Reading - The Challenge of Accepting the Unknown


Hanging the headAll too often, our students translate what they read into their mother tongue in order to gain the security that escapes them in the foreign language they are trying to learn. They panic and become disillusioned when they cannot understand unfamiliar vocabulary or grammatical structures and resort to dictionaries or their teachers for clarification (Larsen-Freeman & Long, 1991), thereby losing touch with the overall meaning of the paragraph they are reading. How often, for instance, do we come across definitions written in the margins of second-hand books which end abruptly after three, four or five pages when the language learner seems to have just given up?

Tolerance of uncertainty (or as it is called in the academic literature, ‘ambiguity’) would seem to be, though, a major determinant of how we rate ourselves as language learners, how well we perform in tests and how comfortably we communicate in a foreign tongue. Cabello (2011), in a study of English learners in Peru, somewhat alarmingly, finds that only 28% of those he surveyed were tolerant of uncertainty about unfamiliar items in reading texts. We, as language teachers, will not be surprised that many students seem to hanker after certainty in what they read, although the extent of the challenge reported in Cabello’s article may shock us.

But why is reading such a demanding activity? Harmer (2001) argues that understanding written text requires much more than mere knowledge of the target language. It needs pre-existing understanding of the world we live in, perhaps of a different culture or time. The much-quoted ‘Plums’, a seemingly simple poem by William Carlos Williams, the late American imagist poet, might help to illustrate Harmer’s point:

"This is just to say
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox
and which
you were probably
for breakfast.

"Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold”

There should not be too much to challenge the L2 student in this, one might think. If we ask ourselves about the ages and genders of the writer and the intended recipient of the note as well as the nature of their relationship, we might conclude that the grammatical complexity of the writing – the use of both ‘that’ and ‘which’ as relative pronouns in the same sentence, for instance – rules out the possibility of a child having written the note. Similarly, the repetition of ‘so’ is an accomplished use of emphasis that a child could not, most likely, have mastered.

However, when it comes to gender, we need to rely on our own pre-conceptions of the world. In many countries, it’s still the woman who makes breakfast and this was even more the case when Williams wrote the poem in 1934.  So, the recipient is probably female (if we ignore the more recent interpretation that it might be a gay couple). On a different tack, we might wonder whether any woman would be so selfish as to eat all the plums in the icebox, leaving none for anybody else, although we might not have the same doubts about a man doing so!

And, then, there is the thorny question of their relationship. Use of the phrase ‘Forgive me’ perhaps implies a romantic one which is not usually so common in long-lasting relationships as it is in shorter ones but, as to whether they are married or not, our attitude towards that would, most likely, be decided more on where in the world we lived. Could this pair just be co-habiting?  That would depend, of course, on our own cultural background.

Desperate manAnyway, I think Harmer’s point has been made. Knowledge of the L2 is a necessary but still insufficient pre-requisite for understanding – and, so, enjoying – written text in a language.  As if familiarity with phrasal verbs, the present perfect aspect, prepositions, idioms and goodness knows what else were not challenges enough!

Yet, tolerance of ambiguity is truly important to how well we learn foreign languages. Budner (1962) links the ability with the learner’s personality traits: a willingness and ability to guess; looking for patterns in linguistic meaning and form; a tendency towards experimentation in L2 use; practising; taking responsibility for one’s own learning; and monitoring one’s own language production. Learners who have a high tolerance of ambiguity are more likely to accept a new language on its own terms, rather than reverting to the mother tongue to clarify meaning, and to look to the overall meaning of a passage, rather than fixating on minor details.

But how can we persuade our students to adopt these characteristics? Admittedly, there is not a great deal of research on tolerance of ambiguity in reading but when it comes to strategies teachers might use to promote it, there is next to nothing except for vague platitudes. It is, therefore, up to us as teachers to ask a few poignant questions about our students to prepare us to help them cope with the uncertainties they may face.

First and foremost, we should try to find out how much and what students read in their mother tongue and their feelings about and habits in reading. Is it a chore, something best avoided? Do they read for pleasure or to get specific information? Do their friends and teachers read? Then, are they motivated to read in an L2 in order to watch movies or to get the most out of gaming? Next, we might ask whether English is the first foreign language they have learnt, as taking on a new set of linguistic rules is often less problematic if they have a passing knowledge of more than one language – in other words, if they accept that concepts and structures cannot simply be transliterated from one language to another. And what has their prior experience of language learning been like? Has it been tedious, adventurous, useful?

If we understand learners’ backgrounds in reading, we are more likely to anticipate their possible responses to reading in English before they even start and so will be better able to motivate them.

Then, of course, we should consider Krashen’s (2006) advice that, when reading, we should not encourage students to read texts that are too difficult for them. As he puts, it: the level should be i – 1, or a level below their linguistic competence, not above it. Students are more likely to read if they enjoy it and they can do so without undue difficulty.

Naturally, we should also convince them that it is better to read what they choose to, rather than what they feel they should read. They will stick at something that they are motivated to find out about far longer than at a text they are recommended to study.

But, finally, it is the teacher who is the major source of encouragement and inspiration here. If she shows interest and keeps doing so through thick and thin, the chances are the students will change their reading strategies too.


Budner, S. (1962): ‘Intolerance of Ambiguity as a Personality Variable’ in Journal of Personality, vol. 30, issue 1

Cabello, R.C. (2011): ‘Tolerance of ambiguity and Its Implications for Reading’ in Humanizing Language Teaching, 5.

Harmer, J. (2001): ‘The Practice of English Language Teaching’ (London: Longman)

Krashen, S. (2006, 2nd ed.): ‘The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research’ (NY: Englewood)

Larsen-Freeman, D. & Long, M. (2014, 2nd ed.): ‘An Introduction to Second Language acquisition Research’ (Oxford: Routledge)

Williams, W. C. (2006): ‘The Norton Introduction to Literature’ (Norton: New York)


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By Bark ( [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons