How to Enhance the International Exams Performance through Reading Comprehension Strategies in the Foreign Languages Classes
Bibiana Guerrero Pardo, Ángel Leonardo Londoño, Diana Marcela Campuzano J, Michael Pierre Delannoye.
Profesores Red de Perspectivas Sistémicas, Gimnasio Campestre
Correspondencia para los autores: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com,
Recibido: 8 de junio de 2022
Aceptado: 30 de septiembre de 2022
Esta investigación presenta un análisis cualitativo de los resultados de los estudiantes de noveno grado del Gimnasio Campestre en unas pruebas de la competencia de comprensión escrita. Este análisis reflejará los resultados pre y post-implementación de estrategias cognitivas y mide el impacto de estas en los resultados de la población. Le metodología inicial fue la investigación documental que luego fue aplicada como una aproximación a la investigación acción en el contexto escolar.
Palabras clave: Comprensión escrita, pre-lectura, lectura, post-lectura, psicolingüística, lingüística, lenguaje
This research presents a qualitative analysis of the results attained by Ninth grade students at Gimnasio Campestre in written comprehension tests. This analysis reflects the results in the pre-and post-implementation of cognitive strategies and measures their impact on the students. The initial methodology was documentary research, which was then applied as an approach to action research in the academic context.
Key words: Reading comprehension, Pre-reading, Reading, Post-reading, Psycholinguistic, Linguistic, Language
As GC teachers, we constantly prepare the students to take these exams and we often struggle with the suitability of the input provided in class; we aim to develop language skills that can ensure them success when taking the international tests.
At Gimnasio Campestre, international exams play an important role in the students’ academic life. Not only do they allow the school faculty to identify the students’ level, but they also provide language teachers with tools they can apply in class in terms of error-based improvement and detailed analysis of the results obtained in the different tests. Besides, these exams will also determine students’ eligibility to pursue superior education abroad and measure their level in second language acquisition according to the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for languages). In the school, we have different tests that are currently applied to the students in different levels. Some of them are official as Flyers for young learners, PSAT and TOEFL, while some others are optional such as IELTS and also DELF /DALF in French language. These results will be paramount to deciding to study abroad or simply test their L2 background.
As GC teachers, we constantly prepare the students to take these exams and we often struggle with the suitability of the input provided in class; we aim to develop language skills that can ensure them success when taking the international tests. However, with the expertise acquired in the course of our journey in the school along with a thorough analysis of the results attained in international exams, we have found some literary and language elements in those exams that can be implemented on our classes; not only in English but also in French classes. With this in mind, we aim to identify literary and language elements that we can include in our L2 lessons in order to promote proper second language acquisition that can be reflected in the results of the international exams. We will use the CEFR in compliance with our school pedagogical model for English and French as foreign languages. After completing this research, we will implement new strategies and new conventions to be taken into account for better understanding and thus better performance in the international exams. We will focus our research in reading comprehension strategies.
How can we enhance the students’ performance in international through reading comprehension strategies in the foreign language classes?
Even though GC students attain above-average results in the international exams, their performance could improve by implementing reading strategies that will foster deeper analytical and efficient language input, and thus better exams results.
The objectives of the research are the following:
1. Reading comprehension
Reading comprehension plays a leading role in language acquisition mechanisms. It allows communication between two (2) interlocutors without being limited by temporal or spatial elements. According to the CEFR, reading documents is a fundamental skill in our daily lives. Human beings read to obtain accurate information (posters, menus, information panels, schedules), complex information (newspaper articles, encyclopedia, instructions for use) or leisure (novels, comics).
The action of reading is not only recognizing the literal meaning of words; it is also a process of interpreting the implicit message in the content or the semantic (vocabulary and thematic knowledge) and syntactic implications, such as the ability to process the text organization (connecting between various elements of the text, making inferences, and establishing the overall coherence of the text). These implications must be developed by the learner (L.S. Charolles, 2008).
