For many students if not all, reading in a foreign language is a different experience in comparison with the same process in their first language which may even result in less understanding. Now the question is that whether reading problem in a foreign language is simply a problem of knowing words and grammar of that language or it is a problem of reading ability (Alderson, 1984). Regarding the question, Alderson (1984) asserts that the reason students cannot read adequately in English is that they cannot read adequately in their native language in the first place. Jolly (1978) also claims that success in reading a foreign language depends on one’s first language reading ability rather than the level of the student in the second language. He states that reading in a foreign language requires the transference of old skills, not the learning of new ones; therefore, the reason why students cannot read in a desirable fashion is that they either do not possess the old skills or because they have failed to transfer them (cited in Alderson, 1984).
Yorio (1971) takes a contrary view. He believes that the problems of second language readers are due to lack of familiarity with the new language, and this inadequate knowledge of the target language prevents them from using the essential textual cues in reading. In this view, interference from the first language makes the problem of second language reader even more complex.
In a more elaborative approach Celce-Murcia (2001) states that L2 readers generally have weaker linguistic skills and more limited vocabulary than do L1 readers. They do not have an intuitive foundation in the structures of the L2, and they lack the cultural knowledge that is sometimes assumed in texts. L2 students may also have some difficulties recognizing the ways in which texts are organized and information is presented, leading to possible comprehension problems. At the same time, L2 students, working at least with two languages, are able to rely on their L1 knowledge and L1 reading abilities when such abilities are useful. L2 students often come to class with a range of motivation to read, different from many L1 students’ motivation. Also differences between EFL and ESL settings result in different reading outcomes. These differences play major roles in establishing goals for reading instruction and specifying the levels of reading ability that constitute successful learning in a given curriculum.
2.3 Reading Comprehension
During the 1960s, many theorists and specialists believed that reading comprehension was the end product of decoding (Cooper, 1993). It was believed that if students could pronounce words, comprehension would automatically occur. Consequently, reading instruction at that time emphasized the development of this component of the reading process (Guerra, 2003).
Later on, researchers found out that despite the emphasis placed on decoding in reading practices, students were not comprehending what they were reading (Cooper, 1993). Throughout the early 1970s, educators and researchers began to think that this problem had its roots in the type of questions that teachers were asking. Durkin (1978-1979) in a study revealed that in most classrooms, typical instruction focused on specific skills (e.g., identifying main ideas, distinguishing fact from opinion, cause and effect relationships) thought to be important to comprehension and followed what she called a mentioning, practicing, and assessing procedure. That is, teachers mentioned a specific comprehension skill that students were to apply, such as identifying main ideas; had students practice the skill by completing workbook pages; then assessed them to find out whether they could use the skill correctly. Durkin concluded that such instruction did little help to promote students’ comprehension (cited in Lehr, Osborn, & Hiebert, 2005).
Interest in comprehension instruction increased during the 1980s. Spurred by Durkin’s findings, a number of researchers started to look for better comprehension instruction. At first, researchers focused attention on the higher order reading processes used by good readers to construct meaning as they read. What they found was that good readers achieve comprehension because they are able to use certain procedures -labeled comprehension strategies by the researchers- to relate ideas in a text to what they already know; to keep track of how well they are understanding what they read; and, when understanding breaks down, to identify what is causing the problem and how to overcome it. Regarding the fact, by the 1990s, reading researchers began to focus on comprehension-strategy instruction that resulted in increasing students’ understanding of a text. Besides, commercially developed reading programs had also added strategy use as an element of their comprehension instruction, with each program adopting a set of specific strategies for instruction often differing from program to program (Lehr et al., 2005).
2.3.1 Definitions of Reading Comprehension
Reading comprehension traditionally refers to a reader’s complete understanding or full grasp of meaning in a text. However, according to Yang (2002), this is a broad definition and causes some confusion. Scovel (1998), states that, “Comprehension is not an absolute state where language users either fully comprehend or are left completely in the dark; rather, comprehension involves an active, dynamic, and growing process of searching for interrelationships in a text” (cited in Yang, 2002, P. 2). He defines comprehension as the reader’s understanding of proposition -the basic unit of meaning- in the text. Since the proposition consists of words, sentences, or paragraphs, readers’ cognitive levels of comprehension can be graded based on these propositions. That is, one person might only engage in lexical comprehension (words), while another may get involved in syntactic comprehension (sentences), the level of which is obviously higher than the former.
