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Literacy Across Cultures March  1999 3/1

In Others' Words: How Learners Construct Reading Difficulties

Andy Barfield
University of Tsukuba
Tsukuba, Japan


This article is based on a presentation made as part of the Foreign Language Literacy SIG's roundtable at the 1997 JALT conference in Hamamatsu. In that presentation, I reported on what I had been trying to do in order to understand better what first-year non-English majors at the University of Tsukuba--Art and Design students in this case--found difficult in reading English. Data sources for this exploration consisted mainly of student self-reports written in English and collected from the students over a one-year period (academic year 1996-97). I used these self-reports to try and start answering from the learner's point of view three basic questions:

What do learners report as difficult in reading graded stories (summer term)?

How can learners move from graded to authentic reading material (autumn term)?

What do learners report as difficult in reading expository prose and academic text (winter/spring term)?

In this short article, then, I share some of the insights that such self-reports revealed. But first, questions of method need consideration.

Methodological Issues

As the writer, I naturally hope that you find the interpretations in this article trustworthy--that it meets your own experience and broadly parallels your own explorations with teaching reading. Though these interpretations are based on what my learners have told me, some words of caution are in order about the method of data collection. First, there is a question of how explicit the data can be considered. Seliger and Shohamy (1998), for example, rate self-reports as low in explicitness and advise multiple sources of data collection (p.127). Note that I used one source only--the learners' own self-reports. Second, where self-reports are used as a primary source, differences may occur between reported and actual performance, so some sort of control for what Brown (1988) terms "extraneous variables" is recommended (pp. 29-41). Note also that no explicit control was carried out. Brown also discusses the possibility of "subject expectancy" where the "research subjects" may make their best efforts to provide what they perceive as the desired answers to the researcher, thus making the data unreliable (Brown, op.cit.). I was unable to find a time-effective way to cross-check what the learners reported at the time of collecting the data. I should also point out that the number of self-reports varies for each section of this article, and that the main point of triangulation has so far been against my own experience and that of other teachers. A final point to note is that the categorization of the learners' reported difficulties is by no means clear-cut.

A question of position? I find myself hyphenated between teacher and researcher --not quite able to reconcile the two (see Freeman, 1998, for an elaborate discussion of that very hyphen). However, Nunan (1992), for example, approves the rise of introspective methods of data collection in recent years for classroom research. Moreover, he notes that it is hard to "see how the sort of data yielded by diaries and journals could be collected in any other way" (p.123). So, by way of qualifying the claims that are made in this article, it is probably best to describe the results as preliminary and in need of further investigation. They do set out some interesting and possible pathways, as you will see, but they are not absolutely watertight, in short.

Remembrance of Readings Past

I move now to the students' own experiences of reading in English, because this is what informed my decision to use extensive reading in the first place. How do first-year university students remember their past experiences in reading English? It seems that three features crop up again and again in their recalls: reading in order to learn explicitly grammar and vocabulary; reading aloud in order to practice pronunciation; reading as a means to memorization and test-taking. Comments such as the following from students illustrate these:

In the third year, the substance of the lesson is grammar, grasping the content of the textbook, and reading it smoothly. I go to my teacher to have her hear my reading. If I can read the textbook by heart, she gives me marks... (Junior High)

Then I entered a high school. We had two kind of English class, "reading class" and "grammar class". The content of the textbook become to be difficult. The vocabularies are rich and complicated. On every Tuesday we have the English test. It was said it "Weekly test" ... In the first year of high school it was written examinations. In the second, third year, it was written examinations and mark. My school class emphasized grammar and grasping the content of the sentences... (Senior High).

These experiences are to some extent an important part of the competitive preparation that school students must undergo for university entrance exams; one consequence that later becomes clear is how slowly first-year students initially plod through text as they read. Hence, the single greatest strength of extensively reading texts where the reader can experience a high rate of comprehension is that it makes reading both enjoyable and relatively easy. Reading can quickly become motivating. The risk, though, is to become complacent and believe that students do not face any problems in reading such graded texts.