According to Daniel Dubois (1976), reading comprehension is “the set of activities that allow the analysis of information relating new information to data acquired and stored in long-term memory. Models of understanding are also closely linked to the theoretical representation of the forms and contents of long-term memory”. According to the author, reading comprehension requires prior knowledge; it is influenced by experiences through which the reader forms an abstract representation of the information constituting long-term memory and which will allow the acquisition of new information collecting during the reading process.
According to the Dictionary of Language Didactics, “reading comprehension is the action of identifying letters and assembling them to understand the link between what is written and what is said” or “the action of looking through what is written to learn about the content” (R. Galisson and D. Coste, 1976). According to Daniel Coste and Robert Galisson, prior acquisitions – here as literacy – are necessary in order to understand contents.
Finally, according to Sophie Moirand (1990), “to understand is producing meaning from the data of the text but they are reconstructed from what we already know”.
Despite their variances, these definitions converge on two (2) points they have in common. The first one is reading the text as a process of assimilating information by identifying the process of sentences and their meaning as a linguistic element. The second one is the linking of linguistic data with previous knowledge in order to understand the meaning of the text.
Understanding a written document means grasping its literal meaning and assimilating its message; it is also perceiving the author’s tone, point of view, and intentions; studying and dismantling the mechanisms of humor, irony that are most often based on lag; identifying the vocabulary that is part of the lexical field (R. Stagnitto, 2011).
Stages of reading comprehension
The process of understanding a text is done through three (3) steps that enable assimilating the content of a text and which will be defined below: pre-reading, reading and post-reading.
It is the action of promoting the learner’s receptivity, of activating his/her representations so that he/she can make useful sentences during the reading phase. For the teacher, during a pre-reading activity, the mistake is working only at identifying known or unknown vocabulary.
There are various strategies that can be used, such as:
- Using an iconographic document to support the text, thus putting the theme treated into perspective.
- Asking the learner to carry out a preliminary information search as preparation (bibliographic, historical or cultural revision).
- Using audio documents (podcast, reportage, music) in relation to the topic treated.
- Performing oral or lexical brainstorming as a first exercise.
From a psycholinguistic point of view, the learner carries out several cognitive operations:
- Identifying the purpose of reading.
- Knowing how the information is transmitted to the reader.
- Sharing lived experiences of free associations in relation to the topic.
- Making spontaneous association.
- Making analogies, comparisons, metaphors.
In order to carry out this fundamental phase of reading comprehension, the teacher must promote metacognitive operations in the classroom so that the learner can develop his own tracking techniques.
- Skimming or global visual scanning: as part of the stage of global understanding, the learner observes the content and identifies known elements. It is during this phase that the learner will identify the essential information from the text: type of document, subject matter dealt with, factual elements, structure and organization.
- Scanning or selective visual scanning: this is part of the stage of detailed understanding during which the learner searches for predetermined information in response to a specific question. The learner selects one element among the others. “[…] the learner must connect the knowledge acquired at the first moment of reading and must be able to identify the main idea and some ideas that will help him interpret other stages” (M. Quivy, 1997).
It is a networking of the elements obtained, reconstructing the precise meaning of the text and exploiting it during a commentary and interpretation phase. The teacher will set up activities to refine the synthesis work and allow a hierarchical vision of the text. From a psycholinguistic point of view, the following operations take place:
- Graphic representation.
- Linking content to general knowledge.
Psycholinguistics is the study of cognitive processes in language treatment and production. It uses many disciplines such as language sciences, neurology and neurobiology, psychology and cognitive sciences. The term “psycholinguistic” appeared in 1951 with language psychology, which then dealt only with issues related to development and learning. Here is a small conceptual and historical overview of the evolution of the term:
- J. Piaget, 1946: The formation of the symbol in children. Piaget is interested in the development of intelligence. However, according to Piaget language is only one of the manifestations of a more general cognitive capacity: semiotic or symbolic function. Language is essentially a means of representation and an object of reflection: metalinguistic, or what the child knows about language.
