Theresa Hyland

Student Perceptions of Reading and Writing Tasks and the Implications for Teaching


Like most teachers, I sometimes worry that what I am teaching is not what students are learning. Coughlin and Duff, in a 1994 paper entitled "Same Task, Different Activities: Analysis of SLA Task from an Activity Theory Perspective" explore this issue. They make a distinction between task (an exercise that the researcher or teacher designs with a specific purpose in mind) and activity (the actions that the students engage in when confronted with the task). Teachers and researchers design tasks in order to elicit particular linguistic behaviours from students, but Coughlin and Duff found that students may in fact engage in activities related to those tasks that are different from the activities intended. In their experiment, they had students describe a picture of a beach, with the researcher providing prompts and questions. The purpose of the task was to elicit as much descriptive language as possible from the students. In analyzing the interaction that occurred between the interviewer and the students, however, the researchers found that students engaged in a variety of activities that were different from the expected activity. One student saw the exercise as an opportunity to notice and name objects; another as a chance to relate personal experiences and engage the interviewer in meaningful conversation, and another used the exercise to engage in a discussion of cultural differences between California and his country. Coughlin and Duff speculate that because the picture was already shared information between the interviewer and the students, to merely describe it was a meaningless activity. The students engaged in a more meaningful activity by making associations between the picture and their own experience in their conversation with the interviewer or by questioning the interviewer about his/her experience of beaches.

The Research:

Ilona Leki (1995) studied how ESL undergraduate and graduate students cope with academic reading and writing tasks over a single term. She found that students may consciously change a task to suit their needs and accommodate difficulties in reading. Because reading for research and synthesizing new knowledge into essays is particularly time-consuming for L2 students, where possible the students in her study wrote about subjects and issues that they already knew about rather than subjects that would require a lot of new learning. In other words, they used the task to engage in a language production activity rather than a content-acquisition activity. Ling did a comparison of Taiwanese and U.S. shopping habits for her Behavioral Geography class, and her World History paper was a comparison of ancient Chinese and Greek education (242). Sometimes students actively resisted the requirements of the task: Julie wrote a paper on a novel she had read in which she discussed only one of the women in the novel instead of all of the women as the task required (243). Sometimes ambitious students, like Jien, engage in activities that are much more rigorous than the task set up by the teacher. She took great pains to write an intellectually rigorous review article, using a TESOL Quarterly review article as her model, when her professor had expected an annotated bibliography.

Ruth Spack (1997) did a longitudinal study of Yuko's struggle to attain academic literacy at the undergraduate level in an American university. She found that Yuko's beliefs about what she was learning when she was doing academic reading and writing tasks changed over time. After a disastrous first year, by second year Yuko had learned to "ignore the things she did not know" (39). She had begun to select readings that she thought were easy "informative… geographical" and to avoid readings that were difficult such as the Hegel readings in her philosophy course (35). By third year, she realized that "she had been paralyzed partly by the notion that what she was reading was 'so perfect' and she felt she had nothing to say. Now she knew how to challenge theories and analyze arguments and she understood the convention of referring to authorities to make a point" (43). In other words, she felt more confident about choosing reading activities, about what writing activities she could successfully engage in after reading texts, and about changing the tasks that she felt were too difficult.

Task/Purpose of Task/ Activities that Students Engage In :

I teach English for Academic Purposes to exchange students from China who are engaged in a full year of study in Canada to complete their Chinese undergraduate degree. These students take eight hours a week of EAP classes in listening and reading for note-taking, Canadian culture, writing, and speaking and pronunciation. I use a variety of readings in my classes to stimulate writing in a number of ways:Pens of Many Colours to develop an understanding of Canadian cultural and to explore issues in class discussions and in writing assignments; Campus Bound to teach discipline-specific reading and writing skills and finally, the Refining Composition to demonstrate rhetorical and organizational essay format.

Results of Survey of Students (N = 26)
Learning Activities from Writing Tasks Responses Learning Activities from Reading Tasks  Responses
Micro-level learning activities  Micro-level learning activities
Vocabulary & sentence structure acquisition 19 Gives new idioms and vocabulary 12
Writing styles understanding 5 Model of sentence structures & grammar 3
Other learning activities 3 Increases reading speed / facility 2
Macro-level learning activities Macro-level learning activities
Develop ease with writing in English through practice 18 Absorb course-specific content 13
Understand format of essays 9 Understand  essay format 9
Understand inadequacies in own language production.  4 Note mode of expressing ideas in academic discourse 9
Learn about organizing information 4 Think about issues raised 7
Learn how to do research 3 Note beautiful ways of writing 4
Learn about content 2 Note ease of expression in everyday language 3

The research studies led me to ask a number of questions about the tasks that I assign with the different kinds of readings, my purpose for assigning these tasks and the activities that students engage in as a result of the tasks set. My specific questions were:

  1. What learning activities do students engage in when they are reading essay models?
  2. What learning activities do students engage in when they are writing academic essays?
  3. What are the implications of student perceptions for the teaching writing?
In order to explore these questions, I gave my students a survey asking them what they felt they learned from the reading and writing tasks I had assigned since September. The survey was done at the end of January when students had already been with me for five months and just before the busiest time of the academic year, when a lot of reading and writing tasks would be assigned. The survey is presented in Appendix A. The table below aggregates and categorizes the responses that students gave to the survey.


