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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

Helping Learners to Achieve Multi-Dimensional Mental Representation in L2 Reading

Hitomi Masuhara (Dr.), Leeds Metropolitan University, UK
(Re-published with thanks from Folio, Jan 2004)


What is "Mental Representation"?
Mental representation during reading
How can we help L2 learners to read in a multi-dimensional way?
The multi-dimensional approaches
An example (lesson plan) of reading procedures using a multi-dimensional approach

What is 'Mental Representation'?

Please spend two minutes looking at the picture below.

What have you experienced?

Did you glance at it and decide that it is insignificant? You saw a furry kitten and even heard it mewing for milk? Did you hear the word 'cat' or 'kitten' in your mind? Your past experience flashed of having a cat as a pet? Remembered how it purrs when it's stroked gently or how rough its pink tongue feels when it licks your hand? Or did you feel aversion because you can't stand cats?

What you have just experienced is the result of your brain creating a 'Mental Representation' of a picture of a cat. According to neuroscientists, 'The world we see is reality manufactured in the brain: an integration of all the internal and external information gathered through sensory systems' (Llinās, 1990). Neuroscientists can prove to us that we sense discrete pieces of external sensory information through different channels.

It is important to note that we integrate internal information as well as external information in creating mental representation. For example, a mental representation of the picture of a cat is likely to be influenced by our past memories. These memories derive from our numerous encounters with cats. Many of us may have had direct experience of seeing, touching, smelling cats and playing with them. Our memories of cats might also include indirect experience of seeing them on T.V. or reading about them in books. Those who especially like or dislike cats would have strong emotive associations with cats. The external stimuli of a picture of a cat could spark off such emotive responses in you. Indeed our mental representation of a picture is multi-dimensional in a sense that is sensory, motor, cognitive and emotive at the same time.

So what neuroscientists are telling us is that we are not like cameras projecting what we see in our brains! To prove this, just imagine the kitten in the picture turning around to show its face. Wouldn't you be shocked if it didn't have a face at all?! You had half-expected what it might look like in your mental representation of the picture. If you had been asked to draw its face you might have done so. And interestingly, your pictures would have shared common features but also showed individualities. This shows that, depending on our personal experience, our liking for and knowledge about cats, each of us creates an individual, dynamic and variable mental representation of a picture of a cat.

Mental representation during reading

Imagine that you've found a poem like the one below. Please read it.

Refugee Mother and Child

No Madonna and Child could touch
that picture of a mother's tenderness
for a son she soon will have to forget.

The air was heavy with odours
of diarrhoea of unwashed children
with washed-out ribs and dried-up
bottoms struggling in laboured
steps behind blown empty bellies. Most
mothers there had long ceased
to care but not this one; she held
a ghost smile between her teeth
and in her eyes the ghost of a mother's
pride as she combed the rust-coloured
hair left on his skull and then -
singing in her eyes - began carefully
to part it … In another life this
would have been a little daily
act of no consequence before his
breakfast and school; now she
did it like putting flowers
on a tiny grave.

Chinua Achebe

In reading this poem, readers might:
- experience some sort of emotion
- experience images, heat, thirst, smell and possibly even a sense of movement
- remember some personal matters directly and indirectly related to the text
- make use of cognition, trying to work out what is happening in the poem
- evaluate the poem

So when you read this poem as a proficient user of English, you are creating mental representation of the poem in your brain. Reading a text is in fact an extension of our mental ability to create multi-dimensional mental representations in actual experience (Masuhara, 2000; Masuhara, 2003). Interestingly, of all the reactions in responding to a literary text, emotion seems to be the most pervasive of all in adding values, interest and meaning to the text and in giving readers motivation to read on. Furthermore the emotive impact created by the text seems to leave a strong impression and to form a durable memory to aid recall. Note here that your mental representation may be variable in a sense that you may have slightly different representations each time you read it depending on your physical conditions or state of mind. Note also that your mental representation is dynamic in a sense that your interpretations change as you read on. I would argue that this variable, dynamic and individualistic interpretation of the text is what is called 'comprehension'.

Now comes a big question: 'Do you think your L2 learners would manage a multi-dimensional representation of the poem as vividly as you did? If so, why? If not, why not?'

What sort of mental representation do L2 learners have in reading texts?

Masuhara (2000) conducted an experiment comparing how proficient L1 readers read and how advanced L2 learners read the same text. Almost all the L1 proficient readers reported experiencing multi-dimensional mental representations of the text. Many of them also reported emotional reactions to what they read and some commented on the textual constructions. They also reported remembering personal past memories during reading. The L2 advanced learners, however, predominantly reported frustrations or anxiety over not understanding words. They had text-induced images but were often confused by conflicting images that could not be integrated into a coherent whole. They were decoding or studying the text rather than creating a multi-dimensional mental representation of it. In other words, their reading style is very much uni-dimensional (i.e. linguistic) without really involving sensory and other personal memory resources in their brain. The emotions that L2 learners reported were anxiety, frustration, anger directed at themselves: no place for the joy of interacting emotionally and cognitively with the text - i.e. the whole point of reading.

