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2007 年2 月 第 30 卷 第1 期

中国英语教学 (双月刊) CELEA Journal(Bim onthly)

Feb.2007 Vol.30 No. 1

A SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVIST APPROACH TO TEACHING READING :TURNING THE RHETORICINTO REALITY Kate Wilson University of Canberra Yang Lianrui Ocean University of China

Abstract   Constructivist approaches to learning ,based on the w ork of Vygotsky and others ,are gaining m o mentu m in the field of second and foreign language learning. Ho wever ,social constructivist rhetoric often see ms re m ote and even irrelevant to practising teachers.In this paper ,we will briefly explain the constructivist approach to teaching reading to students of English as a foreign language. We will sho w ho w a dialogic approach to reading e m po wers readers to position the mselves as participants in making meaning together with the text and its authors ,rather than re maining as m ute outsiders to the reading process. This shift in constructing reader- roles means that our students need to take a strategic approach to their reading ,and will need careful scaffolding to help the m develop effective , independent reading strategies and dispositions. We will suggest ways in w hich such scaffolding can help transform the rhetoric of social constructivist discourse into classroo m realities. Key w ords constructivist ; reading ; strategies

1.Introduction Language teachers views of language and language learning profoundly influence their practice on a day- to- day basis. Traditionally in the Chinese classroo m ,students have been expected to accept unquestioningly the w ords of the teacher and the texts they produce for their students to read. The student s role has been that of passive receiver of ideas. This view is beginning to change ,however. Increasingly , teachers believe that their students should participate actively in class , joining in interactive language learning tasks and beco ming autono m ouslearners.This shiftin attitude opens the door for a new approach to learning and teaching : social constructivism .This paper presents the key concepts underlying social constructivism together with so m e practical suggestions for teaching reading — perhaps the m ost im portant route by w hich Chinese students acquire co m petence in English.

2. What is Social Constructivism ? Social constructivism provides a psycholinguistic explanation for how learning can be fostered effectively through interactive pedagogical practices. It e m phasizes that learning takes place in a sociocultural environ m ent and views learners as“active constructors of their ow n learning environ m ent” ( Mittchell & Myles 1988). We learn not as isolated individuals ,but as active m e m bers of society. What we learn ,and how we m ake sense of knowledge ,depends on w here and w hen (i .e. in w hat social context)we are learning. 51


A Social Constructivist Approach to Teaching Reading :Turning the. ..  Kate Wilson &Yang Lianrui

Vygotsky , the father of constructivism ,claim ed that learning occurs through dialogue ( Vygotsky 1978) . This dialogue is initially intermental — it takes place between teacher and student ;between students ;or even between text and reader( Wilson 1999) .However ,the learner m akes sense of w hat is said(or written)through internal or intra mental dialogue(Vygotsky 1978) .Thus learning is interactive in the sense thatlearners m ustinteract with sources ofideas/ knowledge in socialsettings , as well asin the sense that they m ust take an active part in reconstructing ideas/ knowledge within their ow n minds. Further ,Vygotsky points out that learning depends on the purpose or m otivation for learning : activity theory(Lantolf 2000) .As learners ,w hat we select to focus on in our learning ,and how we go about that ,depends on the social purposes of the activity.For exa m ple , students acquire knowledge quite differently if they are preparing for a test on irregular verbs ,or if they are reading an e m ail fro m a pen friend or a m agazine article about their favorite m usic. Teachers can play a large part in setting up learning environ m ent w hich exploit different learning purposes — but w hat really counts is how the students the mselves view the activity.For exa m ple ,are they sim ply learning the verbs in order to pass to m orrow s test ,or are they striving to learn the language in order to use it in co m m unicative settings. Another funda m ental concept in social constructivism is the idea of scaffolding.In its literal sense , scaffolding is a support structure that is erected around a building under construction. When the building is strong enough , the scaffolding can be re m oved and the building will re m ain strong and stable.In the m etaphorical sense used by Vygotsky ,scaffolding refers to the support provided by others — parents , peers , teachers or reference sources such as dictionaries — w hich enable students to perform increasingly well.Ha m m ond and Gibbons(2001 )interpret scaffolding as“high challenge ,high support” .In other w ords , teachers need to set up tasks w hich challenge students to perform beyond their current capacity. To enable students to achieve these tasks teachers also need to provide support m easures w hich m ake it possible for students to perform at this new level.If the task is not challenging enough , students will be bored and possibly de m otivated ,but if support is not enough students will be frustrated and m ay give up. Thus , scaffolding enables students to achieve great leaps forward in their language learning. The concept of scaffolding is also linked with w hat Vygotsky calls the learner s Zone of Proxim al Develop m ent(ZPD ) .By this he is referring to the range of tasks and activities w hich the student can achieve with scaffolding , but w hich m ay be beyond his current abilities if he is unassisted.Teachers need great skillin assessing and then exploiting their students ZPD .