Many students engage in vocabulary and idiom acquisition when they read and write. This was the most frequently mentioned learning activity, with 19 mentions of it for writing and only 12 for reading. However, while students mentioned learning sentence structure and vocabulary in their writing tasks, they rarely perceive reading tasks as helping them learn about sentence structure. There were 9 mentions of learning about essay format from both reading and writing tasks. There were 9 students who mentioned that reading showed them academically acceptable discourse, and 18 mentions of how writing tasks help them develop academic discourse.

Thirteen students mentioned acquisition of course-specific content through reading tasks, but only 2 students felt that they learned this also through writing tasks. Seven students felt that reading stimulates thought, but no students mentioned that writing stimulates thought. Some students were interested in the aesthetics of some of the pieces they read, but only one mentioned the development of aesthetically pleasing expressions through writing. Eighteen students indicated that writing helps them practice expressing themselves, but only 9 indicated that reading helps them learn how to express themselves easily. A qualitative study of the exact comments that students made reveals still more about student beliefs about writing and the role that reading plays in the learning of writing:


The activities that students engage in may vary according to background knowledge, personality, goals in education, stage of language acquisition, or perhaps according to their view of future writing needs. However, two clear trends emerged from the data and we can begin to speculate why they appear. Some students use the reading and writing tasks to engage in practical, discrete activities which teach them very practical skills. Those students engage in vocabulary and idiom acquisition, imitation of format models and organization of information. They are perhaps displaying a sophisticated understanding of the activities that they will eventually be faced with in their work contexts. They probably do not see themselves writing academic journal articles in ten years' time, but rather writing reports, letters and position papers where succinctness and predictability will be valued over originality of idea. On the other hand, some students use the tasks to engage in more abstract, theoretical activities such as problem solving, learning of research skills and the development of the ability to write "nice sentences instead of right sentences." They have probably set themselves these more difficult activities because they see themselves engaged in academic, journalistic or professional writing in their future careers. In Flowerdew's study of the hurdles that an L2 professional academic had to overcome before he was published in an academic journal , Oliver's final comment on the experience was " I learned a lot in terms of style" (143). For that writer, the activity of rewriting his article for a particular audience, though tedious and time-consuming, was worth the effort. Our students probably engage in those activities that they feel are most worthwhile in terms of their own view of their future needs.

Implications for teaching:

Leki states "An EAP curriculum cannot legitimately teach discipline-specific discourse but rather would seek to determine what might best prepare students to acquire discipline-specific discourses, what tools would be useful to them in their accommodation to the demands of various disciplines" (237). The survey showed me that my students engage in many different activities when assigned reading and writing tasks: vocabulary and idiom development, understanding of essay format, development of methods of argumentation, acquisition of discipline-specific content, understanding of cultural and historical background as well as acquisition of meaningful and elegant turns of phrase.

The findings led to three important implications for my teaching. First, different students get different things out of the same reading regardless of what I am trying to teach them through the reading because they concentrate on what they believe to be important. An example from the survey is student perception of the usefulness of newspaper articles. While I minimized use of newspaper articles because they are not good examples of academic writing, the students asked for more newspaper articles because they saw them as good sources of background knowledge of Canadian political and social mores, as well as models of idiomatic usage of the language. Second, even though vocabulary and idiom development was not a primary goal in the tasks that I set, and I did little beyond explaining difficult vocabulary items to the students, the activity that the students were engaged in was primarily vocabulary and idiom accumulation. This is also an important discovery because in order for vocabulary to become an active part of a student's lexicon, that vocabulary has to be understood and not just imitated. In other words, the students have to be able to take the item out of the immediate context of the reading they found it in and use it in a variety of contexts. In fact, what was happening in my classes was that students were not just borrowing the word or idiom from the readings, but were borrowing the context as well. Therefore, summaries or critiques of the readings tended to be cut and paste pastiches of the words of the reading texts. Finally, students require a variety of skills in order to write successfully for different discourse communities. By providing them with a variety of open-ended reading and writing tasks, I can increase the possibility that they will learn not only what they think they need to learn, but other necessary skills as well.

