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Interview with Beatrice Mikulecky

bea_mikulecky.jpg Beatrice Mikulecky holds a master's degree in TESOL and a doctorate in Applied Psycholinguistics from Boston University. In addition to teaching reading, writing, and ESL, she has worked as a teacher-trainer in the Harvard University Summer ESL Program, in the Simmons College MATESL Program, and in Moscow, Russia. She is the author of A Short Course in Teaching Reading Skills and co-author of the Reading Power series.

Beatrice conducted this interview by e-mail with ELT News editor Mark McBennett in April 2005. In May, 2005 she visits Japan to take part in Longman ELT's 4-city Skills Tour.

These days the English language is often in the media and political spotlight for two main reasons: Its role in globalization and issues regarding reading and literacy. The latter is a subject you've written and spoken about extensively. How did you become a reading specialist?
After I received my master's degree in education, I went to work at a private high school in Boston, and I was assigned to teach reading. I wanted to strengthen my skills as a reading teacher, so I took evening classes to become certified as a reading specialist. I found that it was a rich experience to teach and study at the same time. I was able to apply what I was learning about the teaching of reading in my own reading classes.
Reading is enjoying a resurgence, both in EFL programs and as a means to bolster native-language literacy. Do you see any connections between these two areas?
Yes, I see connections between a stronger emphasis on reading instruction in EFL programs and the enhancement of native-language literacy. Students can learn to read fluently and with good comprehension in English, and that success evokes a more positive attitude towards reading in their native language. Moreover, when students realize that reading is a thinking process, they can adapt many of the thinking processes that they learn in EFL to reading in their native language. And, finally, once students notice how much they enjoy pleasure reading in English, they are likely to want to read for pleasure in their native language, too.
Defining literacy as the ability to read, write and comprehend, can learning these skills in a foreign language have the reverse benefit of improving a student's literacy in their own language by making them more aware of the processes of language?
Literacy has most recently been defined as more than the ability to read, write and comprehend. It's the ability to do those things within the expectations of a particular cultural context. I think that becoming literate in a foreign language certainly raises the student's awareness of the processes of language, but it also highlights the role of cultural expectations in the use of language. This heightened awareness of literacy as a socio-linguistic-cultural phenomenon, in turn, can enhance the student's native language literacy. That's because once students have learned that English literacy practices include cultural expectations, they begin to notice the cultural expectations that underlie their native language and literacy practices.
You have said, in your book More Reading Power, that "learning to read well in English means learning to think in English." This of course can be said of any of the language skills. Is reading in any way unique in this sense?
Of course students must learn to think in English in order to speak, write and comprehend spoken language. We have found, though, that many students have the mistaken idea that reading is different, that reading is merely translating word by word from one language to another. However, effective readers read for ideas, for how the words are put together in ways that are unique to the language. That is why we stress the importance of thinking in English while reading.
How can we teachers here in Japan help students make a smooth transition from translating from English to their first language to thinking in English?
Here are a few suggestions:
  • Students should read for pleasure, and the books that they read should be easy enough so that they do not need to translate words to follow the story.
  • Students should be discouraged from writing the native language translation of words in English texts.
  • Teachers should ask students to explain orally (in English) their answers to various exercises in their English books. How did they arrive at their answer? What is the logic that they followed?
  • Teachers should model the use of the target language by using it as much as possible during English reading classes, especially in explaining why certain answers are correct and others are not...
You describe the four skills or activities necessary for improved reading ability as Reading for Pleasure, Reading Comprehension Skills, Reading Faster and Thinking Skills. Can I ask you to briefly summarize your thinking behind those four points?
Reading for pleasure is also called "extensive reading." Research has shown that students need to read a lot in a foreign language in order to develop reading fluency, a larger vocabulary, and a sense of immersion in the language. Therefore, pleasure reading is a vital part of the reading class. The important feature of pleasure reading is the quantity of books read, not necessarily the quality of the books. Students should select their own books, but they should be guided to choose books that are at their level of comprehension. Pleasure reading books should be what Stephen Krashen termed "comprehensible input." A book that is too difficult is inappropriate for pleasure reading. The books should be easy enough for students to read without having to use the dictionary constantly (fewer than 5 unknown words per page). For students at beginning levels, graded readers are a good choice.

Reading comprehension skills are the thinking processes that good readers employ, usually unconsciously, to reconstruct the writer's intended message. For EFL students, the most effective skills are those that help them learn how information is presented in English. In order to acquire these specific comprehension skills, teachers should focus students' attention on one skill at a time. Students must learn to talk about their thinking as they work on the skill, and they must have opportunities to apply the skills once they have learned them. This training results in metacognitive development -the ability to think about one's own thinking processes. Several studies have reported excellent results for Japanese students who were trained to use comprehension skills.

Reading faster, also known as "reading fluency," is essential for comprehension. Slow reading means reading one word at a time, and that is ineffective because the brain doesn't deal with the input of individual words. In order to be processed, the input must be in the form of ideas expressed in phrases and sentences. Besides being essential for comprehension, reading faster is the key to success in schools, colleges, and businesses where students are required to complete large amounts of reading. One of the major factors in student failure is the inability to keep up with the reading assignments.