According to the reader’s purposes in reading and the type of reading used, reading comprehensions are often distinguished. They are commonly referred to as: “literal comprehension” which is reading in order to understand, remember, or recall the information explicitly contained in a passage; “inferential comprehension” that is reading in order to find information which is not explicitly stated in a passage, using the reader’s experience and intuition, and by inferring; “critical or evaluative comprehension” takes place to compare information in a passage with the reader’s own knowledge and values; and reading to gain an emotional or other kind of valued response from a passage which is called “appreciative comprehension” (Richard, Platt, & Platt, 1992).
RAND Reading Study Group (2002), defines reading comprehension as “the process of simultaneously extracting and constructing meaning through interaction and involvement with written language” (P. 11). They consider three elements for reading comprehension: “1) The reader who is doing comprehending; 2) the text that is to be comprehended; 3) the activity in which comprehension is a part” (P. 11). They further state that three elements define reading comprehension as a phenomenon that occurs within a large socio-cultural content that shapes and is shaped by the reader that interacts with each of the three elements. They maintain that understanding requires acknowledging that it is a cognitive, linguistic, and cultural activity.
2.3.2 Categories of Reading Comprehension
Readers employ different types of comprehension in order to understand what they read: “literal comprehension” and “higher-order comprehension”. “To take in idea that is directly stated is literal comprehension; this is the most basic type” (Burns, Roe, & Ross, 1999, P. 219). Higher-order reading comprehension goes beyond literal understanding of a text. It involves higher-order thinking processes. Higher-order reading comprehension includes: “interpretive reading”, “critical reading”,
and “creative reading”. “Interpretive reading is reading between the lines or making inferences, it is the process of deriving ideas that are implied rather than directly stated” (Burns et al., 1999, P. 227). Readers infer the implied information by combining the information in the text with their background knowledge of the world. Evaluating written material is critical reading. Critical reading depends on both literal and interpretive comprehension. It is important to understand the implied ideas, “the critical reader must be an active reader, questioning, searching for facts, and suspending judgment until s/he has considered all the materials” (Burns et al., 1999, P. 242). Creative reading, they assert, involves going beyond the material presented by the author. Like critical reading, creative reading requires readers to think as they read. Readers use their imagination, thus such reading results in the production of new ideas (Burns et al., 1999).
In cognitive psychology, the importance of inference making in comprehension was emphasized by Bransford (1972). He considered two aspects of comprehension, “integrative” and “constructive,” that he believed could not be explained by the linguistic properties of text. Comprehension is integrative because understanding a text requires putting together of the ideas from its various sentences. Bransford (1972) drew attention to the fact that information derived from a text is not always explicit. Readers construct the writer’s intended message from what is explicitly stated. This is constructive comprehension.
2.3.3 Influential Factors in Reading Comprehension
Although comprehension of a text is a mechanism of communication from writer to reader, it is subject to variety of variables. According to the definition stated by RAND Reading Study Group (2002), reading comprehension involves factors related to the text, the reader, and the activity.
At the first place, comprehension comes from the representations of the ideas in a text that readers construct as they read. These representations are influenced by text features and are related to genre and structure, or the way in which content is organized (RAND Reading Study Group, 2002), and to language features, such as vocabulary and syntax (sentence structure and complexity) and the author’s writing style and clarity of expression (Armbruster, 1984; Freebody & Anderson, 1983, as cited in Lehr et al., 2005).
Reading comprehension is also affected by non-linguistic factors which can be either internal or external. Internal factors include reader’s cognitive and affective variables such as: intelligence, learning style, motivation, self esteem, etc. External factors include the physical environment of reader, the approach and materials used in instructions, and the teacher-student instructions (Cooper, 1993). Similarly RAND Reading Study Group (2002), states that all readers bring to their reading differences in competencies, such as oral language ability, fluent word recognition, and knowledge of the world. They also bring an array of social and cultural influences, including home environment, community and cultural traditions, and socioeconomic status. The group further notes that reading is not done in a vacuum. It is done to achieve some end. This is the dimension of reading addressed by the term “activity”. A reading activity can be a session with a teacher working with an entire class, a small group of students, or one-on-one with a student. It can be students reading alone or with others. Factors related to the success of a reading activity include the purposes for reading and student engagement in reading.
2.4 Reading Strategies
Since the 1980s, research on language learning strategies, particularly reading strategies in both L1 and L2 reading has increased. Carrell, Gajdusek, and Wise (1998) explain the reason for