3. What is Reading fro m a Constructivist Point of View ? Constructivists see reading ,like learning ,as social practice. The social context affects w hen you read ,w hat you read ,w here you read ,w ho you read with ,and of course W HY and HOW you read. Interacting with text can involve practices as diverse as reading instructions ,scanning a newspaper ,or reading an acade mic article.So w hen we are designing curricula for reading in EFLclasses we need to ask ourselves first of all :w hat do our students need to be able to do in terms of social practice ? Luke and Freebody(1990 ,2002 )define four different reader resources :code breaking ,m eaning m aking , text using ,and text analyzing.The m ost funda m ental resource is code breaking :deciphering text at letter ,w ord and sentence- level.For m any students decoding text is synony m ous with “reading” because this is the social practice they have been taught in schools. Decoding practices , including both top- dow n and botto m - up strategies ,are usually the m ain focus of school reading classes. Top- dow n strategies include guessing m eaning fro m context ,predicting ,using background knowledge ,using text structure. Botto m - up strategies include looking up unknow n vocabulary in a dictionary or glossary , w orking out sentence gra m m ar ,deciphering reference chains. Classroo m reading practices w hich are based on botto m- up strategies m ay help to scaffold students develop m ent of reading skills. However , if students are not encouraged to go beyond these strategies , they m ay learn reading habits w hich are over- focused on decoding to the detrim ent of other reading resource.In the field of English as a foreign language teaching ,reading aloud is one co m m on classroo m reading practice.It purports to support decoding ,but it in fact has little to do with m aking m eaning fro m texts and all to do with decoding the sound- sy m bol relationship. Many students have to w ork so hard to decode the sound- sy m bol relationship at the w ord level , thatthey lose sight of the bigger picture :decoding the overall m eaning of the text.Yet 52


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classroo m practices of sub- vocalizing or of diligently writing dow n translation equivalents often re m ain with students long after they are appropriate. Obviously , there is m ore to reading than sim ply decoding.Luke and Freebody point out that m aking m eaning is another essentialreading resource.Thisis w here dialogue isinvolved( Wertsch 1991) .Itis not enough to just hear/ see the w ords on the page ; the reader also has to listen , and to struggle to m ake sense in their ow n minds of w hatthe writeris saying —interm ental dialogue in Vygotsky s terms.In listening to the author s w ords ,students need to construct their ow n representation of the author s m essage — intra m ental dialogue.Rarely do readers understand exactly w hat the writer had in mind(Lewis &Slade 1994) .For exa m ple ,in writing a recipe the author m ay write“Cut the carrots finely”.This apparently sim ple phrase can be understood in m any different ways ,as different readers will have different interpretations of the m eaning of“finely”,different conceptions of w hat sort of knife should be used , how the carrots are to be held w hile chopping ,and so on. Reading in a foreign language is particularly hard ,because the w ords and gra m m atical structures , the text conventions and the cultural context are all less than fa miliar.In fact ,there can be no perfect way to understand m ost texts. Even so m ething as apparently factual as a train- tim etable can be interpreted through different culturallenses.Students need to understand that all readers construct m eaning fro m texts differently ,depending on their purpose for reading , their background and even their state of mind.There is usually no single ,unequivocal m eaning in a text. Thus ,reading entails constructing m eaning fro m text through interm ental and intra m ental dialogue. Readers also have to know how to use texts. They can be used for pleasure ,for gathering inform ation , for writing essays , and indeed for language learning.Our students have expectations of how texts can and should be used based on their prior experience of texts as social practice.As teachers we need to encourage and facilitate students use of texts in new social contexts — for exa m ple students of English for Acade mic Purposes need to know how to exploit references appropriately in acade mic writing (Fox 1994 ;Cad m an 1997). Finally ,as text analysts , students need to gain text awareness , in order to build their ow n skills as writers ,observing how language is used within different genres to achieve different purposes.They also need to develop a“suspicious eye”( Wallace 1995 )detecting bias ,and identifying the author s stance. They need to learn how writers use language to persuade ,entertain ,inform ,and influence their audiences.

