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«The Effect of Explicit Instruction of Textual Discourse Markers on Saudi EFL Learners’ Reading Comprehension Abdulaziz Ali Al-Qahtani1 School of ...»

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English Language Teaching; Vol. 8, No. 4; 2015

ISSN 1916-4742 E-ISSN 1916-4750

Published by Canadian Center of Science and Education

The Effect of Explicit Instruction of Textual Discourse Markers on

Saudi EFL Learners’ Reading Comprehension

Abdulaziz Ali Al-Qahtani1

School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne,


Correspondence: Abdulaziz Ali Al-Qahtani, School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences,

Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU, United Kingdom. Tel: 447-447-270-032. E-mail:

a.al-qahtani@newcastle.ac.uk Received: December 15, 2014 Accepted: January 30, 2015 Online Published: March 25, 2015 doi:10.5539/elt.v8n4p57 URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.5539/elt.v8n4p57 Abstract Discourse markers (DMs) instruction is currently receiving an increasing amount of attention in the literature on second language learning. As noted by Al-Yaari, Al Hammadi, Alyami, and Almaflehi (2013), and Algouzi (2014), the use of DMs is insufficient to support the development of the language skills, especially reading, of Saudi English as a Foreign Language (EFL) learners’. Recurrent reports (e.g., Al Abik, 2014; Al-Mansour & Al-Shorman, 2011) have shown that Saudi EFL learners perform poorly on reading comprehension tasks. Since these studies were generally descriptive, the current study attempted to fill the gap by providing empirical data, particular to low-proficiency learners in the Saudi EFL context, based on an eight-session intervention programme to familiarise learners with DMs. This study hypothesised that explicit DM instruction could improve learners’ reading comprehension and that there would be a significant positive relationship between Saudi EFL learners’ knowledge of DMs and their reading performance. To test these hypotheses, two classes with a total of 70 Saudi male third-grade secondary students were assigned as control and experimental groups.

The experimental group was introduced to the intervention programme, whereas the control group was only taught the prescribed reading lessons. Two forms of tests in both DMs and reading comprehension were administered to the two groups before and after the intervention. A correlation analysis was also run to determine the relationship between learners’ knowledge of DMs and their reading performance. Results confirmed, with a large effect size, that explicit instruction in DMs improved low-proficiency EFL learners’ reading comprehension.

The finding also suggested that knowledge of DMs correlated highly with reading comprehension. In other words, learners who were good at recognising DMs performed better in reading comprehension tasks, whereas those who were poor at recognising DMs performed poorly. Practical suggestions for pedagogy and future research were also identified.

Keywords: discourse marker, EFL learner, reading comprehension

1. Introduction When a written text is understood, reading can be a fascinating and inspiring experience. Reading also offers us different perspectives on life and enhances our creativity. Reading can inform our knowledge and develop our vocabulary. However, when a message is not understood, the reading experience can have negative and far-reaching consequences for students’ learning and overall development.

Reading comprehension is a process that triggers highly sophisticated operations irrespective of the text’s language. Some aspects of reading comprehension might include the gradual building up of understanding as we read, the confirmation of predictions by later information, the facilitation of guessing the meanings of new vocabulary words, the making of connections between different parts of a text to support interpretation, the support of comprehension by scanning and cues from sentence structure and punctuation, and many more skills (Clarke, Truelove, Hulme, & Snowling, 2014). However, when it comes to interpreting text, readers differ from each other as they interact with the text in different ways.

There have been many attempts to explain reading comprehension. Two of the most well-known models for reading comprehension are the simple view of reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) and the construction-integration model (Kintsch & Rawson, 2005). According to the simple view of reading, successful comprehension occurs www.ccsenet.org/elt English Language Teaching Vol. 8, No. 4; 2015 when the reader is able to recognise words (decoding) and understand spoken language (listening comprehension). In this model, poor readers experience difficulties with decoding, listening comprehension, or both skills. The construction-integration model proposes that readers construct personal representations of the texts they read based on the interaction between the information in the text and the reader’s background knowledge about the topic of the passage and its vocabulary. Kintsch and Rawson (2005) argue that comprehension occurs on three levels: linguistic (processing individual words), microstructure (processing large chunks of text), and macrostructure (processing themes and genre information about the text). Because of the complexity of this process, learners often struggle to become proficient readers.

