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Celebrating diversity: the significance of cultural differences on reading comprehension processes of the young adult EFL learner in a matriculation preparation programme in Israel

By Devora Hellerstein-Yehezkel


Reading comprehension in English as a foreign language (EFL) is a key to success in academic studies in Israel. As Israel is a cultural melting pot, adult students come from widely diverse educational backgrounds, often determined by their cultural environment. They arrive at the university or college classroom with vastly different approaches to learning and reading, in general, and to reading in EFL, in particular. The challenge for the EFL teacher is to help students draw from their cultural toolkits while exposing them to new tools so that they can reach their full learning potential. The rationale of the current inquiry is that in order to tailor a programme that takes into account students' needs, a better understanding of the impact of cultural background on their learning process is essential.\ud \ud This inquiry was guided by three main research questions: How do differing cultural, religious and linguistic backgrounds impact upon adult students’ approach to and process of learning reading comprehension in English? How do these backgrounds impact upon progress and achievement in reading comprehension in English? And which teaching approach or approaches can best address the range of needs of a culturally diverse student group?\ud \ud To address these questions, an action research study was conducted using a case study approach. Thirty-nine young adult students who participated in a year-long matriculation preparation programme in a teachers' college in Israel were examined. The programme was based on providing students with both bottom-up and top-down reading skills, with particular emphasis on reading strategies. The learning process that students underwent generated qualitative and quantitative data through class observations, interviews, and student records.\ud \ud The data indicated that student background played a significant role in how learning, reading, and EFL were approached. Family background, whether more 'traditional' or less 'traditional', reflected students' cultural background, echoed by a school system sharing a similar mindset and approach to EFL pedagogy. As a result, students' background impacted upon their classroom behaviour and social engagement.\ud \ud Cultural distinctions were apparent at entry level, but were not determining factors in student progress and achievement over the course of the year. Students with greater intercultural competence adopted different learning approaches and reading strategies from those with which they had been educated in their cultural environment and appropriated them as their own. These students also made the most significant progress in their EFL reading comprehension, regardless of background. For students to share their diverse learning approaches and adopt new ones from one another, as well as the new strategies offered by the programme, the establishment of a 'third space', or classroom culture, was crucial. Providing such a space allowed students to exchange learning methods, examine their own, and finally adopt those that were most effective for them.\ud \ud Enhanced reading comprehension at the end of the programme resulted from a process of several cycles of integration and engagement. Those students who reported feeling more integrated within mainstream Israeli society, in general, were also those who more easily integrated within the classroom culture. These students were also more socially engaged in class and showed greater engagement with texts in English. Consequently they made greater progress and reached higher achievements.\ud \ud When teaching EFL reading comprehension to a multicultural class of students, it is argued that a classroom culture should celebrate their diversity and allow them to voice their distinct learning approaches. At the same time, their voices should be harmonized through a unified learning approach, based on the application of reading strategies and engagement with a text

Topics: LB1049.9, LC1099, LG341
Year: 2013
OAI identifier: oai:sro.sussex.ac.uk:44403

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