For our second interview, we feature a thought-provoking discussion with Greta Gorsuch, a professor of applied linguistics at Texas Tech University. She has done considerable research and published extensively in the areas of reading fluency and evaluation and second language testing. In recent years, she has been turning some of her attention to language materials development, in particular the creation of literature for language learners, and has written more than a dozen original works of fiction. She was interviewed by Marcel Van Amelsvoort, who is an associate professor at Juntendo University’s Faculty of International Liberal Arts. He also teaches in Tsuda University’s graduate TESOL program. His interests are reading motivation, reading fluency, and interventions for struggling readers. Now, to the second interview!
Marcel Van Amelsvoort: Could you begin by telling us a little bit about your TESOL career?
Greta Gorsuch: After working with the Peace Corps in the Philippines, I took a position with a language school in Hamamatsu City, and then later worked at universities in Tokyo and Gunma before moving back to the United States and my current position at Texas Tech University. My early research largely involved international graduate students and discourse intonation, but I have also done a lot on reading fluency and L2 testing, along with my long-time research partner Etsuo Taguchi.
What are some of your research findings in the area of reading fluency?
Several years ago, I got a one-semester Fulbright Grant, and I was sent to a university about six hours south of Hanoi. My students were going to be junior high school English teachers, and I started to understand in a very fundamental way how important reading was as a source of input because these young teachers needed sustainable ways to keep their English up. I taught them about repeated reading with audio support. Professor Taguchi and I did a study on repeated reading with these learners, and I developed two very fine-tuned, very sensitive, pre- and post- tests for learners’ comprehension. We were able to show for the first time using a quasi- experimental design that not only did learners increase in their reading speed, but their comprehension increased, too.
I have come to have a concern regarding reading comprehension tests. There’s this sort of entrenched idea that in order for learners to demonstrate increased comprehension because of extensive reading or repeated reading, they have to have something like 80% comprehension. I’m afraid that this is based on 10-item comprehension tests quickly put together. I sense that there is a conflation of comprehension tests for research purposes and then comprehension tests for program or achievement purposes. Those are two quite different things. For repeated reading or extensive reading, I think we need to have tests that are sensitive enough to show us changes in learner comprehension. Also, the tests need to be pedagogically worthwhile, meaning they’re just as good as teaching materials. Such tests are not going to be just 10 comprehension test items with multiple choice items–those are not really pedagogically worthwhile and cannot really be used as teaching materials. I’d like to see other test item formats used in comprehension tests. This might include items that focus on the structure of the story, or the plot, etc. We also need to get away from the idea that reading tests have to be comprehension tests. I think we need to not just rely on comprehension tests, but also include items that measure other aspects of reading such as decoding or vocabulary among other things.
What do you recommend pedagogically to promote better fluency that can lead to better comprehension with reading? Could you describe your approach?
In class, the teacher should use longer texts such as graded readers, which have very real narrative lines and naturalistic language use, by breaking up longer stories into shorter sections. Learners can then engage in analysis, along with repeated readings of the same section for that lesson. One or two of the repetitions ought to be done out loud. Teachers need to do reading fluency activities with learners. That’s usually given short shrift in programs. Along with the repeated reading, audio support and tracking reading times (in a non-intimidating manner) are important features. There also has to be space in every session for learners to reflect and write comments after reading their section of the story for that day. One main reason I do the repeated reading is because I’m really taken by how much evidence there is of learners noticing things that I never expected. I’m astonished by the huge diversity of things that learners notice, how what they notice changes over time, and their perceptions of their own changing skills over time. So I would always say, if you are doing repeated reading, there has to be that comment section.
There also has to be an opportunity for learners to keep track of their own reading times because this can help learners notice that their reading times are changing. This is often a big impetus for comments. Teachers can make use of any reading that learners do as an opportunity for input. In essence, what repeated reading does, whether it’s for reading fluency or just their regular content textbook, it gives them an experiential platform for learning and a means by which they can reflect on their own learning in ways of their own devising. In doing so, learners begin using reading strategies without being instructed on them directly.
With choral reading or paired oral reading, learners first have to have enough experience with the text to get a grasp of the meaning and find issues of interest to them. Choral reading and paired reading could also be used to help learners get a better inner voice. So if they can hear how spoken dialog is done, for example, on audio-supported repeated reading, and they may start imposing their understanding of how characters’ dialogs sound on future dialogs they might be reading silently.
Repeated reading aloud (ondoku) is very common in many English classrooms in Japan, particularly those in junior and senior high school. It is sometimes seen, however, as an ineffective activity by teachers with a more “communicative” mindset. Could you talk a little about how it can be done more effectively?
