L & T Resources
MERS Bulletin
現代教育通訊 69期 前期教訊:
新課程、新理念、新教學模式:The Place of 'Readers' in Language Learning and Teaching
The Place of 'Readers' in Language Learning and Teaching
◎Dr. Peter Storey
Hong Kong Institute of Education
Dr Peter Storey has worked in Hong Kong for the past 16 years as a language teacher educator and language teacher. He is currently Head of the Centre for Language in Education of the Hong Kong Institute of Education, and Chief Editor of the Asia Pacific Journal of Language in Education published by that Centre. He has served as advisor to many projects and initiatives in school language education in Hong Kong. He has a keen interest in evaluation and is currently academic director of the Primary NET scheme evaluation project.
All night I sat reading a book,
Sat reading as if in a book
    Wallace Stevens1

An exemplary reader
Wallace Stevens (1879 - 1955) was a man with two lives. A trained lawyer and a specialist in investment banking, he enjoyed a successful business career and became vice president of his company before he retired. Stevens was also renowned within his lifetime as one of the greatest American poets of his generation. His poetry reveals a man steeped in culture, with broad experience of the world, able to produce deep philosophical insights. Yet he had never left his home country and had spent most of his working life behind a desk in an insurance office. We can speculate that he had not been widely exposed to television and certainly he had never surfed the net. His other life was lived in the imagination; more precisely, it was spent in books. He was a reader.

Stevens gained his experience of the world outside the confines of his office and his home through extensive reading. In another Stevens poem, "The House was Quiet and the World was Calm", he describes how the book is transformed from a collection of printed words into actual experiences:

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and the summer night was like the conscious being of the book.2

This same kind of transformation is described by another well known reader, one who claims to have been "built" by books. For Spufford (2002), reading is not simply a matter of decoding printed words, it is as if the print has magical powers - "the furze of black marks between the covers of The Hobbit grew lucid, and released a dragon."
(p. 4).3

Reading - a difficult choice
The power reading has to give us access to worlds outside our own is well understood by readers who are already addicted. However, access to those worlds is by no means easy, even for dedicated readers. Compared to the ease with which we can enter the pre-formed imagination of the digital world, the task is daunting. Even Spufford admits that he has to urge himself on through works of real literature, counting how many pages he has to read before the end, while the ' frictionless surfaces of genre fiction' provide easier food for his reading compulsion. How many of us nowadays, can spare the energy not to switch on the television, or the computer, but instead to delve inside the covers of a book? How many of us, for example, would prefer to allow our own imaginations to construct Middle Earth by reading the 1000-page original work, rather than watching one man's interpretation of The Lord of the Rings on the cinema screen?

Is reading for pleasure, in fact, dead? The writers of a new book which takes as its sub-heading 'the pleasure of reading' (Elkin, Train & Denham, 2003)4 do not think so.

Even in these days of the internet and technology beyond our wildest dreams, the book remains the medium of choice for millions of people for leisure reading, relaxation, escapism and many other individual and intimate purposes...(p.1)

Turning Hong Kong pupils into dedicated readers
If we are going to help Hong Kong students become 'readers for pleasure' in this sense, we face a difficult task. We have to introduce them to the treasures that await them in the world of print and help them realise how much richer those treasures are than anything they can find in the easy world of technology. They have to be led into the magical land of books and their imaginations allowed to flourish there, but their guide must be someone who has travelled that land before.

The first step is for the teacher herself to become a reader, a lover of books. One of the criticisms made of English teachers in Hong Kong is that they do not see themselves as language teachers, as a teacher of French, for example, would in an English speaking country. If we sent our child to an international school in Hong Kong for example, we would naturally expect the French teacher to be someone who had studied French literature and was an avid reader of French, one who relishes the subtle nuances of meaning, the rich cadences of the language.

In Hong Kong, English is seen as a tool with limited applications. Since the applications are essentially practical, a practical approach is considered appropriate and sufficient. Adopting a practical approach precludes unlocking the world of imagination for young readers. But young people are full of imagination and have huge potential for creativity; they are not fired with enthusiasm for practical applications. Even if it could work, a utilitarian approach to the teaching of reading for young people would produce readers with practical skills who had been denied an opportunity to develop in ways which would contribute immeasurably to their personal growth.

A new direction
The recommendations of the new Curriculum Guide for Key Stage One and Two point school-based language learning and teaching in the right direction. Reading Workshops taking up 40% of the English curriculum constitute the essential infrastructure to support a new focus on reading development. The pedagogy of shared reading and guided reading are essential skills for teachers to acquire to ensure the effectiveness of the new initiative. These measures help begin to solve the problem, but the key to the real solution lies not in the infrastructure, but in the content of the reading materials we provide.

In 1887, Anne Sullivan, the legendary teacher of Helen Keller, wrote of the current state of education in the United States, that it seemed "to be built up on the supposition that every child is a kind of idiot who must be taught to think."5 If we look at the reading material which many young people are exposed to in textbooks and readers we would be tempted to believe that the same kind of supposition prevails.

The current state of the art
Let us look at what typifies reading material for the middle primary range of pupils aged eight to nine. We can speculate that the kinds of material readers of this age would have been exposed to on television, on the internet, in comics and in magazines would be relatively sophisticated and 'adult' in content. Their own lives would have been already rich in aesthetic, emotional, intellectual and experiential content. Pupils of this age would be most receptive to reading input which could fire their imagination, inspire them intellectually, appeal to their aesthetic appreciation, provide them with emotional content they could identify with, feed their creativity and stimulate them linguistically.

What we find being presented to young people of this age in textbooks and accompanying readers typically provides little or nothing to satisfy these appetites. Plots and storylines are generally devoid of stimulation or interest; descriptive detail is generally lacking;characters are wooden and faceless.In these texts, opportunity for linguistic stimulus is forgone in favour of mechanical repetitions of known forms. Only the blandest of language is used throughout and it is generally manipulated to serve as a model for reproduction irrespective of appropriateness to the genre, or the plot. Emotional depth is deliberately excluded; suspense and climax are rarely handled, but even these rare instances generally rely on pictures, rather than language, to create their effect. These texts lack aesthetic value and provide no stimulus to imagination or creativity.

A dilemma and a challenge
None of this comes as a surprise, of course. In fact it only serves to underline the dilemma we face in helping pupils make the transition from learning to read English as a second language, to reading English with confidence and enjoyment so that they can go on to read English in order to learn. However, as far as English is concerned, in Hong Kong we do not seem to be making a great deal of progress in deliberately NOT treating every child as if he was "a kind of idiot".

The challenge we face is to source reading materials which are inspiring, rich in stimulation, texts which acknowledge pupils as imaginative and creative beings, intelligent despite any limitation in the amount of second language they bring to the reading task.

Extract from "The Reader" in Stevens, W. (1984). Collected Poems. London:Faber and Faber (p. 165).
Extract from "The House was Quiet and the World was Calm" in Stevens (1984 p. 358).
Spufford, F. (2002). The Child that Books Built. London: Faber and Faber.
Elkin, J., Train, B. & Denham, D. (2003) Reading and reader development: the pleasure of reading. United Kingdom: Facet Publishing.
Keller, H. (2003) The Story of my Life. New York: Norton.