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A study on the relationship between topic familiarity and EFL reading comprehension performance of english translation students of college of television

VIETNAM NATIONAL UNIVERSITY
UNIVERSITY OF LANGUAGES AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES
FACULTY OF POST-GRADUATE STUDIES

NGUYỄN THỊ PHƢƠNG LIÊN

A STUDY ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN TOPIC FAMILIARITY
AND EFL READING COMPREHENSION PERFORMANCE OF ENGLISH
TRANSLATION STUDENTS OF COLLEGE OF TELEVISION

(Một nghiên cứu về mối quan hệ giữa mức độ quen thuộc với chủ đề bài
đọc và khả năng đọc hiểu của sinh viên khoa tiếng Anh Biên Dịch
trường Cao Đẳng Truyền Hình)

M.A. MINOR PROGRAMME THESIS

Field: English Teaching Methodology
Code: 60140111

Hanoi - 2016



VIETNAM NATIONAL UNIVERSITY
UNIVERSITY OF LANGUAGES AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES
FACULTY OF POST-GRADUATE STUDIES

NGUYỄN THỊ PHƢƠNG LIÊN

A STUDY ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN TOPIC FAMILIARITY
AND EFL READING COMPREHENSION PERFORMANCE OF ENGLISH
TRANSLATION STUDENTS OF COLLEGE OF TELEVISION

(Một nghiên cứu về mối quan hệ giữa mức độ quen thuộc với chủ đề bài
đọc và khả năng đọc hiểu của sinh viên khoa tiếng Anh Biên Dịch
trường Cao Đẳng Truyền Hình)

M.A. MINOR PROGRAMME THESIS

Field: English Teaching Methodology
Code: 60140111
Supervisor: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Nguyễn Xuân Thơm

s

Hanoi - 2016


DECLARATION
I, Nguyen Thi Phuong Lien, certify that this work is my own study. The data,
results and finding in this thesis are completely true. The thesis has not been
submitted for a higher degree to any other university or institution.

Hanoi,2016

Nguyễn Thị Phƣơng Liên

i


ABSTRACT
“A study on the relationship between topic familiarity and EFL reading


comprehension performance of English Translation students of College of
Television”
A group of 65 students from Faculty of English Translation, College of
Television were required to do two reading tests, one using a text whose topic is
familiar with students, and another using a text with an unfamiliar topic. These two
topics were determined by a questionnaire delivered to them before the tests. The
comparison between results of the tests was conducted to find out how topic
familiarity affects students on comprehending a text. Then, a treatment related to
providing topic familiarity was carried out, and its effectiveness was evaluated. The
way this type of schema normally activated in their reading lessons was also
investigated through a survey and an interview. The research result proved the
facilitative role of topic familiarity on EFL reading comprehension and raised many
implications on teaching reading skill and for further researches in this area.

ii


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
I would like to express my deep gratitude to my supervisor, Assoc. Prof. Dr.
Nguyen Xuan Thom for thoroughly instructing and helping me to clarify the issues,
for the insightful comments, and for always giving encouraging words to me. Without
his invaluable advice and support, the study could not have come to success.
I would also give special thanks to Assoc. Prof. Dr. Le Van Canh who cultivated
the idea about the thesis‟ topic to me, and also suggested me the very first approach to
conduct the study.
I wish to thank my colleagues who are English Teachers of English Translation
Department, College of Television for their participating in and for supporting me
during the thesis conducting process.

iii


THE TABLE OF CONTENT

Declaration ..................................................................................................................... i
Abstract ......................................................................................................................... ii
Acknowledgements ....................................................................................................... iii
PART A: INTRODUCTION ........................................................................................ 1
1.

Rationale for the study ......................................................................................... 1

2.

Objectives of the study ......................................................................................... 2

3.

Method of the study ............................................................................................. 2

4.

Significance of the study ...................................................................................... 3

5.

The scope of the research ..................................................................................... 3

6.

Design of the thesis .............................................................................................. 4

PART B: DEVELOPMENT....................................... Error! Bookmark not defined.
CHAPTER 1: LITERATURE REVIEW ................................................................... 5
1.1. EFL Reading comprehension ............................................................................... 5
1.2. Topic familiarity .................................................................................................. 6
1.2.1.

