Reading, Reading, Reading. Why it’s so important!

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:

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)

Hello TESL O members. I'm Beth Beardall. I manage the TESL O Blog website working alongside an amazing team of editors and bloggers. I truly enjoy working with the TESL Ontario Blog Admin Team and have been volunteering with the TESL O Blog since 2016. I am OCELT certified and have a master's degree in Adult Education. I work in the LINC/ESL program with adult learners. I enjoy learning from others, teaching or tutoring ESL and getting to know people from around the world, and, of course, copy editing and proofreading.


12 thoughts on “Reading, Reading, Reading. Why it’s so important!”

    1. Hi John, thanks so much for referencing back to your previous blog about using the M-Reader to make better use of graded readers. You are right, there never seems to be enough time to encourage reading for pleasure and hopefully other teachers can share this information with their students.

  1. I agree that reading is important. I focus on it myself in classes. Reading can help students to SEE the words (listening does not always provide the best vocabulary immersion because English speakers change the words when they say them) and SEE the grammar as it is used more or less properly. Reading also gives students something to talk about later. The best way to assess whether a student has understood the reading is to ask them to write a summary of the text. If the summary reads like a mess, then they did not understand the main idea of the reading. The main idea is the KEY to understanding the text.

    1. Hi Anna, Thanks for your comments. I agree that being able to summarize the main idea is an important skill. In my experience, it is a skill that needs to be developed and intentionally taught. Once learned, it is a great tool for the student to use to continue on the road to proficiency in English.

  2. I think one of the issues is that the receptive skills ie reading and listening are harder to teach, and harder to assess, but foundational to the expressive skills.

    What I noticed teaching pronunciation is the key to pronunciation is not more expressive skill in speaking, but more receptive skill in listening. What is also difficult about receptive skills is that translation is slow. For native speakers, slow readers are poor readers, and listening requires agility in comprehension.

    I think that what is missing in ESL teaching is strong teacher training in the receptive skills, and how to help students gain more native like fluency in the skill sets themselves.

    I would disagree strongly on the efficacy of teaching speaking based on reading rather than listening, although reading is a definite tool in speaking in the same way that listening is an excellent editing tool for writing, but not the primary foundational skill

    1. Thanks for your comments Jacqueline. I agree with you.

      I’ve also noticed a strong link between teaching pronunciation and the improvement of listening skills. Especially when teaching reduced sounds such as the schwa or non-released consonant sounds in words or linking of function words in whole utterances. You can “see the light bulb go on” for the students. But compliment that with having them read what you spoke and had them listen for, and the students have a more complete picture of sound / word relationships.

      Regarding your second comment. I don’t think the interview with Anne Hilfarty that I referenced was suggesting we should teach speaking based on reading, but rather the reciprocity between the two skills – that rather than just speaking skills influencing the development of reading skills – reading skills will also help to develop fluency skills in speaking.

  3. I think your observation about helping learners find something interesting or personally meaningful (even a bank statement can be personally meaningful) is of key importance Beth. I really miss Guenther Zuern’s Ontario Readers because they were full of relevant news articles and inspirational stories. Also for beginning readers Bow Valley has some wonderful resources that you can print as little books or view online. You can even click on the corners to turn the pages. Here’s a link for anyone who’s interested: And the public library is a huge help, especially the Children’s Department where many of the resources have pictures and definitions to support reading in another language.

    1. Thanks so much, Lisa, for sharing the link for the Bow Valley readers.

      Yes, the Ontario Readers are such a good resource (although getting dated unfortunately). Wouldn’t it be great if someone would take up the Ontario Reader series once again?

  4. Hi Beth,

    Thanks very much for this valuable post. I love promoting Extensive Reading (ER ) every term that I teach because, it is very important for the language learning and it touches every skills that we are teaching (Writing, Reading, Speaking, Listening and Grammar). Speaking from experience as an EAP/ESL/EFL instructor, I did a case study about ER while I was doing my MA. ER has a lot of benefits (you mentioned a few of the benefits) thus, it is externally important to motivate our students to do ER for pleasure.

    PS. A few days ago I summited a blog post about ER waiting for the approval…….Hopefully it will get posted so that everyone can get a chance to read it.

    Here is the link for my Case Study if you are interested. (click on the 5th link to download)

    Thanks you once again for this post!

    1. My pleasure, Beth! Thank you for your interest. Special thanks for reading my new blog post. You made my day:)

      Have a wonderful day!

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