How can we help L2 learners read in a multi-dimensional way?

The difficulty for L2 learners, for example, in processing authentic texts is that it requires the learners' ability to connect the linguistic codes with the non-verbal multi-dimensional memories in the brain. In real life experience, the incoming input is multi-sensory processing: we see, hear, feel, etc. In reading a text, however, the initial channel for incoming information is uni-dimensional: linguistic processing of codes. It is then left to the readers or listeners to actively involve multi-dimensional memories in their brains. In order to achieve vivid multi-dimensional mental representations like those of proficient L1 readers, L2 learners need robust and extensive neural network connections between the linguistic codes and the multi-dimensional memories in their brains.

What tends to happen in classroom is that, in order to 'help the learners', teachers pre-teach vocabulary or tell learners to look at glossaries (both are linguistic solutions!). But learners are not receiving the help that they really need. What is lacking is not the linguistic explanation or linguistic drill (i.e. uni-dimensional approach) but is the ability to connect the linguistic codes with the relevant multi-dimensional memories, which are indispensable in creating the multi-dimensional mental representation of the text. This is the very reason why even at advanced levels, L2 learners seem to be using language in a uni-dimensional way even though they are fully capable of using it in multi-dimensional way in their L1.

The Multi-dimensional approaches

In the Multi-Dimensional Approaches, experiencing rather than studying learning materials (e.g. tasks, literary texts) is likely to provide learners with opportunities to:

- cognitively and affectively engage with the meaning
- activate sensory, motor, emotional, cognitive areas of their brain during the process of reading
- self-project and self-invest in the activities which lead to deeper processing and to fuller engagement
- be exposed to comprehensible input of language repeatedly for a significant number of times
- be exposed to comprehensible input of language repeatedly for a significant duration of time
- have time to make errors and adjustments in connecting verbal codes with non-verbal mental representations

Have you noticed that many of the conditions listed above accord with what have been suggested as the characteristics of the optimal learning environment in Second Acquisition Theories (Ellis, 1997; Tomlinson, 1998)?

Let me now show you an example of a Multi-Dimensional way of approaching reading. Note how the principles identified in the article may lie behind each activity.

An example of reading procedures using a Multi-Dimensional Approach
- Little Johnny's Final Letter

LEVEL Lower intermediate - High Intermediate

AGE 12 onwards

TIME 60 minutes

PREPARATION A poem 'Little Johnny's Final Letter' by Brian Patten 1995. Grinning Jack - Selected Poems. Flamingo. ISBN 0 00 65 4846 6.

PROCEDURE 1 Tell your students that they are going to listen to a poem. Ask them what they think the poem is about by writing parts of the title on the board. Start with 'Letter' then add 'Final Letter', 'Johnny's Final Letter' and finally 'Little Johnny's Final Letter'.

2 Tell your students to write answers in groups to the following questions:

i. How old do you think Johnny is?
ii. Where do you think Johnny is?
iii. Who do you think Johnny addressed this letter to?
iv. Why do you think Johnny wrote the letter?

3 Listen to these extracts from the poem:

I won't be home this evening, so
Don't worry

Simply gone to get myself classified

I have taken off my short-trousers
and put on long ones

Heard your plea on the radio this morning,
you sounded sad and strangely old...

4 Tell your students to go back to their answers in 2 above if they want to.

5 Tell your students to listen to the whole poem. Tell them to see pictures in their mind of what the poem describes.

Little Johnny's Final Letter


I won't be home this evening, so
Don't worry; don't hurry to report me missing
Don't drain the canals to find me,
I've decided to stay alive, don't
search the wood, I'm not hiding,
Simply gone to get myself classified.
Don't leave my Shreddies out,
I've done with security;
Don't circulate my photograph to society
I have disguised myself as a man
and am giving priority to obscurity,
It suits me fine;
I have taken off my short-trousers
and put on long ones, and
now am going out into the city, so
Don't worry; don't hurry to report me missing.

I've rented a room without any curtains
And sit behind the windows growing cold
Heard your plea on the radio this morning
You sounded sad and strangely old...

6 Tell your students to go back to their answers in 2 above if they want to.

7 Tell your students to draw in groups one of the following scenes:

i. Johnny on the day before he wrote the letter to his mother
ii. Johnny in his rented room
iii. Johnny's mother in the radio studio appealing to Johnny.

8 Read the poem aloud again.

9 Tell your students to add some details to the group picture they produced in 6 above.

10 Distribute the poem and tell your students to read the poem and in groups to add some more details to the picture they produced in 6 above.

11 Tell your students to answer the following questions in groups:
i. Why do you think Johnny has left home?
ii. What do you think Shreddies are?
iii. Why do you think Johnny's mother usually leaves Shreddies out?
iv. What does Johnny means when he talks about taking off his short-trousers and putting on long ones?

