How Reading Structures Facilitate the Task of Reading for Language Learners

March 2024

Last month we took a closer look at Spoken Reading; this month, we’re examining the structures found in texts and how teachers can guide learners to recognize and utilize these elements to facilitate their reading. As always, this issue is full of both neuroscience and practical teaching tips, so there’s a little something for everyone!

“Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.” —Novelist Jean Rhys

APA reference for this issue:

(author). (2023). (article title, sentence case). MindBrainEd Think Tanks: How Reading Structures Facilitate the Task of Reading for Language Learners, 10(3), (pages).

Watch before you read...

This Think Tank looks at how certain structures and styles in a text make the reading more brain compatible. In the Main video, Jennifer Gonzalez argues for teaching students text structures to help them understand non-fiction texts more easily. In the More video, Marta Garrido explains how the brain’s prediction ability is a fundamental part of learning. Then, Curtis Kelly elaborates on why familiarity with text structures allows students to predict and process texts in the target language.

In the Think Tank, Amanda Gillis-Furutaka illustrates how teaching students about plot structure helps them figure out where a story is taking them. Next, Meredith Stephens presents a compelling case to encourage students to hear intonation in their mind’s ear as they read. Jamie Emerson explains what goes on in the brain while we read, highlighting key takeaways for teachers. Harumi Kimura recounts some of her own reading preferences and connects them to language learning. Nobuko Sakurai gives teachers practical advice for helping students become more fluent readers. 

In the Plus section, we highlight a podcast series dedicated to uncovering a problematic reading instruction method used in the United States. We also spotlight one of the Think Tank editors, Nicky De Proost.

Our Thoughts on Reading Structures

How Do Reading Structures Affect Reading Proficiency? Curtis Kelly

There is something very important that we have discovered about the brain: its main form of processing the world is by predicting. Processing sensory input from zero is just too hard for that little organ, too wasteful of cognitive resources, so rather than sorting through millions of models for each bit of input, the brain relies on predicting instead.

If you are in Starbucks, you expect to see Starbucks drinks. The mental models for the Starbucks drinks are already activated in your brain even before you walk into the store. Then, when you see a person holding something small and white, with just minimal sensory input, your brain stops looking and tells you that it is a Starbucks coffee cup, filling in the rest of the details top down, i.e. brain to eyes. The cup you “see” is only partially seen by your eyes, with the rest being passed down to your sensory areas from the part of your brain that manages internal mental models. Your eyes catch a vague outline and your brain automatically fills in the rest. In that way, it can shift its cognitive resources to other things. The way our brains paint the world is so efficient, so fast.

The Benefits of Exploring Plot Structure with University Students Taking an ER Course Amanda Gillis-Furutaka

The processes of story creation and sharing are as natural a human ability as spoken language and walking on two feet, because storytelling is related to the way our brains operate. However, we are not always able to follow, retell, and create stories with equal ease when processing them through a second or third language. This is especially true when we are at beginner and low intermediate levels of learning the additional language and are unfamiliar with the cultural setting of a story. How can teachers help reduce the cognitive load for students reading stories in an additional language? I recommend raising the students’ conscious awareness of narrative structure—the common pattern that stories share. In this article, I will explain what narrative structure is and discuss reasons why stories follow a recognizable pattern from the perspective of brain processes. I will then introduce a series of activities I have used to help university students identify the stages of a plot, then consolidate their understanding of plot structure by creating their own stories collectively.

How Exposure to Intonation Aids Reading Comprehension Meredith Stephens

When I first started working in Japanese universities in the year 2000, I was struck by the disparity between students’ abilities in spoken and written skills; the former lagged behind the latter. This was counter-intuitive, because both my EFL and ESL students from other language backgrounds tended to have superior spoken to written skills. In my own case, I found speaking and listening in Japanese easier than reading and writing. I had assumed that the learner would acquire a foundation in the spoken language and map the written system onto that.

Was there something remiss in the pedagogy for there to be such an imbalance between Japanese students’ spoken and written skills? Maybe the students were translating from right to left in their heads in order to transform the sentences into Japanese word-order, bypassing the need for phonological representation, in the process known as kaeriyomi (Kato, 2006). Many of my students had been taught using the traditional methodology of yakudoku, which requires students to translate from Japanese to English (see Gorsuch, 1998).