Description of the Course

Before we look at any difficulties encountered, let me first contextualize the course by describing the materials, tasks and skills that formed the focus over three terms. Up to and including that academic year, I had organized the reading course into the following three different main components so as to match the three ten-week terms that the academic year is divided into at the University of Tsukuba. In the summer term, the reading materials consisted of a graded reader library that I had put together myself over a couple of years in the absence of any similar materials available at the university. Autumn term materials featured for five weeks each (i) newspaper articles chosen by the students themselves, and (ii) native speaker teenager content-based materials (such as books published by Usborne, which integrate explanations, instructions, and experiments in a visually colorful manner, as well as "How to..." books for native speaker adults, for which secondhand bookshops in the UK had provided a cheap source). In the final term, students were required to select their own expository prose/academic text books from the main university library and/or Art and Design library.

Reading tasks and skills practice varied according to the materials. For example, in the summer term, students read at least 600 pages, kept double-entry notes in their

notebooks (key points from the text on the left page, student's own response/opinion/ comment on the right page). In-class activities included reading and discussion, reading for pleasure and enjoyment, setting their own reading goals and keeping learning diaries to review their performance and develop their awareness of their changing reading styles and habits.

On the other hand, in the second term, students were asked to read one newspaper article a week for five weeks, and 20-pages from content-based materials books per week for the other five weeks. Here, they made summary notes, plus vocabulary notes in English and engaged in some strategy practice such as skimming, scanning, using the index and list of contents, and reading non-consecutive pages. They also learnt to parse sentences, use dictionaries, exploit surrounding text to guess words, mind-map key points, connect their own associations with those key points in text, to continue to set goals and keep learning diaries.

In contrast, in the winter/spring term, students chose their own books from university libraries and kept double-entry notes plus mind maps, thus bringing together two elements from the previous terms. In particular, they were asked to copy on the left pages of their notebooks difficult parts of the text, and on the right page to put down a comment about the difficult part, to ask a question and to attempt to answer their question as well (see Mateer, 1998, for more detailed explanation of this technique). The class also undertook further strategy training, which centered on ways of activating background knowledge to make the reading load easier--reading for concrete "everyday" examples before identifying and analyzing main "abstract" ideas; identifying lexical chains and basic lexical relationships of equivalence and opposition; further parsing of sentences; engaging in cooperative reading problem-solving with their peers and the teacher, as well as continuing to set their own reading goals and keeping learning diaries.


Encouraging regular feedback is part and parcel of adjusting the extensive reading component over each term, as are the tasks and skills work. Let's recall that the "simple" goal is to take students from reading graded easy-to-understand English through to being confident and motivated enough to tackle academic English on their own--and through into the future. At the same time, it is clear that this is by no means easy for students; in fact, it is a real challenge, given all the constraints. As such, to help my students meet that challenge, I depend a lot on what they tell me about their own reading processes--and their reading experiences, so that I can better advise and help them. In essence, if they don't explain to me where the reading difficulties lie, I am left at best as a classroom manager or resource provider. I am not, however, positioned to understand their reading processes any more clearly. In fact, although it is not always explicitly stated in learning-centered approaches, the teacher needs a constant stream of reflective feedback from the learner in order to play a more effective teaching role.

Problems Reported With Graded Text

Although students are able to gain a clear and strong sense of personal success in such reading, they do indeed face difficulties with graded text. What the results tend to show is that neither background knowledge nor complex sentence structure feature here as major difficulties for the first-year student reader of graded text. Rather, the students report comprehending as their most frequent difficulty--but comprehension from the point of view, it seems, of identifying strongly with the characters or plot development, and of trying to make sense of an incident or action whose implied meaning is not readily apparent. Language, it seems, does not get unduly in the way of trying to make the best sense of the stories, in other words. Thus, the familiar arguments made in favor of extensive reading hold true--learners can read with ease, and do concentrate on comprehending; vocabulary can arise as a difficulty, but it is relative, and not the single biggest hurdle faced (see Bamford and Day, 1997). Further, the results also seem to show that extensive reading, within such an interpretation, facilitates reading with success --or, depending on your point of view, deftly circumvents problems that such students may face once they move on from graded text towards newspaper articles and content-based materials. The results are summarized in Table 1, where students had been asked to report typical difficulties that they experienced and to explain them in English (total number of self-reports = 140).

