Reference and inference in English reading and implications in vietnamese language classrooms

This study employed a quasi-experimental design in which guided strategies and practice

exercises were integrated into the curriculum to measure effects of the treatment in improving students’

referring and inferring ability. Besides, a descriptive study based on questionnaire, pre and post -

reading tests was designed to complement the experimental study and to investigate the factors causing

their difficulties in answering these types of questions in English. Results indicate that students’

insufficient knowledge of the language, their inexperience in answering the questions, their teachers’

neglect of the questions, and the absence of the questions in the course books are the four causes of

their struggling. Also, students’ referring and inferring ability can be developed by teacher’s adapting

certain reading tasks in the course book.

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REFERENCE AND INFERENCE IN ENGLISH READING 
AND IMPLICATIONS IN VIETNAMESE 
LANGUAGE CLASSROOMS 
Le Do Thanh Hien* 
Can Tho University 
Received: 20/12/2019; Revised: 17/01/2020; Accepted: 27/04/2020 
Abstract: This study employed a quasi-experimental design in which guided strategies and practice 
exercises were integrated into the curriculum to measure effects of the treatment in improving students’ 
referring and inferring ability. Besides, a descriptive study based on questionnaire, pre and post - 
reading tests was designed to complement the experimental study and to investigate the factors causing 
their difficulties in answering these types of questions in English. Results indicate that students’ 
insufficient knowledge of the language, their inexperience in answering the questions, their teachers’ 
neglect of the questions, and the absence of the questions in the course books are the four causes of 
their struggling. Also, students’ referring and inferring ability can be developed by teacher’s adapting 
certain reading tasks in the course book. 
Keywords: English reading ability, difficulty, inference, reference 
1. Introduction 
Referring is one of the basic things we do with words and it would be a good idea to understand what 
that involves and requires. According to Yule (1996), reference is an act by which a speaker (or writer) uses 
language to enable a listener (or reader) to identify something. However, words that we use to identify 
things are not in direct relation to these things. Thus, almost any referring expression, whether a proper 
name, a pronoun, or a noun phrase, can be used to refer to different things in different contexts. Therefore, 
to help listeners/readers identify exactly the referents in particular and understand the implicit meanings of 
speakers/writers in general, the role of inference is indispensable. In terms of Teaching English as a Foreign 
Language, reference and inference questions are very common, especially in reading and listening skills. 
We can easily find these two kinds of questions in almost all tests such as TOEFL, TOEIC, IELTS, etc. 
However, in the context of teaching English in high school in Vietnam, these two kinds of questions are 
seldom used. Therefore, Vietnamese learners of English, especially those at high school, may 
encounter difficulties when responding to such kinds of question. Although many studies have been carried 
out in the use of pragmatic aspects in teaching English, there is not any research that has been done to see 
how Vietnamese students respond to reference and inference questions when they read English texts. This 
study aims to fill this gap with the hypothesis that the differences in the use of reference in the two languages 
and the lack of linguistic knowledge, contextual knowledge and background knowledge might cause some 
difficulties in the students’ inferring process. Therefore, the study attempts to answer the following 
questions: 
1. What difficulties do Vietnamese upper secondary school students encounter when answering reference 
and inference questions in English? 
* Email: ldthien@ctu.edu.vn 
2. Can students’ referring and inferring ability be developed by teacher’s adapting certain of reading tasks 
in the coursebook? 
It is hoped that the present study will shed light on the most common difficulties for Vietnamese 
students when responding to reference and inference questions in English and that it will be of great value 
for the implication for teaching-learning EFL in Vietnam. 
2. Literature review 
2.1. Reference in English 
2.1.1. Definition of reference 
In semantics, reference is discussed as the relationship between words and the things, actions, events, 
and qualities they stand for (Lyons, 1977). An example in English is the relationship between the word 
table and the object “table” (referent) in the real world. According to Crystal (1985), there are two senses 
for reference. First, reference is the symbolic relationship that a linguistic expression has with the concrete 
object or abstraction it represents. Second, reference is the relationship of one linguistic expression to 
