In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Second-Language Reading

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • L1/L2 Relationships

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Linguistics Second-Language Reading
Elizabeth B. Bernhardt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 March 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 March 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0274


The field of second-language reading holds important connections to both reading and literacy scholarship focused on first language and to the field of second language acquisition. Each must be considered in researching second-language reading because reading in a second language is both a language process and a literacy process. Second-language reading distinguishes itself from bilingual reading in that it focuses on readers who are already literate in a first language while bilingual often refers to a simultaneous acquisition. As a language process, second-language reading interfaces with languages that realize themselves in an array of alphabets as well as character systems that may or may not be identical or even like a first language. The phonology attached to each of these systems is also critical and whether a second-language reader needs a relatively accurate sound system to reach automaticity in word recognition and syntactic processing is paramount. A section of the field concerns itself with these differences in processing, reminding researchers of micro-level, text-based features that must be acknowledged in understanding the second-language reading process. As a literacy process, second-language reading involves how a reader uses knowledge from first-language literacy to understand and interpret second language. The nature of conventions such as size and type of print as well as how texts are physically configured with directional devices such as subheadings are cultural practices that can be misinterpreted and misused. Literacy processes also include understandings of how readers develop interpretations of what they read. Often referred to as strategic processes, these processes, such as suspending interpretation until the later stages of a passage or a belief in understanding every word in a passage or a willingness to skip certain words, are learned processes from first-language literacy. The key research questions about strategies is whether there are strategies unique to reading in a second language and how readers do or do not impose these strategies on the second-language processes. Another level of literacy processing centers on world knowledge. Indeed, world knowledge is often acquired through reading, but also through non-print modalities. The second-language reader carries this knowledge into the second-language text and includes it in the interpretive arsenal achieving successful and unsuccessful results. The most important feature of recognizing language, literacy, and knowledge processes in second-language reading is that they do not function independently of one another or in a sequential fashion. They operate simultaneously during reading, interacting with and buttressing each other. Known as interactive, compensatory processing, a central question is whether and how second-language readers learn or can be taught to use these processes; how these can be measured as part of the comprehension process; and how proficiency in comprehension evolves over time.

General Overviews

A number of book-length treatments of second-language reading provide important insight into the second-language reading process, offering broad overviews and capturing the array of variables visible within research in second-language reading. Urquhart and Weir 1998 provides a lengthy and detailed analysis of second-language reading, emphasizing theory, testing, and teaching. Grabe 2009 and Grabe and Stoller 2011 capture how the research on the processing of second-language text leads organically into classroom-based practices. Each of the volumes provides specific guidance for teachers. Koda 2005 provides an in-depth view on the importance of linguistic approaches to second-language reading research, arguing forcefully for the need for knowledgeable teachers; for the use of the first language in comprehension instruction; and for using technology in instruction. Bernhardt 2011 devotes significant space to upper-register, advanced second-language reading. The book provides a theoretical framework for the conduct of second-language reading research, namely, Interactive Compensatory Processing, and provides an extensive review of empirical studies and how they are consistent with the theory of Interactive Compensatory Processing. A set of writings should be considered for their historic value. Alderson and Urquhart 1984 is a classic text that contains many foundational articles on second-language reading. Mackay, et al. 1979, likewise, contains several articles that should be read and contemplated. Bernhardt 1991 is the first single-authored, book-length treatment of second-language reading. It contains original data using an eye-tracking methodology as well as a discussion of theory based principally in first-language research and a relatively complete overview of using immediate recall as an assessment technique. Cummins 1979 sets the stage for the analysis of many of the components of second-language reading by providing discussions targeting various dimensions of second-language reading. While it is a theory piece that relies on metaphor rather than data, it is one of the more influential publications on second-language reading.

  • Alderson, J. C., and A. H. Urquhart, eds. 1984. Reading in a foreign language. London: Longman.

    This volume is the first to bring to light the question of whether second-language reading is a reading process or a language process. The volume contains a number of critical articles in the history of second-language reading theory and research.

  • Bernhardt, E. B. 1991. Reading development in a second language: Theoretical, research, and classroom perspectives. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

    This is the first volume on second-language reading to be published. Heavily influenced by L1 reading research and theory, the book includes eye-tracking data and a particular emphasis on the use of recall and recall protocol scoring as assessment mechanisms. It contains an outline of studies published between 1984 and 1990.

  • Bernhardt, E. B. 2011. Understanding advanced second-language reading. New York: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203852408

    This volume picks up the research strands established in Bernhardt 1991 and includes several additional ones, especially extensive reading. The book offers an analysis of L2 reading research within the context of interactive, compensatory processing. It includes a chapter on literary reading.

  • Cummins, J. 1979. Linguistic interdependence and the educational development of bilingual children. Review of Educational Research 49.2: 222–251.

    DOI: 10.3102/00346543049002222

    This article is a key review of issues surrounding schooling in second languages. The article continues to have a profound impact on how researchers and educators conceptualize the relationship between first- and second-language literacy, providing the important visual of underlying literacy proficiency with above-surface language proficiency.

  • Grabe, W. 2009. Reading in a second language: Moving from theory to practice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139150484

    This extensive volume overviews significant theory and research in second-language reading. The first half of the book explores models of reading and linguistic differences. The latter half of the book turns to important pedagogical and curricular dimensions of second-language reading, most especially how understanding develops, including considerations of discourse structure and vocabulary.

  • Grabe, W., and F. L. Stoller. 2011. Teaching and researching reading. 2d ed. Harlow, UK: Pearson Education.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315833743

    Originally published in 2002, this volume places an emphasis on the interface between research in second-language reading and its classroom instruction. Principally written for practitioners it provides helpful interpretations of implementing research-based practices with a vivid array of tables and other graphics.

  • Koda, K. 2005. Insights into second language reading: A cross-linguistic approach. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139524841

    This important volume emphasizes the linguistic relationship between and among languages and how that relationship influences the ability to read and comprehend. The first two-thirds of the book integrates research on words and discourse processes. The latter third focuses on practicalities of teaching reading, providing a cautionary tale regarding the wholesale imposition of first-language reading techniques onto second.

  • Mackay, R., B. Barkman, and R. R. Jordan, eds. 1979. Reading in a second language: Hypotheses, organization, and practice. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

    This volume is one of the first published overviews of second-language reading research. It previews some of the original theories posited in second-language reading with a particular emphasis on pyscholinguistics. It includes articles on the reading curriculum as well as on classroom practice.

  • Urquhart, A. H., and C. J. Weir. 1998. Reading in a second language: Process, product, and practice. London: Longman.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315841373

    This volume provides a thorough overview of theories of second-language reading; research into processes of second-language reading; and places a specific emphasis on the development of tests and large-scale assessments. It includes an important section containing definitions as well as directions for future research and one on teaching.

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