Reading in a Second Language

A Model of Second-Language Reading

The purpose of this review of the research literature and design of a theoretical  model of is twofold:  (1) to describe a model of second-language reading to illustrate points at which linguistic and cross-cultural factors come into play that may present difficulty for the English-language learner in the reading process; and (2) to describe how linguistic theory and knowledge of the reading process inform teachers about the instructional strategies they should implement to facilitate and enhance bilingual reading. The model of the second language reading process and points of linguistic and cross-cultural interaction presented is based on psycholinguistic and interactive theories of reading. Click here to access the Model of L2 Reading (Mora, 1999). While psycholinguistic theories view reading as a cyclical process of sampling, predicting, testing and confirming meaning based on the syntactic patterns that are familiar to the reader (Goodman, 1976), the interactive model assumes that the reader engages simultaneously in decoding and cognitive meaning construction of the text based on relevant past experiences (Nurss and Hough, 1992).  Both bodies of theory contribute to the understanding of the competencies and skills needed for teaching the bilingual reader and to the development of the current model through  a review and synthesis of research on second-language reading.

In a review of the linguistic perspective on reading, Wardhaugh (1969) defined linguistic competence as the components of a system to which the reader has access in the attempt to comprehend the written text. Barnitz (1985) stated that while reading English as a second language may consist of universal reading strategies, various levels of language systems influence the reading process and operate simultaneously in comprehension.  Thus, if one area is weak in the second language reader’s system, the systems of language and cognition that must interact to achieve comprehension may be impeded. Consequently, teachers should pay special attention to points at which the interaction of linguistic and cross-cultural factors may require adaptation of the reading skills utilized by the bilingual reader in decoding and comprehending his or her second language.

Linguistic and Cross-cultural Factors in Second-Language Reading

The current model of linguistic and cross-cultural factors in L2 reading (Figure 1) examines three levels of competence utilized in extracting meaning from text where research has confirmed that discernible patterns of errors or weaknesses often occur in the reading process (Ammon, 1987). These also represent areas where bilingual readers utilize particular strategies to compensate for lack of proficiency in English, such as translation or recourse to the phonology, vocabulary and syntax of their native language. Figure 2 illustrates the specific instructional strategies teachers can utilize to address each of the linguistic and cross-cultural factors that affect the L2 reading process. The model utilizes and expands the levels identified by Coady (1979) in his theoretical model of psycholinguistic process in reading:

1)   The decoding level, where grapheme-phoneme-morpheme relationships are deciphered and where interference may occur due to phonological differences between the reader’s first and second languages or lack of familiarity with English spelling patterns.
2)   The semantic and syntactic level, where equivalent auditory forms or referents may be variant or absent, or semantic confusion may occur, reducing the reader’s ability to utilize contextual cues in reading. This level is also where lack of familiarity with English grammatical structures and word order patterns reduces the level of predictability for rapid processing of the text.
3)   The meaning or discourse level that depends on the activation of schemata and the reader’s comprehension of linguistic deep structure and communicative intent of the author in order to fully comprehend the purpose and message of the reading passage or literacy event.

The Decoding Level

The smallest minimal cue to meaningful reading of a first and second language is the phonological or sound system as it is corresponds to the orthographic or writing system of the language of the text. This is an area where children learning to read a second language may encounter some stumbling blocks (Barnitz, 1985). A survey of psycholinguistic and interactive reading models reveals variations in the relative importance given to aural-oral competencies required for decoding. Goodman (1976) delineated the various decoding systems that interact in reading, the first being the grapho-phonic system, involving the perception of printed cues and the utilization of knowledge of spelling-sound patterns. This grapho-phonic system interacts with the syntactic cues and the semantic system as the reader reconstructs the author’s message.