another, in which one provides the information necessary to interpret the other. 
In pragmatics, Yule (1996) defined reference as an act in which a speaker, or writer, uses linguistic 
forms to enable a listener, or reader, to identify something. Those linguistic forms are called referring 
expressions, which can be proper nouns (for example, “Shakespeare”, “Ronaldo”), noun phrases which are 
definite (for instance, “the singer”, “the forest”), or indefinite (for example, “a girl”, “an ugly cat”), and 
pronouns (for example, “he”, “them”). 
2.1.2. Types of reference 
In this research, reference is classified into three different types: co-reference, endophora, and 
exophora. 
 Co-reference 
Co-reference is the reference in one expression to the same referent in another expression (Quirk et 
al., 1985). 
Consider the following example: “You said you would come.” 
In this sentence, both you have the same referent. 
 Endophora 
Endophora is co-reference of an expression with another expression either before it or after it. One 
expression provides the information necessary to interpret the other (Halliday & Hasan, 1976). In other 
words, it is the use of a word or phrase which refers back or forward to another word or phrase which was 
used earlier or which will be used later in the text or conversation. Endophora is divided into two different 
categories: anaphora and cataphora. 
 Anaphora 
 This type of endophora is commonly used in English. According to Yule (1996), in most of our talk 
and writing, we have to keep track of who or what we are talking about for more than one sentence at a time. 
After the initial introduction of some entity, speaker or writer will use various expressions to maintain 
reference. Mostly we use pronouns (subject, object, reflexive, relative,). 
For example, in the film, a man and a woman were trying to wash a cat. The man was holding the 
cat while the woman poured water on it. He said something to her and they started laughing (Yule, 1996). 
In English, initial reference is often indefinite (“a man”, “a woman’, “a cat”). In the above example, 
the definite noun phrases (“the man”, “the woman”, “the cat”) and the pronouns (“it”, “he”, “her”, “they”) are 
examples of subsequent reference to already introduced referents, generally known as anaphoric reference, or 
anaphora. The second or subsequent expression is the anaphor and the initial expression is the antecedent. He 
then concluded that anaphora is the process of continuing to identify exactly the same entity as denoted by the 
antecedent. 
 Cataphora 
 There is also a reversal of the antecedent-anaphor pattern sometimes as in the following example I 
turned the corner and almost stepped on it. There was a large snake in the middle of the path. 
The pronoun “it” is used first and is difficult to interpret until the full noun phrase is presented in the 
next line. This pattern is known as cataphora (Yule, 1996). It is defined as the use of a word or phrase which 
refers forward to another word or phrase which will be used later in the text or conversation (Richard et al., 
1992). 
 Exophora 
Exophora is reference of an expression directly to an extralinguistic referent. The referent does not 
require another expression for its interpretation (Halliday & Hasan, 1976). There are two kinds of exophora 
in English: deixis and homophora. 
 Deixis 
 Richards et al. (1992) defined deixis as a term for a word or phrase which directly relates an utterance 
to a time, place, or person(s). For example, in the following sentences: 
The letter is here. (Near the speaker) 
The letter is over there. (Far from the speaker) 
Here and there refer to a place in relation to the speaker. The listener does not have to refer to any 
other expression in the utterance but to the place of the speaker to know where the letter is. Some other 
linguists agreed that deixis is reference by means of an expression whose interpretation is relative to the 
extralinguistic context of the utterance such as who is speaking, the time or place of speaking, or the current 
location of the discourse. 
Homophora 
 In pragmatics, homophora is a subcategory of exophora. In common with all exophora, it does not 
necessarily refer back to an entity already mentioned in the text. Specifically, homophora is the use of a 
referring expression which gains its interpretation from the shared cultural knowledge of the participants in 
the conversational exchange. 
For example, in Did you see the President on TV last night? it will normally be understood which 
president is being referred to simply through the location in time and space of the speaker or hearer or both 
(the present president, not the previous one; the president of the country in which the speaker is speaking, and 
not of some other country), or through the cultural affiliation of the speaker or hearer (e.g. the president of the 
US, not Malaysia, when the participants are Americans). Understanding of the expression in the context is 
gained through this type of shared contextual knowledge itself, and not through any other explanation in the 
text. 
2.2. Inference in English 
2.2.1. The concept of Inference 