Reading, the Brain, and Teachers Jamie Emerson

Stanislas Dehaene is a passionate and prolific advocate for the popularisation of neuroscientific research. He is the director of the INSERM-CEA Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit and author of a plethora of academic papers, but also writes and speaks to a general audience. His mainstream books focus on topics like the neuroscience of consciousness and mathematics, but most relevant for language teachers is his work on reading and the brain. Dehaene’s book Reading In The Brain: The New Science of How We Read was a key source for my last Think Tank article about reading disabilities (available here) but for this piece, I’d like to summarise a talk given to the World Innovation Summit for Education, or WISE and then draw some connections between this and classroom practice. 

“Teachers”, Dehaene argues, “know more about the workings of their cars than they know about the workings of the brain of their children.” That is probably overstating the average teacher’s automotive knowledge, but his point is that neuroscience, cognitive science and psychology should inform teaching more than they do. Stanislas Dehaene truly is a man after the Think Tank’s heart. Or perhaps its brain.

What Makes Sense in Learning To Read (and Listen) Harumi Kimura

More than ten years ago, in an article titled “The Case for Combining Narrow Reading and Listening” (2009), Vick Ssali and I discussed and promoted two ideas: providing multimodal text and limiting the content areas covered by input. Our first suggestion was that, as people naturally perceive and create meaning through different modes of communication (Bezemer & Kress, 2016), L2 learners will learn better when, for example, they try to assemble and integrate textual information (by way of reading) and auditory information (by way of listening) (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2018). Our second suggestion was based on the understanding that we can only process a limited amount of information at a time, for example when we read, but that contextual and/or topic knowledge (i.e., background knowledge) aids understanding (Grabe, 2009). When reading and listening about topics that come from the same, similar, or related areas of experience, readers and listeners gradually develop background knowledge. The same language items, such as vocabulary and sentence patterns, are likely to be repeated or used in similar contexts when dealing with similar topics. The familiar content and language help reduce readers’ and listeners’ cognitive load (see our Think Tank issue on Cognitive Load, December 2019), create space for learning new items, and eventually contribute to further linguistic development (Ur, 2016). We argued that putting together multiple modes of input fosters understanding and thinking, and that narrowing the content area aids language growth. Here, I’d like to revisit these two ideas with new examples and discuss what makes sense in learning to read in an L2. The main focus is on reading since this issue deals with reading, but the same will apply to listening as well: It is about what learners receive as input for language learning.

Tips to Lead Students to Success in Reading Extensively Nobuko Sakurai

My journey as an extensive reading (ER) practitioner began when one of my former colleagues handed me a thin book with cute illustrations on the cover. She said, “Here, read this.” She is an enthusiastic ER advocate, and it was an extensive reading book that she owned. For the next two days, I was in the university library reading ER books collected upon her request. According to her, she selected books for students who had had no successful, pleasant English learning experience and who were repeating required English classes. The majority of the books were extremely easy to read and short. Still, I was absorbed in the stories. I was having fun spotting wordplay. I was thrilled at the stack of books next to me piling up higher and higher as I finished reading one book after another. When these story-filled days were over, the learner in me whispered to the teacher in me, “Include ER in my classes.”

Think Tank Plus

The Think Tank Tower Tour: Nicky Think Tank Team

Editors’ note: We thought this would be a good time to tell you who we are. Not counting our inner stable contributors, this magazine has a staff of seven, living all over the world, who gather at Think Tank Towers in Waikiki every month to produce this magazine. The MindBrainEd Think Tanks are not funded, nor are the contributors or editors paid, so they produce this magazine out of love for language teachers and students.

Call for Contributions: Ideas and Articles Think Tank Staff

Become a Think Tank star! Here are some of the future issue topics we are thinking about. Would you, or anyone you know, like to write about any of these? Or is there another topic you’d like to recommend? Do you have any suggestions for lead-in, or just plain interesting, videos? How about writing a book review? Or sending us a story about your experiences? Contact us.

The MindBrained Think Tanks+

is produced by the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group (BRAIN SIG). Kyoto, Japan. (ISSN 2434-1002)

Editorial Staff

Stephen M. Ryan      Curtis H. Kelly      Julia Daley       Afon (Mohammad) Khari

Heather Kretschmer       Matt Ehlers        Marc Helgesen         Nicky De Proost



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