The Journal of Japanese Studies 30.2 (2004) 528-533
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How and when reading should be introduced and what weight should be given to it relative to other language skills in a typical college curriculum of [End Page 528] Japanese is the source of continuing, often contentious, debate, both across differing disciplines in Japanese studies and across differing pedagogical frameworks. In the absence of objective empirical grounds for testing competing hypotheses, differing positions in the debate have all too often been motivated by a prior commitment to existing pedagogical methodologies or by models derived either from the teaching of languages other than Japanese or the teaching of Japanese in contexts other than that of second-language education. Acts of Reading brings together perspectives from both within and without pedagogy proper in an attempt to fill the empirical gap in our understanding of the cognitive, cultural, and linguistic dimensions of reading as it occurs in the uniquely Japanese context and to set a common foundation for a more objective and constructive debate in the future on to how to teach it in the second-language classroom.
The volume consists of eleven essays, four each by the two authors with additional contributions by Charles Quinn, Fumiko Harada, and Chris Brockett, supplemented by a lively foreword by J. Marshall Unger. Despite their separate authorship, these essays cohere remarkably well, earlier sections on "Reading as a Cultural Act" and "Theoretical Orientation" setting forth general cultural and theoretical considerations that directly set the stage for the third and final section on practical application, entitled "Implementation." To be sure, the cohesion can in part be attributed to a commitment among all the contributors to a common pedagogical paradigm, that represented in Eleanor Jorden's Japanese: The Spoken Language. This textbook is itself devoted exclusively to the acquisition of oral modalities but presumes a certain stance toward the teaching of reading which defines some of the central arguments of the present volume. Considerable effort is devoted, for example, to arguing that the development of automatic associations between sound and meaning (or, at least, between word and meaning), such as is achieved through the acquisition of oral skills, is a necessary prerequisite to the development of reading proficiency. As a corollary to this strict sequencing of oral and reading skills, the use of romanized script is defended as a suitable orthography for classroom use prior to the introduction of Japanese script, as is the introduction of katakana script prior to hiragana script, a strategy that does not perhaps follow directly from this sequencing of skills but has nevertheless come to take its place as one of the methodological features characterizing this paradigm.
It is, of course, premature to expect that anything like a scientific demonstration of the validity of a particular methodology of teaching reading is possible given that so much is still unknown about the cognitive dimensions of reading in general or of reading Japanese in particular, a point acknowledged at numerous places throughout the volume. The value of Acts of Reading does not lie in its success or failure in that narrow enterprise, but rather in the broader and deeper understanding it offers, however incomplete that may be at this stage, of the mechanisms themselves that make up this [End Page 529] fundamental yet complex linguistic activity. In so doing, it brings to the methodological debates a standard of factual rigor and objective reasoning rarely if ever seen in prior treatments of the topic in the pedagogical literature on Japanese as a second language.
The picture that emerges from this collection of essays is, first and foremost, one of reading as an activity that, contrary to popular perceptions of it as a passive skill, requires the attentive participation of the reader at numerous levels. The authors subscribe to the now widely accepted view that reading, in its most essential form, consists of two distinct but...