 Table 1: What learners report as difficult in reading graded stories

Difficulty No. of mentions % of total Example Learner comment 
inferencing / disbelief/ comprehending 43
"Peter, you didn't write this story. You copied the story from a book. You cheated." Why did the teacher said so thing?
Victor Frankenstein died a few hours after he had written his last word. I was sad to see him die, because he had become a good friend. But he will not be unhappy or in pain any more, and I am happy for him. I couldn't understand this meaning. Why does he become happy for him?
vocabulary 32
He told the King that his daughter could make gold out of straw. I don't know the meaning of "straw". And I don't know "gold out of straw", too.
Many people had come to the funeral. I don't know the meaning of the last word.
sentence syntax 17
Then the diver came up for the last time, and the pearl that he brought with him was fairer than all the pearls of Ormuz, for it was shaped like the full moon, and it was whiter than the morning star. It is long sentence, words are used in the sentence is easy.
sentence meaning
"It's OK, man. I didn't burn, I'm fine." I don't know this sentence meaning.
Because the art group is meeting here this morning. I have to model for them. In America, is an art group meeting the house of members?
proper names 4
Grace bowed quietly and went back in through the dark door. I read this part of the book over and over, but I couldn't find some sentence about Grace, who she is.
Other: meta-questions, 
exclamations, discourse markers, pro-forms, ellipsis, pronunciation, poetry
As I landed, four of them came towards me and took me by the arms. 'We are taking you to Mr Kewin, the judge. He wants to ask you some questions about the murder of a man here last night.'  One scene before this scene is a scene of ship. I feeled this change of scene is too rapid to understand. It needs much more explanation.

Problems Reported With Newspaper and Teenage Content Texts

In the second term, the difficulties begin to shift. At this point in the year, the students are confident with reading; they have read many pages in the first term; they have also begun to improve their reading speed and fluency. Reading has started to become a success story. One lesson, though, that students indirectly learn with extensive reading is that they should read books through cover-to-cover, and that vocabulary can be largely understood in context through continuing to read and making repeated encounters with important items that are purposefully recycled through the story. When we look at the difficulties that students face in the second term, we see however that the different type of text is beginning to affect how the students perceive their reading difficulties as well as pointing to the need for more explicit awareness of choices and strategies that the reader can draw on. In the difficulties that students report on their problems with reading newspaper articles and teenage content-based materials, vocabulary clearly becomes the principal concern, with syntax and cohesion/coherence as secondary problems. Real-world knowledge remains a relatively minor obstacle. The shift in difficulties can be seen in Table 2 (total number of self-reports = 80).

 Table 2: Difficulties as learners move from graded to authentic reading material

Example reading difficulty  The difficulty explained in the students' words  Action taken 
Number of mentions 
of total

1 The scientist found out the fungi was digestive. 

2 Tokyo women injured in "copycat" attacks 

I didn't know what digestive means. 

I didn't know the word "copycat".

[Use dictionary] 

I looked up my dictionary because I wanted to know what digestive means. 

I used my dictionary.






Increasing public awareness and a tailing off in political viruses had cut significantly the infection rate suffered by Chinese computers, Wan said. 

I don't know "tail- ing off in political viruses." I couldn't understand what a main verb is. [Dictionary + parsing] 

I saw English-Japanese dictionary, but I didn't find "tail off". So I don't know now. Concerning grammar, I circled "Increasing ...political viruses" and lined on "significantly". I understand "had cut" is main verb, and "suffered" is adjunct of "the infection rate".





[Cohesion and coherence] 

This was due partly to the rapid increase in demand for teachers and partly because of calls for diversification.


I don't know what to stand for mean-ing of "this". 

[Continue to read; read before and after.] 

I continued to read near part of sentences. 





[Real world knowledge] 

Although he didn't have any on his wedding day - "I was still trying to hold back a bit so my wife didn't think I was weird" - this restraint apparently only lasted briefly.

The article tells about a man who devoted his life for ramen (Chinese noodle), And there were many unknown words about foods and tasting. [Guess / imagine] 

I visualized when I eat ramen ...





