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Comparing L1 and L2 Reading

Reading is defined as a decoding process for the purpose of extraction of meaning

from written texts (McDonell, 2006). Both L1 and L2 readings involve the reader, the text
and the interaction between the reader and text (Rumelhart, 1977). Although reading in the
L1consists of numerous important basic elements with reading in L2, yet the processes also
differ greatly. Matter of fact, the ways in which reading in first (L1) and second (L2)
languages are the same or different have long been a topic of intense. In light with this, this
essay aims to discuss the differences between L1 and L2 readers and how these differences
might influence classroom instruction. This essay will examine the differences from three
different focus areas; linguistics and processing differences, individual and experiential
differences, and lastly social-cultural and institutional differences.
Linguistic and Processing Differences Between L1 and L2 Readers
For the first focus area, which are linguistics and processing dissimilarities, these
areas refer to readers formal knowledge of vocabulary, syntax, discourse and orthography
and metalinguistic and metacognitive issues (Jixian, 2008). The first dissimilarity between L1
reader and L2 reader is L1 reader possesses wider and better linguistic resource base. This is
because L1 readers have been exposed to L1 at a very young age which is around 4-5 years
old whereas for L2 readers, they only learn to read sentences and passages almost at the same
time that they learn L2 orally. Prior to this, L2 readers are lacked of grammatical and
discourse knowledge and may not be fully familiar with genre expectations of certain text
According to Zhang (2011), metalinguistic and metacognitive awareness have been
defined as accessible knowledge about the language and cognitive matters, issues and
processes and as the awareness of possessing and applying such knowledge in cognitive
activities. Both knowledge can enable readers to predict, comprehend, monitor and assess the
information in the text.

Apparently, it is found out that L2 readers develop a greater

metalinguistic and metacognitive awareness. As compared to L1 readers, L2 readers discuss

and reflect on linguistic resources more intense in order for them to comprehend the texts.
Besides, L2 readers are more conscious ways for them to read, the reading strategies that are
effective for them and able to exploit language knowledge to support their literacy

Another sub area that leads to differences between L1 and L2 readers is varying
linguistic differences across any two languages. These linguistic differences can be in
differences in orthographic, grammatical information, vocabulary, cognates and letter-sound
relationship. For instance, L2 readers who their L1 has totally different writing system than
L2, read in slower speed as they have to switch from one writing system to another and this
consumes more time to learn to read in the target language as compared to readers who share
a similar writing system.
The fourth sub component of this first focus areas lies on the foundation of Clarkes
Language Threshold Hypothesis. This hypothesis asserts that low proficiency in L2 may
result short circuit of efficient reading strategies where such efficient reading strategies are
not transferred into the L2. In other words, readers must have a sufficient amount of L2
knowledge to make successful use of skills and strategies that are part of L1 reading
comprehension abilities.
Varying language transfer also one of the sub factors that leads the differences
between L1 and L2 readers. It is found out that in L2 context, L1 readers use their L1
knowledge and experiences to help them carry out L2 reading tasks. L2 readers normally use
their L1 reading abilities as their strongest resource while reading L2 texts.
The last sub factor is interacting influence of working with two languages and this last
factor is correlated with language transfer earlier. The researchers suggest that bilingual
settings or interaction between two languages in L2 can influence success and failure of L2
reading abilities.
Individual and Experiential Differences Between L1 and L2 Readers
The second focus area would be individual and experiential differences between L1
and L2 readers. In this second area, it centers on the readers themselves. There are five
differences which will be discussed in this section. The first one is differing levels of L1
reading abilities. This is also interrelated with the Language Transfer theory. The capabilities
of L2 reader depends on his or her levels of L1 reading abilities. Students who are weak in L1
literacy abilities are fond to be less successful L2 readers as they cannot be expected to
transfer many supporting resources to L2 reading contexts.
The second difference between L1 and L2 readers is L2 reader tends to have differing
combinations of motivations for reading L2 texts. L2 readers have different individual

motivation for reading, differing self-esteem, interest, involvement with reading and
emotional responses to reading. Besides that, their motivation also depends on the
perspectives on past educational experiences in both L1 and L2 contexts and to sociopolitical differences between L1 and L2 societies.
No doubt that the frequency of exposure to L2 reading and L2 prints play important
part in determining ones success in L2 reading. Unlike L1 readers, majority of the L2 readers
have limited exposure to L2 print. Prior to his, L2 readers who are not exposed to enough L2
reading materials will find difficulty in building fluency and vocabulary. For L1 readers who
are spending years building up the amount of exposure to L1 reading materials will
eventually develop fluency and automaticity since they have enough exposure since early
Genres and kind of texts also can lead to the differences between L1 and L2 readers.
For L2 readers, certain contexts use simple texts and some use far more difficult than they
should be encountering and because of this different experiences with various text genres, L2
readers reading experiences might not match with L1 readers. They are less likely to be
exposed to the full range of text genres commonly read by L1 students.
The last aspect for this second area would be differing language resources. L2 readers
have their own unique language resources that aid to gain full comprehension of the texts. As
compared to L1 readers, L2 readers use bilingual dictionaries, glosses, translation and
cultural background resources in L2 context, but not in L1 context.
Socio-cultural and Institutional Differences Influencing L1 and L2 Reading
This last focus area focuses on larger scale which is the factor of cultural and social
issues operate outside of the specific classroom context. Apart from specific individual and
reading text, parent and communitys attitudes toward reading and literacy influence reading
development. There are three key aspects; differing socio-cultural backgrounds of L2 readers,
differing ways of organizing discourse and texts and lastly differing expectations of L2
educational institutions.
Cultures also determine the concept of literacy. What is meant to be literate, how this
literacy is valued, used, and displayed will vary from culture to culture. In some culture,
literacy is uncommon, written communication involves scribes and letter writers. Other

