Read Your Way To Fluency
Many students who are learning English as a second or foreign language believe that the best way to learn English is by taking free talking classes with a native speaker. Free talking is, in fact, a great way for students to practice English; however, it is not the best method for learning and developing English skills.
Research shows that the best method for developing English skills is reading. This has been shown to be true in both native speakers and non-native speakers alike. Reading introduces new vocabulary, reinforces known vocabulary, presents grammar in meaningful context and can be used as a resource for speaking, listening, and writing skills as well.
As a teacher in South Korea for the past 11 years, I have seen many students work for hours trying to memorize vocabulary for various tests. This in itself is not a bad thing. What is bad, is that they tend to learn only one meaning for a word and over look the fact that English – like many other languages – has lots of words that have more that one meaning. Reading provides opportunities for students to learn words that have more than one meaning in context, which is a far superior way to build a large vocabulary than simply memorizing word lists.
Take the word LIKE for example. Like has three possible meanings depending on how it is used.
Many people like traveling.
The new student looks like Brad Pitt.
He treated me like his own son.
In the first sentence, ‘like’ is being used as a verb and means ‘to enjoy doing or having something’. In the second sentence, ‘like’ is an adjective and is used to describe how two nouns are similar. In the third sentence, ‘like’ is being used as a preposition and also implies a similarity between two nouns. The word ‘like’ in the third sentence can be replaced by the words ‘as if I were’.
If you were to consult a dictionary, you would find that the word like has six different meanings and more than twenty different usages. Yet, teachers still insist on their students memorizing the word like, and most often as not, present the word like as a verb while discarding its other uses. Reading, however, presents lexical items such as the word like in their natural context and varied uses thus providing students with language that is alive and useful.
Reading can also function as a tool for improving students’ listening comprehension. “How can this be?”, you may ask. After all, reading is a silent activity and no speaking or listening is required. You are quite correct, and therein lies the problem. Reading should not be only a silent activity. Students and teachers alike should be encouraged to read aloud.
By reading aloud, students both read and hear the words as they jump from the pages into their mouths and from their mouths into their ears. They ‘get used’ to hearing themselves speak that strange new language until, one day, that language isn’t strange anymore. If you are teaching students whose skill level is not sufficient to read aloud, then you as the teacher, should read to your students and have them chorus what they hear. In this type of activity, the teacher should read in blocks of words, pausing in the sentence where ever a natural pause would occur if spoken at regular speed. For example in the sentence, “The little boy ran down the road.” There is a natural pause after the word ‘ran’. So, when reading aloud, you should read, ‘The little boy ran’-(pause and let the students repeat, then continue)-’down the road.’ This will help your students learn the stress and rhythm of English, as well as help them to improve their listening comprehension.
Finally, reading can help your students’ writing ability. Perhaps a story would help make this clear. While attending Volunteer Community College in Gallatin, Tennessee, I worked in the writing lab as a volunteer writing tutor. My job was to help students with their English writing assignments. I was amazed at the number of native speakers who could not put together a coherent, grammatically correct sentence. Upon closer examination, I came to understand that those students who had the most difficulty writing were the same students who never read, except when required by their teachers. However, students who read for pleasure never needed help with their assignments. Why, because they came to understand the grammar and vocabulary of English intuitively. English was not just the language they used to communicate with, it was a part of their nature. Likewise, students of English as a second or foreign language will become intuitively acquainted with English if they read more.
If you are reading this article and you are a teacher, I encourage you to use reading materials more often and more actively in your classroom. Read to your students and let your students read to you. If you are a student of English and are serious about improving your English–read, read,read. Regardless of your present proficiency level, reading will help you. You can reach your goal of native like fluency.
John Erskin is a native of the U.S.A, but has been living and teaching in Daejeon, South Korea since June 1998. He also maintains several websites including two dedicated to ESL/EFL
The Towerof English http://www.towerofenglish.com and John’s ESL Community http://www.johnsesl.com