Poor comprehension can be the result of multiple factors. These include weaknesses in language skills such as phonology, semantics, grammar, and pragmatics. Other related difficulties can be observed in learners’ attempts to understand the meaning of words and identify the structure and organisation of words, sentences, and connected text. Working memory is another factor that influences reading comprehension because it is needed to hold information while processing a text. With regard to text-level skills, poor reading comprehension is visible in skills such as inferencing and monitoring understanding (Clarke et al., 2014). Motivation is influential with respect to reading comprehension, as motivated readers are more active and engaged with reading activities;

hence, the “Matthew Effect”, which refers to the positive result of enjoying reading at school that extends to pleasure reading at home, is observed (Stanovich, 1986). This means that some comprehension difficulties can be overcome by sustaining a reader’s motivation, encouraging enjoyment of reading and reading at home, and exposure to interesting reading materials.

Reading becomes even more complex and multidimensional when it is in a foreign language, as is the case when Saudi Arabian students read texts in English. Indeed, as Garcia (2003, p. 31) convincingly puts it: “reading comprehension performance of English language learners is a complex endeavor because of the multiple program, instructional, language, cultural, and affective factors that may intersect and affect their reading development”. Some of the domains that affect reading comprehension of EFL learners are cognitive, linguistic, sociocultural, and developmental (Kucer & Silva, 2006). Similarly, according to Birch (2007), effective reading comprehension in an EFL situation can be influenced by linguistic knowledge, interference of the first language (L1), and the availability of processing strategies.

EFL learners may lack the necessary knowledge of English language sounds, vocabulary, grammar, or culture, which can obstruct their ability to comprehend. Another influential factor is L1 interference, since readers draw on their L1 knowledge base to process English texts. L1 influence can actually facilitate second language (L2) reading comprehension, but it can also be harmful. Besides linguistic knowledge and L1 interference, missing low-level processing strategies can significantly impede an EFL reader’s progress. These problems may require EFL teachers to provide their students with direct instruction and remediation.

In Saudi EFL classrooms, reading is a problematic skill for teachers and learners. According to Al-Mansour and Al-Shorman (2011), Saudi EFL students of different educational levels are unable to read efficiently or comprehend what they read. In fact, TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) reports for the past ten years shows that Saudi students’ performance is the worst among Middle Eastern students, particularly in reading (Al Abik, 2014). Even worse, Al Abik (2014) points out that Saudi TOEFL candidates’ average mean score in reading (X=12) is far below the average mean score worldwide (X=20). This result was supported by his own study of Saudi English-major undergraduates, in which he concluded that the majority of students (almost 70 percent) who were majoring in English and translation could not score more than 10 in the reading comprehension test. He emphasised that reading comprehension instruction in Saudi Arabia is not given proper attention and that there is an urgent need to change classroom practices in order to develop students’ reading skills. Alsamadani (2011) affirms that reading instruction in Saudi schools is generally made up of oral repetition of passages and a literal level of comprehension.

An integral part of reading comprehension is the learner’s knowledge of discourse markers (DMs). Swan (2005, p. 13) defines a discourse marker as “a word or expression which shows the connection between what is being said and the wider context”. DMs are linguistic expressions that connect sentences, show the attitudes of the speaker, and facilitate understanding of texts (Ismail, 2012). DMs can have various classifications, but one of the most comprehensive is presented in Hyland and Tse (2004) who classified DMs into interactive and interactional markers.

