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Literacy Across Cultures March  1999 3/1

Enabling a Reader Through Picture Books: A Case Study

Fatimah Hashim
>University of Malaya
Kuala Lumpur


Many teachers are often at a loss of what to do with their low-proficiency EFL learners. These learners are seen to be lowly motivated as they normally have an assumption of inferiority: "I find English difficult," "I don't like the subject," "I am not good." There is value in training them to read in order to improve their proficiency and hence their motivation towards learning the language.

This paper discusses the merits of using picture books together with the explicit teaching of reading strategies in an interactive environment to train beginning readers. Results of a small study on the use of picture books to train a thirteen year old to read in English suggest that the learner made progress in her reading because interaction was the vehicle for instruction--the text series and the teacher brought together a critical set of events to support and provide scaffolding for the interactions the learner had with the texts.

Using Picture Books With Adolescent Readers

Picture books have long been considered to be of use only for young, beginning readers, both in first and second language reading. There is a dearth of research on their potential for facilitating reading for older learners learning English as a second or foreign language. However, one persistent proponent of the use of picture books for second-language learners, Smallwood (1987, 1992), has shown that literature exists that is appropriate for low-proficiency English learners who are older than the average age the picture books are written for. In fact, she found this literature to be appropriate for adult EFL learners as well. She outlines the characteristics of picture books:

  • The themes, topics or story-lines of the books are appropriate to the age of the learners.
  • The main characters are similar in age or older than the learners.
  • The sentence patterns are simple and mostly controlled. These are often repeated.
  • There is limited use of unfamiliar language and experiences.
  • Rhyming is included as it aids memorisation and is generally useful in language learning.
  • The plot is simple and straight-forward, in chronological order. Descriptions of characters are simple and clear. The stories are often action-packed.
  • The use of dialogue is realistic.
  • The books are suitable for reading aloud.
  • The stories are short and can be completed in 5-10 minute sittings.
  • The books are single volumes ensuring the students' sense of completion.
  • The books are well-illustrated. Ideally, the reader is able to understand the story just by looking at the pictures. (Smallwood posits that this is important as both the teacher and the students depend on the pictures to explain new vocabulary or experiences.)
  • The amount of text on a page is limited, as the page should contain more illustrations than text. As the students increase in language proficiency, there should be more text than pictures.
  • Smallwood's list describes simple texts for a specific group of learners with specific needs, in particular, low-proficiency EFL learners. Her view reflects the thinking of proponents of teaching low-proficiency learners to learn a second or foreign language through reading. The advocacy of picture books also involves issues raised in EFL's ongoing debate about the merits and demerits of using simplified versus authentic texts. Elley (1984) argues that texts are simple only with respect to the needs of a specific audience, and this view is echoed by Alderson and Urquhart (1984), who assert that texts should be selected in terms of their appropriateness for the audience. Appropriateness involves many factors, including the amount of redundancy in a text (Haynes, 1984) and textual "density" (Berman, 1984), which need to be taken into account when choosing reading materials. These views are further affirmed by Carrell, Devine, and Eskey (1988, p.272) who conclude: "Reading of real, if simplified, texts should be at the heart of any second language reading program".

    In Search of a Model for Teaching Reading

    Questions of what materials to use are closely connected to reading models and teaching methods. Models of reading instruction abound, each emphasising particular processes and the instruction that stimulates those processes. One promising model for remedial reading instruction comes from Clay (1979). Clay's theory advocates the use of explicit, systematic teaching of reading skills, especially the elements of decoding, which is in opposition to the position of the whole language approach that places emphasis on the creation of authentic learning environments where any skills instruction that occurs should be in the context of natural reading and done only as needed. Clay's methodology and instructional principles, called Reading Recovery (Clay, 1993), combine elements of learning and teaching of potential value for a strategy-training model in reading for disadvantaged learners.

