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ESRC: Help in reading foreign languages

Recent research into how we learn is set to help people in their efforts to read a second or foreign language (SFL) more effectively. This will be good news for those struggling to develop linguistic skills in preparation for a move abroad, or to help in understanding foreign language forms, reports, contracts and instructions.

The ability to read a second or foreign language can be of great benefit to academics, business people, politicians, professionals and migrants trying to master an unfamiliar language. Surprisingly, little is known about how an ability to read in another language develops.

To address this, the research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), led by Professor Charles Alderson at Lancaster University, set out to identify the factors that determine how this skill develops in a number of different languages and what factors in people’s first language influence progress in reading.

"Research into the diagnosis of the strengths and weaknesses of learners in SFL reading was virtually non-existent, making this research highly innovative. We’ve followed SFL reading ability development over several years and studied which cognitive and linguistic tasks are most promising for predicting literacy skills in several languages", says Alderson.

"Progress has already been made in understanding first language reading problems – so we co-operated with psychologists who studied a group of dyslexic readers over many years. We used their instruments to see if the things that predict first-language dyslexia can help in understanding SFL reading and its problems", Alderson continues.

Contrary to much belief, the researchers found that ability to read in a first language is less important in SFL reading than proficiency in the new language being learned. It was concluded that the size of SFL vocabulary and understanding of text influence one another: vocabulary growth promotes comprehension and comprehension helps a reader to learn new words.

Findings will help language teachers devise more effective strategies for assisting learners and influence the accuracy of tests that predict SFL reading abilities. From data gathered from many countries and languages, the research suggests that reading well in one language has little bearing on the development of reading abilities in another.

Linguist, Professor Scott Jarvis, Ohio University, USA, says, "This study was perhaps the most impressive yet on SFL reading abilities. A remarkable job was done of identifying and measuring a range of cognitive and linguistic abilities, and also of tracking these variables over time and linking them to improvements in learners’ second-language reading proficiency. The findings are valuable for language teachers, and the research design is likely to serve as a model for many future SFL studies."

For further information contact:

Professor Charles Anderson 
Email: c.alderson@lancaster.ac.uk 
Telephone: 01524 593029
ESRC Press Office:

Sarah Nichols
Email: sarah.nichols@esrc.ac.uk
Telephone: 01793 413122
Jeanine Woolley
Email: jeanine.woolley@esrc.ac.uk
Telephone: 01793 413119
Notes for editors

This release is based on early findings from 'Diagnosing reading in a second or foreign language' funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and carried out by Professor J. Charles Alderson at the Department of Linguistics and English Language, Lancaster University. The project included collaborative work with a team of researchers at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland.
The research took the form of three sub projects, all of which included several different studies. Sub-Project One: collection of Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ratings and comparison with PISA difficulty ratings; a study of differential item functioning across tests delivered in13 countries. Sub-Project Two: cross-sectional study of 900 learners in three age groups, involving diagnostic cognitive and linguistic measures in English, Finnish and Russian, and also measures of student and parental background and learner motivation.  Sub-Project Three: gathering of expert judges' ratings data of the content of the Pearson Test of English (Academic) and of the Pearson Test of English (General), and a study of the relationships between the judgements and item difficulty.
The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's total budget for 2012/13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.

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