Reading can be frightening.
Sounds silly? Think about it. If you’re learning a language, how often do you read in it? How often do you read in your own language? If not often, is it because you think you should read or think you should read certain types of books but can’t force yourself to do it? Often we blame this on lack of time, but I think it has a different root.
Language learners in particular find it difficult to enjoy reading when they are in the early stages of learning a language. This then puts them at a disadvantage: they keep studying grammar point after grammar point, and talking and talking, and can’t understand why their accuracy doesn’t improve. Something I often say to my classes is this: If you don’t see the language in front of you on a regular basis, how on Earth are you going to know how to use it yourself? I’m not talking about in-class reading here: rather looking at what people often want to do outside of class but feel unable to.
They usually agree with me wholeheartedly. They simply don’t know where to start. Reading for pleasure as part of daily life is something a lot of language learners want to do, but feel unable to. The truth is that reading in another language doesn’t need to be a scary experience if done in the right way. It can be life-enhancing as well as language-enhancing. Here are some tips, both from my experience as a TEFL teacher, and as a language student and a passionate reader for many years myself.
1. Read something you enjoy
To borrow from an old surfing adage, I believe that the best reader is the one enjoying themselves the most. Who cares if you’re reading a trashy romance, a scientific tome, a sci-fi bestseller or a classic? Perhaps you like all of these kinds of books at different times. Whether you finish books doesn’t necessarily matter either – perhaps you get half way through and decide you’re not enjoying it enough. The only important thing about reading is how much pleasure you are deriving from it. This can be difficult when reading for exams or work; though it still holds that you will take much more from the book if you can find a way to do so in a way that you enjoy and makes you feel energised.
2. Use graded readers
There is a lot of snobbery about the use of graded readers, which I used to buy into myself before I started to comprehend the struggles of my students. ‘How can you take a classic and water down the language!’ I used to think. Eventually, though, the need to encourage students to start reading trumped my snobbery. Therefore, at St Giles, I began to bring graded readers into the programme for my pre-intermediate classes. I knew the library there was brilliantly diverse – from Jane Austen to modern thrillers to books about cars – and I thought it was time to make use of it.
Every couple of weeks I would shepherd students to the library and ask them to select a book. Later they were asked to write a report detailing what happened in the book and their opinion on it, which they then had to share in speaking tasks with the other students. Before long, I started to notice the students’ abilities improving more quickly than before; particularly their lexis. They really felt they had ownership of the book. Not only this, but they clearly enjoyed the process and felt empowered by it. Graded readers had opened up a whole world to them and facilitated rapid language improvement.
3. Kindle lookups
Modern technology is incredible, and I owe the speed of my Spanish-learning in part to my Kindle. Once I had quelled my above-mentioned snobbery about graded readers, I embarked upon an intermediate version of El Quixote in Spanish. To read it, I had to hold my finger down on quite a large number of words at the beginning. Thankfully, the wonderful Kindle and its in-built Spanish-English dictionary translated the words for me. I could read the book without having to leaf through a dictionary or make notes. You can imagine my sense of satisfaction when, by the end, I had by default memorised the meaning of most of the vocabulary that was regularly used in the book, and no longer needed to look up words.
4. Find your balance
When it comes to reading a full novel in another language, we are often told by our language teachers to ‘read for gist’ – that is, to read a novel without depending too much on a dictionary. Reading for gist is clearly a good general idea, because you start to understand many different words purely from context as you make your way through the book. There are two main problems with reading for gist. Firstly, you will never enjoy it if you don’t understand what’s going on, because you will get bored. Secondly, you may miss out on a lot of beautiful details and stylistic nuance.
My advice is to find your own balance. I recently started reading a book in Russian. At first I allowed myself to look up a maximum of 10 words per page. The maximum of 10 was a good balance between looking up words and moving through the book at a reasonable pace. My plan was to bring the maximum down each chapter, but in the end it wasn’t necessary. Before long I got so interested in the story that I was happier to march on, looking up fewer words. You need to try out different ways of reading and do it in a way that works for you. Don’t ‘force’ yourself to read in any particular way: do it however you enjoy it.