- B.F. Skinner, 1957: Skinner describes in his book Verbal Behavior (1957) a theory on which the arguments that everything is built on the observable are based. For Skinner, verbal behavior explains as the body’s responses to internal or external stimulation. Psycholinguistic was built in opposition to the behaviorist theory of language.
It was in 1951 at a conference bringing together psychologists and linguists at the University of Cornell that the term ‘psycholinguistic´ appeared. The concept resulted from the desire to develop an interdisciplinary field of research influenced by the work of N. Chomsky on generative linguistics and the development of cognitive psychology.
To deconstruct the term, here is a list of fundamental concepts:
- Linguistic: description of the structure and organizations of natural languages.
- Language psychology: language behaviors or conducts, studied as a part of the overall functioning of the individual.
- Psycholinguistic: hybrid science whose problem is that of language psychology but whose theoretical and methodological tools come from linguistic.
Psycholinguistic is a new science that appeared forty (40) years ago. It studies the cognitive processes implemented in language processing and production. It is an interdisciplinary science by nature that brings together the fields of psychology, cognitive sciences and linguistics.
Through therapeutic support, it understands, neurological pathologies that affect linguistic abilities such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, etc.
It also focuses on ASL (Analyses of Subjective Logics) and the complex mechanisms of language production (phonetics, morphology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics).
Psycholinguistic interferes in the following areas:
- Noam Chomsky is one of the most recognized psycholinguists. For Chomsky, humans have an innate universal grammar allowing them to speak all languages and whose points of view are reflected in the current of connectionism.
In order to communicate, the human being implements many intellectual tasks that are carried out very quickly (within a few hundred milliseconds) and whose varieties and complexities are based on cognitive processes that are mostly unthinking and complexly definable. The knowledge in psycholinguistic is then essentially empirical.
In the course of their reading process, students learn fairly quickly to identify information when it is explicitly stated in the text they have to read; they do this in order to copy textually to answer comprehension questions they are asked.
However, identifying information when it is implicit is much more difficult for them; this means when they have to read between the lines, in other words, when they have to infer.
A given text has macrostructural discourse units: the problem, the goal, the episodes, the solution, etc. (Trabasso and Wiley, 2005). It turns out that these units are often not explicit; they are “invisible units”, but they are still tangible.
Making inferences is constructing valid information that is not explicitly written in the text. Inferences are then reasoning deduced or induced from the information in the text. They allow the construction of major macrostructural components and their often-causal relationship. The difficulties in reading are not so much processing what is written, the code and the identifying words, but rather what the writing does not make explicit: the area of inferences leading to a valid interpretation of the narrative (Makdissi, Boisclair, Blais-Bergeron, Sanchez, & Darveau, 2010).
For the student who is learning to read, as well as for the mature reader, inferences have four specific functions:
- Developing a backdrop for the story.
- Predicting causes or consequences as events unfold.
- Anticipating anomalies in the text, which places the reader in a state of inquiry to restore meaning.
- Constructing the meaning of the written words.
1. Course description
Eighth Grade Language in Academic Context (LAC8) at Gimnasio Campestre is the second course in which students write essay-type academic texts. In LAC students are requested to write book and movie reviews. The learning goals in this grade are guided by a combination of literary theory and writing skills. Students thus learn the eight literary elements to analyze the plot of the proposed novels they read. They also review and reinforce the basic spelling, grammar and punctuation rules previously learned in earlier courses. The general objective stated in the syllabus is “to write coherent and logical texts through the steps of prewriting (outline), writing (draft) and the revising and editing steps (final paper)”.
A very important learning goal in Eighth grade is to assess students’ language level through the PSAT test. Students are expected to develop the necessary skills to allow themselves and the school to pinpoint areas that need to be worked on in the following grade level. Along with other criteria related to language and literature, students are encouraged to develop specific and particular reading skills.
