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Tuesday, March 08, 2005

 
Tolerance for Ambiguity
It struck me recently that one of the skills that would help my students the most with their reading abilities would be if they developed a better tolerance for ambiguity. Many of my higher level students are starting to break out of the incredibly gripping idea that there is one and only one right way to say anything in English, but you must keep in mind that this is only after possibly 6-10 years of study. I am constantly trying to break them of the habit of reaching for their dictionaries whenever they encounter a word they can't recall immediately. They find it very hard to believe that if they just keep reading, they'll probably be able to figure it out from context. A great deal of this is due, I think, to a lack of tolerance for ambiguity.

Perhaps, you might point out, my own skills in this are overly developed and I in turn lack sympathy for my students' plight. However, my skills are honed by doing just what I tell them to do. I read. A lot. I keep reading and decide on a basic meaning for the word on my own, unless it truly makes no sense. I allow things to unfold before freaking out that I didn't understand every single word or phrase in the exact order in which they were presented.

Of course, it has occurred to me that this might in part be due to the fact that the foreign language in which I achieved the greatest reading skill was Spanish. Think for a moment about who two of the best known Spanish-language writers are: Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges, two men not exactly known for the realistic basis of their writings. If ever there were books to make you give up on finding words in dictionaries, Marquez's will do that. Thoughts when reading his work, as I recall, went something like this: "Did that actually say that she watched a fish swim across the wall? *look up key words in dictionary* Yes, yes it really did. What the...? I guess I'll just keep going." Or, alternatively, "Is that even a real word? No, no it's not. What the heck is is supposed to mean?"

Maybe I should try to find some English magical realism for my students. Or maybe that's a bit too cruel. I'll stick with science fiction right now. Or Dr. Seuss.

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