Interpretative reading can be defined as the analysis of literary texts and subsequent enunciation of those texts. It is also sometimes called dramatic reading and relies on the reader’s voice to convey the emotion, drama and imagery of a narrative without actually acting it out. A good interpretative reader must possess a number of vocal skills such as the ability to control vocal tone, volume, pace and inflection to accurately communicate meaning and build drama. In addition to clear articulation and correct pronunciation, which are paramount to the audience’s understanding, the reader must have an in depth understanding of the text in order to produce a meaningful interpretation of it. In other words the narrator needs to be able to know the characters, imagine their backgrounds and feel their emotions to be believable. Good interpretive reading is a difficult skill even for native speakers to master and takes preparation and plenty of practice; however, for a student in the Thai education system faces a number of distinct disadvantages in becoming a proficient interpretative reader.
To begin with the languages of Thai and English are very different. We have different stress patterns on words and there are sounds in English which don’t exist in Thai, both of which make clear pronunciation challenging for students and although many Thai schools now employ native speaking English teachers who are able to model correct pronunciation and natural rhythm, lots of Thai students lack confidence and have little opportunity to practice English outside of their classroom. In addition, English uses intonation to convey different meanings and emotions whereas Thai uses a fixed tone for each word so it is often hard for a Thai student to express emotions like sarcasm or disbelief through inflection even when they recognize the need to do so. Another barrier for many Thai students, aside from the enunciation, is actually understanding the text well enough to interpret it.
This depends upon, not only the student’s knowledge of English language and ability to follow the plot but also on previous personal, educational and cultural experience that influence the way the narrative is interpreted. A student lacking exposure to western culture and a deeper understanding of the social norms, stereotypes and cultural issues surrounding a text might struggle with a credible portrayal of characters and personation. These factors coupled with a general lack of focus on key reading skills leave Thai students at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to dramatic reading abilities. So, how do we assess the state of Thai interpretive reading? Do we take into account the many disadvantages that Thai students face in learning to read expressively and if so what criteria is it fair to judge them on? After some research into the rubric schools overseas use to evaluate students’ interpretive reading skills we decided to base our assessment on the following criteria:-
Pace. The speed at which a reader speaks, increasing speed creates drama and intensity.
Pause. The lingering of the voice on, before or after a word for dramatic effect.
Volume. Adds emphasis or fullness of tone. It can be used with other forms of emphasis to exaggerate emphasis.
Melody. The wave-like change in voice pitch depends on the reader recognizing the relative importance of words in the text.
Inflection. The bending of the voice from the main pitch up or down.
Personation. The reader’s interpretation of the character.
Pitch. The degree of highness or lowness to a tone adds more subtle emphasis.
Confidence. How comfortable is the speaker with reading aloud the text.
The readers pace, volume and use of pause are techniques that can be used to emphasize mood or add drama but in the case of a non native speaker an overly loud or quiet reading could be due to nervousness and a pause or change in pace could be due to not understanding a word or not knowing how to pronounce it. These things, in turn, can affect the other factors we will be evaluating. With this in mind we will be focusing on the deviations from normal patterns in each of these categories and trying to find any correlations.
Conducting the research and investigation
To better understand how well a Thai may use the techniques associated with interpretative reading we needed to hear some examples. We selected a number of Thai students to read a set part of a chapter from a book and recorded them to analyse their interpretative reading skills. The material chosen was chapter one from ‘The Monkey King’ a stage one young reader by Rosie Dickins. The chapter was broken into 5 separate parts for the students to read. The level one reader was chosen to accommodate all students and focus on their reading skills rather than their comprehension of the text. The students’ ages and levels of English ranged from, six to eighteen years old, and Beginner to Advanced. By having such a wide range of readers we will be able to see if there are any reoccurring problems across all levels and ages or if there are any surprising results. Before the students were recorded they were each given different parts of the chapter to familiarise themselves with what they were going to read. This is to again focus on their interpretation of the text and to let them question any pronunciation of any unfamiliar words. In addition to that when the text was handed to the students, it was explained to them that they have to read it as if they were telling a story to someone, and they do not want this person to fall asleep.
Also, an example of interpretative reading of a text, other than their own, was then given to the students to make sure that they fully understood what they had to do. To do good interpretative reading, the text has to be fully understood, it is the key for good reading, so all the parts that they did not understand was read to them and explained again before they did the task. Some of the younger students did not really understand how to read the text like they were telling a story, so some parts of the text was read to them showing the change in voice pitch and intonation, as one would do for interpretive reading.
They then caught on to what was needed. The most difficult part was that many of the younger ones were nervous and shy, which is normal for some children who have to read text which is not in theirnative language. They were mostly nervous because of being placed in front of a laptop computer, and about their pronunciation. It was made clear to them that pronunciation was not the point of the research and that it was not a big deal if they did make some mistakes, but that the most important thing was the way they interpret the text, and that it has to be understood. It was noticed that they did understand it since they all wrote some Thai notes on the text which seemed to be translations. Then, finally it was for them to forget their nerves and read the text. The students were then recorded reading their parts which were later analysed, considering the younger students reading level, they did quite well.
