Literacy Across Cultures
June, 1997 1/1

How to Develop Reading-To-Do Skills in Engineering Education

Esko Johnson
Kokkola Institute of Technology (Finland)


Technologists read technical manuals and handbooks in a foreign language on a day-to-day basis, as shown in needs analysis studies. To meet this need, institutions of technical education are committed to teaching their students the functional (reading-to-do) literacy skills of the domain. These skills are usually taught in connection with foreign language education.

A study that I conducted (Johnson, 1997) looked into the ways in which pairs of engineering students accessed instruction texts in a real-life setting. In reading-to-do sessions, the participant pairs were required to act upon technical instructions. The selection of participant tasks included installing a bus mouse on a microcomputer, setting the clock and timer of a video cassette recorder, and making an audio recording with a tape deck. The tasks took from 9 min. to 1 hr. 20 min to complete and session time used for reading ranged from 7% to 76%. The strategies of accessing the manual text varied from step-by-step microprocessing (i.e., making sense of the text very slowly) to extremely casual top-down reading. Pair participation ranged from individual sub-tasking to shared problem-solving and negotiation of textual meaning.

However, not very much is known about "real-life" manual reading: how the text and the task are processed, and what factors come into play in the context. The aim of this article is to discuss the findings of a recent reading-to-do study and to propose ideas for the design of literacy instruction.

Procedural, metacognitive, and content-specific knowledge either instantiated individually or negotiated by the pair had a crucial role in task completion and in accessing the manual text successfully. Depending on individual orientation and the approach negotiated between the partners, the lack of "what-to-do" knowledge could be offset by joint reading, shared problem-solving, and heuristics. On the other hand, if the gap of knowledge between the pair was wide and the individual approaches in reading-to-do were very different, the pair was likely to end up in subtasking, with a low level of collaboration.


The interplay of the real-world task and reading is best put into the form of a meta-orientation: The meta-orientation is meta-cognitive, and thus involves processes like self-monitoring and evaluation (cf. Block, 1986, 1992). It is also conditional. An example of this would be that information search and construction of knowledge are optional, and usually instantiated only if necessary (cf. Larch, Larch, and Classes, 1993). Information search and construction of knowledge for the problem at hand are interconnected. The meta-orientation is important as it helps us understand the variation of processes and approaches in reading-to-do.

A particular type of literacy, such as reading-to-do when installing computer hardware, relates to much more than the linguistic content, mental representations, or reading processes involved (Hudson 1987, Venetzky 1990). What is most important is the function which is embedded in the contextualised situation. I believe that these combined factors indicate that the common view that literacy skills are easily transferred from one context to another should be reconsidered.

It seems reasonable, then, that the student would benefit from being allowed to develop his/her functional language processing skills in the full context of the task. This would be an alternative to various "activity-driven" approaches, with carefully designed input of linguistic content and learner training, that typically attempt to monitor and model the text-processing strategies of the student. I propose a task-based approach, where the student proceeds from the whole-task perspective, with instructional exposure and input similar to the real-life context.

Task-based learning for global learning

Task-based learning (Candlin 1987:522) is seen as more motivating and meaningful for the student than traditional approaches, and is an approach which should correspond well with the target skills of the specialist domain for which the student is being trained. In task-based learning, materials, media and tools should be chosen that the student is likely to use after training; assessment techniques and student evaluation should support this. Learner contribution in the design stage of the task is highly recommended. But how can the teacher--who in most cases would teach L2 reading in a more piecemeal fashion--manage the (potential) variability of ensuing learning situations and cognition processes?

I suggest that systematic control of how the student processes the linguistic input is not of prime instructional importance. Instead, the teacher should tune in to the global aspect. The individual development of professional literacy skills and strategies might then be best achieved by promoting context-specific transfer of learning and learner independence. The teacher's main concern would thus be to facilitate the acquisition of literacy practices for successful problem-solving and related cognitive processes.

The tasks assigned to students should be completed collaboratively. The findings of this study indicate that pair collaboration is positive and helpful; it makes practical problem-solving with reading faster, facilitates synergetic processes, and potentially leads to a high amount of shared cognition. In a realistic way, the participants recognise and modify the various roles they have in the task and in reading. The motivation for collaboration appears substantial. In my study, disagreement on a joint cognitive process was only to be found on practical issues, not on the foundation of collaboration itself. The participants in this study also produced a wide range of realistic evaluations about their own and their partner's contribution. This indicates that metacognitive and learning-to-learn skills are naturally acquired in such a setting.

Materials and methods

Text-based learning in engineering education requires domain-specific materials and media that are rarely to be found in the immediate learning environment of the language classroom. One possible answer to this problem is team-teaching. Teachers could bring in other content teachers with their special professional knowledge, which would provide students a more reliable way of recognising domain-specific, context-based discourse practices. It would also allow the introduction and development of literacy skills across the curriculum.

Rather than working from a generic model of a strategic reader, the teacher should set out to establish a climate which supports not only the development of reading skills but also roles required in collaboration. This involves observing how the students read and co-operate during task completion, and resorting to indirect rather than direct feedback while the reflective problem-solving process is in progress. This approach lets the practical task "talk to" and "teach" the student.

After completing the task, the students' reading processes could be discussed in the foreign language classroom. A retrospective discussion of how the text was processed should guide the student to improve his/her literacy skills. A useful support for the didactic discussions would be a post-reading questionnaire filled in by the students after the task. Through these activities, students are able to verbalise their reading-to-do tactics in a meaningful way.

The curricular objectives of foreign language instruction in engineering education have a focus on technical writing as well. The full scale of domain-specific literacy could be explored by involving the students in a reading-writing connection (i.e., in foreign-language instruction where the reading and writing of texts take place simultaneously). Classroom activities could combine the study of authentic manual texts and the design of operating instructions for real-life equipment that are available in the language class or in the school premises. Process writing in a collaborative manner would be especially beneficial for this kind of instructional approach.


People reading technical books and manuals in a foreign language have special needs, which are best met by focussing on their meta-orientation by using a task-based approach. Task-based collaborative work is especially useful in helping such readers learn reading skills, and also provides interaction which allows them to develop their meta-cognitive strategies and learner independence.


Block, E. 1986. The Comprehension Strategies of Second Language Readers. TESOL Quarterly, 20, 463-494.

 Block, E. 1992. See How They Read: Comprehension Monitoring of L1 and L2 Readers. TESOL Quarterly, 26, 319-343.

 Candlin, C. 1987. Towards Task-Based Language Learning. In Candlin C., and D. Murphy (eds.), Language Learning Tasks. Lancaster Practical Papers in English Education. Vol. 7. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

 Hutson, B. 1987. Literacy at School and Literacy at Work. In Bloome, D. (ed.) Literacy and Schooling. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex.

 Johnson, E. 1997. Task-integrated pair-reading: a study of functional literacy in a foreign language. Unpublished Licentiate Thesis in English Philology. University of Jyvaskyla.

 Lorch, R., E. Lorch, and M. Klusewitz 1993. College Students' Conditional Knowledge about Reading. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85, 239-252.

 Venetzky, R. 1990. Definitions of Literacy. In Venezky, R., D. Wagner, and B. Ciliberti (eds.) Toward Defining Literacy. Newark, Del.: International Reading Association.


Esko Johnson can be contacted at: Kokkola Institute of Technology, Talonpojankatu 2, 67100 Kokkola, Finland. For those using e-mail or the World Wide Web, contact, or point your browser to

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Literacy Across Cultures
June, 1997 1/1