Definition .................................................................................................. 6

1.2.2.

Topic familiarity in EFL reading comprehension ......................................... 7

1.2.3.

The influences of topic familiarity and schemata on EFL reading

comprehension ...................................................................................................... 10
1.2.4.

Research on effects of topic familiarity on reading comprehension ...... 10

CHAPTER 2: METHODOLOGY ............................................................................. 14
2.1. Participants ......................................................................................................... 14
2.2. Data collection instruments ................................................................................ 14
2.3. Procedure............................................................................................................ 17
2.4. Data analysis techniques .................................................................................... 19
CHAPTER 3: RESULTS AND FINDINGS ........................................................... 211
3.1. Familiar topic vs. unfamiliar topic ................................................................... 211
3.2. Relationship between topic familiarity and students‟ reading comprehension 222
iv


3.2.1.

Pre-tests on 2 different topics................................................................ 222

3.2.2.

Students‟ improvement after treatments ............................................... 266

3.3. Activating topic familiarity and its effect in learning and teaching reading in
the research context ................................................................................................. 288
CHAPTER 4: DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATION FOR TEACHING
READING SKILL ................................................................................................. 322
PART C. CONCLUSION ......................................................................................... 366
1.

The findings ..................................................................................................... 366

2.

Implications ...................................................................................................... 377

3.

The research‟s limitation .................................................................................. 377

4.

Suggestions for further researches ................................................................... 377

REFERENCES ............................................................................................................ 39
APPENDIXES
Appendix 1. Placement test ............................................................................................. I
Appendix 2. Questionnaire ............................................................................................ X
Appendix 3. Interview questions................................................................................. XII
Appendix 4. Reading comprehension tests ................................................................ XIII

v


LIST OF ABBREVIATIONS
EFL: English as a Foreign Language
CTV: College of Television
L1: The first language
L2: The second language

LIST OF TABLES AND CHARTS
Page
Table 1: Text difficulty by passage

16

Table 2: The result of preliminary test

18

Table 3: Topic familiar questionnaire‟s result

22

Table 4: Descriptive statistics for reading tests

24

Table 5: Paired sample pretests

24

Table 6: Performance in 2 tests by different proficiency level groups

25

Table 7: Pretest- posttest descriptive statistics

28

Table 8: Paired sample pre-posttest results

28

Chart 1: Research procedure

20

Chart 2: Higher level group‟s performance in 2 pretests

26

Chart 3: Lower level group‟s performance in 2 pretests

27

Chart 4: Forms usually used to activate students' background knowledge

28

Chart 5: Students‟ performance of pre- reading activities understandability

29

Chart 6: Students‟ evaluation on pre-reading activities effectiveness

30

vi


PART A: INTRODUCTION

1. Rationale for the study
Reading is generally considered as one of the most important skills in learning a
foreign language. Noor, N. M. (2006) has stated that “In any academic or higher
learning context, reading is perceived as the most prominent academic skill for
university students”. It is also perceived as a hard and multivariate skill because it
requires readers both rich background knowledge of the given topic and the efficient
knowledge of the language in order to read effectively (Grabe, 1997).
It is agreed by many experts that EFL reading comprehension is affected by
different variables (such as students‟ level, their motivation or anxiety, etc.). Among
them, passage content or topic familiarity can be considered as the most influential
factor. Researches have proved that prior knowledge of the reading text‟s content may
affect both first language (L1) and second language (L2) reading comprehension. As
Aebersold, J. A. and Field, M. L. (1997) point out if the topic is outside of readers‟
experience or base of knowledge; they are adrift on an unknown sea. It can be referred
that reading about an unfamiliar topic is really a difficult work.
For those reasons, many researches have been conducted to shed the light on the
influential relationship between topic familiarity in particular (and schema theory in
general) and reading comprehension (Carrell, 1987; Chen & Donin, 1997; Krekeler,
2006; Lesser, 2003; Shapiro, 2004; Tsui, 2002; Wu, 2005). These studies actually have
great effect on understanding reading comprehension in both first and second
language, and made it clear that understanding the role of topic familiarity in reading
process gives insights into reasons why students may fail to comprehend text
materials. By this, English language educators can develop teaching methods, reading
materials, testing and evaluation on teaching reading comprehension skill, to be more
compatible with their learners, and then improve the teaching and learning results.