Analysing the results
Once we had the recordings of the brave students that took part in our research, the analysis could be carried out. We went through the recordings with a fine toothcomb, and complied the results into a chart. In this chart, as can be seen in fig. 1.2, the students were rated on their performance. They were judged on numerous criteria which include melody, speed, volume, pauses, inflection, personation, pitch and confidence. These eight criteria were marked as poor, fair, good, very good or excellent. We took into account their age group and reading skill level when judging them. Once the chart was completed, the graphs were made to clearly show which of the students’ skills were strong and which skills were weak (fig. 2.1 – 2.8). On the whole they performed better than expected, although there were obvious inflections, changes of pitch in odd places that Thais often make mistakes with when interpretive reading. We had spoken about this before the experiment had even begun, so it was to be expected.
The results of the experiment showed that most of the students had a very good grasp of the pace that the text should be read at (see fig. 2.2). In addition, most of them read the text at a decent volume; and all of the students were audible (see fig. 2.3). It was obvious which students have had a lot of practice reading because of their melody, and the way it flowed throughout their reading (see fig. 2.1). These students are also the ones that were given good marks in inflection; pitch and confidence (see fig. 2.5, 2.7, and 2.8). One of the areas in which most of the students did not do very well was the pauses, as it seemed as if they were in the wrong places and there did not seem to be enough of them (see fig. 2.4). Finally, the worst area by far was the personation or interpretation of the characters in the story. Most of the students did not even change the pitch or melody of their voice when reading the direct speech and those that did change the pitch of their voice did not put on any kind of exciting voice (see fig. 2.6). From the results, we have seen that generally the standard of interpretative reading is at a fair level, usually respective of the student’s level of English.
However, there were certain issues and certain elements of their reading which are necessary to try and eliminate to help improve their interpretative reading. The highest level of reading was from a student who could be considered the student with the highest level of general English. This was mainly due to his immediate in-depth understanding of the text. He was able to employ pauses in appropriate places such as full stops, commas, but also using them for dramatic effect as in adjective lists or after adverbs. He also had a strong use of melody in how he read. The best skill he used which set his reading above the rest was his use of personation on the characters voices. Some other students were able to produce a similarly high standard of reading and once again these students can be identified as the ones with the best overall English language skills. Some of these good examples were from the M3 level. Despite them being at a high level of general English some of the elements they employed in their reading was something that could be said was found in all readings at this level but not as frequent. One of these is the students’ use of force on unstressed syllables.
This was more common at the end of words which contained specific sounds. This was seen in words such as monKEY and heavenLY, adding extra force to the /iː/ sound, and gardeNER, giving force to the /ə/. There is also another issue that was common at the end of words. This was the dropping of sounds or in some case whole syllables. This was most evident in plural nouns and ed sounds at the end of verbs. For example, peachES, leavES, soldierS, pronounced as /ɪz/, /z/, and /s/ which were generally dropped from the words all together especially the /ɪz/ sound. Further to this the /ɪd/, /d/, and /t/ sounds in words such as, boastED, stormED, and snappED, were particularly a problem. As we looked down the levels of general English skills we saw problems more identified with that level rather than an overall picture of Thai speakers and these problems ultimately determined how well of a reader we believed them to be. One such problem was melody. English being a very musical language requires the reader to know the importance of stressed and unstressed words within the sentence. The result was mainly a flat sentence giving equal stress to prepositions and articles, to nouns and verbs.
This disrupted the usual flow of the English language. The pause was another problem but was a more obvious one. There are certain positions within a reading where a pause must be used, such as full stops and commas and without these pauses the reading can sounds unnatural. This wasn’t throughout the text but only in some places is enough to give a breathless effect. The above mentioned issues were the most common throughout all the readers but there were some individual mistakes present as well. For example, the rising inflection or falling inflection mid-sentence, giving a different meaning to the sentence as a whole. We believe that vocabulary knowledge is of great importance in the way we set up the experiment.
Although the material used for the reading is said to be a level one reader this does not mean that all the students are able to fully understand all the words in the text and their subsequent effect on the way the text should be read. From the six steps of analysis it is stated that a reader should be able to read the text line by line fully understanding the text, to understand the theme, and importantly take the text away and practice. With the limited time available with the students it was not possible to allow them to take the text home, study it, and perhaps translate the words to understand their meaning. Therefore, the students with the greatest range of vocabulary were the students with the better examples of interpretative reading. In regards to the common use of what we considered to be their wrongful employment of interpretative reading skills, we tried to identify a possible reason for each case.
Firstly, the use of force at the end of words containing /iː/ and /ə/ we believe to be a problem that is associated with the Thai language. Generally, these sounds at the end of words are stressed in the Thai language while unstressed in English, and so they are mixing up the two languages. In contrast to this is the students’ lack of plural and ed sounds at the end of words. Due to the fact that they are not pronounced at the end of words in the Thai language, the students’ would transfer this over to the English language and drop them from the English words. The students’ lack of melody could be also to do with being Thai language native speakers. The musical rhythm of the English language requires the use of melody by stressing words in certain ways within a sentence. The Thai language, however, does not have melody in a sentence as a whole and so the reading was flat as oppose to rising and falling, strong and weak. The lack of pauses in some instances has more to do with the individual reader and with practice could easily be eliminated.
In conclusion, Thai teachers need to provide more speaking time for the students so that they can learn the rhythm of the English language. This can be achieved by giving the students more access to a native speaker’s spoken word. Some suggestions for this would be to have the students do more role-play exercises in the classroom impersonating different characters from a book. Also trying to imitate character’s voices from a movie or from television programmes would be a great way to master their personation technique. A game could be made out of this where the students have to guess who another student is trying to imitate. Another way to help Thai students might be to get them to listen to other well known interpretive readers while they are reading along to the story themselves to get an understanding of how it is done well.