The Essence of Meaning in Foreign Language Reading

Understanding a text does not necessarily mean knowing the definition of every single word written; indeed, the reading comprehension process involves extracting, as efficiently as possible, the essential information from secondary ideas, complementary data and details. Comprehension is not achieved, thus, by looking up every unknown word in a dictionary. This is likely to be unproductive, tiresome and extremely fruitless, leading to a low-quality level of significant comprehension.

Normally, when reading happens, one’s eyes do not move from word to word in a straight line, but flick backwards and forwards over the text. To illustrate, if we cover a magazine’s agony column with a blank sheet of paper and, literally, try reading word by word, we will soon lose track of one’s personal disgrace and we will need to keep looking back to take in whole sentences. This simple experiment highlights the fact that it is almost impossible to read and effectually understand a text this way.

According to Doff, A. (1998) two distinctive reading activities can be stated: semantic reading (or silent reading) and rhetorical reading (or reading aloud). The former occurs when people read a newspaper, pay attention to road signs, follow a recipe for a chocolate cake, or interpret a scientific theory. It involves looking at sentences and analyzing the message they convey; in other words, making sense of a written text. When people read for meaning, they do not read every letter or every word in each sentence. Provided the text’s message can be discerned, readers can infer from much of what is said as they keep on reading, as well as activating their schemata (background knowledge).

The latter is a completely different activity, which aims not only understanding a great portion of the written material, but also expressing it to someone else. It is not an activity we engage in very often outside the classroom; however, common examples of this mechanism consist in parents reading stories to their children, and a jury returning a verdict at the end of a trial. Obviously, reading aloud includes looking at a text, recognizing it, apprehending it, and saying it. Due to the fact that one’s attention is divided between two linguistic abilities – reading and speaking – it is a quite onerous task. Even in one’s native language there is a probability to stumble, stutter and make a series of oratorical mistakes, and this possibility often increases in a foreign language.

If students intend to develop reading skills in a foreign language, it is important to understand what is involved in the reading process itself. Reading is an active process. When people read, they do not merely sit as receivers of the text; they also draw on their own knowledge of the world and the language to help them fathom the message. After having a clear idea of how good readers read, either in their own or in a foreign language, people in general are going to be able to decide whether particular reading techniques are helpful or not to their purposes of coping with a piece of writing in a different language.

Clearly, there are differences between reading in one’s first language, where comprehension usually does not pose a problem, and reading in a foreign language. These readers psychically consider several factors before reaching the rightful meaning of a written material, such as the alphabet, the phrase structure, the order of handwriting, the classes of grammar and all previous experiences related to the foreign language. In addition, whenever one reads a text, one can look for reading comprehension clues: (1) cognate words, which have a common root and, hence, a common meaning in both languages; (2) repeated words, whose frequent appearance in a text indicate they are keywords; (3) typographic clues, consisting of printed marks and signals, for instance, words in capital letters, acronyms, dates, graphs, tables, headings, etc., that help the reader scan for specific information in a text or obtain an overview of it; finally, (4) the context, a strategy many people do unconsciously when reading through formulating hypotheses, predicting information, making inferences and work their background knowledge.

As has been discussed, people, in order to fully achieve effective sense while reading, have to relate letters, words and sentences to higher levels of cognitive skills, creating new structures of meaning. The word by itself is an empty arrangement, since the schemata will never be exactly the same for two readers. Therefore, readers must consider the intimately related objects that compose the processing of meaning, briefly displayed in the following diagram.

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