Strategies that I use:

I have begun to use a variety of open-ended reading and writing tasks that I hope will allow students to engage in academically relevant as well as personally satisfying activities.

1.Response Journals: Students are allowed to respond to the readings in any way they like. They can analyse the language used, summarize the argument or simply respond to the argument with thoughts of their own on the issue presented. I collect these journals at a set time each week, and read through the response for that week. I never edit their response for grammar and spelling (although at the beginning of the year they really pressured me to do this). I always respond in a way that acknowledges their ideas and suggests ways in which those ideas might be further developed. This is an attempt to develop what Vygotsky calls the Zone of Proximal Development. Please see Riazi and Cumming,(2000) for a discussion of how journal responses can do this.

2.Language Diaries: The back half of the journal is a language diary which is a set of notes that students keep for themselves. Sometimes these notes are just lists of idioms and vocabulary that they have come across in their readings; sometimes they include interesting style and rhetoric issues that have come up in the classroom discussions (e.g. Some students were intrigued when I gave them models to demonstrate how the passive voice emphasizes the results of an action and ignores responsibility for that action). I encourage the students to keep these notes but don't mark them or respond to them in any way.

3.Vocabulary and Idiom Study: I now consciously incorporate vocabulary in my reading classes. Each week I select 10 words or phrases from the readings and have students write original sentences which they hand in. This allows me to see whether they understand appropriate contextual and syntactic use of these items. I explain the idiomatic use of the most frequently misunderstood items and encourage the students to use the class set of Oxford Advanced Learners' Dictionaries when they are having trouble with vocabulary. These dictionaries give examples of idiomatic usage of all the words defined thus offsetting the damage done by electronic translators which often give the closest word in the native language to the word given, but rarely put these words in context. Students are encouraged to rewrite and resubmit sentences as often as they like.

4.Direct Demonstration of Analysis Techniques: Students are given a reading from which they have to select a quote, paraphrase a sentence and summarize an idea. They then incorporate these three pieces of writing into a critique of that reading. This is done in groups on overheads. When we look at these paragraphs we examine how the citations are integrated into the body of the paragraph and we try to make a distinction between instances where the integration is merely a summary or paraphrase of the idea and where it takes the form of an analysis of that idea. I often examine and make explicit the heuristic that a particular reading uses to support the argument in it. Yeh's (1998) student uses a particularly good bridge heuristic that shows students how each reason and opinion can be bridged with facts, "if then" statements and values statements The students apply the heuristic in a short argumentative paragraph of their own which is submitted for evaluation but not marked. Again, students may chose to submit or to resubmit as often as they feel is necessary.

The survey helped me understand how the students use the tasks I assign to engage in activities which they feel are relevant to their own individual learning contexts. Through open-ended tasks, I invite them to engage in activities that they believe to be relevant and I empower them to reach an understanding of the complex interaction of reading and writing in an academic environment. August, 2001.


Coughlin, P. & Duff. P. A. (1994). Chapter 9: Same task, different activities: Analysis of SLA task from an activity theory perspective. In J. P. Lantolf, & G. Appel, (Eds.) Vygotskian approaches to second language research. (pp173-193). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Flowerdew, J. (2000). Discourse community, legitimate peripheral participation, and the nonnative-English-speaking scholar. TESOL Quarterly, 34, 1, 127-150.

Hoffman, E. (1997). Lost in translation. In E. Karpinski (Ed.), Pens of Many Colours (2nd ed.), (pp 113-119). Toronto: Harcourt.

Leki, I. (1995, Summer). Coping strategies of ESL students in writing tasks across the  curriculum. TESOL Quarterly 29 ,2,235- 260.

Prior, P. (1991, July). Contextualizing writing and response in a graduate seminar. Written Communication 8, 3, 267-310.

Riazi, A. (1997). Acquiring disciplinary literacy: A social-cognitive analysis of text production and learning among Iranian graduate students of education. Journal of Second Language Writing 6, 2,105-137.

Spack, R. (1997, January). The acquisition of academic literacy in a second language: A longitudinal case study. Written Communication 14,1, 3-62.

Yeh, S. (August, 1998). Empowering education: teaching argumentative writing to cultural minority middle-school students. Research in the Teaching of English. 33, 49-83.

Zamel,V. (December, 1995). Strangers in academia: The experiences of faculty and ESL students across the curriculum. CCC 46, 506-521.


1. Do you assign readings as a regular part of your writing classes?

2. What kind of readings do you assign?

3. How do you use these readings to stimulate writing?

4. Have you noticed differences between the way the L2 students and L1 students in your class approach the readings?

5. Is there anything in particular that you do to help the L2 students get the most out of these readings?

Huron College

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