1


To teachers at English Translation Department, the very new department of
College of Television, developing a suitable and effective reading course for students
is very essential. To achieve this, finding out influences of topic familiarity on
students‟ reading comprehension competence is very necessary. That is the reason why
the investigator as one of English teacher of the department conducted this study - A
study on the relationhip between topic familiarity and EFL reading comprehension
performance of English Translation students of College of Television. The aim of
the study is to find out how topic familiarity of reading materials affects students‟
comprehension, and how it is activated in the current teaching situation; thereby the
research result and its implication can be applied to develop current reading materials
as well as teaching and learning reading skill in the College.
2. Objectives of the study
The present study is conducted in order to examine and evaluate the effects of
passage topic familiarity on L2 readers' comprehension among English Translation
students of College of Television who learn English as a foreign language. Besides,
the factual situation in activating this type of schemata in CTV reading classes will be
explored and evaluated to improve the current teaching reading methods and syllabus.
To achieve mentioned objectives, the following research question guide the study:
 What is the relationship between topic familiarity and EFL students‟ reading
comprehension performance?
3. Method of the study
To achieve the objectives as stated above, the study is conducted mainly with the
approach of a quasi- experimental research as a type of empirical study. By this, a
causal hypothesis about the influence of topic familiarity on ESL students‟ reading
comprehension is tested by setting a comparison between their results on two reading
comprehension tests, one is with a familiar topic and the other is with unfamiliar topic.
After that, the conductor manipulates some treatment, and then some comparisons
between pretest and posttest will be made to make the point even clear. The

2


experimental assignment to conditions is by means of administrator selection that is
suitable to the conductor.
The rational for using this method is that it may an effective way to integrate
research and practice and give deeper understanding about the real educational
situation that is put in the case in this study. For most, the validity of research results
can be ensured.
For these reasons, the study‟s experiment is carried out under natural school
conditions in the English Translation Department in College of Television with the
aim to reinforce the practicality of the study. Questionnaire and interview are used also
as additional tools to collect data.
4. Significance of the study
In term of theory, this study will contribute some more interesting findings to
schema theories – especially topic familiarity - in general and their role in EFL reading
comprehension.
In term of practice, this study will play a role in increasing CTV English
teachers‟ understanding about the effect of topic familiarity on students reading
comprehension performance and the factual situation on the way they activate it in
their teaching reading skill. From that, they can have insights into why students may
fail to comprehend text material and apply those understanding in designing reading
syllabus, tests and evaluation as well.
5. The scope of the research
Over few past decades, many researches have conducted to investigate effects
of schema in general and topic familiarity in particular on readers‟ comprehension and
usability of documents. Some researchers acknowledged the impacts by assessing the
pre-existing knowledge of experimental subjects with respect to the experimental
materials used in the studies. In contrast, some others rarely controlled for the
influences of topic familiarity in comparison with other factors affecting reading
comprehension when they evaluated the comprehensibility.

3


In this study, the investigator considers topic familiarity as one of many influential
factors affecting the EFL students‟ performance of reading comprehension, besides
readers‟ level, their anxiety, their motivation, or test types etc. On the other hands, it
contends that this factor needs to be either assessed or controlled for in teaching
reading skill. Results of the research are used to examined whether topic familiarity
facilitates reading comprehension or not, and to what extent, and how it is currently
activated in reading lessons of the college.
The research is conducted on students of English Translation Department, College
of Television under a certain experimental environment; thus the result may be not
true with other subjects in other condition.
6. Design of the thesis
The study includes 3 main parts: Introduction, Development, and Conclusion apart
from acknowledgment, abstract, table of contents and appendices.
The 1st part Introduction includes 6 chapters: Rationale, Objectives, Method,
Significance, Scope & Design of the study.
The 2nd part Development includes 4 sections:
Chapter 1 - Literature review reviews some main related definitions and previous
researches on them. In this chapter, brief terms used in this research are also
distinguished.
Chapter 2 - Methodology of the research includes 4 sub-parts:

research

participants, data collection instruments, data analysis technique and procedure.
Chapter 3 – Results and findings presents the results and findings drawn from the
data analysis.
Chapter 4 – Discussion and implication mentions some further discussion about
the research‟s findings
The 3rd part is the Conclusion of the study, including summary of the content, the
research limitation and implications for further researches.

