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Reading as a social act Noriko Iwasaki SOAS, University of London Shift in pedagogical focus (Kern 2000) “Shift from ‘what texts mean’ in some absolute sense, to what people mean by texts , and what texts mean to people who belong to different discourse communities.”

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reading as a social act

Reading as a social act

Noriko Iwasaki

SOAS, University of London

shift in pedagogical focus kern 2000
Shift in pedagogical focus (Kern 2000)
  • “Shift from ‘what texts mean’ in some absolute sense, to what people mean by texts, and what texts mean to people who belong to different discourse communities.”
  • Shift from skill-based tradition of literacy (the ability to read and write in a prescriptive, normative standard) to dynamic, culturally and historically situated practices of using and interpreting diverse texts to fulfill particular social purposes.
the shift highlights the importance of
The shift highlights the importance of…
  • Contexualisation
    • Who wrote/created the texts
    • For whom it was created
    • For what purpose
    • In what occasion
  • “text” defined as “any passage, spoken or written, of whatever length, that forms a unified whole (Halliday and Hasan 1976: p.1).
  • Multimodality of texts
contextual factors kern 2000
Contextual factors (Kern 2000)
  • “How people in different communities produce and use texts in different ways.”
  • “Purposes of reading and writing ... arise from particular social and cultural needs and expectations.”
    • E.g., “The American learning Arabic in Egypt who is not attuned to the shifts between standard and colloquial forms in newspapers, letters, and political speeches, may miss subtle yet key clues to the writer’s point of view about the issue at hand.”
problem in many us university language programmes
Problem in many (US) university language programmes
  • Separation between lower-level language courses (“language as means of communication”) and upper-level language courses (“textual analysis”).

Kern (2000) proposes a synthesis by enveloping the “textual” within a larger framework of the “communicative” -- a framework that links rather than divides these levels of language learning.

today s talk
Today’s talk

1. Demonstrate how reading texts (minimally consisting of a single word) is a social act:

  • A reader tries to understand what the text creator intended by the text in a given society (what it might mean to the targeted people in the society), and think about what they mean to them,
  • Interpreting and discussing texts makes us learn a great deal about the society,
  • A reader in real life reads texts for a certain social purpose and will act accordingly when reading the text.
today s talk7
Today’s talk

2. I will suggest how we, as language teachers, may want to use texts in the classroom to engage students in reading activities as social acts.

authentic text for elementary learners what a single word can mean
Authentic text for elementary learners: What a single word can mean


  • What does this English word mean to people?
  • What do the words that correspond to this word mean in the language you teach?
    • Japanese examples:


  • Where do we see the words in real life?
  • What do you read them for?
  • Can we use them in the classroom?
  • What can we do with the texts?
you are in the usa driving on a highway around noon
You are in the USA driving on a highway around noon…


or would you rather wait until you enter a big city
Or would you rather wait until you enter a big city…

coffee for elementary learners of japanese
‘Coffee’:For elementary learners of Japanese
  • Koohii“coffee” written in three scripts

Katakana: コーヒー (107,000,000 hits on Google)

Kanji:  珈琲 (7,470,000 hits)

Hiragana:こーひー (404,000 hits)

Learners typically learn hiragana first, followed by katakana, then kanji.

You are an elementary level Japanese learner who learned kana, looking for a coffee shop while walking in Tokyo.


coffee shop cont
Coffee Shop Cont.

coffee shop cont14
Coffee Shop Cont.


you are an elementary korean learner looking for a coffee shop in seoul
You are an elementary Korean learner looking for a coffee shop in Seoul.

The use of the sign in authentic contexts is more engaging than the same sequence of scripts that are decontextualized:

커피 프린스

  • A side note: While searching for Korean coffee shop images, I learned the obvious fact that the correct spelling is very important for some purposes. When I typed the wrong vowel for coffee (코피), I ended up viewing numerous unpleasant images… (purposeful use of language helps a learner to learn a great deal!)