4. What Does Social Constructivist Theory Mean for Foreign Language Reading Classes ? The constructivist view of reading has m any im plications for language teachers.First ,we need to stop teaching reading by sim ply practising reading ,and to focus on assisting students to extend their capacity to read constructively.Second ,we need to escape fro m teaching reading through the kind of dise m bodied texts w hich are so co m m on in EFLclassroo ms.These dise m bodied texts have no context ,no particular relevance to students or their broader learning purposes.They are often chosen by teachers or by textbook writers to de m onstrate a gra m m atical point rather than to engage students in m eaningful and purposeful reading practices. Reading without a purpose positions the reader as an onlooker ,a “ m ute outsider”rather than a m eaning-m aker(Penrose &Geisler 1994 ;Wilson 1998) .Third ,we need to ensure that we ,as teachers ,are not reading on behalf of the students in our reading classes — our pre- reading , w hile- reading and post- reading exercises can so m etim es provide so m uch support that the students do not really have to read the text at all ! Instead we need to e m power students to choose w hat and how to read in ways w hich suit their ow n needs and purposes. To give an idea of how the constructivist theory translatesinto action in teaching reading in EFL ,we propose the following strategies.

4. 1 Providing a context and purpose for reading Students need to have a clear idea of w hy they are reading and to know how the text relates to other aspects of their course.For exa m ple ,before tackling a reading passage in your coursebook , establish the context first using visual cues ,discussion questions ,or a link to students ow n lives. Make sure that the 53


A Social Constructivist Approach to Teaching Reading :Turning the. ..  Kate Wilson &Yang Lianrui

students know w hich reader role you want the m to adopt :m aking m eaning , exploiting the text for useful vocabulary ,looking at the text as a m odel for so m e other task ,learning so m e new inform ation in preparation for an assign m ent ,finding out the author s opinion on the topic ,or do you expect the m sim ply to enjoy the story ? Is the text m eant to be used as a language resource ,or is it m eant to stim ulate dialogue ?Students also need encourage m ent to m ove beyond this teacher- textbook controlled situation into reading texts w hich they the mselves have selected for their ow n purposes.

4. 2 Modelling A usefulform of scaffolding is to m odelthe reading practices we want our students to adopt.You can do this by using a m odified version of the think- aloud research technique(Pani 2004 ) (Faerch &Kasper 1987) .The teacher stands in front of the class — not reading aloud as m uch as verbalizing her thought processes as she reads.This is a good way to m odel skim ming for exa m ple ,or processes such as relating one text to another ,asking questions of the text ,guessing the m eaning of difficult w ords. It can de m onstrate that reading is not necessarily a linear process , butinvolvesju m ping forwards , linking back , re- reading sections w hich are proble m atic.Students find it very reassuring w hen the teacher verbalizes thoughts such as“ What does that m ean ?Hang on ,better read that bit again” .It helps to break dow n the m yth that m any students have : “If only I were better at English ,I w ould understand this perfectly.” Above all ,m odelling helps students to see w hat it m eans to enter into dialogue with the text.