4


PART B: DEVELOPMENT
CHAPTER 1: LITERATURE REVIEW
1.1. EFL Reading comprehension
Reading is a very common skill to everyone foreign language learners. It has
been proved as a major source of comprehensible input and as the skill that many
serious language learners need to employ most.
Many researchers agreed that reading is an interaction between the reader and the
writer mediated through the text. According to Day and Park (2005), reading is a
meaning-making process in which readers use their mental activities in order to
construct meaning from the text. In other words, they have to “draw meaning from the
printed page and interpret this information appropriately” (Grabe, 2002, p.9). Thus, in
order to acquire the available information in the text, readers have to make a very
active contribution to the text.
The chief purpose of reading is to get the correct message implied in a text that
the writer intended for the reader to get (Nutall, 1996). To achieve this, readers need to
cover “exact, detailed, sequential perception and identification of letters, words,
spelling patterns and large language units”(Goodman, 1967). Besides, they need to
minimize dependence on visual detail" by utilizing background knowledge to make
predictions and checking these against the text (Goodman, 1975, p12). Because of this,
it can be understood that reading is an interactive process involving the reader, the
text, and the interaction between them with the aim to comprehend writer‟s message
implied in the text.
Reading comprehension is a complex process composed by many different skills.
Kennedy (1974, p.3) considers it as "the ability of an individual to recognize a visual
form, associate the form with a sound and /or meaning he has learned in the past, and on
the basis of past experience, understand and interpret its meaning". Nassaji (2003,
p.261) confirms that reading is not a single-factor process but a multivariate skill
involving a complex combination and integration of a variety of cognitive, linguistic,
and nonlinguistic skills.

5


To complete this complex undertaking, a reader has to involve many levels of
processing, two mains of which are bottom-up processing and top-down processing.
According to Treiman (1998), bottom-up processes are those that take in motivation
from the outside world - letters and words for reading - and deal with that information
with little input to higher-level knowledge. It refers to the reader‟s receiving meaning
from the letters and words of a text and reconstructing the implied message that way.
In contrast, top-down processes refer to the reader‟s ability to look at a text as a whole
and to connect and relate it to his existing knowledge base. Treiman (1998) believes
that with top-down processes, the reader‟s uptake of information is guided by his
individual prior knowledge and expectations. These two approaches mainly vary in the
emphasis given to text-based variables such as vocabulary, syntax, and grammatical
structure and reader-based variables such as the reader's background knowledge,
cognitive development, strategy use, interest, and purpose (Lally, C.G., 1998).
However, both of them are very necessary to obtain a message from a text, and they
work together to confirm the accurate and rapid processing of information in most
situations in this process too.
For many EFL readers, reading comprehension is actually a hard multivariate skill
because it is not merely a receptive process of gathering information from the page in a
word-by-word manner, but it is rather a selective process and characterized as an active
process of comprehending (Grabe, W. 1991). Bernhardt (2005) asserted that in L2 reading
process, the reader involves in the construction of meaning from a text, based partly on
information presented by that text and partly on his prior knowledge, feelings and
opinions to make sense of the printed words. In other words, reading comprehension
process occurs when readers construct the text based on their knowledge of the reading
task, their knowledge of the target language, and their knowledge about the world (Grabe,
2009).Therefore, it can be inferred that background knowledge including topic
familiarity really plays an important role in EFL readers‟ comprehension.
1.2. Topic familiarity
1.2.1. Definition

6


Topic familiarity is background knowledge or prior knowledge that readers have
already got about the subject matter of the reading text and their “ability to draw on
their existing world knowledge about the topic” (Long, D. R., 1989). When reading a
text in a familiar topic, readers use their prior knowledge related to the text content to
decode ambiguous messages or fill in the gaps when information in the text is not
explicitly stated (Alderson, 2000). Therefore, it can be said that topic familiarity helps
readers to contextualize textual ideas and facilitates their comprehension.
Researchers in both first language and second language acquisition have
investigated the significant role of readers‟ topic familiarity in reading outcomes
(Carrell, 1987; Shapiro, 2004; Tsui, 2002; Wu, 2005). They mostly show that students
reading about familiar topics comprehend and recall more important and correct textual
information better than those who are unfamiliar with the content of the text. This result
indicates that topic familiarity has a positive effect on readers‟ comprehension. It has
even been argued that with the help of topic familiarity, “readers at a lower level of
second language proficiency could perform better than, or at least as well as, readers at a
higher level of language proficiency” (Tsui, 2002, p. 29)
1.2.2. Topic familarity in EFL reading comprehension
To get a profound understanding about the term topic familiarity and its
relationship with reading comprehension, it is essential to get knowledge of schema
theory which were related to knowledge stored in reader memories. It is considered as
a “building

blocks

of cognition”