culture use literacy extensively, but emphasize certain uses over others. In US, UK, Australia,
everyone should be literate, so literacy environment in such cultures is intense and pervasive
as compared third world countries like Uganda and Africa. Because of this, individuals who
are adapted in their L1 education might engage with texts in specified ways. For L2 readers,
they will have some difficulties making assumptions presented in L2 texts if the texts make
use of cultural assumptions which are alien to the L2 readers.
The second aspect is differing ways of organizing discourse and texts. There are
differing cultural and social preferences given to particular ways of organizing texts and
discourse. For instance, some socio-cultural preferences for making an argument or taking a
position tend to be conventionalized in writing so that the structures and organizational plans
for writing tend to reflect an expected way to write an argument. Prior to this, the purposes of
writing and beliefs about the preferred way to make an argument and the ways in which
information is used in writing all influence how texts may be organised and how linguistic
resources are employed. As a result, the objective of reading is that L2 text resources may not
always be organized in ways that match students L1 reading experiences. Apart from that,
some other factors that are linked to text organization that may affect L2 reading
comprehension are the differences in ways in which texts express interpersonal relation with
the reader, expectations about the amount of new information that is embedded in a text and
lastly the assumptions regarding how explicitly reader interpretation should be guided.
The last difference between L1 reader and L2 readers is the expectations of
educational institutions. The educational institutions set different attitudes, resources and
expectations of L1 and L2 educational structures. Normally, L2 students are shaped in their
assumptions and their performances by their previous L1 institutional experiences (e.g.
national exams) which could be in sharp contrast with the L2 institutional settings. Other
differences include funding for teacher training, level of teacher experience, allocation of
budget to educational resources, level of support for educational infrastructures, teacherstudent relationship and class size. These differences can cause a problem if the L2 students
come from many different socio-cultural and language backgrounds and these differences can
lead to unexpected reading difficulties. Apart from that, group socialization to the usefulness
of institutional structures and the potential oppressiveness of these institutional structures
may also have some effect.

So, how these differences can influence classroom instruction? Firstly, since L1
readers possess wider tactic knowledge as they have been exposed to the language at early
age, therefore teacher should acknowledge the need to teach vocabulary, grammar and
discourse patterns in L2 context from the very beginning. This early reading development
programme can ensure L2 readers do not only expose at early age but this programme can
ensure that they receive maximum exposure of L2. Apart from that, the differences between
L1 and L2 readers can help the teachers to plan instructional strategies. For instead, for lower
level readers, it is essential for the teachers to focus on building enough vocabulary, increase
reading practices and process fluency so that the L2 readers less dependent on L1 resources.
As readers motivation and interest play important roles in determining L2 reading success,
so teachers should make sure that the L2 prints are texts that can attract readers interest and
boost their motivation. In addition, in relation to Transfer Theory, it is very important for
teachers to examine L1 reading skills of their students. Without such knowledge, the teacher
are more limited in deciding what skills and strategies to focus on and promote for transfer.
As a conclusion, it can be said that the reading in L1 is different from reading in L2.
These differences can be categorized into three focus areas; the language itself, specific
individual differences and cultural and social aspects. All these three aspects intertwine and
related hence causing the differences between L1 and L2 reading. Within these three aspects,
there are 14 ways on how L1 and L2 readers are different and there are differing amounts of
linguistic at initial stages of L1 and L2 reading, greater metalinguistic and metacognitive
awareness in L2 settings, varying linguistic differences across any two languages, varying L2
proficiencies as a foundation for L2 reading, varying language transfer influences, interacting
influence of working with two languages, differing levels of L1 reading abilities, differing
motivation for reading in L2, differing amounts of exposure in l2 reading, differing kinds of
texts in L2 context, differing language resources for L2 readers, differing socio-cultural
background of L2 readers, differing ways of organizing discourse and texts and lastly
differing expectations of L2 educational institutions. Despite all these differences, there are
many implications that teacher can take into consideration to ensure more effective and
successful reading instructions in English classroom.

Jixian Pang. (2008). Research on good and poor reader characteristics: Implications for L2
reading research in China. Reading in A Foreign Language Vol. 20(1); pp. 1-18.
Mcdonell,Tommy Buell. (2006). The Effects of Text Presentation: Linear And Hypertext on
English Learners.
Rumelhart, D.E. (1977). Toward an interactive model of reading. In S. Dornic (Ed.),
Attention and Performance VI (pp. 575-603). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence
Zhang Yuangzhong. (2011). The Effect of Metacognitive Awareness on Readers
Comprehension: Additional Evidence for Acquisition-based Reading Instruction.
(online).Retrieved from
on April 5th 2015