In a description of how the reader arrives at a correspondence between written forms and oral speech, Carroll (1970) indicated that readers responded to the graphic stimulus input of the written text through a process of “oral reconstruction” or sub-vocalization. He theorized that the meaning response that resulted from decoding is parallel to the response produced by the identical oral message. This is attributable to differences between the sounds in the bilingual reader’s repertoire in his or her first language of sounds in English that are not used in the first language and for which the reader has no equivalent (O’Brien, 1973; Ching, 1976; Thonis, 1976). These theorists discovered that the bilingual reader oftentimes assigns the phoneme of the native language to the English grapheme during the decoding process. If there is no match for the English phoneme in the reader’s first language, meaning may be lost. Alternatively, the reader may assign a sound to the English spelling incorrectly, based on spelling and sound patterns in the native language.

These earlier theoretical explanations of decoding laid the foundation for recent research studies into “phonemic awareness” as a necessary skill in reading, giving attention to how children learn to identify words accurately and fluently.  Anderson (1993) defined phonemic awareness as the ability of the reader to segment words into the sounds that comprise them. He maintained that children who can hear the sequence of phonemes in spoken words usually learn to read easily.

The implication of the oral reconstruction and phonemic awareness theories for the bilingual reader is that he or she must possess a full repertoire of English speech sounds, with the ability to discriminate by auditory means and orally articulate the sound as a prerequisite skill for successful reading. This process is confirmed in research studies with Spanish-speaking students learning to read English as a second language where proficient bilingual readers were found utilize their knowledge of the differences between the phonetic and grammatical systems of the two languages as a reading tactic.

Modiano (1971) attributed the lack of success of Mexican-American children in the use of phonics for decoding to phonological differences between Spanish and English, resulting in the lack of discriminatory ability in the Spanish-speaker. O’Brien (1973) focused on the role of auditory perception and a process of matching meaning with oral forms involving an “inter-modal” transfer from visual to auditory forms in bilingual readers. Thonis (1973) extended the concept of auditory discrimination to suffixes and other morphological forms that transmit meaning, yet are often not easily discerned by children whose first language is Spanish.

Durgunoglu, Nagy, and Hancin (1991) investigated the factors influencing the English word identification performance of Spanish-speaking non-fluent readers. They found that the readers’ performance on tests of letter naming, Spanish phonemic awareness and Spanish word recognition predicted their ability to recognize English words and pseudo-words. They concluded that there is cross-language transfer of phonemic awareness and that first language skills in identifying phonemes can aid children in the beginning stages of reading.

The extent to which differences in phonology interfere with reading has been examined in earlier studies primarily from the perspective of dialect (Gibson & Levin, 1975). In their research with English-dominant Mexican-American children who speak a dialect of English, Lucas and Singer (1976) found that phonological differences between the children’s dialect and standard English, which reflect phonological interference from Spanish, played a role in the decoding of isolated words, but not of words in context.

In a study using bilingual students’ self-reports of tactics used during first and second-language reading, Jiménez, García & Pearson (1994) and Padrón (1989) found variations in the strategies applied by good and poor bilingual readers based on differences between English and Spanish. The poor bilingual readers remarked that the English and Spanish vowel sounds were not the same and failed to search for cognates or transfer knowledge and strategies from Spanish decoding, while the good readers utilized translation in addition to the decoding techniques based on similarities between the two languages. While poor bilingual readers reported the perception that the linguistic differences between their first and second languages were an obstacle to comprehension,  the proficient readers modified and adapted their reading strategies according to the language of the text.

The Semantic/Syntactic Level

The level beyond the decoding of grapheme-phoneme relationships and the interpretation of print where possible linguistic interference is encountered by the bilingual reader is in the surface structure or syntax of the language of the reading text. Coady (1979) indicated that effective reading in a second language depends upon the interaction of linguistic proficiency and specific reading strategies or skills. Weaknesses in the use of syntactic cues is sometimes compounded by the lack of familiarity with, or possible misidentification of, English vocabulary. The linguistic competence of the reader at the word, phrase and sentence level have been shown to impact both reading fluency and overall comprehension.