( Rumelhart,

1980) which “reflect

the

experiences, conceptual understanding, attitudes, values, skills and strategies… (we)
bring to a text situation” (Vocca and Vocca, 1999, p. 15). Schema theories were firstly
introduced into psychology and education through the work of the British psychologist
Sir Frederic Bartlett in 1932 and then further developed by Richard Anderson – an
American educational psychologist in 1970s. After that, they were quickly applied in
educational studies, especially for understanding the EFL reading process.
Definition of schemata

7


According to Widdowson (1983), schemata are cognitive constructs which allow
for the organization of information in long-term memory. They are activated by “the
mind, and stimulated by key words or phrases in the text or by the context” (Cook,
1989). They believe that schemata covers the knowledge of the world, from everyday
knowledge to very specialized knowledge, knowledge of language structures, and
knowledge of texts and forms they take in terms of genre, and organization. Therefore,
it can be stated that schemata allow us to relate incoming information to already
known information.
Besides allowing organizing information and knowledge economically, schemata
also allow us to predict the continuation of both spoken and written discourse.
Thereby, it is the fact that researches on the theory of schema have had a great impact
on reading comprehension as well as on studying teaching English. As Cook (1997)
puts it, schema theory can help explain students‟ comprehension problems and suggest
the kind of background knowledge they need.
In L2 reading research, the schema theory focuses on both the content and the
structure of a text (Carrell, 1984; Carrell & Eisterhold, 1983). It emphasizes that
reading comprehension is an interactive process between the reader‟s prior background
knowledge and the text. According to the theory, EFL readers‟ reading comprehension
is not only due to how easy or difficult a text is for them but more depends on the
extent of readers‟ recall from their background knowledge and from the contextual
clues (Carrell, 1987; Floyd & Carrell, 1987).
Schema theory is related to top-down reading processing, which allows readers
to make predictions about the reading text and helps them to fill in the gaps when ideas
are not explicitly stated in the text (Alderson, 2000; Hudson, 1988; Tsui, 2002). In this
way, a schema assists readers to draw inferences and to guess meanings of those
unclear or ambiguous messages from the text. Therefore, the appropriate schema
compensates for readers‟ insufficient linguistic knowledge because those unknown
messages can be inferred and decoded (Carrell & Wise, 1998). Thus, it may be
possible that readers at a lower level of language proficiency could perform either as

8


well as or better than readers at a higher level of language proficiency, given the
correct background knowledge (Leeser, 2003).
Types of schemata
According to Carrell (1987), schemata can be classified into two categories:
formal schema and content schema, and both of them are necessary for any readers to
fully understand a text or complete a testing task well.
Formal schema is the knowledge of discourse or rhetorical organization of the
text. It comprises knowledge of different text types and genres, and includes the
understanding that language structures, vocabulary, grammar, level of formality are
used differently in different types of texts (e.g., differences in the structures of letters
and advertisements).
Content schema is the reader‟s background knowledge associated with the text
that a reader brings to it (Alptekin, 2003; Singhal, 1998; Stott, 2001). It refers to a
reader's background or world knowledge, provides them with a foundation, a basis for
comparison (Carrell & Eisterhold, 1983; Carrell, Pharis, & Liberto, 1989).
Topic familiarity vs. content familiarity
These two terms sometimes make readers confuse when they read about passage
familiarity and schemata. In fact, topic familiarity and content familiarity are
intimately related to each other and even used as identical terms in many studies.
Content familiarity refers to the knowledge that may or may not be relevant to the
content of a particular text or background knowledge of the messages delivered in the text
content; on the other hand, topic familiarity is directly related to readers‟ familiarity with
the subject matter of the text (Alderson, 2000).
According to Brown (2001), content schema includes what we know about
people, the world, culture, and the universe those as we call topic. Carrell (1998) also
agrees that content schema contains general or specific information on a given topic.
Thus, it can be inferred that the two concepts topic familiarity and passage content
familiarity are nearly the same.

