Understanding Text and Culture with Electronic Materials: How Clickable Are They?

Masako Fidler, Brown University

Advances in instructional technology are enabling students to learn a foreign language in a wide variety of ways. The impact of technology is highly significant in the intermediate and advanced level language instruction where students deal with various types of text. Computerized annotations and sound files can make texts accessible to language learners at early stages. With appropriate helping hands students can read texts even while they are building their structural knowledge of the language. These texts expose students to authentic texts and help them develop reading strategies; increased language input enhances acquisition of phonology, morphology and syntax. Positive effects of texts with multimedia annotations and glossing compared to non-computerized texts have been reported in literature. For example, annotated electronic texts are said to improve vocabulary retention (Lyman-Hager et al. 1993); increased annotations are said to result in better comprehension of causal inferences (Lomicka 1998), connections between events and ideas that are crucial to successful comprehension of text (Trabasso & Suh 1993).

It is understandable that students benefit from assistance in lexicon and parsing while reading. Without the trouble of searching each word in a dictionary, they can read a text quickly. Use of annotations in electronic materials, however, does not by itself solve the issue of what it means to understand a text and culture if students tend to view reading of a foreign language text as parsing of sentences and/or translation. This presentation is an attempt to suggest one of the core processes in reading and understanding culture, and how technology and classroom activities might mesh in helping students realize the importance of this process.

I will first consider the salient properties and limits of electronic texts for both first and second language readers. For illustration, I will refer to texts from the web and my on-going Czech literary anthology project on the Web. Next, using Sperber and Wilson's Relevance theory model (1986) as a starting point, I will argue that understanding of a text, just as in other types of perception, involves recognition of what is most informative at the minimum processing cost to the reader, i.e., recognition of what adds to or strengthens the reader's set of assumptions. In reading foreign language materials, in particular, different readers may find different aspects of the text as informative; this may result from different premises that readers entertain due to their cultural, historical, and individual experience. I will discuss how relevance of a text may be negotiated in electronic materials as well as classroom activities.


Lomicka, Lara. 1998. "'To gloss or not to gloss': An investigation of reading comprehension online". Language Learning and Technology 1.2: 41–50.

Lyman-Hager, M., Davis, J. N., Burnett, J., & Chennault, R. 1993. "'Une Vie de Boy': Interactive reading in French" Proceedings of the CALICO 1993 Annual Symposium on "Assessment", ed. by F. L. Borchardt & E. M. T. Johnson, 93–97. Durham, NC: Duke U.

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. 1986. Relevance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U.

Trabasso, T., & Suh, S. 1993. "Understanding text: Achieving explanatory coherence through online inferences and mental operations in working memory". Discourse Processes 16.1–2: 3–34.