Yule (1996) defined inference as the learner’s use of additional knowledge to make sense of what is 
not explicit in an utterance. According to Richards et al. (1992), inferencing or making inferences is the 
process of arriving at a hypothesis, idea, or judgment on the basis of other knowledge, ideas, or judgments. 
Garbrielatos (2002) figured out the clues provided by speakers/ writers as well as the clues and thinking 
process used by listeners/ readers in order for successful inferencing to take place. 
Table 1. Garbrielatos’s table of inference: clues and procedures 
 LEXIS 
 + 
GRAMMAR 
+ 
PHONOLOGICAL FEATURES 
+ 
LAYOUT/ PUNCTUATION/ FONTS 
+ 
DISCOURSE ORGANIZATION 
+ 
COHESION 
F I L T ERE D T H R O U G H 
KNOWLEDGE OF CONTEXT 
 + 
KNOWLEDGE/ EXPERIENCE/ EXPECTATIONS/ BELIEFS 
 + 
KNOWLEDGE OF COMMUNICATION CONVENTIONS 
 INFERENCE 
From Table 1, we can see inferencing as a combination of identifying available helpful clues and 
filtering them through knowledge of a number of elements. The lexis, grammar, punctuation, fonts, 
discourse organization and cohesion are knowledge of language which allow readers to understand the 
explicit or literal meanings of the texts and provide helpful clues for inferring the implicit ones. Cohesion 
is considered here as the “glue” which links the elements of a text (Richards et al., 1992). In order for 
successful inference to happen, these clues must be filtered through knowledge of a number of elements 
including knowledge of context, and background knowledge (knowledge/ experience/ beliefs) 
(Garbrielatos, 2002). 
2.2.2. Role of inference in identifying referents 
Yule (1996) also asserted that reference is clearly tied to the speaker or writer’s goals and beliefs in 
the use of language. For successful reference to occur, we must recognize the role of inference. Because 
there is no direct relationship between entities and words, the listener or reader’s task is to infer correctly 
which entity the speaker/ writer intends to identify by using a particular referring expressions. 
Yule suggested that in order for listeners or readers to infer successfully the intended referent, they 
should pay attention to the role of co-text and context. 
Our ability to identify intended referents has actually depended more on our understanding of the 
referring expression. It has been aided by the linguistic material, or co-text, accompanying the referring 
expression. For example, in the following sentences, 
The cheese sandwich is made with white bread. 
The cheese sandwich left without paying. 
The referring expression “the cheese sandwich” stays the same, the different co-texts in (i) and (ii) 
lead to a different type of interpretation in each case. (that is “food” in (i) and “person” in (ii)). Of course, 
co-text is just a linguistic part of the environment in which a referring expression is used. The physical 
environment, or context, is perhaps more easily recognized as having a powerful impact on how referring 
expressions are to be interpreted. The physical context of a restaurant, and perhaps even the speech 
conventions of those who work there may be crucial to the interpretation of the sentence (ii). These 
examples provide some support for an analysis of reference that depends on local context and the local 
knowledge of the participants. 
2.3. Related studies 
Making inferences can be considered to be one of the key cognitive processes in interpreting the 
meaning of a text in reading or listening. However, there is not much research which has been done on 
making inferences with EFL high school learners, especially in the context of Vietnam. Takahashi and 
Tamaoka (1992) investigated the relationship between the reading ability and English proficiency of 
Japanese university EFL students and the ability to make inferences. The results of the experiment showed 
that the subjects were better able to answer literal questions than inferential questions in general. The 
performance of the skilled group on the inferential questions was better than that of the less-skilled group. 
The results also showed that making inferences demands the integration of ideas from various sentences in 
a text and the retrieval and utilization of background knowledge from long-term memory; with less able 
readers expected to be inferior to the skilled readers in this area. Their findings imply that for lower-skilled 
readers especially, syntactic knowledge is critical to their ability to accurately understand the meaning of a 
text. Stanovich (1980) suggested that lower-skilled readers have not acquired automatic decoding skills and 
therefore need more time for processing. Pretorious (2005) conducted research to investigate the 
relationship between the ability to make inferences and the level of reading skillsby focusing on anaphoric 
resolution. The findings showed that students who were not performing well academically were not skilled 
at resolving anaphora. 
Concerning reference, there have been many outstanding works such as those of Halliday and Hassan 
(1976), Lyon (1981), Crystal (1985), and Yule (1996) mentioned at the beginning of this chapter. In 
Vietnam, Nguyen Thi Xuan Duyen (2007) investigated linguistic means of reference in English as 
