Mengzhen Ke – Reading in a Second Language

Reading in a Second Language

Mengzhen Ke


Nowadays, students in America are more likely to learn a second language in high school, and in over twenty European countries, pupils must learn multiple languages. Moreover, most of the students whose mother language is not English need to learn English at a very young age. For example, in most Asian countries, such as China, Korean, and Japan, English is the compulsory subject from elementary schools to universities. Therefore, when students enroll in universities, most of them have already had basis knowledge about their second language. Learning how to read foreign academic texts effectively becomes their new challenge instead of how to read in a second language. At colleges, students who study aboard need to read textbooks of their majors in a foreign language; students who enrolls in a multiple language course need to read some foreign novels or reading materials; students who do research need to search and read scholarly articles from all over the world. Professors and instructors also need to find a more effective way to teach students how to read academic texts effectively.  What’s more, learning how to read effectively in a second language is not only benefit students’ foreign language reading skills, but also change or wider their attitude and method to treat the world. The tide of globalization makes young people need to have the ability of communicating with foreign people. Reading is a very essential part of it. However, reading an academic foreign language texts is very hard and complicated so that students have big interest in find good strategies to overcome this challenge. This articles focus on this problem.

How to Read Foreign Texts for Academic Purpose

When you read in a second language (L2 reading), have you confused about the content of a novel? Have you looked up all the new words in dictionaries but still don’t understand what writers mean? Have you read the same sentence again and again but still feel confused? I have. L2 reading is very difficult so that we forget to focus on “reading”, but put our effort on language studying. Let’s back to the most important question: what is reading? Reading has been defined as the process of constructing meaning through the dynamic interaction among: (1) the reader’s existing knowledge; (2) the information suggested by the text being read; and (3) the context of the reading situation, which means the background of the reading. (Pikulski, 1997). When you read in a foreign language, you just add one point: language proficiency. How many vocabulary you have; How many foreign readings have you read; or how well you know about grammar and tense affect your L2 reading ability.

Different strategies in reading different genres

The first step of reading an academic text in a second language efficiently is to separate different types of reading and then use different strategies. What types of reading do we need to read in a second language for academic purpose? Textbooks, reading materials, and scholarly articles are three mainly types of them. Let’s us analyze these three types of reading separately in more detail.


When you read textbook, your aim is to know every word so that you can understand the definition of some new terms. But you must accept that you won’t understand every word in the reading at first. According to Rakchanok and Channarong(2014), the most serious problem for L2 reading is lack of knowledge of vocabulary. Therefore, the first step is to skim the whole chapter and look up every unfamiliar key word. Key words are those words that appear more than two times and play important roles of understanding the whole sentence. Specialized vocabulary does not resemble day-to-day language. Instead of just translating, the definition of terminology should be completely comprehended. If you are still confused about the meanings of one term, you can search it in Wikipedia, reading in your mother language, and after you understand it, translate it into the language that you learn, it will get easier. Now when you start reading, you already know the specialized terms in this chapter. It can help us to understand or guess other words easily, but it is not the last step. Intensive reading is necessary, it is better to read a textbook at least three times. Firstly, search the new words in the dictionary and take notes, and then, read in sentence-by-sentence, not in word-by-word, which means you need to connect every word together to understand the writer’s meaning instead of translating every word separately. The third time, you should pay attention to the contents rather than the language, thinking the purpose of writer, the thesis statements, or the strong evidences. Pick the reading apart piece by piece, making a mind map. When you can explain them in your own words, you finish.

Here is an example for making a mind map, you can summarize each topic and fill them into the blanks.

Reading materials from language courses

Professors always assign students to read narrative and argumentative assays in foreign language courses. Reading these genres of articles is totally different from reading textbooks. There is a concept that might be new for you: L2 reading and language learning can be separated. Even though your language skill is still poor, you can also understand the articles by using some strategies. L2 reading depends more on reading ability than language proficiency. Instead of knowing every word well, you just need to skim and catch the information you need. We don’t need to look up every unknown word in a dictionary, which waste lots of time. Picking out the key words and topic sentences from the articles can help you follow writer’s ideas.

An interesting research is that people will abandon all their reading strategies in their mother languages unconsciously when they read in a second language. What you need to do is remind yourselves that no matter what languages the reading use, you are reading. All reading should be similar; the strategies you use when you read in your first language can also benefit L2 reading. For example, strategy that “pay attention to our own motivation and agenda for each reading” (Karen, 2011) can help us get into the L2 reading faster, too.

There is one more strategy may be new to multilingual students: read the parallel articles in our own languages. This is helpful when you don’t have enough background knowledge to understand this article. Related articles are a shortcut to comprehend a new field.

L2 reading can also be treated as making a conversation with the writers (Karen, 2011), but it is more difficult because you cannot really communicate with writers and guess their meanings from body languages. Find a native writer to explain for you. In the universities, you have classmates and professors from all over the world. It is a wonderful resource that you can use when you read the foreign articles. They can not only explain the vocabulary and your confused contents, but also the difference between the writing ways of these two languages. For example, when I was learning Korean, I was confused about the order of the words until one of my classmates Kiki who is from Korean said that in Korean, they used to put object before the predicate.

Scholarly articles

When you read scholarly articles, you can combine the strategies above. Scholarly articles are high level reading materials. Sometimes you cannot understand writers’ purposes even when you read in your mother language. Therefore, you need to read-before-read. You need to know the background and remember the key terms in the foreign language first, which called pre-reading and pre-learning. It is very useful to list all you question about this topic before you read it. Write down everything you want to know and then find the answer in the articles, which will give you a goal to read the complicated articles. During the process of picking the information you need, you finish the reading goal.

What’s more, by breaking down the parts, scholarly articles can be understood more easily. The basic parts of a scholarly article include abstract, introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion. When you cannot get any information from the articles, you can just read the introduction and conclusion again and again until you know the purpose of the writer. Then, Use contextual clues to predict other contents. Highlight the sentence you think it is important in this article, and then read all the sentences you highlighted: you will get a general impression of the whole article.

L2 reading does not only include textbooks, reading materials, and scholarly articles. However, the strategies using in reading these three types of readings can also use in other genres of writing. Identically, the strategies using in reading in your mother language can also use in L2 reading. Looking up new words, skimming, making notes, self-questioning, and pay attention to introduction and conclusion are general strategies, but you still need to think whether these strategies are suitable for you. After all, reading is a personal event. I provide strategies, you choose.


Pikulski, J. J. (1997). Teaching word–identification skills and strategies: balanced approach. (accessed 2/06/2005).

Keran, R. (2011). Reading Games: Strategies for Reading Scholarly Sources. Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing

Rakchanok, S. and Channarong, I. (2014). Reading Strategies in Foreign Language Academic Reading: A Qualitative Investigation.