Summary so far:

  • Reading in real life is often social in that you are reading texts for your social purpose, and
  • In addition to the literal meanings of the words such as ‘coffee’, you consider other aspects of the texts: design of the sign, pictures, names of the coffee shop, and which scripts are used.)
  • A coffee shop has a different meaning/function in society.
  • Such ‘text’ as signs and adverts, letters,newspapers and magazine articlescan be rich in meanings that tell us a great deal about a society, and can be used for ‘interpretative’ purposes.
authentic texts for elementary and intermediate levels
“Authentic” texts for elementary and intermediate levels
  • Signs, menus, advertisement (words and some sentences)
  • Memo to a flatmate on a post-it (a single sentence)
  • Email to a friend (paragraph)
  • Postcards to various people (paragraph)
  • Letters to a friend (multiple paragraphs)
  • (Graded) short stories
reading an email 1
Reading an email 1

Hi all,

The meeting tomorrow has been changed to 1pm. Can you come? Please get back to me as soon as possible.



  • Incorporating some spoken language conventions and some written.
  • Cultural conventions of:
    • address forms
    • the use of styles
    • the use of ‘smileys’ and emoticons
      • When to use them, how often, to whom

a. :-) b. ;-) c. :-( d. :-o

JPN a. (^_^) b. (^o^) c. (^^;) d. m(_ _)m

Japanese Emoticon dictionary

place of email in japan
Place of ‘email’ in Japan
  • When to use email and mobile text messages are in Japan are very different from the U.K.

“When you say email to today’s young people, they would never think of emails you do on the computer. To them, cell phone emails are emails. There are even some users who would say, oh, I didn't know you could do email on a computer, too. This brings up one of the biggest differences between U.S. and Japanese cell phone culture. While most Americans use computers to develop an intimacy with the Internet, the Japanese access the Internet primarily through the cell phone.”

intermediate to advanced level
Intermediate to Advanced level
  • Letters
  • Newspaper articles
  • Magazine articles
  • Short stories
  • Literary texts
  • Essays
is reading a newspaper article a social activity
Is reading a (newspaper article) a social activity?

We read newspapers not to merely collect ‘information’, but we read newspapers to:

  • understand how newspaper writers and the general public interpret and view the reported events (a reader needs to interpret the intended message considering their underlying assumptions).
  • be an active member of the society.
contextual factors
Contextual factors

Some background information about the society and culture is essential to interpret texts.

Each newspaper needs to be situated in the society.

british newspapers according to wikipedia do you agree
British Newspapers, according to Wikipedia (Do you agree?)

1. Papers focused on serious journalism:

  • Broadcast format:

Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, The Sunday Times

  • Berliner format: The Guardian/The Observer (Left wing)
  • Compact format:

The independent (Centre-left, liberal views),

The Times (Centre-right wing)

2. Middle-market papers: e.g., Daily Express, Metro

3. Tabloids

Daily Star, The Daily Mirror, The Sun (among others)

interpreting headlines
Interpreting Headlines
  • Does John Butterfill really have ‘servants’?
  • What is a (supposedly) meaningless filler ‘er’ doing here?
  • Are all the words the newspaper writer’s words? How do you know?
  • Why did the writer choose to quote some of his words?

May 28, 2009

interpreting texts as an outsider
Interpreting texts as an outsider
  • Language learners are often not a member of the intended target audience of the texts in the language they are learning.
  • Yet, it is important to actively construct meanings of texts in order to participate in a society.
Does the quoted part accurately report the event?
  • Why did the writer bother to include it in the text?
  • What does it say about how “Japanese people” are perceived in the society?
  • How should the learner respond as an outsider (Japanese)?
interpreting texts
Interpreting texts

From Choson Online 9/7/08


‘Speaking of the UK, it is a country of alcohol culture.’

How does one interpret this statement?

There are multiple interpretations from multiple perspectives – depending on the readers’ background, histories, experiences.

Kern (2000) suggests the “needs to provide some mechanisms to allow students to recognize mismatches between their own background knowledge and the cultural assumptions made in the text, as well as to foster in learner a stance of receptiveness to unfamiliar meanings involving new or modified schemata.

reading is kern 2000
Reading is… (Kern 2000)
  • A socially-embedded activity involving reader-author relationship, shared assumptions, and conventions as well as individual, personal acts involving imagination, creativity, and emotions.
  • A dynamic, interactive processes of constructing meanings from text.
The teacher’s role is…

to engage learners in reading and writing as acts of communication, and sensitize learners to relationship between language, texts, and social contexts, in order to deepen their understanding of language and culture, and ultimately to enhance their communicative capacity as human beings.


Halliday, M.A.K. & Hassan, R. (1976). Cohesion in English. London: Longman.

Kern, R. (2000). Literacy and language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.