The language threshold hypothesis and its implications on L2 reading instruction

How can we help our foreign language learners become efficient readers in the TL?

Here are some points to consider to promote reading comprehension in the EFL classroom

The language threshold hypothesis (Cummings, 1976) states that “a minimum threshold in language proficiency must be passed before a second-language speaker can reap any benefits from language” ( With regard to the passive skills, reading in particular, language researchers believe there is a threshold which students need to achieve before meaningful reading can be attempted in the target language. Many researchers argue that beginner readers will have to rely more on context and on guessing than the native speakers because they will have to compensate for the lack of good linguistic skill. Many also believe that if students cannot read well in their first language, they will  be unable to read well in the second/foreign language.

    As Grabe and Stoller (2002:51) point out, L2 readers need to have enough L2 knowledge in terms of vocabulary and structure so that L1 reading strategies and skills can be used efficiently to help comprehend the L2 text. If the reader is devoting most of his/her cognitive resources to “figuring out the language of the L2 text, there are a few cognitive resources left for the fluent comprehension processes that would normally support the L1 reader”. As Alderson (2000:38-39) points out, the conclusion of L1 reading versus L2 language knowledge studies is that “second language knowledge is more important than first language reading abilities” and that a linguistic threshold exists before first language reading ability can transfer to the TL context.

Grabbe and Stoller (2002) present some key concepts and research findings with implications for L2 reading instruction :

With regard to reading competence in the L2, it is not only the knowledge of the TL’s lexis and structures that plays an important role for the students’ development of efficient reading skills in the foreign language. For Grabe and Stoller (2002:51), L2 readers are all different in their “L2 knowledge, topic knowledge and reading experiences”. As a result, “ there is no one level of general language proficiency that counts as the threshold for all readers or for all texts”. The threshold will vary depending on “the reader, the text and the topic”. To help our learners become proficient readers in the TL, it is therefore important to focus on presenting them with tasks that are adapted in such a way so that their background knowledge and the context will all work together to help them achieve their goal.

    So, what can we as teachers do to lower our students inhibitions and help them become efficient readers in the TL?

As a conclusion on the use of the language threshold hypothesis, Grabe and Stoller (2002:52) stress the importance that the L1 linguistic resources and the background knowledge have on beginner L2 readers. To their view, the “instructional goal” is to help students “develop enough vocabulary, reading practice and processing fluency in the L2 so that they will rely less on their L1 resources”. Grading the tasks and the texts is also important as students need to gradually move to more difficult texts and begin with topics and reading material that they enjoy and can read with ease.

Some points to consider when teaching reading to EFL students:

  • Learning by discovery: Deducing meaning from context

    Is the language used in the reading passage of the appropriate level for my class? Can my learners guess the meaning of the unknown words using contextual clues?

    It is important to answer these questions during the planning stage of the activity.   We can read and absorb the information really fast as long as what we read makes sense. The reading passage therefore needs to be meaningful and have cohesion. If our students have to work on a difficult and confusing text that contains too much information that they cannot understand, then they stop ‘absorbing’ the knowledge. They can easily get perplexed and demotivated. We thus need to make sure that the text we choose and its accompanying tasks are appropriate for our learners and match their level and needs.

    In order to facilitate reading in the EFL classroom and to make sure that our learners understand what the purpose of the activity is, we first need to trigger their imagination and activate the relevant ‘schemata’ in their brains. Using realia and visual stimuli in the pre-reading stage can be very useful in attracting our learners’ attention and arousing their interest. We need to make them predict what follows, to help them make guesses about the topic of the text and give them a purpose to read. This brainstorming during the lead in stage will attract the learners’ attention and will thus foster their motivation.

    Clear instructions are also crucial at this point as the learners need to know why they are reading the text and what they should focus on. Teachers should also consider pre-teaching some key vocabulary that could facilitate the reading process and help learners focus on the overall aim of the reading task.

  • Focus on our learners’ predictive skills

Just as they do in their mother tongue, our learners need to have expectations regarding what they will be reading and make predictions about what is to be read. When we read in our first language we deploy a variety of skills depending on the nature of the text. We use different techniques when reading a train timetable, a newspaper article or a job advertisement. In our native language this process is mainly spontaneous and we seem to be somehow unconsciously trained on how to approach each text type. Our background knowledge also helps us understand what we read. We use the information stored in our brain in order to decipher the meaning behind the text.

    Just as we don’t read everything in the same way in our mother tongue, the same thing counts for the TL. So when preparing a reading task for our EFL learners we need to keep this process in mind. Our main focus should not be to test reading but to teach this skill and introduce our learners to the different strategies they can deploy when approaching a text depending on its nature and the purpose of reading. Our learners need to match up the predictions they have made to what is found in the text and make new predictions based on the information they receive from the passage.

  • Getting the ‘general picture’ – Focus on extracting specific information

Focus on detailed information

    It is important to keep in mind that reading basically means comprehension. It is successful when it establishes understanding. Our number one priority in the EFL classroom for this skill should thus be to train our students and provide them with the appropriate input and practice in order to make them skillful readers in the TL. The teacher’s goal should be to instill the knowledge and the reading strategies that will enable his/her students to read in the TL with ease and to successfully extract all the information they want from the reading passage.

    When people read in a language other than their mother tongue, they seem to forget all about the different reading strategies they normally use in their L1. Foreign language students in particular may tend to pause many times during their reading and overuse their dictionaries in order to look up all the unknown terms they encounter. It is thus crucial to help them realize that using this approach they are losing focus and are distancing themselves from the initial purpose of the reading task.

    Our students need to receive adequate practice on how to easily grasp the main points of a text (skimming) and on how to detect and extract specific information from a passage (scanning). They need to be trained on how to deduct meaning from context, on how to detect and use clues in the passage to understand what the writer is suggesting. Training them to read for gist and read for specific information will help them in their future development, not only in their language exams but also in facing real life situations in the TL.

  • Focus on student collaboration: reading as an ‘active’ skill, not just a ‘passive’ one

    Reading may be a receptive skill but our learners should not be viewed as passive recipients when focusing on a text. We need to make them actively involved in the process, not only in the warm up stage but also in the actual reading part. They need to be the discoverers, the ones who control the flow of the activity and to know what to do at all times. We also need to make sure that the text we choose is not over explicit and that it leaves room for inference from the part of our learners. For effective learning to take place, Harmer (2001) reiterates the importance of active learner involvement in the reading process and the role of “prediction” from the part of the students. He also stresses out the need to encourage our learners to respond to the “content” of the reading text and “not just the language”.


Grabe, W., & Stoller, F. L. (2002). Teaching and researching reading. Harlow: Longman.

Harmer, J. (2001). The practice of English language teaching. Longman.

Hedge, T. (2000). Teaching and learning in the language classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nuttall, C. (1996) Teaching Reading Skills in a foreign language Heinemann

Teemant, A. & Pinnegar, S. E. (2019). The Threshold Hypothesis: Jigsaw Reading B2. In B. Allman, Principles of Language Acquisition. EdTech Books. Retrieved from

Ur, P. (2012). A course in English language teaching. Cambridge University Press

Watkins, P. (2014). Learning to teach English. (2nd ed.) Delta Publishing.

Published by Joanna Nifli

Greek-Canadian ELT teacher and freelance translator with work experience at the United Nations and the European Parliament. Holder of an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (MA TEFL), the Cambridge CELTA and an MA in Applied Translation Studies from the University of Leeds. Interested in innovative pedagogies in language education, TESOL, teacher training, applied linguistics and related topics

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