Goodman (1975) defined the reading process as a “psycholinguistic guessing game” involving visual scanning, selection of visual cues, memory search, tests for grammatical acceptability based on patterns of language, and finally, linking the surface structure of the language to the deep structure or meaning. Goodman theorized that syntactic, along with semantic, information is used in the process of predicting the redundancies and regularities in the language of written texts. The syntactic cue system is comprised of sentence patterns and pattern markers such as suffixes, function words and other elements of the sentence that allow the reader to logically anticipate forms and usage. The second-language learner has internalized the basic grammatical forms and word-order patterns of his or her native language but may not be familiar with the syntactic patterns of the second language.

The linguist Chomsky (1957) proposed the notion of “surface structure” and “deep structure” of language to explain how syntactic patterns signal differences in meaning. The distinction between surface and deep structure is helpful in understanding the role of syntax in second-language reading.  A reader who translates word for word cannot comprehend non-simplified English text because the meaning is frequently conveyed by groups of words, such as idiomatic expressions, that only have significance in combination with each other.  Words in such phrases or expressions may in fact have a completely different meaning in isolation.

Research findings with bilingual readers confirm the importance of syntactical ability in fluent reading. Fillmore (1991) stated that in studies of individual variations in rate and degree of acquisition of a second language, learners who are poor in pattern recognition have difficulty learning the syntactic patterns of the second-language and therefore are more limited in proficiency. Lucas and Singer (1976) found that the success of Mexican-American students on oral reading tasks was positively correlated to their level of syntactic ability. McLaughlin (1987) concluded from his study of good and poor monolingual and bilingual readers using “cloze” procedure tests that bilingual readers made syntactic errors that native speakers could avoid. These errors frequently inhibited their ability to activate meaning. These same readers tended to make more syntactic errors than lexical errors.

In a study of four different groups of bilingual children with different first-language backgrounds, Goodman and Goodman (1978) found that bilingual readers tended to read surface structure only, without true comprehension of the deep structure of the text. Furthermore, the researchers discovered that stylized syntax, specialized words and words out of context presented the greatest obstacles to comprehension for bilingual readers, while stories with a high levels of redundancies in syntactic patterns were much easier for the subjects to read and understand.

The comprehension of written language involves understanding the meaning of words, phrases and sentences. This process entails understanding of both the meanings of separate linguistic forms and the cumulative meaning of the passage as a whole through graphic decoding and the simultaneous apprehension and linking of grapho-phonemic relationships with the abstract message conveyed by linguistic forms (Eskey, 1979). Semantic knowledge, however, also involves the knowledge of concepts of various levels of concrete or abstract reference and the relationships between lexical items within a given text (Mackay, 1987).  To complement a reader’s skills in reading by structures, the proficient reader must have mastered a considerable number of English words.

Jiménez, et al. (1994) found that proficient native English-speaking readers drew upon rich semantic networks to interpret meaning and rarely stumbled over unfamiliar words or expressions, in contrast to second-language readers of English who simply had a more limited English vocabulary. Their studies found that bilingual readers used a variety of strategies for deciphering the meaning of unknown words and expressions, including the search for cognates or Spanish equivalents and translation of the passage as a key to the context of the unknown word.

Much attention has been given to the relationship between the reader’s language skills and characteristics of the reading text (Ammon, 1987; Devine, 1988; O’Brien, 1973). Although researchers caution against limiting the bilingual reader’s access to challenging reading material and authentic language based on assessments of the learner’s oral proficiency in English, the relationship between levels of redundancy of language patterns and concepts has been a focus of the study of difficulties in reading a second language. Gonzales (1981) studied the stages of acquisition of syntactic and semantic structures in bilingual readers and compared these stages with the complexity of language used in basal reading texts.  He concluded that readers quickly reached the frustration level in attempting to decode and comprehend material that was significantly more complex than their level of oral language.

