Are Reading Skills A Waste Of Time? From’s Methodology Debates

book-thick.jpgIn yet another of One Stop English’s methodology debates, The End of Reading, Scott Thornbury argues that the skills learners use to read in English are essentially the same ones they use to read in their own language. And as such, time spent practicing skimming, predicting and so on is largely wasted. He uses the analogy of driving: if you learn to drive in the UK, do you need to start from scratch to drive on the other side of the road in France? Most of us would agree that you don’t.

I disagree that this analogy works for language learning though. Certainly my learners know how to read in their own language, and probably practice skimming and scanning unconsciously. As do I in English. But in my experience, most learners, myself included at times, do have a tendency to focus on individual words when reading in a foreign language. Is it because they are dealing with native-level material without being native-level speakers? Is it because translation like this is what all of their foreign language education up to now has focused on? I don’t know if I can identify the reason, but I think that if these reading skills are not “taught” or emphasized, many students really will never use them, even when they do in their own language.

While the skill of reading is transferable, reading in your native language is just different from reading in a language you are learning, and I think that learners benefit from explicit practice dealing with such texts so they can reasonably do so without actually becoming fluent in the language.

The author makes the point that we should be teaching language, and not reading, which certainly makes some sense. But my understanding of the communicative method (or is it task-based learning?) is that you do different things for the sake of communication, and not for the sake of practicing or teaching language…but that still has the result of increasing language ability, and more so than focusing on the language explicitly. As above, it also gives learners practice taking on real-world reading tasks before they know all the language forwards and backwards, because in the real world they may need that skill now and not after several years of learning.

What do you think – is the focus on reading skills a misplaced one?