Other 7 9%
The implication is then that explicit vocabulary learning and local, bottom-up inferencing need to be tackled to support the move from graded text towards "authentic text". (Though not the easiest of terms to define, "authentic text" does provide a terminological contrast with the usually careful arrangement of text that goes into graded readers.) Here, then, there seems to be a certain pay-off between beginning to train dictionary skills and beginning to deal with text that has not been specifically produced for language learning purposes. It is not necessarily, in my view, the best of all balances. Yet, it seems a necessary interim stage between the freedom of reading large amounts of graded text independently, and beginning to learn skills for reading academic text on one's own.

Bridging the Gap Between Everyday and Academic?

I have been trying to develop further that bridging stage of the academic year. My current understanding--derived from a Vygotskian division between everyday concepts and scientific concepts--is that much more might be done in this stage to promote awareness of different text types and of variations in text structure. Whether newspaper "front-page news" articles are suitable is another question, for they follow fairly tight genre specific conventions. Perhaps, it is rather newspaper report articles on social trends that offer a more suitable bridge, in that such texts are often organized into what might be called "narrative-reports/ explanations." That is, parts of such articles feature first-person narratives of personal experience, with direct speech and quotes, that follow a collapsed personalized narrative structure of event-complication-resolution. These narrative parts are embedded within an overall organizational structure of report-explanation, where the journalist reports on social trends through summarizing a recently issued report. In fact, such first-person accounts are often juxtaposed and used to exemplify "real" (i.e. selective) ideological contrast and difference between various claims presented in the report-explanation parts of the text. Thus, the discourse of such "narrative-reports/ explanations" newspaper articles often alternates between expository text (reporting and explaining the social trend or problem) and illustrative narrative text (providing first-person examples to typify the trend or problem) within a "macro" problem-solution pattern.

This is in part quite similar to the way that many academic books develop their argumen --though academic text works at greater levels of abstraction and remote detail, and with much less directly recognizable first person experiences as supportive elaborations. Rather, many of the example elaborations in academic text take hypothetical everyday examples to make such a bridge (Imagine for example ..., Take the case ..., X is a case in point) between the two worlds of abstract ("scientific") concepts and the reader's imagined ("everyday") conceptual world. In effect, the narrative parts of such newspaper reports about social trends might be exploited to make the connection with graded texts of the first term, while the expository sections could be used to prepare for academic text.

Problems Reported With Academic Text

This brings us to the final part of this report, namely student perceptions of difficulties in reading academic text. Here, at first sight, it seems that vocabulary comes up as the major difficulty. However, again, we can note an interesting result. Vocabulary difficulties can be almost evenly split between discipline-specific vocabulary (i.e. content) and expository text-specific vocabulary (i.e. argument structure and text organization). Further, at the sentence-level, sentence length/syntax and background knowledge clearly feature as almost equally relevant difficulties. This indicates that the problem cannot be solved through an exclusive focus either on top-down or on bottom-up processing. Instead, these results point to the validity of an interactive model of the reading process in the foreign language for first-year students reading academic text. This can be understood more clearly if we look at the results in Table 3 (total number of self-reports = 110).

Table 3: Difficulties as learners read expository academic text

Difficulty # of mentions  % of total Example Learner comment 
vocabulary 27 25% The cult remained there throughout antiquity, dominating the city. The word "antiquity" is the noun, but for the meaning I don't have a clue. It might be pointing at a certain point or range of time.
 In the last days of the waning summer, I made the acquaintance of Beethoven and found this reputedly savage and unsociable man to be the most magnificent artist with a heart of gold, a glorious spirit and a friendly disposition. I can't image a heart of gold. I guess this means cold or hard heart, or this means twinkling heart. I don't remember "acquaintance" well. But I think "make the acquaintance" means "meet".
technical phrases  23 22% Perception, according to Larry Samovar and Richard Porter, is the "internal process by which we select, evaluate, and organize from the external environment." I don't understand the words "evaluate", "stimuli" and "external".I think "external" is the opposite of "internal" so it means "outside". If so, "stimuli" means information, influence or something, I think "evaluate" is between "select" and "organize" in this sentence. So, it is the process after selecting and before organizing. I think the word like that is "judge whether a thing is right".
sentence length 21 20% By the Ninth Century the old Roman towns, most numerous in the provinces bordering the Mediterranean, had sadly declined from their earlier importance, while in Northern Europe town life, even of the relatively superficial Roman type, had never developed. When I read the sentences like this, I always try to find "S" and "V", but this sentence is too long to be sure which is "S" and which is "V".