    A close examination of the philosophy behind the Reading Recovery approach reveals that much could be adopted from Clay's theories of how learning can be accelerated. Through her work with at-risk readers, Clay posits that the low-achieving child needs security, self-confidence and acceptance. She argues that in order to facilitate learning for low-achieving children, the reading program must begin with the individual child to provide appropriate experiences for building on her prior knowledge. Drawing on Vygotsky's notion of the "zone of proximal development" (z.p.d), Clay reasons that the essence of successful teaching is for the teacher to know what each child's potential is for a particular task and to work with the child to reach her highest potential.

    The notion of the teacher's role implicit in her view is that, in working alongside the child, the teacher can become a keen observer and develop skills in nurturing appropriate responses which can advance the child's learning. The teacher is also supposed to be fostering strategic control to enable the learner to learn to read by reading, promoting the development of the "Matthew Effect" (Stanovich, 1986), wherein the more a strategic reader reads, the more she improves her reading achievement. The interaction between child and instructor is crucial to its success. Although it may appear that Clay is particularly focused on a theory of early reading and child development in L1, there is a great deal in her methodology that seems useful for the acceleration of learning among low-achieving learners more generally. Whether she intended it or not, Clay has opened an avenue for generating practice-based knowledge about teaching reading.

    Based on Clay's theory and pedagogy of accelerating learning for the low-achieving learner, a reading program very similar to Reading Recovery (Clay 1979) was developed for a thirteen year-old EFL learner, Azira. Basically, Azira read picture books from the lowest level (a few words on a page) and moved up the levels (8-10 sentences on a page) as she progressed. Here's a brief description of the impact of the program on her.

    Azira's Progress in Reading

    Azira came from a very poor family and spoke no English at home. She said English was an important but difficult subject. She could remember reading about five English books with little understanding. She admitted that she had made no effort to improve her English on her own because she thought that she was not good in the subject. When asked what she did when she had difficulty understanding an English story book, she said she just put the book aside.

    Although she appeared enthusiastic, Azira was a timid student when she read her first book for the program. She paused often and struggled to read a level one book (four short sentences a page). She reacted very positively to words of praise for good learning practices such as attempts at self-correction. As a result, she seldom made the same mistake twice. She was apprehensive about giving the wrong answers, speaking softly when she was not sure. Even when she gave the correct answer, she would hesitate when asked to repeat. On many occasions she responded to questions by staring at the book and frowning. To the question "Do you think you can be good in English?" she replied, "I don't know. It's hard."

    After a few readings which were closely facilitated by the teacher, she began to show signs that she was consciously thinking about her learning, as illustrated by some of her earlier journal entries:

    When I come across a difficult word, I try to sound the words several times to hear it so I can understand what I am reading.

    I am not careful when reading. I go too fast and make mistakes. I hope to be more careful by pronouncing the words more clearly.

    She had also begun to hypothesise about her reading ability. I observed that Azira would copy down the title and mark it every time she completed reading a book. She gave two reasons for doing that. One was to count the number of books she had read successfully and the other was to note the titles so she could recall the stories. Evidently, being able to read and understand what she read was important to her.

    She was also trying very hard to use the prompted strategies to facilitate her reading and reported the use of self-questions often. When asked how she practised self- questions, she said, "When I come to a difficult word, I stop for a while and if I understand, I move on." Asked which strategy facilitated her comprehension, she said, "I look at the pictures. I try to follow the story."

    Asked if she could tell me what she thought brought about the significant improvement in her reading fluency and comprehension, she said, "I understand the story." Her journal entry, however, provided some clues:

    I am trying to improve my English. With short words or words I have come across, I try to always remember the correct pronunciation before sounding out the words. With words that are difficult, I pronounce over and over again until I remember them.

    Data from my observation record corroborate the data from her journal. Her journal entries indicate a realisation of her gains through involvement in the project. Towards the end she wrote:

    It (the program) has helped me a lot. I learn how to understand difficult words. Before this I dare not read in English. Now I know a lot of English words.