For this study, the number of participants is not representative of the entire 8th grade. We asked a total of 15 students to participate. Based on the results of the first term, students were classified in three different groups. A first group “high-performers” that achieved high standards in the final grade (E-S); a second group of “average performer” that achieved the learning goals adequately (B); and a final group that did not achieve the expected results “low-performers” (I or D). The same was done later when the PSAT mock test was collected.
PSAT results were collected twice in the second term of the academic year. The first time, the answer sheets were collected and given back to the students with feedback and the score. The second time, the answer sheets were collected to check the increase in the score after the teacher’s instruction regarding the reading strategies. It is important to clarify that not all students were able to apply the reading strategies during the test, as teachers taught the strategies only to those who were classified as “average performers and low-performers”. All students were present as the strategies were being explained; however, only the second and the third group of students was encouraged and reminded to use the strategies carefully during the test.
Prior to administering the PSAT the second time, students were taught the type of questions usually asked in this type of standardized test. Furthermore, they were taught and trained on how to apply the reading strategies to each type of question and were shown examples of incorrect and correct answer for each type of question. Special emphasis was given to those questions related to text structure and evidence.
The procedure consisted of three stages. As the training for PSAT follows the process of formative assessment, the analysis for this study collected information after stages 4 (gather evidence) and 5 (identifying gaps). All 8th grade students answered the first PSAT mock. A week later they got feedback and the corresponding score. During the same week, students were taught three reading strategies that are usually applied in this type of standardized test to increase students’ performance. After two weeks, students took the PSAT again. For this session, only the students who had previously gotten a score under 75 were asked to apply the strategies taught.
As only 15 out of 73 students in this Eighth-grade group were chosen to apply the reading strategies, the teachers met with those 15 students prior to taking the PSAT for the second time to review the strategies and to emphasize the importance of the using them. The latter, to ensure that these students were clear about when and how to use the strategies depending on the type of question. This study focuses basically on three types of reading strategies: scanning, drawing inferences regarding author’s purpose, and drawing inferences to get the meaning of unknown words. The strategies chosen were:
A. Literary analysis
B. Author’s Purpose
C. Unknown Words
The PSAT includes questions that ask students to make inferences regarding literary analysis; for example, question 7 in the Reading Test from the PSAT/NMSQT, Practice Test, Fall 2021 which asks, “It can most reasonably be inferred that after Miss Taylor married, she had:
A) Less patience with Mr. Woodhouse.
B) Fewer interactions with Emma.
C) More close friends than Emma.
D) An increased appreciation for Emma.”
In this particular case from a passage taken from Jane Austen’s, “Emma”, students are asked to make inferences regarding a character’s deeds and relationship with other characters. They are given four very similar options to choose. Here, students had to infer from the paragraph, but specifically from the expression “of any continuance” that the correct answer was B.
According to Anderson & Pearson, (1984, mentioned in Dole, Roehler and Person, 1991) “one of the most common findings of recent reading research is that drawing inferences is an essential part of the comprehension process” (p. 245). In other words, when students infer the meaning of unknown words, they undertake a thinking process that allows them to construct meaning and acquire new knowledge during their life. Furthermore, “inference is the heart of the comprehension process” as people can “construct their own models of meaning for a given text, readers and listeners alike use inferencing extensively to fill in details omitted in text and to elaborate what they read” (Anderson, 1977; Anderson, Spiro, & Anderson, 1978 mentioned in Dole, Roehler and Person 1991 p. 245).
Another very common type of question in the SAT asks students to infer the author’s purpose and intention from the passage. The students often struggle with inferring the purpose of different types of texts such as literary, artistic and historical written productions since they are not acquainted with these literary works and their structure (e.g vocabulary, syntax) due to the lack of practice and because global understanding of these topics was not internalized in their previous schools years.
