It is not uncommon to have students coming to me after some disappointing results in a writing test or course assignment and asking for ‘something to help to improve my reading and writing’. When it comes to academic skills, I suppose this can happen to domestic and international students alike, but it is usually much more frequent with students who are also reading and writing in a foreign language.
What most students seem to expect is that you are going to recommend a ‘good book with reading and writing activities’ which they could use as intensive practice. Or perhaps that brilliant website where they can do a couple of online activities which will, miraculously, transform them in better readers and good writers.
When you fail to produce such wondrous goods and just tell them that they have to go away and read more, the look at disappointment in their faces is instantaneous. They then leave either crest-fallen thinking that there is actually no solution for their problem, or looking down on you. You can almost read their thoughts, ‘She seemed to be an expert, but clearly she is not a true academic because, otherwise, she would know of such things.’
What I know is that there is no magic portion that makes you a good reader and writer. The most efficient way to improve your reading is (guess what Sherlock)… reading! And the most efficient way to improve your writing is (surprise surprise)… reading!
There is quite a lot of research done on reading and how it helps develop specific and general language abilities and cognitive functions (Cook, 1995; Hudson, 2007; Lancashire, 2009; Waring, 2008). There is also a number of studies, both from quantitative and qualitative research traditions, considering the social and critical aspects of reading. Please check the ERF Bibliography to have access to hundreds of titles of articles, book chapters and chapters on extensive reading.
However, to be honest, I don’t really think most of us would need any ‘irrefutable scientific proof’ or ‘clear documented evidence’ that reading is good for you. I suppose most of us have experienced this first-hand: the more you read, the better your language becomes. To use a high-tech metaphor, when engaged in reading our brains seem to download great quantities of data – sentence structures and vocabulary items – that we tend to appropriate, transform and employ when producing language ourselves (Goswami, 2007; Grabe, 2009).
Even though reading scaffolding tasks and reading techniques, such as skimming and scanning, can be useful in particular circumstances, I still see them as remedial work. I think students need them as a quick fix to make up of for the fact that they have not read enough in their lives to be able to simply make some sense of a text and express their ideas about it. I know it may sound a bit radical but perhaps if instead of spending time teaching students reading and writing techniques we just gave them a good book and a quiet corner the results would be much better.
So perhaps there is a magic portion to help with reading and writing after all. It is reading.
I will keep telling students to go away and just read extensively and braodly. Read around your subject are but also read across the disciplines. Read for information but, above all, read for enjoyment. Read for understanding. Read for curiosity. Read because then you can go to those places that you will never be able to visit physically. Read to meet those people who you will never see in the park or in your neighbourhood. Read because it makes you laugh, it makes you cry, it makes you think, and it makes you dream. The bonus is that you are also very likely to become a better reader and writer.
- Cook, G., 1995. Discourse and Literature: The Interplay of Form and Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Goswami, U., 2007. Reading and the brain: a cross-language approach. In: Mind, Brain and Education in Reading Disorders, Fisher, K.W.J, Bernstein, H. and Immordino-Yang, M.H. (eds). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Grabe, W., 2009. Reading in a Second Language: Moving from Theory to Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Hudson, T., 2007. Teaching Second Language Reading. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Lancashire, I., 2009. Teaching Literature and Language Online. New York, NY: Modern Language Association of America.
- Waring, R., 2008. Why Extensive Reading should be an indispensable part of all language programs. Cell, 10, pp.2344–9774.