A note of thanks
Before anything else, I’d like to thank everybody who commented on last week’s post and emailed me so many interesting ideas and opinions. I’m also very happy to have seen the record of visits to this blog on a single day broken twice this past week, which I believe goes to show a great many teachers do care about working on their language skills. Great news!
That being said, let’s get cracking.
I believe it’s important to say that much as I’ll try to use theory and research to underpin anything I suggest here, there’s a lot of empiricism attached to most of it; that basically means I’ve tried (and been trying) these ideas out myself and with my students and teacher students, with considerable success, for the past few years.
The importance of reading
The way I see it, reading vastly and variedly is the most important language-learning exercise there is. Extensive reading — which Thornbury (2006, p 191) defines as being the more leisurely reading of longer texts, primarily for pleasure, or in order to accumulate vocabulary, or simply to develop sound habits of reading — helps develop general language competence; develops general, world knowledge; extends, consolidates and sustains vocabulary growth; helps improve writing; creates and sustains motivation to read more. (Click here for article on ER). It also makes you more interesting, more fun to be around and even more attractive. 🙂
The article mentioned in the paragraph above also focuses specifically on why ER is good for teachers. Out of the many reasons listed (and I highly recommend you read the whole article), the following stands out: “It (ER) also helps teachers to keep their own use of English fresh. (…) the research on language learner reading shows how extensive reading feeds into improvements in all areas of language competence. (Krashen 2004) If this is true for learners, how much more true for teachers, who risk infection by exposure to so much restricted and error-laden English or who only read professional literature? Regular wide reading can add zest and pleasure to our own use of the language.” (“zest” — I checked — means “enthusiasm, eagerness, energy, and interest”)
In a nutshell, reading rules. If you don’t already read a lot, now is a really good time to start.
The ‘reading is boring’ myth
Brazilians are not famous for being avid readers. According to MEC (Ministry of Education and Culture), in 2010 Brazilians read on average 1,8 books per year. In 2012, an Ibope survey suggested the number of books per capita in Brazil was 4, although only 2,1 books per person were really read until the end. This is disastrous.
This is not because reading is boring, though. I’m of the opinion that one of the reasons Brazilians — and I’m sure they’re not alone in that — don’t read that much is that at school we’re given all the right books at the wrong times to read. Imagine, for instance, a 12-year-old grappling with Machado de Assis and then being tested on it into the bargain. It’s not a very success-oriented approach if we want them to have fun reading, is it? Add to it the fact that most of these children come from households where reading is not really a habit, and a country where books are obscenely expensive, and the result is a nation of non-readers, of which teachers are part.
What to do then?
A less elitist approach to (teaching) reading might help. It’s funny how some people — even those who don’t really read that much — have a penchant for waxing eloquent about the importance of reading Dickens, Hemingway and Shakespeare, and an even greater appetite for trashing the likes of Nicholas Sparks, Dan Brown and Elizabeth Gilbert. Teachers, and especially language teachers, can’t do that. Dan Brown really knows his prepositions, just as Gilbert has no problem with collocations and varied use of grammatical forms. Sparks is amazing at text organization and punctuation, and… you get the idea. All reading is good reading, and should be encouraged.
Harmer (2010, p 110) says ‘not all students become active readers. While some are highly motivated and consume books avidly, others don’t have the same appetite. We can’t force students to read, of course, but we should do everything we can to encourage them to do so.’ We are not going to encourage a non-reader to take up the habit by giving them Paul Auster from the get-go, just as we won’t become readers ourselves starting with Ian McEwan. As teachers –and readers(-to-be)– we should be grateful to J.K. Rowling, Rick Riordan, Stephanie Meyer, E. L. James, George R. R. Martin, John Grisham, Suzanne Collins… These writers have helped create a whole new generation of readers, and might hold the key to turn us into avid readers as well. And who knows? Nicholas Sparks might conceivably lead to Flaubert, although it’s perfectly OK if he doesn’t.
How to read for language development
I honestly believe that the sheer fact of being reading constantly and on a wide array of topics — books of different genres, newspaper articles, blogs, reports and so on — for information and/or pleasure is good enough and will be extremely beneficial linguistically. I will list below, however, some of the ideas I’ve tried out and which will hopefully help you as well.
– Have a vocabulary notebook at the ready whenever you’re reading at home or at work, but be selective. You’re not going to look up every word you don’t know in a dictionary, for that would make the whole process really tiring, and we’re aiming at fun! When making notes of a new word/phrase, be sure to include its phonemic transcription, part(s) of speech, definition and perhaps most importantly, the word in a sentence; that can be the context you found the word/phrase in and, even better, also in a sentence of your own.
– Establish language goals for yourself as you read. E.g. a) In this chapter I’ll focus on adjective-noun/verb-noun/adverb-verb collocations, and will try to find at least one example of each; b) in the next two chapters I’ll focus on phrasal verbs and idioms/dependent prepositions/perfect forms, and find at least X examples of each. – Make sure you write them down in your notebook as suggested above.
– Another interesting activity on collocations you can do is select random sentences from texts and books you’re reading and try to come up with different adjectives and verbs which would also collocate with the nouns used in the text, or think of other conjunctions which could replace the ones used etc. You can then use http://books.google.com/ngrams to check which of the uses/collocates is the most common. You can do that by typing two or three words or phrases in the search bar, separated by commas. Then click on ‘search lots of books’. (This Google tool was brought to my attention yesterday by Natália Guerreiro. Thanks, Natália!)
– Start a book club with a few teacher friends. Choose the books to read either by vote or on an every-member-chooses-one basis. You can set yourselves a few of the tasks mentioned here or others, and get together at least once a month to discuss the book. There are many books that come with pre-prepared questions for book clubs, and as you discuss the books you can try and use some interesting language someone will be in charge of bringing to each meeting, e.g different ways of saying ‘I think’, interesting adjectives/idioms etc. to describe books and characters (English Idioms in Use Advanced has a unit –24– devoted to that).
– Read reviews of books you want to read (You’ll find great ones here) and explore them the same way you would a book/article. They’ll help you a lot with choosing what to read next and also with language to describe books, films, plays etc.
– Write reviews or a book recommendation of what you’ve just read, and have a fellow teacher read and give you feedback on it. As payment for their services, give them the book you were reading! 🙂
This week’s tasks
That’s it for today, then. More to come next Monday. To wrap up, however, I’d like to ask for your participation:
– As a comment to this post, share with us the three best books you’ve read recently (not the best you’ve read ever, as that’s too difficult!);
– Are there any other reading activities you can recommend to us?
Have a great week and see you all next Monday!
– Thornbury, S. 2006. ‘An A-Z of ELT’. Macmillan.
– Harmer, J. 2010. ‘How to Teach English’. Pearson.
– Aebersold, J. A.; Field, M. L. 1997. ‘From Reader to Reading Teacher’. Cambridge.