4. 3 Asking questions Not enough research has been done in EFLclasses on the role of questioning in teaching reading.The art of asking questions w hich are easily within the students grasp ,but w hich lead the m to engage m ore interactively with the text is very tricky. After all ,the students will not have a teacher by their side asking questions for ever :we want to enable the m to beco m e independent readers. Constructivist theory e m phasizes that we need to encourage students to create their ow n m eaning fro m text , rather than to im pose our interpretation of the m eaning upon the m — though of course we m ay help as resources to bridge the linguistic and cultural gap that students experience in reading a text. Too often , though , reading teachers do minate the lesson by“telling”students the m eaning of the text rather than assisting the m to create m eaning the mselves.Our questions need to show a genuine interestin the m eanings the students construct rather than insisting on our ow n understandings.In fact ,w hat we want students to learn fro m an EFLreading classis not the content of the reading text : rather we want to the m to strengthen their ability to use the four reader resources.So our questions need to focus on text awareness rather than text content. Perhaps the m ost effective text awareness questions are those w hich help students gain insight into the way texts are structured. “ What w ords tell you that the author is introducing a new point ? ”“In this paragraph ,how m any tim es can you find the w ord X (the topic of the paragraph) .”Similarly ,questions w hich allow students to identify the author s stance are useful : “Do you think the author ad mires Helen Keller ?How do you know that ?What other w ords could the author have used ? ”

4. 4 Integrating the four m acroskills Other people s texts serve as excellent m odels for students ow n writing.Close analysis of a reading text can enable students to e m ulate the textin their ow n writing.For exa m ple , if students are required to write a tourist brochure , it is a good idea to have the m analyze other tourist brochures first — gathering useful vocabulary and sentence structures ,observing the form at and layout , co m paring texts to see w hich ones w ork best ,or w hich ones achieve the sort of effect they w ould like.This does not m ean uncritically applying m odels as in the behaviourist approach ,because it involves the students in inform ed and analytical choice of language for a defined purpose. Students ow n writing can benefit greatly fro m borrowing liberally fro m m odel texts in creating their ow n texts :a skill w hich is essential for EFL students ,especially EAPstudents( Wilson 1997) .

4. 5 Creating awareness of the author behind the text Text analysis can develop a strong understanding in our students that texts are written by real people for a range of different purposes ,and that so m e are m ore successful than others in achieving this 54


CELEA Journal 71

purpose.An interesting exercise with advanced students is to co m pare tw o reports of the sa m e news ite m fro m different sources :how reliable are they ?What sources have been used ?w hat has been picked out as the key point ?What verbs have been used and to w hat effect ?w hich one concords m ost with their ow n perceptions of the situation ?Obviously , this sort of activity is not only m ore m otivating , but also leads to a m uch better appreciation of text , its participants and its purposes than the traditional“ Write a su m m ary of this article. ” The outco m e is also m ore interesting :rather than being led towards “plagiphrasing” ( Wilson 1997)fro m the article ,students can develop a critical stance.They can later be asked to write their ow n article using the inform ation — and the vocabulary and structures of the original articles w here appropriate — to create their ow n construction of the situation.

4. 6 Using peer- scaffolding Although teacher support is essential in scaffolding , it is essential also to unleash students fro m the teacher- fronted classroo m setting.Peer- scaffolding is a step towards independent use of the four reader- roles. Working in collaboration with peers on reading tasks can expand students use of these roles , helping the m to beco m e m ore effective decoders and users of text ,m ore participatory m akers of m eaning ,and m ore aware of how authors m anipulate text. Sm all group w ork exercises include inform ation gap exercises(decoding),co m paring texts(text analyzing);co m paring notes students have m ade fro m texts(m eaning-m aking),or co- constructing a paragraph based on the inform ation in the text using) (text- .An effective group task that Ihave set is to get students to read texts on a given topic ,and then to prepare a group presentation m aking a visual representation of the topic.It is very enlightening for students to see how differently they all visualize the topic.

4. 7 Setting your students free Allowing your students to w ork independently is an essential aspect of social constructivist theory. Setting tasks w hich allow students to read in areas w hich interest the m and for purposes w hich are im portant to the m is the best m otivator.However , freedo m without supportis a recipe for disaster.Once again , scaffolding before and during individual ,or sm all group tasks is essential.