9


Because of this very close interrelation between these two terms, in this research, the
term of “topic familiarity” is used with identical characteristics and influences on
reading comprehension with “content schema”.
1.2.3. The influences of topic familiarity and schemata on EFL reading
comprehension
A number of studies have provided empirical evidence to support the notion that
topic familiarity can be an influential factor to both L1 and L2 reading.
Chang (2006) pointed out that while reading comprehension was motivated by
both linguistic difficulty and topic familiarity, inferring was only facilitated by topic
familiarity. Correspondently, Pulido (2004) proved that readers‟ familiarity with the
topics of the reading tasks caused better comprehension of the texts. He also showed
that the participants scored considerably higher on familiar topic than the new topic.
Many other researchers agreed that this non-decoding variable affected reading
comprehension much more than readers‟ language proficiency (Hudson, 1988;
Shapiro, 2004). It was even used to explain the differences between L1 and L2 reading
that “L2 readers who are not familiar with content schema or do not process
appropriate L2 sociocultural knowledge will have comprehension difficulties in that
they cannot perceive the L2 text in a culturally authentic way” (Erler and Finkbeiner,
2007). Hudson (1988) added that one of the L2 reading problems lied in the lack of
activating the appropriate schema. With the wrong schema in mind, the reader would
distort the text‟s meaning and find reading to be a difficult.
With the evidence that new information is learned and remembered the most
when it is connected to related prior knowledge, activating the appropriate schema that
fits the text is expected to be indispensible in the reading comprehension process. In
other words, it can be said that background knowledge facilitates reading and has a
considerable impact on reading comprehension.
1.2.4. Research on effects of topic familiarity on reading comprehension
From the above discussion, it is evident that topic familiarity (or schemata in
general) and reading comprehension have a considerable interactional relationship.

10


Limited schemata may result in the readers‟ limited reading comprehension. "If the
topic [...] is outside of their experience or base of knowledge, they are a drift on an
unknown sea". (Aebersold & Field 1997, p. 41). When confronting with such
unfamiliar topics, some readers may overcompensate for absent schemata by reading
in a slow, text-bound manner; other students may overcompensate by wild guessing
(Carrell 1988, p101). It means that an L2 reader who is not familiar with culturally
based knowledge or content schema, or a reader who does not acquire the same
linguistic base as the L1 reader will face up with difficulties. That is the reasons why
there are many studies conducted to shed the light to this co-relationship.
A study carried out by Koh (1986) to show the impacts of familiar content on
student‟s reading comprehension supported the notion that one‟s comprehension of a text
depends on how much relevant prior knowledge the reader has about the subject matter of
that particular text. Walter, K. and Dijk, V. (1978) in their study on text comprehension and
the mental processes occurring in reading comprehension concluded that familiarity might
have effects on comprehension both at the level of processing of the construction of a
coherent text and at other higher processing levels. Research by Johnson (1982) also
pointed out that a text on a familiar topic was better recalled than a similar text on an
unfamiliar topic. Having agreed with this argument, Swale (1990, p. 87) stated that when
content and form are familiar with readers, the texts will be relatively accessible.
In his study to examine the role of background knowledge in L2 reading
assessment by ESL students, Hudson (1988) investigated a group of 93 ESL students
studying in America. They were divided into two groups: the experimental group
being taught relevant knowledge before the reading assessment whilst the control
group receiving no instruction. After reading, students were required to take a 10question multiple-choice test. The results showed that students with low or
intermediate language proficiency got higher score after having received prior
knowledge instruction. In contrast, the effect was not significant among proficient
students. It also proved that activating correct background knowledge seems helpful in
improving reading comprehension performance of EFL students.

