Reading: A Skill or Habit

By definition reading is the action of a person who looks at and understands the meaning of written or printed words or symbols. But there is much more to that than meet the eyes. Nuttall (1996:2) believes that not only does reading comprise decoding, deciphering and identifying words, but it is above all an opportunity for learners to draw meaning from the written text.

Getting students to read in English both intensively and extensively is vitally important for a number of reasons. Firstly, we basically read a great deal of language that either interests or is useful to us. Besides showing the written language in action, systematic reading exposes learners to texts in a way that helps them acquire language (un)consciously.

Secondly, reading in class can be used to teach sub-skills – predicting, skimming and scanning, deducing meaning, inferring, using a dictionary and understanding the text structure. Consequently, strategy instruction enhances reading development and should be integrated throughout the lesson so that learners can draw their own interpretive skills and make sense of the text.

Thirdly, reading can be used as a springboard for language-related tasks or its content as a basis for other skills work. A text may be used as a topic discussion to activate learners’ schemata so as to prepare them for a listening task that leads to group discussion.

Alternatively, reading can be used to either recycle/present language from which learners have the opportunity to extend their grammatical/lexical competence.

By the same token, reading is a way of providing learners with models for writing. Since writing is a social process, reading is important as it is a source of information, ideas, content, style and language from which learners can enjoy considerable benefit.

Lastly, reading can be used for testing purposes, and, in principle, the understanding of texts will be required to that end. Nevertheless, reading should be dealt with as positively as possible so that learners can develop the strategies they are introduced to in class.

According to the behaviourists, all learning, whether verbal or non-verbal, takes place through the same underlying process – habit formation. A highly effective way of enabling learners to enlarge their command of language is through systematic reading. In order to maximise the learners’ reading competence it is useful first to consider the abilities underlying reading proficiency – grammatical, sociolinguistic, discourse and strategic competence.


a)      Grammatical Competence

Proficiency in reading demands mastery of the three parts that comprise grammatical competence.

Firstly, the use of grammar rules to help understand a text. Secondly, the knowledge of lexicon, which is essential to the reading process. Reading also demands the mastery of the language mechanics – the alphabet and the punctuation system. These factors activate the bottom-up processing in which the reader recognises a wide range of linguistic signals (letters, words, phrases, grammatical cues, discourse markers) and builds up meaning from the printed page. These factors combination enables the reader to scrutinise the vocabulary and syntax from among all the information that is presented in written text information and make sense of it.


b)     Sociolinguistic Competence


It is worth pointing out that a degree of sociolinguistic maturity is demanded of any reader. As Grellet (1995:6) points out ´one should start with global understanding and move towards detailed understanding rather than working the other way round´. This top-down processing brings a whole host of background information which allows for interpretation. A learner’s schemata have a tremendous impact on learning to read in L2, bridging the gap between the new input and the learners’ knowledge of the world. Once the schemata are activated, readers can draw on their own experience so as to get a rough idea of the writer’s argument and, eventually, make reasonable guesses.

According to Goodman (1970) ´virtually all reading involves a risk because readers must, through this puzzle-solving game process, infer meanings, decide what to retain and not to retain, and move on’. Therefore, it is vital that the teachers assist their learners in gaining these strategies so that sociolinguistic competence can become an important tool when reading second language.


c)      Discourse Competence


Written language may use a great variety of discourse devices such as reference, substitution, ellipsis, conjunction and lexical cohesion. Hence, discourse competence is instrumental in helping learners to be more efficient readers. In other words, if learners can identify instances of cohesive devices, it certainly enhances their ability to understand how/why such devices are used so that comprehension takes place more easily.

Being cohesion the way a text is put together by linguistic means, it is critical that learners understand it to enable them to grapple with reference devices. Moreover, the vocabulary choice should ideally be understood by the reader since it is more usual for writers to find alternative words, avoiding word repetition.

Coherence, the way in which sentences in a text make sense in relationship to each other, is another important device that enables learners to see a text organisation and progression.  Therefore, learners who can identify/predict such coherent progression may read more effectively.

As Halliday and Hasan (1976:8) state ‘these devices indicate a semantic relation between an element in a text and some other element that is crucial to the interpretation of it’. Consequently, it is the teachers’ role to raise awareness of these discourse features.


d)     Strategic Competence


The learners’ schemata, the linguistic context and references in a text are extremely important sources for the reader. As a compensation for missing knowledge, reading strategies can be an invaluable tool when it comes to the guessing process using the linguistic/non-linguistic clues a text offers. In addition to the other three competence elements mentioned above, skilled readers make use of strategies to read effectively and somehow select those strategies that best fit a particular text they are reading.

Skimming and scanning are two of a range of techniques as readers can select what is worth spending more time on. As far as lexical items are concerned, word attack skills are crucial as learners can capitalise on vocabulary analysis to process guessing. Being able to identify affixation pays off when they do not understand a word immediately and analysing it in terms of structure may be an excellent way out. Inferring from context is a broad category, however, it should be encouraged since it allows for guessing the meaning of a word, the structural relationship (grammatical and morphological), discourse relationship and implied meaning. Strategic competence is not only a significant element that can be both taught and practised in the classroom but also a way of enhancing the learners’ ability to read well.

All things considered, reading is a significant area of development in a language, either native or foreign, as we are surrounded by words daily. Unfortunately, reading in class is traditionally considered dull in the sense that is a solitary activity that can be done at home. To make matters worse, some teachers are of the opinion that reading takes care of itself and relegate it to a skill not worthy of attention on its own. However, it is a skill that should not be ignored, but instead should be included as a critical and systematic part of the syllabus.






  • Brown, H D – Teaching by Principles – An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy (Prentice Hall) 1994
  • Grellet, F – Developing Reading Skills (CUP) 1995
  • Halliday, M A K and Hasan, R – Cohesion in English (Longman) 1976
  • Nuttall, C – Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language (Heinemann) 1996 (new edition)
  • Richards, J C – The Language Matrix (CUP) 1994
  • Scarcella, C S and Oxford, R L – The Tapestry of Language Learning – The Individual in the Communicative Classroom (Heinle & Heinle) 1992 
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Adriano Zanetti

Adriano Zanetti – BA in Letras, Post-graduate in Language Teaching Methodologies, RSA Dip. DELTA. An educator for 30 years, an ELT consultant/teacher trainer at A2Z English Consultancy, a teacher/trainer/coordinator at FISK São João del Rei and Cambridge Assessment English Speaking Examiner. A Pronunciation SIG member responsible for Pronunciation courses for teachers/students. Presented several times in LABCI/ABCI conferences, Braz-Tesol Regional/National Chapters and different institutions in MG. /

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