4. 8 Using m acrotasks Macrotasks can provide an excellent fra m ew ork to m otivate students to w ork independently and integrate all four m acroskills ,especially if the task will have an authentic audience.The web co m es in very useful both as a source of reading m aterial and as a publishing tool w hich reaches out to a wider audience.For exa m ple ,having the class set up a web resource for other students in the School ,or beyond , can be a great m otivator.Webquests(Dudeney 2003)can be an end in the mselves ,but are better e m bedded into a m ore substantial m acrotask. So m e possible m acrotasks involving a reading co m ponent are : Produce a web- based m agazine for the school Plan an excursion for your class ,and act as tour guide Write an article for a tourist m agazine and sub mit it for publication Write a script for a play or m ovie and produce it for the School Make a docu m entary/CD Ro m on a subject you are passionate about Prepare a mini- conference or trade fair (including poster presentations ,individual and group presentations)and invite guests of honor Conduct an advertising ca m paign Co m pile an anthology Produce a radio broadcast on local radio. A note of caution ,however : students can get m uch m ore out of m acrotasks if they are supported by good scaffolding in reading and writing strategies.

5.Conclusion In conclusion ,the social constructivist approach to reading offers tools and principles for EFL teachers w hich can help the m to draw their students into energetic participation in text events ,entering into active dialogue with texts(and their authors),not as outsiders ,but as active participants.In m any 55


A Social Constructivist Approach to Teaching Reading :Turning the. ..  Kate Wilson &Yang Lianrui

ways this approach m ay challenge the traditional beliefs of EFLteachers.Butif you believe thatlanguage is about co m m unication , it is w orth giving serious thought to social constructivist approaches to teaching reading so that your students learn to read as an authentic and m eaningful activity rather than as a classroo m exercise.

References Cad man ,K .1997.The“songlines”of acade mic writing : integrating the voices of international and NESB students into their texts.In R . Murray-Harvey and H .C .Silins(eds) . Learning and Teaching in Higher Education : Advancing International Perspectives. Precedings of the Higher Education Research and Develop ment Society of Australasia Conference. Dudeney ,G .2003.The quest for practical Web usage.IATEFLIssues August- September ,8- 9. Faerch ,C .&G .Kasper.1987.Fro m productto process —introspective methodsin second language research. In C .Faerch.& G . Kasper.(eds) . Introspection in Second Language Learning. Clevedon :Multilingual Matters. Fox ,H .1994. Listening to the World :Cultural Issuesin Academic Writing.Urbana , Illinois :National Council of Teachers of English. Freebody ,P.& A .Luke.1990.Literacies programs :Debates and de mands in cultural context. Prospect : Australian Journal of TESOL5/ 7: 7- 16. Ham m ond , J.&P. Gibbons.2001. What is scaffolding ?In J. Ham m ond.(ed ) . Scaffold :Teaching and Learning in Language and Literacy Education.Sydney :Primary English Teaching Association. Karacsany ,A .2002.Ho w to teach critical thinking and text analysis.Presentation at the 15th EA Education Conference ,Canberra ,October 2002. Lantolf , J.P.2000. Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning.Oxford :Oxford University Press. Lewis ,G .&C .Slade.1994. Critical Com munication.Sydney :Prentice Hall. Luke ,A .&P.Freebody.1999.Further notes on the Four Resources Model.http : //w w w .readingonline. org/ research/ lukefreebody. html , retrieved 28/ 11/ 02 Mitchell ,H &F. Myles.1988. Second Language Learning Theories.London :Arnold. Pani ,S.2004.Reading strategy instruction through mental m odelling. ELTJournal 58/ 4 :355- 362. Penrose ,A .&C . Geisler.1994. Writing without authority. College Composition and Com munication 45/ 4: 505- 520. Vygotsky ,L.S.1978. Mind in Society.Cam bridge ,MA :MIT Press. Wallace ,C .1995. “Reading with a suspicious eye”:Critical reading in the foreign language classroo m .In Principles and Practice in Applied Linguistics :Studies in Honour of Henry Widdowson. Oxford :Oxford University Press. Wertsch , J.V .1991. Voices of the Mind.Cam bridge ,MA :Harvard University Press. Wilson ,K .1997.Can note- taking solve the plagiphrasing proble m ?EAJournal 15/ 1 :43- 49. Wilson ,K .1999.Note- taking in the acade mic writing process of non- native speaker students : Is itim portant as a process or a product ?Journal of College Reading and Learning 29/ 2 :166- 179.

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