11


Tierney (1983) in his study also proved the connection between topic familiarity
and comprehension as well. He discovered that when readers were familiar with the
topic, they were better able to recall information and think critically. Many other
studies like Carrell, (1981); Johnson (1982); Shimoda, (1989) showed the similar
findings in reading comprehension performance. All of them found a considerable link
between comprehension and topic familiarity that participants better comprehended
and/or remembered passages that were more familiar to them. Further evidence from
such studies also suggested readers' schemata for content affected comprehension and
remembering more than did their formal schemata for text organization.
However, some other studies also showed the limited effect of topic familiarity
on reading comprehension. Yazdanpanah (2007) did not find a significant relationship
between text topic familiarity and gender on reading comprehension performance
when investigating the interaction of a reading comprehension test‟s result with testdoers‟ gender. The findings showed that females were significantly better at handling
both types of reading processes (top-down and bottom-up) in comparison to males,
and sex differences in reading comprehension tests were affected by what was tested
rather than text topic.
In a study of students‟ academic English reading proficiency, Clapham (1996)
found a stronger effect of language proficiency on students‟ comprehension than
background knowledge. Whereas poor language proficiency prevented her respondents
from compensating for their lack of understanding by using an appropriate
strategy, the linguistically proficient readers in her sample could “compensate
for a certain lack of background knowledge by making full use of their language
resources” (Clapham, 1996, p. 196).
Peretz and Shoham (1990) conducted a study on 177 Israeli students from
humanities and sciences fields to determine whether ESL students‟ reading
comprehension performance was modified if the reading topic was related to the field of
study with which they were familiar. The research‟s result showed that there was a nonsignificant relationship between topic familiarity and students‟ performance because the
science students scored higher on topics with the passage in their unfamiliar topic. They

12


explained that science students might have higher language proficiency that influenced
the scores more than their domain-specific knowledge.
It can be seen that there are number of research conducted to find out the effect of
schema and topic familiarity on reading comprehension. However, their findings haven‟t
reached a complete agreement on the impact of topic familiarity on reading
comprehension performance of different studied readers. Besides, the majority of
researches in this area focus on investigating the influence of formal schemata, cultural
schemata or schemata combining with age, gender or other factors on reading
comprehension; very few ones study on effects of topic familiarity on reading
comprehension performance as an independent factor. Moreover, very few of them
evaluate the activation of topic familiarity in practical reading lessons as well as suggest
some ways to EFL teachers to improve it in their teaching. This unsolved hypothesis
clearly points to the need for more in-depth research into the contribution of topic
familiarity to reading comprehension. The present study serves as one-step in that
direction with an empirical approach.

13


CHAPTER 2: METHODOLOGY
is study is a research conducted in the English Translation department in College
of Television. The aim of the research is to explore the influential relationship between
topic familiarity and EFL reading comprehension performance from the perspective of
schema theory. The study‟s experiment is carried out under natural school conditions
because it is the situation which has already existed in the real world and was more
representative of the conditions found in educational contexts. Besides, a questionnaire
and an interview are used additionally to collect participants‟ information and their
ideas about teaching and learning reading skill and that in the influential relationship
with topic familiarity as well. All of these data are used to answer the second research
question.
2.1. Participants
The participants of this study include 82 male and female undergraduate English
language students at the Department of English Translation at the College of
Television. They are all young (aged 19-21) and study in this department to achieve a
bachelor‟s degree in English Language Translation. They had been accepted into the
department after a very competitive national university entrance exam. At the time of
the data collection, they had studied English for 7–9 years.
To homogenize the participants, a reading subtest of PET (Oxford University
Press) was used and the participants who scored between the range of one standard
deviation below and above the mean were selected as the intermediate ones to
participate in this study. Based on the test scores, 65 among 82 students were chosen
to join in experimental activities of the research.
2.2. Data collection instruments
Questionnaire
The questionnaire employed in the research includes 7 questions. The first 6
questions are to ask about students‟ attitude about learning English in general and learning
reading skill in particular. In these questions, they are also asked about the way their
reading lessons normally start (with or without teachers‟ activating students‟ background

