August 2015
Free TESOL Quarterly Article:
"Reading Comprehension in Test Preparation Classes: An Analysis of Teachers' Pedagogical Content Knowledge in TESOL"
June 2015: Volume 49, Issue 2

This article first appeared in TESOL Quarterly, Volume 49, Number 2, pgs. 369–392. Subscribers can access issues here. Only TESOL members may subscribe. To become a member of TESOL, please click here, and to purchase articles, please visit Wiley-Blackwell. © TESOL International Association.

This article examines the pedagogical content knowledge which underpins the practices in reading lessons of experienced teachers in test preparation classes. It takes as a starting point the assumption that practice is shaped by teacher cognitions, which are established through professional training and classroom experience. Thus, the study explores the nature of reading comprehension pedagogy and also the ways teachers vary and adapt their approach. The study, carried out in upper intermediate TESOL classrooms in Greece, draws on videorecorded classroom data, field notes, and interviews with four teachers. The analysis focuses on lesson structures, reading and test-taking strategy awareness raising, and teachers’ knowledge about texts. It validates the established reading skills lesson structure—pre-, while-, and postreading—but shows how this can vary in implementation. It suggests that the attention to strategies is not only explicit strategy instruction, but also situated demonstration by the teacher of how strategies can unlock the meaning of the text. The pedagogy overall is conditioned by the test preparation context of the program; the teachers are mindful of this goal and integrate references to the test to anchor the pedagogy in students’ current reality and to demonstrate how specific strategies can aid comprehension. 

Second language (L2) reading comprehension has long been a core element of language teaching and assessment. Texts and questions are a staple of both teaching materials and language proficiency tests, and the methods teachers can use are found in methodology textbooks and teaching manuals. A small number of teacher cognition studies in L2 reading address some of these methods (Cabaroglou & Yurdaisik, 2008; El-Okda, 2005; H. Li & Wilhelm, 2008; Macalister, 2010). However, only one study—by Meijer, Verloop, and Beijaard (1999)—has adopted the concept of pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) to interpret teachers’ practices in reading lessons. This article reports on a study which examined the practices of experienced teachers of reading in lessons where the focus was on reading comprehension test preparation. The research focuses on the PCK of teachers—knowledge about reading instruction (KARI), including reading strategies, and knowledge about texts (KAT)—as evidenced through their practices in actual lessons and explored in interviews following the observed lessons. We follow and develop further the research strategy used by Borg (2003) to understand how teachers teach grammar and by Breen, Hird, Milton, Oliver, and Thwaite (2001) to uncover the principles which shaped teachers’ decision making and practices in lessons. The analysis in this article draws on classroom observation data, supported by teacher interviews and field notes.

Review of the Literature

Language Teacher Cognition

Teacher cognition as defined by Borg (2003, p. 81) is what “teachers think, know and believe and the relationship of these mental constructs to what teachers do in the language classroom.” Language teacher cognition researchers refer to the significance of its origins in general education (Andrews, 2007; Borg, 2006; Freeman, 2002; Woods, 1996) where it has contributed greatly to the understanding of the complex nature of teaching and how this understanding may enhance the effectiveness of teacher education. An established reference is the work of Shulman (1986a, 1986b, 1987), who developed the concept of pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) in a series of articles. Shulman’s studies emphasised the need for researchers to investigate teachers’ understanding of subject-matter content and pedagogy. The relationship between content and pedagogy was seen to be central in identifying the knowledge base of teachers applied to a variety of teaching and learning contexts. This required teachers’ understanding of the subject, learners, curriculum, context, and pedagogy. These components of knowledge played an important role in the interpretation of teachers’ practices in the present study.

Andrews’s (2007) modified model of PCK applicable to L2 teaching helped to further refine our interpretations of classroom practices. His model depicts PCK as “the overarching knowledge base” with teacher language awareness (TLA) as “one subset of the teacher’s knowledge bases (a knowledge base subset that is unique to the L2 teacher)” (p. 30). His model was developed in studies which investigated teachers’ knowledge about grammar (KAG) related to the teaching of grammar (see, e.g., studies cited in Andrews, 2007). In this study we consider KAT an appropriate construct for understanding teachers’ knowledge base of reading comprehension, for example, knowledge of text structure and how this informs pedagogy. This study is therefore influenced by both the original concept of PCK and its development by Andrews for the L2 classroom.

The Nature of L2 Reading

Research in L2 reading suggests that the most successful readers are those who use an interactive approach, combining both top-down and bottom-up skills while reading a text (Macaro, 2003). Bottom-up skills are those with which the reader focuses on the word level, whereas top-down skills draw on the reader’s ability to sample the text and make hypotheses about what is coming next (Grabe & Stoller, 2002). A combination of skills such as skimming, scanning, and guessing words from context enables the reader to identify the main idea of a text and figure out meaning at the sentence level. Macaro (2003) suggests that the role of top-down hypotheses may be less significant than the use of information that readers make at the word level. Paran (1996) also emphasizes the importance of effective bottom-up processing for word recognition that leads to automaticity in reading. However, recent views on the nature of L2 reading (Grabe & Stoller, 2002; Hedgcock & Ferris, 2009; Hudson, 2007), while acknowledging that top-down and bottom-up models may lead to a greater understanding of processes in L2 reading, emphasise that there are limitations in using a strong form of either approach.

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This article first appeared in TESOL Quarterly, 49, 369–392. For permission to use text from this article, please go to Wiley-Blackwell and click on "Request Permissions" under "Article Tools."
doi: 10.1002/tesq.189