Interactive or textual markers guide the reader through the text. They are made up of conjunct, adverbial, and paraphrasing expressions that can be divided into five categories: transitions, frame markers, endophoric markers, evidentials, and code glosses (Hyland & Tse, 2004). Transitions express the semantic relationship between www.ccsenet.org/elt English Language Teaching Vol. 8, No. 4; 2015 sentences and main clauses (e.g., in addition, moreover, but, thus, and), whereas frame markers indicate text acts, stages or sequence (e.g., first, to conclude, finally). Endophoric markers refer the reader to the location of information in other parts of the text (e.g., see Figure X, noted above), while evidentials refer readers to other texts (e.g., X states, according to Y). Code glosses support the reader’s understanding of the functional value of ideas in the text (e.g., in other words, namely, such as).

Interactional markers aim at engaging readers in the argument proposed by the text. They are subdivided into hedges, boosters, attitude markers, engagement markers, and self-mentions. Hedges are expressions that show that the author is not fully committed to a proposition (e.g., might, perhaps, possibly). Contrary to hedges, boosters indicate the writer’s certainty and commitment to the proposition in the text (e.g., indeed, in fact, definitely). Attitude markers convey the author’s attitudes towards the information in the text, which could include showing agreement, importance, or preference (e.g., I agree, sadly, fortunately). Engagement markers are expressions that attempt to immerse readers in the text by capturing their attention or inducing them to build a relationship between them and the text (e.g., think of, you can see, note that). Finally, self-mention markers show the writer’s presence in the text through the existence of first-person pronouns or possessives (e.g., I, we, our) (Hyland & Tse, 2004).

An EFL reader’s knowledge of DMs is crucial to his/her reading ability. It is not possible to understand a text without identifying the elements that contribute to the creation of meaning such as DMs (Aidinlou & Shahrokhi, 2012). It is believed that DMs correlate highly with reading comprehension and that they facilitate the EFL reader’s understanding by improving his/her reading speed and recall (Khatib & Safari, 2011; Martinez, 2009).

Although very few studies indicated that DMs have little or no effect on reading comprehension (e.g., Degand et al., 1998), the majority of the literature on DMs shows a significant positive effect (Khatib & Safari, 2011).

The findings of Bahrami’s (1992) experimental study show that introducing more DMs in reading passages significantly improves students’ reading comprehension abilities. Conversely, Akbarian (1998) and Degand et al.

(1999) concluded that omitting DMs from passages negatively influenced students’ comprehension. Innajih (2007) found that explicit instruction of DM types and functions seemed to enhance EFL learners’ performance in reading comprehension tests. Therefore, it can be inferred that DMs play a vital role in the development of reading skills, particularly in EFL contexts.

Given the importance of DMs in facilitating reading comprehension for EFL readers and the poor performance of Saudi students on standardized tests, it is safe to say that this issue has not been given proper attention in the Saudi EFL teaching context. Although there have been very few studies investigating the topic of DMs and Saudi performance, both the studies of Al-Yaari et al. (2013) and Algouzi (2014) compared the use of English discourse markers by Saudi learners with that of native speakers and other EFL learners. They attempted to identify the most frequent DMs used by Saudi learners in EFL classrooms and how and why Saudi EFL learners use DMs the way they do. These studies, although descriptive in nature, concluded that “and”, “but”, and “also” are the most frequent DMs used by Saudi EFL learners and that they used DMs less than native speakers and other EFL learners. They believed that the inability of Saudi EFL learners to use the correct or the most appropriate DMs could be due to lack of explicit training and L1 interference.

The interest in conducting this study was based on the unsatisfactory state of reading instruction in Saudi Arabia and the lack of sufficient empirical literature on the topic of DM instruction to low-proficiency EFL learners.

The effect of DM instruction on secondary-stage EFL learners’ reading comprehension has been largely ignored in previous studies compared to studies of tertiary-level EFL learners. The current study attempted to investigate the effect of explicit instruction in DMs for Saudi EFL learners on their reading comprehension abilities and determine whether a learner’s level of knowledge of DMs is related to his/her reading comprehension

performance. To this end, the following research questions were developed:

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