Barnitz (1985) documented findings comparing children’s oral language patterns with syntactic patterns occurring in beginning reading texts and concluded that the closer the match between the syntactic patterns of the reader’s oral language and the text, the higher the readers scored on reading proficiency tests. He concluded that second-language readers are aided by the repetition of patterns and contextual cues for extracting meaning. Students must be explicitly taught to exploit this redundancy by demonstrating how information in the text may be supplied in a number of ways and by developing skills for intelligent guessing at the meaning of unfamiliar words and phrases.

The Meaning or Discourse Level

According to schema theory, knowledge is organized into structures or “schemata” that the learner uses to categorize and interpret new experiences and information based on past experiences. Carrell and Eisterhold (1988) stated that schema theory research has demonstrated the importance of background knowledge within the psycholinguistic model of reading. They explained that second-language readers use both their schemata and the letters, words, phrases, sentences and longer units in a text to arrive at meaning in an interactive fashion.

Research into the language-specific strategies employed by bilingual readers has clarified the role of cross-cultural schemata in bilingual reading, making the distinction between literal and inferential meanings the reader brings to the text based on different cultural experiences. Barnitz (1985) found that readers naturally distorted information and inserted ideas from their own culture when reading about such topics as wedding customs or traditional holidays. He also noted that a common cultural orientation and shared experience was more crucial in understanding texts about American customs than exposure to the meanings of target vocabulary. Ruddell (1969) pointed out that one area where cross-cultural schemata are often an obstacle is interpreting the intent of the author in discourse with the reader.

The basic assumption of contrastive rhetoric theory is that the thought patterns of a given culture are interrelated with the rhetoric that is used in written discourse and readers naturally expect discourse to be patterned according to the conventions of their own culture. Barnitz (1985) examined the notion of contrastive rhetoric to explain lapses in comprehension of expository or rhetorical texts among bilingual readers. While English discourse tends to be linear in organization, Arabic speakers tended to use more parallelism, while Oriental patterns were more circular in logic. He found evidence that rhetorical styles associated with different cultures affected the recall of details of the text and overall understanding of the purpose of the text.

Implications of the Model for Reading Instruction

Contrary to earlier theories and models that presented a deficit or “disadvantaged” attitude toward bilingualism and second-language reading, a model of the linguistic and cross-cultural factors that impinge on the reading process can aid teachers in understanding how bilingual readers themselves utilize compensatory strategies to overcome obstacles to comprehension in reading their second language. Teachers can reinforce and enhance these devises and bilingual reading process through appropriate instructional strategies to increase the effectiveness of second language reading, especially in the early stages of literacy development.

There is a generalized call for more empirical and qualitative research into the effectiveness of approaches to reading and specific instructional methods with bilingual readers. Hollingsworth  (1991) pointed out the need for eclecticism in approaches to reading and preparation of teachers in the phonics, skills and whole language approaches for teaching language-minority students. Chamot and O’Malley (1994) observed that in spite of the differences between reading a first and a second language, approaches to reading instruction are frequently used with little modification. They outlined the relationship between approaches to teaching English-as-a-second language, the phonics, language experience and whole language approaches, and content-based ESL approaches and explained the need for teachers to adapt instruction in recognition of the increased cognitive demands made on bilingual students in the L2 reading process.

Among the areas of competence required for effective second-language reading instruction is the teacher’s ability to explore the full range of possible reasons underlying the difficulty when bilingual students experience problems in learning to read. As teachers prepare to meet the challenges presented by the changing demographics in public schools, they can draw from the fields of linguistics and pedagogy to address the needs of bilingual learners through appropriate instructional strategies. Teachers can capitalize on students’ linguistic competencies and bilingualism to enhance the reading skills of second-language readers of English. Teachers have a vital role to play in improving opportunities for linguistically and culturally diverse students to open the door to the world of knowledge through reading.



Mora, J.K. (1999). What heuristic analysis of bilingual readers’ performance tells us about second-language reading. National Reading Conference, December 2, 1999, Orlando, Florida.


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