- A traditional learning environment can negatively influence development of reading skills in a foreign language.
- An-Najah National University students learning French tended to use traditional styles of reading comprehension, which actually hindered their progress.
- The students used information technology for the limited purpose of information seeking rather than for learning French language skills and improving their reading comprehension.
- A study I conducted at An-Najah National University in Palestine beginning in late 2005 investigated the influence of a traditional learning environment1 on the reading styles of students learning a foreign language. The study group consisted of all 76 native Arabic–speaking students who were pursuing a bachelor's degree in teaching French as a foreign language and had progressed to the intermediate level (first-year students were excluded). This study examined how the learning environment influences reading styles in a foreign language, as well as the relationship between the teacher and the students in the classroom.
Study Questions and Method
The study design focused on the following questions:
- What reading styles do students use in learning French?
- What is the teacher's role and relationship with the students?
- How is information technology used in learning French?
A survey (originally in French; see "Survey") of the students learning French as a foreign language gathered data to better understand the reasons behind reading comprehension difficulties among them. Interviews with the instructors teaching French investigated the perceived nature of the students' difficulties, the sources of the difficulties, and possible solutions (see "Interview with French Teachers"). The study presented here takes a first step toward answering the study questions by measuring students' practices in reading French as well as the role of the teacher in the classroom.
Findings confirmed that the major causes of students' reading difficulties came from the practices they formed in a traditional learning environment, which hindered the progression of their reading skills in French. Results showed that 77 percent of students often or always looked up all unknown words to ensure that they understood the meaning, while 74.5 percent needed to translate the text word-by-word into Arabic to fully comprehend it. Half of the students affirmed their need to verbalize the text in order to understand it,2 and the majority waited for the teacher to give the final explanation of the text. Only the 15 percent of students who were Internet literate used the Internet, and then only to seek information for preparing papers. (See "Selected Survey Results.") Technology available to help students learn the language included audio and video cassettes and "Tell Me More" software (which was not part of the French-teaching program). The majority of students did not use the technology, preferring to rely on the teacher in learning the language.
The study findings suggest the possibility of improving the learning environment by using the Internet as a tool to develop new learning styles and innovative methods of teaching French. Teachers can change their traditional text approach, for example, by visiting different web pages to train students on global reading. In global reading, students look up words and answer questions that follow the text — a much more interactive approach than the silent, linear reading now practiced.
Successfully teaching French within this degree program relies on methods that promote global reading, critical thinking, collaborative learning, reflection in the target language, and engaging students in the learning process by using information technology. The "Tell Me More" software, which helps students learn in an informal and autonomous way, offers different activities according to the users' objectives, whether learning the basics or how to communicate easily when visiting a foreign country. If students choose not to use this tool and others, however, teaching reading comprehension is limited to the traditional approach of linear reading followed by in-class questions. These traditional methods are incompatible with the learning environment the teachers were trying to establish.
The study aimed to show teachers that the new teaching methods they were trying to incorporate in reading comprehension (based on independent work, information analyses, and global reading) encountered difficulties because students continued to use the same traditional reading styles while learning French and resisted new teaching methods. Information technology offers an efficient tool for changing these habits in the classroom and helping students acquire new skills in reading and learning the language as a whole. By using the Internet, students can develop their reading skills more effectively — it's more motivating and interesting than standard classroom work.
The study results revealed three significant sources of difficulty within the educational environment:
- The first source was the divergence between the students' cultural learning habits (see "Cultural Divergences") and the new reading methods instituted by their teachers. The instructors asked the students to read silently, alone, and guess the meaning of the text, then answer questions in a limited time. Sometimes, the instructors asked them to look up the information and process it alone. These tasks require students to work in an extremely different way from what they had become used to during their previous 12 years of school. Their cultural learning habits influenced their perceptions and information processing, affecting their learning styles. In spite of their efforts in reading, students continued to misunderstand the general themes.
- The second was the division of roles between the teacher, who is considered the major source of information, and the students, who wait passively to receive this information. Students expect the teacher to do the work — their task was to memorize it afterwards.
- The third was the students' lack of desire to learn a language considered not very useful in daily life, affecting their motivation and attitudes toward learning. Students frequently study French in order to obtain a diploma, not because of an interest in the field. They consider the degree more important than the field in which it is granted.