14


knowledge) and their evaluation about effects of these activities. These questions are
adapted from Khanam, M. et al. (2014).
The final question is about topic familiarity. Its aim is to help the researcher
determine the topics as being familiar or unfamiliar to students, so that they can be
administered as the reading comprehension passages. In this question, 20 topics (that the
investigator believes to be adaptable to the study needs and to cover the range of desired
familiarity level are included and the participants are able to determine their level of
familiarity with different topics based on a five-point Likert scale ranging from
1(absolutely unfamiliar) to 5 (completely familiar). The result of this questionnaire is
used to choose reading texts for the experiment.
Comprehension assessment tasks
Results of some studies have concluded that the method of assessing reading
comprehension influences how readers perform on a test of reading comprehension
(Shohamy, 1984; Wolf, 1993). This being the case, readers' performance across two
different reading-comprehension assessment tasks (i.e. True-false questions, multiple
choice questions ) is checked through two reading texts. These reading texts are picked
up from Misson FCE course book (Express publishing) according to the result of the
topic familiarity questionnaire. The first passage includes details about jobs of a
forecaster and the second mentions some information about Qigong as a type of
therapy, its features and effectiveness as well. In order to limit the influence of other
variants besides the topic familiarity on students‟ reading comprehension, the
conductors made efforts to choose passages that were equivalent as much as possible
in term of linguistic difficulty. All factors related to the text difficulty level like text
genre, text structure, number of words, sentence complexity, number of ideas, etc. are
taken into consideration based on the Flesch formular ( Flesch, 1984). Scoring “idea
units” was based on the analysis of the propositions in the pausal units or breath
groups - pauses on each end of it during normally paced oral reading as provided by
Alderson (2000; p. 231). Based on this method, the idea units of every text were listed
in details.

15


Table 1 lists the passage length, total number of sentences, total number of embedded
clauses, number of ideas and factors related to text difficulty. The aim of including the
above factors is to determine passage difficulty.
Table 1: Text difficulty by passage
Passage

Length

Number of

Number of

Number

sentences

embedded
clauses

of ideas

1. Text in familiar topic:
Weather forecasters‟ job

511
words

29
sentences

48 clauses

48 ideas

2. Text in unfamiliar topic: A

552

25

50 clauses

52 ideas

type of therapy: Qigong

words

sentences

A comparison of the two passages according to six factors indicates that the
passages were almost identical in each of the categories. It means that the difficulty
level of the two passages is relatively similar. The biggest difference between them
belongs to their content and the topic they discuss, and it is the considerable factor,
which influences students‟ reading comprehension performance in this study.
Eight T-F questions and eight multiple-choice questions adapted from the
presented comprehension tasks in the Misson FCE course book (Express publishing)
are used for each study‟s reading comprehension test. While adapting the multiple
choice question items for the present study, the conductor follows Wolf‟s guidelines
(1991) to assure that all items should be dependent on the text so that the reader
always needs to read a passage in order to choose the correct answer. Besides, some
of the items should be elaborated so that the reader could make inferences and
that all the distracters in the multiple choice questions should be believable in
order to prevent participants from immediately disregarding responses.
The test result is then analyzed to find out the extent to which topic familiarity
affect students‟ reading comprehension competence, or on the other word, it is used to
answer the research question. “What is the relationship between topic familiarity and
EFL students’ reading comprehension performance?”
Interview
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The researcher conducts a structured interview via email with 5 English teachers
of the College. The interview questions are adapted from Khanam, M. et al. (2014).
The aim of the interviews is to clarify how background knowledge and topic
familiarity is being activated in reading lessons of the College and how these activities
are effective. The advantages of structured interview questions is that it is easy to
replicate as a fixed set of closed questions are used, which are easy to quantify, so the
reliability can be easy to be tested (McLeod, 2014). Besides, it saves time and is
suitable to be conducted via email – a way to avoid respondents‟ confusing with
sensitive questions.
2.3. Procedure
Placement test
To have a homogenized group, a test of PET (Oxford University Press) was
administered to 82 learners of the English Translation department, College of
Television. Out of this number, the scores of 65 participants were within the
researcher‟s desirable limits – the score above the mean. These participants were the
actual participants of the study. The result of the test is presented in table 2.
Table 2: The result of preliminary test
Score

No of Students

Percentage

<50

17

20,7

50 – 59

8

9,8

60 – 69

12

14,6

70 – 79

24

29,3

80 – 89

16

19,5

90 – 100

5

6,1

Total

82

100

Then the questionnaire was administered to all of the accepted students. The
questions in the topic familiarity questionnaire included 5 alternatives which ranged
from 1 (absolutely unfamiliar) to 5 (extremely familiar). Based on the result of the

17


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