Lesson 1: What is Reading?

Definitions of Reading

Among the many definitions of reading that have arisen in recent decades, three prominent ideas emerge as most critical for understanding what "learning to read" means:

  • Reading is a process undertaken to reduce uncertainty about meanings a text conveys.
  • The process results from a negotiation of meaning between the text and its reader.
  • The knowledge, expectations, and strategies a reader uses to uncover textual meaning all play decisive roles way the reader negotiates with the text's meaning.

Reading does not draw on one kind of cognitive skill, nor does it have a straightforward outcome—most texts are understood in different ways by different readers.

Background Knowledge

For foreign language learners to read, they have to be prepared to use various abilities and strategies they already possess from their reading experiences in their native language. They will need the knowledge they possess to help orient themselves in the many dimensions of language implicated in any text. Researchers have established that the act of reading is a non-linear process that is recursive and context-dependent. Readers tend to jump ahead or go back to different segments of the text, depending on what they are reading to find out.


Asking a learner to "read" a text requires that teachers specify a reading goal. One minimal goal is to ask the learner to find particular grammatical constructions or to identify words that relate to particular features or topics of the reading.  But such goals are always only partial. For example, a text also reveals a lot about the readers for which it is written and a lot about subject matter that foreign language learners may or may not know or anticipate.