I was talking with a colleague, Lisa, during lunch break the other day. At our school, the students have a 1-hour class with a pronunciation instructor once per week. Lisa was suggesting the merits of having a similar intensive lesson every week on reading. After our discussion, I began to consider the importance of reading versus the other skills. I am beginning to wonder if reading is the key skill to developing English proficiency.
Don’t get me wrong – Teaching pronunciation is one of my favourite classes to teach. I guess I like the focus of language use and playing with the sounds, the stress, intonation and inflection. Many students have expressed that it is important for them, as well.
Anyway, back to reading. So why do I think reading is (maybe) the key to proficiency and developing other language skills? Reading encompasses a whole range of important skills, from seeing how the language is structured to thinking critically.
From my experience, reading develops…
better understanding of grammar – after reading for meaning, students should go back and analyze the grammar and how it is used to convey the meaning. This is a helpful activity for students to develop knowledge of grammatical structures.
a broader vocabulary – it is self-evident that reading a variety of media will increase your vocabulary. In fact, the best way to develop vocabulary is to see it in context repeatedly. Students will also be exposed to derivational affixes of base words for better understanding.
writing skills – through reading well written texts, students will see a model for their own writing. This is where breaking down the construction of sentences can be helpful. Instructors need to use good writing examples to demonstrate the variety of complex sentence structures.
critical thinking skills – this may need to be taught explicitly using reading texts. Teach them how to infer meaning of unknown words and phrases. Teach them how to make inferences about the meanings that are not explicitly written. Teach them to ask WH questions: who is the reader, who is the author, what is the author saying, why does the author say this, and so on.
speaking fluency – yes, even speaking! According to Anne Hilfarty, there is a reciprocity of acquisition between speaking and reading. In an interview with Barbara Garner, she said, “You might say that instead of [reading] being dependent on speech, both speech and reading are dependent on the same group of abilities needed to process phonologically difficult materials. Evidence for this is that most reading difficulties reside in phonological language difficulties. Poor readers tend also to have poor speech perception, and phonological deficits in both spoken and written language.” Read the online transcript of the interview here: http://www.ncsall.net/index.html@id=328.html
Two types of reading
Extensive Reading: Help your students discover the pleasure of reading. Students need to be interested in the text and discover the meaning behind the text. After a reading in class, encourage them to respond to the text; how do they feel or what do they think of it? (Harmer, p. 101) We should encourage our students to take out a library card and discover the world of books. You could even take them on a field trip to the library as my colleague Lisa does. If you have access to laptops or computers, provide class time for them to browse the web to find information for a task that you are developing. For example, on the theme of travel and tourism, I had students search hotels in a city to find the best hotel for a weekend trip. They based their decision on several factors, including reading the reviews. For higher levels, a classic lesson idea is to bring in newspapers and have them find an article, read the headline and captions to guess what the content might be, then read it and summarize what was read to a partner.
Intensive Reading: Help your students analyze the language. Use a variety of media and genres that will coincide with the theme or topic you are working on. Have them discover the genre, study the vocabulary and grammatical structures. Have them analyze the sentence structures. And, of course, help them develop the 3 reading skills: scan, skim, and comprehend. (Harmer, p. 99-100)
What do you think? Is there a primary skill for learning a new language? What are some reading activities that you do to encourage proficiency in English?
NCSALL: Focus on Basics. Volume 4, Issue A – March 2000. The Relationship Between Reading and Speaking Skills. An Interview with Ann Hilferty. Web 2005 (updated 7/27/2007) Accessed 3/09/18
Harmer, J. How to Teach English. Pearson Education Limited. Essex, England. 2007 (p. 99 – 102)