The students engaging in this activity sometimes have not had a chance to process the text on their own silently and sufficiently grasp its meaning. If they are simply thrust into just reading a passage aloud, not only can they not adequately hear themselves because everyone is reciting, but it may be that their attentional resources are being taxed too strongly as they try to voice aloud texts whose meaning they are not really clear on yet. This doesn’t really allow them to pay attention to language or text features. Learners can’t parse the text or put prosody on it, or have pauses in the appropriate places. It seems to me that when teachers engage students in read-alouds, students first have to be able to read passages silently, ask questions about it, read it silently again, and hear it and read it at the same time, so that they can start to understand what is happening in the passage because they are able to notice more. At this point, maybe choral reading would be OK, though I think it would be more fun if they could break into small groups with students taking turns reading, rather than being drowned out.
One rebuttal I would make to people who criticize silent and oral repeated reading is that if you do engage learners in repeated reading, something quite interesting happens. The first-time readers read the passages silently, they are quite slow because it’s the first time they’ve seen the text. After that, they get to ask questions about it and then read it a second time, this time with audio support. By the third reading, learners begin to report that the audio now feels slow and that they feel that they can go faster. That’s because the rate at which a story is read aloud is slower than learners can begin to do silently on their own at that point. As long as learners have opportunities to read passages silently and ask questions, then opportunities to read aloud let learners have a chance to read texts more slowly. This may allow them to notice more things. You have to have a Q & A session or a response session after that choral reading to see if anything has popped up in learners’ minds or whether they have noticed anything new.
Could you talk a little about prosody and why it is important for L2 reading learners?
I think that prosody for L2 learners in L2 settings such as Japan is important because of thought groups. Basically, these amount to clauses, and the clause is the basic building block of language use—not the word, not the sentence—it’s the clause. And I think that if learners can hear how a text read aloud is parsed in terms of pauses between those thought groups, it will help them figure out who is doing what to who or what happened to someone as a result of something. It’s often thought that fluency is fast and accurate word recognition, but I do think that there is some post-lexical processing that takes place in fluent reading and comprehension. So if learners can hear a text read aloud in which there are clear thought groups with pauses in between, they will start to be able to figure out what is happening in the text and how ideas are being expressed in the thought groups.
In addition, prosody itself, which includes prominence—higher pitch on syllables of words of particular interest—also becomes a very important clue to the meaning. I have become really entranced recently with the idea that when you are working with L2 learners and you’re doing repeated reading with audio support so learners can hear the sound features, that this brings up possibilities for learners to compare prosodic systems in their L1. I am interested in what we can do to get learners to actively compare certain features in the L1 and L2 systems of prosody. Chances are, of course, that learners in junior or senior high school in Japan, for example, may not have a great deal of awareness of the prosody of Japanese, but this may be a good chance to educate them about that. If students can learn about the prosodic system of their own language, they can then try to apply that knowledge to the L2. With pauses, for instance, learners can reflect on where they pause naturally in Japanese and then analyze and compare that with English.
I originally got interested in this during my last year in Japan, when I took a conversation analysis course at Temple University. There I learned that the main unit of analysis for conversations is the turn, not the clause, not the sentence, but the conversational turn. I took what I learned in that class about conversational rules and used it with my own students. We looked at things like how long a conversation topic might be bounced about in a conversation, and that kind of jolted them out of doing the typical pattern of two turns for a topic before changing topics. I did this by teaching them to transcribe their own conversations in English and in Japanese. I educated them about turns, and that all languages have a system for this. By making these comparisons between Japanese and English, not only did we have a lot of fun, but students were able to understand the differences between the two languages and use that to improve their performance.
In 2021, you were invited to JALT to speak about using literature with language learners. Could you talk a little about how you got into that and what you are doing, including your recent work as an author?
I was really happy and excited about having an opportunity to talk about literature. I’ve written about a dozen fiction books for language learners in recent years. I struggled at first because it is really hard to find publishers, but I eventually found some. The publishers that I have been working with are Gemma Open Doors, who specialize in adult literacy learners in the United States, and Wayzgoose Press, who mostly produce materials for ESL/EFL learners. Years ago, I took a course on adult literacy, and I noticed how hard it is to find good materials for adult learners of English. Children’s stories are not necessarily appropriate for various cultural reasons, and their use may be perceived as patronizing by learners. They also usually do not deal with real themes. For years in Japan, I got used to making many of my own materials, and that experience just connected with the need I noticed for reading materials. When I worked in Vietnam, I had a large number of graded readers shipped over. I was very grateful to have these, of course, but they were all from British publishers and included many adaptations of classic literature along with a few original stories that were aimed at teenagers. I knew that I would eventually be working with adult literacy students aged 17 and above in the U.S., so felt there was a need for more books that talked about the kinds of struggles those learners were having. I was interested in writing materials that dealt with these kinds of themes, such as how much education costs, or recovering after divorce or the death of a parent, or how to cope with job loss, or communicating with people on the job when things don’t go well. I also have had a life-long love of adventure and ghost stories.