    As acknowledged by her and as indicated by her reading performance, more and more encounters with known words gave her direct access to wider vocabulary of words that required little or no special procssing. Her journal entries show a real concern for managing her reading and correcting errors. Constantly repeated in the entries is the sentence, "When I read, I try to be conscious of my errors and correct them."

    The Roles of the Text, the Teacher and the Learner

    As this case study shows, respite for struggling EFL readers can be found in a reading program using picture books and where the teacher primes interaction with the learner so the learner can interact with the text successfully. The books used in these lessons played an important role. The student could read these short books quickly, gaining confidence that comes with accomplishment. In addition, the language of the text builds on and repeats phrases, thus facilitating the learner's interaction with it. This repetitiveness helps the learner to grasp important points and to provide an adequate synopsis of what is being read. This is important, as it has been shown that not being able to produce a summary is a clear sign that comprehension is not proceeding smoothly (Brown, Palincsar, and Armbruster, 1984). Because there is not much to remember, with guidance the learner can recall significant events in the stories for retelling. There is also less need for the learner to interpret the story since the storylines are simple. This reduces the fear of not being able to understand the content, which might affect learner confidence. The books also present material that is appropriate for the kind of interaction fostered in the program.

    In general, the feelings of success and achievement that come with being able to read these texts and understand stories written in English can motivate learners to read more, improving their reading and understanding. When learners can easily grasp and quickly become familiar with the story, they are more likely to find reading a manageable and rewarding challenge (Clay, 1993). The picture books become a form of "comprehensible input" (Krashen, 1985) for these learners.

    The role of the teacher is to guide the student to think about her reaction to the story and, in so doing, assess her comprehension. For example, Azira's attempts at sounding words were mainly guesses, as she had limited oral language to draw on. That is why the presence of the

    teacher is crucial--the feedback component of the interaction between the teacher and the learner is the essence of the approach adopted in this reading program. Because the aim is to make the student less dependent on the teacher as she gains confidence in her ability, providing immediate feedback on successful attempts is important. But responsibility also lies with the learner. The learner in this study attempted to take responsibility for her own learning by trying to problem solve her reading, illustrating that learning or reading a book successfully in English with accuracy and understanding was partly up to her. As her diary entries show, she was also capable of reflecting on her learning.

    Some Propositions

    Basically, how we treat individual learners is what is most important for learning to take place. A non-threatening environment can be created where they are encouraged to succeed in an atmosphere of comradeship and understanding. With this in mind, I would like to advance the following propositions about training low-proficiency or under-achieving learners in the use of strategies to facilitate EFL reading and comprehension:

    1) It is possible to gain efficiency in reading when:

  • the learner's attitude is positive
  • the practice of strategies is followed by reflection on the experience
  • there is comprehensible input from the teacher/trainer immediate feedback is given on good practices
  • learners are allowed to use L1 in communication
  • L1 is used when the teacher explains meanings and concepts when instructions are given.
  • 2) Fluency and accuracy in reading can be achieved without oral proficiency in the language but with the use of carefully selected texts of appropriate difficulty.

    3) Clay's instructional method and learning theory is potentially useful for guiding training in foreign language reading.

    The study set out to document the effectiveness of using picture books together with the explicit teaching of reading strategies in an interactive environment, as proposed by Clay, in training a low- proficiency EFL reader. The results indicate that Clay's methodology is useful. Her model of reading acquisition defines reading as working continuously on manageable texts with the story as the focal point of attention. Azira's progress in reading and comprehension can be understood based on the principles driving this model of reading instruction.


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    Elley, W.B. (1984). Exploring the reading of second language learners in Fiji. In Alderson, J.C. & Urquhart, A.H. (Eds.), Reading in a foreign language (pp. 281-301). Harlow: Longman.

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    Stanovich, K. E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21 (4), 360-407.

    Fatimah Hashim can be contacted at: Dept of Language Education, Faculty of Education, University of Malaya, 50603 Kuala Lumpur, MALAYSIA; e-mail <>.

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    Literacy Across Cultures
    March 1999 3/1