One of the questions I often ask students is “do you like to read?” and the response I get is “well, if the story is interesting, I will read it” or “I don’t really like to read.” These same students will spend hours upon hours studying/practicing/cramming for TOEFL/SSAT/ SAT and not be readers. Frequently, these same students do not have strong language skills. More importantly, it is these students who want to go to the US to study in either boarding school or university, where, mind you, students will read, read, read!
When I was little, in middle school my best friend was a voracious read. He read everywhere and everything. I hated to read. Thought it was boring and a waste of time. If I did read, it was usually a book with lots of pictures because those were far more fun to read, but not particularly challenging. One day I asked Peter, “Why do you read so much?” He replied, “Because reading takes me places I cannot go, it excites my imagination.” So I tried it. I started reading some books he suggested and I became hooked. Today, I read tons – newspapers, novels, non-fiction, articles – whatever.
Part of my dislike of reading when I was younger was the required reading I had to do for school was just not interesting or so I thought. But because I “Had” to read i.e. forced by my teachers, it held less interest for me. Most kids bridle at what parents or teachers tell them to do and I was no exception. And, if you remember from previous posts, I really did not like school. So that was kind of a double jeopardy. As we know, in school, we read not for pleasure but to analyze, dissect, interpret – yawn!
However, once I overcame my “fear” of reading, and started to become interested in the stories, I truly began to look forward picking up a book. I sometimes find myself reading two, three books at the same time. But, I digress from why reading is important and specifically why reading is important for second language learners.
First of all, reading is a skill and skills take time to develop. We do need to learn and understand things like plot, character development, setting and the messages within the reading, whether it is fiction or non-fiction. Skills, like reading, develop our analytical and critical thinking and thus add to our intellect. That does not make us smarter, but it does develop important thinking skills we use all the time.
Second, with a wide variety of reading material we see how language is used. It increases our vocabulary and our oral skills in the language. Authors who write novels are different from non-fiction, newspapers are different and magazines again different. So not only does reading help us hone our overall language skills, it helps us define our own way of interpreting the use of language.
Reading is cultural, in other words, authors tell about their culture, their environment; typically using language to express their ideas, all from their own culture. These cultural references last a lifetime and impact how we view the world, just as importantly as we express the world we live in. The cultural aspect of books cannot completely jump the cultural hurdle international students find when they move to a new country, but it certainly helps.
The more people read, the better they will do on tests like TOEFL, SSAT and SAT. Seeing how language is used in a wide variety of contexts helps them recognize the type of reading they will see on tests. This does not mean they will see the exact same passage, but they can recognize the style of writing which will them help them adjust their minds to what to look for as they are asked to pull key elements to answer test questions.
Just as my friend said, reading is exciting, taking me places I cannot go and all the while adding to my knowledge, whether it is historical, contemporary, fiction or non-fiction. And amazingly to my surprise, it is fun to get lost in a good story.
For second language learners it is important to read appropriate books. Age appropriate. I once had a boy I worked with who at the time was 10 years old. His father had him reading the New York Times Best Sellers. The boys’ language skills at the time were not particularly strong, so unfortunately he was unable to understand what he was reading. He read the books, but did not come close to grasping what the books were about. So it is important to jump into books that are age and language skill appropriate. Books like these will be less intimidating and far more fun to read.
So whether reading a hardcover book or an e-book, read. Read a lot. Not only will stronger language skills develop, but the world will become a bigger, far more interesting place even if it is found between the cover of a book.
Hamilton Gregg is the founder of International Educational Consulting and has worked in education since 1985. He helps students and their families understand their personal and educational needs and find the right school to meet their requirements. If you are a student or parent who would like to ask Gregg a question on our blog, please email firstname.lastname@example.org