally be taught by a teacher who is knowledgeable about the reading and writing. Alternative, two teachers, one with expertise in reading and the other in writing, can co-teach the course. Second, a good literacy teacher should also be a good reader and writer. This way they can become a source of inspiration for the students and promote a healthy reading and writing culture. Third, to get optimal language learning benefits from the indirect model that connects reading and writing, students need extensive exposure to comprehensible and compelling language input. The best way to do this would be to implement an extensive reading and writing programme.

Fourth, to enjoy the full benefits of the direct model, students need to engage in writerly reading, noticing key textual features commonly associated with a specific text type (e.g., fiction or non-fiction). They should then consciously use these features when they write their term papers or when they write for other purposes outside the classroom. Fifth, research shows that explicit teaching rhetorical features and conventions can best be done through modelling, on-going scaffolding, guided and independent practice. In addition, teachers should not only teach the what and the how of noticing, but also the why of noticing writers’ linguistic resources.

Finally, there are no standard procedures for solving students’ writing problems nor are there fixed procedures for developing their writing competence through reading. Teachers would need to experiment with different ways of helping students bridge the gap between reading and writing. These involve having on-going conversations about students’ writing problems, consulting senior colleagues or writing experts, reading up on the professional literature or attending writing workshops and conferences.

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

We would like to thank Prof Icy Lee (Chinese University of Hong Kong), Dr Anitha Pillai and Dr Donna Lim (National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University Singapore) for their generous comments and feedback on the earlier drafts of this chapter.

 

REFERENCES

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