20 19% In many cases, the buds of a new style do not appear at first in readily recognizable form. Nor do they appear in a positive form which is immediately accepted by the majority. This is clearly true when one considers the periods of transition in style in the history of painting and architecture. I don't know about the periods of transition in painting well. So, such general opinion I cannot understand ... I need more knowledge about art and design.
syntax 11 9% Hatovani (who incidentally wrote an obituary of Schiele) saw Expressionism as a response to Impressionism, in which the world and the ego had admittedly been in harmony but where the ego had become an illusion that was no more than the sum of disparate sensations. I don't know this sentence exactly. Especially, I don't understand two parts "which ~" and "where ~". I don't know what "which" and "where" mean.
cohesion 5 3% It uses the method of small regular strokes invented by Seurat and employed contemporaneously by the French Neo-Impressionists, but here it is only a motif, a method of stylizing nature, of using the fragmentation of objects in real space - leaves, trunks, flower petals - as just so many elements of a pattern. What does "it" express? I understand the meaning of sentence, but I don't understand what "it" is. I think "it" expresses the method of small regular strokes (pointillism).
other  3 2%
These results are not surprising. What is surprising, perhaps, is that student self-reports largely reflect the "mainstream" claims and evidence about second language reading, as illustrated in the following comments by Eskey and Grabe (1988):

... we have no clear idea at this time of how readers in general combine bottom-up and top down processes, much less how particular readers do so. In practice, we are therefore still very dependent on each student's natural ability to learn, and our working goal must be to facilitate, not to mechanically control, that learning. (p.227)

...good readers process language in the form of written text without thinking consciously about it, and good second language readers must learn to do so... It is only this kind of local processing
that allows for global reading with true comprehension. (pp. 235-236)

Personally, I am not so sure about that "must". And in a sense that's what I'm working on at the moment with another reading class, more than a year after I collected the student self-reports presented in this report. If learning is actively solving problems, then reading probably also largely consists of recognizing problems, articulating them and choosing the appropriate actions to take.

Final Thoughts

To sum up, despite methodological weakness with the data collection, this article has set out in broad terms how learners perceive the difficulties that they face in reading in a foreign language. These difficulties vary according to text and task. Learners need to practice a variety of different reading skills and vocabulary learning strategies if they are to maintain a high rate of success as they move from graded text towards academic English. By asking learners to identify and report the reading difficulties that they experience, many useful insights can be gained, not least of which is that over the course of one academic year the students become remarkably articulate and reflective in explaining how they read. This increased awareness also involves a heightened degree of effective and independent strategic control on their part. At the bare minimum, these learner surveys point to some central questions about reading development in a foreign language.


Bamford, J. & R. Day. (1997). Extensive reading. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brown, J.D. (1988). Understanding research in second language learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Carrell, P.L., Devine, J. & D. Eskey (Eds.). (1988). Interactive approaches to second language reading. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Eskey, D. & W. Grabe. (1988). Interactive models for second language reading: perspectives on instruction. In Carrell, P.L., Devine, J., & D. Eskey (Eds.), Interactive approaches to second language reading (pp. 223-238). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Freeman, D. (1998). Doing teacher research. Toronto: Heinle and Heinle.

Mateer, B. (1998). A reader response approach to junior high oral communication classes. [In, FL literacy: Meeting needs and realities in Japan (Presentations from the JALT 97 Foreign Language Literacy N-SIG Roundtable)]. Literacy Across Cultures, 2 (2), pp. 3-8.

Nunan, D. (1992). Research methods in language learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Seliger, H.W. and E. Shohamy. (1989). Second language research methods. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Andy Barfield can be contacted at: Foreign Language Centre, Tsukuba University, Tennoudai, 1-1-1, Tsukuba-shi, Ibaraki-ken 305; e-mail < jp>.

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Literacy Across Cultures
March 1999 3/1