I was able to get a faculty development leave, and I took my RV camper and took off in the middle of winter during my leave. I collected local newspapers at every single small town that I stopped at. I drove east from Texas, and then north up into eastern Tennessee and then back along some historic highways. I really felt how little understood and underrepresented the American South is, with most readers for learners set in places such as California or New York. As someone from Iowa originally, I thought there was a need to talk about other regions of the United States such as the South that even other Americans don’t know very well. All of these other states and regions have specific stories and specific mythologies with images of how people are. I have gotten to know the part of Texas where I live very well, and I’ve heard lots of interesting historical tales and know quite a bit about the ethos of the people living there. So, in my writing, I’ve specialized in those regions, along with some historical fiction set in my hometown in Iowa, which for a brief time in its early history was home to African American slaves. I’m interested in looking at unknown periods of time or times that we don’t think about so much. I just started writing. As I said, finding publishers was a challenge. Most well-known graded reader publishers don’t want more titles right now, or they only want to work with authors who are known to them already. And other mainstream publishers don’t seem to think there is a market for these kinds of books. Once I found the two publishers that I’ve been working with, however, things kind of took off from there.
Do you spend a considerable amount of time writing now?
Yes, I do. I think that we all have a need to create. This writing has taken on some great importance to me, and my other academic writing has improved because of it. It becomes a nice outlet for curiosity and creativity. For my latest story, which is set in 1926, I actually did quite a lot of research. I looked into the trucks used at the time, and what it was like to drive or repair one. And many of the characters and the impetus for the stories came from experiences during my travels. I stayed at some state parks one winter and they had many elderly guests who were living there for the winter, and they needed a lot of help with things. Lights at Chickasaw Point and the follow-up Living at Trace, are based on a park I visited in Mississippi. The park manager character of Brian Longfield is based on someone I met whose wife was bedridden, and the start of the story came from a time when I was talking with him one evening, and we noticed some lights in a part of the park beyond the lake and he said, “There shouldn’t be anyone back there. What are they doing there?” And this incident ended up being the impetus for two stories.
Could you talk a little about how you like to use literature in your classes?
Well, right now, I’m teaching a Second Language Materials Development course for students in a Master’s program. The majority of the students come from contexts such as China, Japan, and some South American and African countries where there is a strong language-as-form orientation, as opposed to the other basic approach which we might call a language-as-use orientation. These students tend to come to class with the notion that the unit of analysis of a language is sentences. For me, the basic unit of analysis is a text, of any length really, so long as it has a meaningful and coherent whole or communicative use. The way that I’m using literature now with these materials design students is to help them become accustomed to a language-as-use orientation. I help them to see, for example, that texts don’t have to be hard, that reading can be a really great source of input for learners, and that we can use reading as a starting point for speaking or other kinds of lessons. I’m also encouraging them to make their own authentic materials, and about half of them are now writing their own fiction to supplement the awful form-focused textbooks that they are usually forced to use with learners.
In the United States, you often find these foreign language textbooks that have these short, horrible, contrived summaries of the vocabulary and grammar of the unit, but they have no discoursal meaning at all, and they are hated by teachers and students alike. So, I’m saying, let’s look at mainstream literature. What is it that makes it authentic? What linguistic and discourse features does it have? And importantly, what can we do to make this text accessible to learners who don’t have sufficient ability to read these materials on their own. I want people to see that there is a continuum of authenticity. We can create or find texts that are accessible but still authentic.
Thank you for your time.
Gorsuch, G., & Taguchi, E. (2008). Repeated reading for developing reading fluency and reading comprehension: The case of EFL learners in Vietnam. System, 36(2), 253-278. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.system.2007.09.009
Gorsuch, G. J., & Taguchi, E. (2009). Repeated reading and its role in an extensive reading program. In A. Cirocki (Ed.), Extensive reading in English language teaching (pp. 249-271). Lincom. Europa.
Gorsuch, G. (2019). Living at Trace. Wayzgoose Press.
Gorsuch, G. (2019). Lights at Chickasaw Point & The Two Garcons. Wayzgoose Press.