The other strategy teachers wanted to analyze in this study was drawing inferences to determine the meaning of an unfamiliar or unknown word. An example of this type of question as it is shown in question 13, of the Reading Test from the PSAT/NMSQT, Practice Test, Fall 2021.
“As used in line 45, “post” most nearly means:
For this type of question, students are expected to start by eliminating the words furthest in meaning to later use the false cognate inferential strategy to determine the correct answer. In this case, they should go with “publish”.
Students at Gimnasio Campestre are quite good at using the clues to infer meaning. They use the words around the word they do not know, or they find a false cognate that helps them to determine the meaning. For the students in groups 2 and 3, we made emphasis on the odd-one out technique while inferring the meaning from apparent false cognates. A good example of this type of question is question 24, of the Reading Test from the PSAT/NMSQT, Practice Test, Fall 2021.
“As used in line 19, “stores” most nearly means
Spanish and English share many words that are similar in meaning, spelling, and pronunciation.
Because Spanish is the L1, it becomes a bridge to facilitate and develop inferential skills in students. Cognate awareness is the skill students develop to use similar words (cognates) in Spanish as a means for answering questions in the PSAT. A common example of cognate that has similar meanings in both languages is asistir and assist.
ANALYSIS OF THE FINDINGS
In order to allow a clear and objective reading of the data collected, we carried out a frequency analysis, which results are explained and detailed below each graph.
In statistics, the absolute frequency is the number of observations in a class and the relative frequency or frequency is the quotient of this number by the number of observations in the population.
To determine the frequencies, the observations must first be divided into classes. In fact, to be relevant, it was necessary to choose the classification criterion in such a way that the number of classes was sufficient (in the case, Low Achievers, Average Achievers and High Achievers).
Figure 1 shows the results for the question type “Literary Analyses”. We can observe that the results obtained prior to applying the reading strategies are uneven, with an average success index in the Low Achievers group, a relatively high success index in the Average Achievers group and a high success index in the High Achievers group.
After applying the reading strategies, we observed a slight improvement in the success index within the Average Achievers and High Achievers groups of students; however, the reading strategies did not have an impact within the Low Achievers group, whose results remain the same as those obtained in the “Pre-test”.
Figure 2 shows us data collected in the “Author’s Purpose” type of question. We observe that the results obtained before applying the reading strategies are uneven, with a low success index in the Low Achievers group, a higher success index in the Average Achievers group and an even higher success index in the High Achievers group, thus respecting the logic of classification.
After applying the reading strategies, we note a clear improvement in the success index within the three groups of students, with a substantial increase within the Average and High Achievers groups, and a slight improvement within the Low Achievers.
Figure 3 shows the results for the “Unknown Words” question type. We can observe that the results obtained before applying the reading strategies are in perfect equality, regardless of the nature of the students’ initial ranking.
After applying the reading strategies, we note an improvement of the results within the three groups of students, with a significant increase within the Low Achievers and High Achievers groups, and a slight improvement within the Average Achievers.
The analysis of the data tells us that regardless of where students rank in terms of potential, the application of reading strategies results in a significant increase in their scores. Regardless of their language level, it is essential to convert our students into strategic readers.
However, experience has taught us that having students read texts is not enough to make them strategic readers. Skilled students will likely discover effective reading strategies on their own, but if these discoveries are left solely to the students, the risk of widening the gap between the strongest and weakest will be far more significant than it is today.
Explicit strategy instruction must be added to reading practice, with the goal of helping students develop cognitive and metacognitive resources to approach reading in a more articulate way. This involves teaching students not only how to use a strategy, but also why and when to use it.
Teaching all our students what, why, and when to use a strategy, not just the how will allow to help them improving their outcomes. The teaching professional who adjusts his or her instruction to incorporate strategic reading into his or her subject matter provides an opportunity for students to deepen their reading for greater understanding and to gain new knowledge.
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