12 Explain to your students that in his letter home, Johnny asks his mother not to do things and gives reasons why she shouldn't. Tell your students to list, in groups, things Johnny doesn't want his mother to do and the reasons he gives under the headings below.

Things Johnny discourages the reasons Johnny gives

13 Explain to your students that this poem is written by one of the Liverpool poets, Brian Patten. Tell your groups to answer the following questions concerning the poet's intentions.

i. Johnny also uses big words and strange expressions. Try to rephrase the following expressions in the poem in a simpler, more straightforward way.

Simply gone to get myself classified.

I've done with security;

Don't circulate my photograph to society

And am giving priority to obscurity,

ii. Note down possible reasons why the poet used such expressions in Johnny's letter.

14 Tell your students to do one of the activities below. It is important that the students know that they can do the task by themselves, with a partner, or in small groups.

a) Learn to recite a poem as if you are Johnny
b) Paint a picture to illustrate the poem
c) Write down what you think Johnny's mother said on the radio. When you have finished, practise reading it in the voice of a mother who sounds, 'sad and strangely old'.
d) Write a dialogue in which Johnny and his mother are talking on the day before he left home.
e) Imagine that Johnny's mother found him sitting in his rented room. Write a dialogue between Johnny and his mother in his room.
f) Write either a poem or a short story about a teen ager leaving home for the first time.

COMMENTS Do note that:
- The initial activities all try to stimulate guessing and create mental representation gradually based on their own past experience
- Students are given repeated opportunities to adjust their answers and drawings. Individual mental representations are gradually modified to get closer to the poet's mental representation reflected in words. This is also a good chance for learners to connect language with non-verbal mental representation. It is also reassuring to students that they are not being tested.
- From 3 to 8, there are a lot of listening activities before the learners are asked to read. Based on many strands of evidence from neuroscience and cognitive psychology, it seems valid to claim that reading is sound-based. If the learners lack exposure to natural phonological input, it is difficult to develop the ability to group the words into the meaningful chunks which are vital to reading. Reading requires the readers' ability to segregate phrasal and clausal units and infer the pragmatic meaning often expressed by the prosodic features (e.g. stress, intonation). A teacher reading the text aloud works like a mother reading a story to a child. Furthermore, L2 learners tend to freeze when they encounter unknown words - listening to the text first relieves the learners from such a worry and helps them to focus on trying to get the overall meaning.
- Activities and questions up till Activity 10 are meaning-focused. Then gradually students' attention is guided to focus on some cultural words (e.g. Shreddies, the significance of long trousers) in relation to the overall meaning. Interesting cultural awareness activities may be employed here.
- Activities 12-13 focus on language but they are there to help deepen the interpretation of the poem.
- Activity 13 also explores the poet's intentions in writing a poem. A good opportunity for students to learn about techniques and the effect of literature.
- Activity 14 can be homework but there has to be some provision for your students to have an exhibition of display of their hard work.


In reading pedagogy in the last two decades, the learners have received bottom-up language instructions emphasising instant word recognition, skills/strategies lessons, learned the importance of activating the schema and have been tested with comprehension questions. Learners do have language problems but it is not so much uni-dimensional extensive knowledge of the vocabulary or syntax that they need, what they lack is the fun and involving experience of connecting the language with multi-dimensional mental representation that will ultimately lead to enhancement of the learners' own individual lives.

By redefining 'comprehension' as 'mental representation', Multi-Dimensional Approaches aim to create an optimal learning environment in line with the findings of neuroscience and cognitive psychology on how we learn.

Creating mental representations is a means to achieve an end i.e. to guide the being to a better state. We do not read to analyse the text for reproduction's sake (as is expected in 'comprehension questions' or 'gap fill'). We read because there is an incentive for doing so: because we gain pleasure, learn about ourselves and about our environment, possibly because reading tends to promise some instrumental advantages in society, etc. The goal of Multi-Dimensional Approaches, ultimately, is to ensure that learners appreciate the learning experience and want to go on learning more for life.


Poem: 'Refugee Mother and Child' in I. Gordon, (ed.) 1994. The Earth is Yours - Poems for Secondary Schools. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan Press Ltd.

Ellis, R. 1997. Second Language Acquisition Research and Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Masuhara, H. 2000. "The multi-dimensional representation model - A neural interpretation of the reading process". The AILA '99 Tokyo. Publication in CD-Rom.

Masuhara, H. 2003. 'Chapter 22 - Materials for developing reading skills' in B. Tomlinson (Ed.) Developing Materials for Language Teaching. London: Continuum Press.

Tomlinson, B. 1998. 'Introduction' in B. J. Tomlinson (ed.) Materials Development in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tomlinson, B. 2000. 'A multi-dimensional approach'. The Language Teacher. Vol. 24.

Please check the Creative Methodology For The Classroom course at Pilgrims website.

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