compared with the Vietnamese equivalents. She found that both English and Vietnamese employ the same 
lexical devices to encode reference for cohesive effects. In both languages, reference can be divided into 
anaphoric reference, cataphoric reference, personal reference, demonstrative reference, comparative 
reference, reference by substitution, and reference by repetition. However, she also found some differences 
in the use of reference between the two languages. That is, English discourse makes greater use of reference 
than Vietnamese discourse. 
In a nutshell, to the moment of this research, no studies have been done to gauge students’ referring 
and inferring ability through answering reference and inference questions in Vietnamese upper secondary 
school. Thus the researcher believes that the present study will uncovered some problems and pave the way 
for further studies. 
3. Methods 
The experimental study involved 82 eleventh grade Vietnamese high school students from Chau Van 
Liem High school in Can Tho city. Their English was assumed to be at pre-intermediate to intermediate 
level. A 20-item multiple choice test, used as both the pre-test and the post-test to measure treatment effects, 
was constructed by four reading passages. The reading texts were taken from the course book English 11, 
Các dạng bài kiểm tra tiếng Anh 11, and Building Skillsfor the TOEFL iBT: Beginning but the questions 
were designed differently to meet the researcher’s needs. Besides, the order of the passages and the items 
was changed to avoid the possibility that the students may recall or copy what they had done in the pre-test. 
To facilitate the students’ reading practices during the intervention program, they were provided with 
seven practice worksheets which included strategies to answer reference and inference questions together 
with examples of Worceter, Bowerman, and Williamson (2006). The researcher chose examples of 
Worceter et al. (2006) as a learning guide used in the treatment because they represented a practical 
procedure for answering these reference and inference questions together with useful examples and 
explanations and provide charts which outline the key information that students should remember.The 
study followed the procedure: Pre-test, Treatment, Post-test, and Questionnaire. The tests, the intervention 
program, and the completion of the questionnaire took place during the first term of the school year 2018-
2019. 
 In the Pre-test (45 minutes), the students were asked to read the passages and choose the correct 
answer for each question by circling the letter before the correct answer. This was to make sure that all the 
papers and the students’ answers were collected after the test. 
 During the treatment stage, the students were introduced the strategies together with examples and 
their explanations. Next, they practiced using the strategies by doing individually, discussing in pairs or 
groups to find out the answers for each question and the clues from which they drew out their answers. The 
treatment took place in seven 45-minute class meetings. Each class meeting was about one week after its 
previous class meeting. The general outline of the teaching procedures was described as the following. 
1. introducing the program 
2. introducing Worceter, Bowerman, and Williamson’s guide on answering reference and inference 
questions 
3. practicing individually 
4. practicing in pairs or groups (comparing answers and discussing clues) 
5. whole-class discussion and feedback. 
6. homework assignment 
 After one semester of the program, the post-test was administered. The conduct of the post-test was 
the same as that of the pre-test. 
The questionnaire was administered to 30 teachers of English in high schools in Can Tho city at the 
end of the first semester. The questionnaire consisted of 26 items using a 5-point Likert - scale ranging from 
“Strongly disagree” (1) to “Strongly agree” (5). It comprised of four clusters: Students’ knowledge of 
language, Students’ learning methods and habits, Teachers’ professionalism and Teaching and learning 
materials. 
4. Findings 
4.1. Findings from the Pre-test and Post-test 
The data collected from the students’ papers were subjected to the SPSS program to test the reliability 
and frequency. The reliability coefficient for the pre-test was α=.7052, SD=3.1619; and the reliability 
coefficient for the post-test was α=.7015, SD=2.8249. This showed that the pre-test and the post-test on 
students’ ability to refer and infer when reading English texts were reliable. 
The results showed that most students achieved greater gain in performance in the post-test over the 
pre-test. There were 66 out of 82 students gained higher scores; 15 students remained the same score as in 
the pre-test; only one student got 1 point lower than the pre-test. 
The descriptive statistics of the mean performance between the pre-test and the post-test was 
presented in Table 2. 
Table 2. Descriptive statistics of the mean performance in the pre-test and post-test 
 N Minimum

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