Thinking skills training helps students learn to think in English. Thinking in English means learning how ideas are presented in English. This includes being able to notice and understand syntactic, semantic, and logical connections between ideas.
In your books you have used reading rate tables and reading progress charts which allow students to plot their reading development. How did you come up with the standards?
In a sense, the charts and tables do not represent standards. Each student's rate is different, and the idea behind the charts and tables is to allow each student to work at steadily increasing their reading rate. Consequently, we included a wide range of possible reading rates.

There is some agreement among specialists that students should strive for a reading rate of at least 250 words per minute for non-technical expository text at their level of comprehension. At that rate, the student is reading ideas, not individual words, and they are successful in comprehending what they are reading. When I teach EFL reading, I encourage students to work toward the goal of doubling their initial reading rate by the end of the semester.
Audio-visual technology has developed to the point where music, radio, movies and TV are as portable as books, often even more so. And they are obviously more compelling. How can reading for pleasure hope to compete? Isn't the kind of reading that we usually teach increasingly becoming something that younger people will do only out of obligation, at work or in the classroom? What have you found to be the most effective way of motivating the students who are less enthusiastic about reading in English to read more?
These are difficult questions! Yet the number of books sold, at least in the United States, continues to increase, and most of the books are bought to read for pleasure. So there must be something special about pleasure reading. In fact, pleasure reading is a habit, and once students are hooked on books, they will choose to read for pleasure on their own.

How do you hook students on books? First of all, and most importantly, they must read books that they really want to read, books that speak to their own inner feelings and concerns. Obviously that will vary from one student to the next. The teacher's most important job in this case is to expose students to the widest possible collection of books, and to get to know each student and help them identify a book that will "hook" them.

Second, students need to be given time during class to reading silently. This is called "sustained silent reading."

Third, students need to learn how to express their response to the books that they choose to read. However, this should not be done in the form of a traditional written book report. It's best to plan class time for students to tell the class or to tell the teacher about their book and their reaction to it. In this way, teachers can instill in their students the meaning of "pleasure" in pleasure reading.
How would you respond to the often-quoted fear in Japan that early English education (from elementary school) has a negative effect on first language development.
Most studies show that children who grow up speaking two languages are more successful in school. Rather than interfering with their mastery of their native language, the ability to use a second language actually increases children's awareness of language processes.

Linda Jeffries, co-author of the Reading Power books and a native speaker of English, lives in Italy with her Italian husband and their two children. The children, born in Italy, are completely bilingual. They consider Italian their native language, but they are just as fluent in all aspects of English. In fact, they spent a school year in the United States, learning only in English. On their return to Italy, they easily moved ahead in their school work in Italian. They're in high school now and getting ready to apply to college. Their options are greater because they are bilingual.
What journals and books, other than your own, would you recommend to those who want to improve their own teaching skills in this area?
The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy (International Reading Association)
Reading in a Foreign Language

I do want to mention one of my own books that teachers of reading often find very helpful.
Mikulecky, B. 1991. A Short Course in Teaching Reading Skills. Addison-Wesley Longman.

Birch, Barbara M. 2002. English L2 Reading: Getting to the Bottom. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Carrell, P., J. Devine, & D. Eskey. 1988. Interactive Approaches to Second Language Reading. Cambridge University Press.

Day, R. R. and J. Bamford. 1998. Extensive Reading in the Second Language Classroom. Cambridge University Press.

National Institute for Literacy, U.S. Department of Education 2001. Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read.

Prowse, Philip. Top Ten Principles for Teaching Extensive Reading: A Response. Reading in a Foreign Language, Volume 14, Number 2, October 2002 (available online)

Sharp, A. 2002. Chinese L1 schoolchildren reading in English: The effects of rhetorical patterns. Reading in a Foreign Language, 14(2), 111-135 (available online

Uehara, K. (1994) The effect of global strategy training on comprehension and metacognitivie awareness in the Japanese lower secondary EFL reading classroom. Unpublished thesis. Gunma University, Japan.
What can teachers hope to learn during your upcoming 4-city Skills Tour of Japan this month?
Teachers will hear more about the reading comprehension process and the challenges that Japanese students face when they read in English. They will be introduced to an approach to teaching reading that is student-centered and includes variety, fun and results. They'll have a chance to work on several key comprehension skills and find out how their students can learn to think in English and explain their thinking. They'll hear about techniques for encouraging pleasure reading in English. Teachers will come away with ideas for developing richer lessons for their students.

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I am a big fan of the Reading Power series and have been using it for 5 years now in an EFL context at a Japanese university. The books cover all the reading processes and skills thoroughly yet flexibly so that you can jump around. Students always enjoy the course. So in our situation, selection of reading text is a no-brainer. However, I was wondering if anyone knows if there is a "listening" workbook that corresponds with the approach taken by Reading Power toward reading. With our constrained and limited curriculum, we decided to focus primarily on receptive skills. As I said, we chose our reading text quite easily (Reading Power!), but we are having difficulty finding a Listening Power. Any suggestions?

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