The consequences of these difficulties are serious when considering the lifelong learning skills students need to succeed.
Conceptual Framework of Global Reading
Students must first acquire reading comprehension skill in their native tongue in order to transfer it into the target foreign language. Further, reading comprehension requires relative mastery of the target language to go beyond the "decoding" process and understand the overall theme of the text. The absence of the concept of global reading in the students' native Arabic is clearly reflected in their reading styles in French. The notion of reading in Arabic is based on the recognition of what one already knows rather than the discovery of new information. Guessing the meaning of words is therefore a habit Arabic-speaking students have to acquire, which is more difficult because students tend to transfer skills and forms of the language system acquired in their native tongue to learning French.
The following questions need answers:
- How can native Arabic-speaking students change their traditional reading habits and learn new styles?
- What other role should the teacher play to help students become more engaged in their learning?
- Can information technology promote new habits in reading comprehension?
As an attempt to answer these questions, the study report provided suggestions for using information technology for two main purposes:
- Helping students become more aware of reading styles they use to enable them to develop new ones.
- Encouraging new teaching methods that promote autonomous and collaborative learning, critical thinking, and student engagement in the learning process.
The study recommendations emphasized information technology as a path for creating a new learning environment for both students and teachers.
Online Reading Environment
The first step in creating a new learning environment will be to change "offline" reading (which involves a linear approach and translation into the reader's mother tongue) to creative online reading in the classroom. Incompetence in offline reading doesn't necessarily mean incompetence in online reading, and vice versa. Lessons that build on students' prior knowledge and skills can be employed to facilitate reading in a foreign language.
Online reading requires a different set of skills and strategies because it frequently involves information seeking guided by the reader (rather than the teacher) and can be nonlinear as readers follow a series of hyperlinks rather than reading something from beginning to end. The skills required for successful online reading include the ability to:
- Formulate appropriate questions
- Locate reliable information
- Evaluate, synthesize, and communicate that information
The Teacher's Role
The second step in creating a new learning environment requires changing the traditional image of the teacher as the only reliable source of information and as the only active participant in the learning process. The teacher can play a very important role in showing students new skills in online reading and in activating prior information to help them read and understand the foreign language. The teacher's role changes to become an intermediary between students and information. Students will thus have to rely on their own skills to process information. This way of thinking and working will not only help teachers develop new methods in teaching a foreign language but also help students become more autonomous and engaged in their learning process while developing new skills.
Beyond Information Seeking
Within the context studied, students' use of information technology was limited to information-seeking activities. Introducing information technology as a resource for learning a foreign language will help students develop new skills and become more independent in their learning. Achieving this shift in approach implies introducing new ideas and information processing in the mother tongue starting in elementary school in order to create a learning environment that promotes active learning from the beginning of each student's education.
The study implies potential benefits from using information technology to improve students' reading comprehension in a foreign language, along with new approaches to teaching and learning:
- The study results found that information technology provided a very motivating environment for students in developing new learning skills.
- Adding competence with information technology to required reading skills will redefine what teachers and students consider reading comprehension, making teaching and learning more pleasurable, relevant, and interesting.
- Information technology has changed how people read and process information. Visiting several websites and analyzing the structure of multilinear texts is critical to students' academic development. Students should experience reading using online resources in their classrooms.
- It is important that teachers be comfortable with new uses of technology. A simple way to begin is by creating a WebQuest3 to promote a new learning environment, which encourages autonomous and creative learning online.
This study's results can be a call for action for teachers of foreign languages in Arabic environments. If they become more aware of their students' traditional learning styles, they can introduce new methods that rely on the use of information technology in classrooms to improve their students' reading comprehension of that language.
- Rebecca Knuth, "Building a Literate Environment: Using Oral-Based Reading Materials to Facilitate Literacy," 64th IFLA General Conference, August 16–21, 1998, Amsterdam.
- In the Arab world, understanding a text requires vocalizing it correctly, which implies a degree of linear reading. See Elizabeth S. Pang, Angaluki Muaka, Elizabeth B. Bernhardt, and Michael L. Kamil, "Teaching Reading," Educational Practices Series 12, International Academy of Education, 2003.
- From the WebQuest site: "A WebQuest is an inquiry-oriented lesson format in which most or all the information that learners work with comes from the web."
© 2010 Maha Itma. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 license.