Q & A: Encouraging reading among language learners

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Why would reading be beneficial to learners?

Reading is the most basic form of learning, and, in my personal humble opinion, this activity is mandatory for all learners of languages. Being an English Language teacher, it is English that I am emphasising here. Of course, English is the international business language, and its importance cannot be overlooked. That is not to say that other languages do not require reading. They do.

Furthermore, reading enables students to learn different aspects of the language simultaneously. For instance, when students read, they began to learn new words and more importantly, embed these words into their own set of vocabulary such that they can use them in their own writings.

“Furthermore, at a subconscious level, students are also learning the various forms of sentence structures and conjunctions, not to mention the various punctuation styles, most of which are important when students wish to insert conversations and dialogues into their writings.

Conversations in writings are what make writings come alive and it’s regrettable when students are adverse to using dialogues because of a lack of understanding in the usage of punctuations.”

I have personally encountered students who do not include conversations into their writings not because they do not wish to, but because they are unfamiliar with punctuations used in conversations, such as double quotes. Or if a full stop or a comma should appear before a closing double quotes. Reading novels or fiction writing exposes them to this.

Furthermore, learning punctuation is important within the education landscape of Singapore, since a primary assessment component that is tested in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) requires Primary Six students to select the correct punctuation for a given passage from several choices in a multiple choice format.

“Reading of fiction writings or novels will also enable students to develop more in-depth critical thinking since they tend to connect their life experiences with what they read. When what they read connects with their life experiences, their experiences of life changes accordingly as they readjust the values and content of what they are reading with what they have read.

They will then tend to analyse and accept what they think is correct. This “compare and contrast” process is continuous, and this is what enable students to process information and more importantly, inspire them to be lifelong learners after developing a passion for it.” 

Furthermore, teachings by teachers and tutors usually take place merely a few times a week. Hence, students who take the initiative to read are actually extending their own learning time beyond the lessons in the classrooms. Furthermore, students can choose to read at their own pace and at their own time, as compared to a more restricted environment like classroom learning.

You have mentioned quite a bit about the importance of reading fiction books and novels. What about non-fiction books, such as biographies, self-help books, books on business trends, psychology books etc.?

Well, yes, non-fiction literary titles are important as well.

It’s just that they guide students in different ways and the set of vocabulary that students will learn from this genre will somewhat be different from fiction books.

What do I mean by that?

Well, say if you have students or children who need to write narrative essays or personal recount stories in school. If this is the focus, then such students should be encouraged to read fiction books and novels, at least in the initial phrases of English language learning, because descriptive terms and adjectives are usually required for such writings.

“There is not much persuasive elements or argumentative skills involved in such writings. Rather, being specific and detailed in describing places and an in-depth understanding of characters take centre stage here. Thus, such student should read fiction books to get a feel of how narratives are constructed. “

However, if your students or children are required to pen discursive or argumentative essays in schools, then they should read more non-fiction books.

“This is because such writings require students to develop more in-depth thinking, have more real life examples to reinforce their points, and they need to use persuasive written devices to make their points more persuasive. And one can find more of such writing styles and examples in non-fiction writings. “

However, that is not to say that non-fiction writings are better than fiction writings, or vice versa.

It is from my teaching and life experiences that as we mature, most of us will take better to non-fiction writings.

However, we should note the fact that while non-fiction writings are what most mainstream media use (since they are doing factual reporting and analysis most of the time), it’s non-fiction writing that children take better to usually, because they can see what some grownups can’t – that hidden underneath the tome of fiction writings lie a wealth of creative gems waiting to be uncovered.

“I always feel that we age because we lose the innocence which we possess as children, and I would define innocence as that infinite possibilities that we see in everything around us. Fiction books keep that possibility alive, because when we are immersed in that story, we can live as the characters in the book. This is what makes fiction book so engaging and mesmerising through the ages.”

What advice would you give to parents and teachers for children who do not really take well to reading?

For such learners, it’s best to start by encouraging them to read something which they have interest in. For instance, encouraging learners to read newspapers may be of good intention since it keeps learners updated with global and local happenings but I feel that some learners are not attuned to reading news.

“Moreover, it may be a concern to expose learners who are too young to news too early, since most news from the media often centre on negativity, fear, self-aggrandisement and consumerism. Hence, for learners who are too young, it’s best not to use news as educational materials for them first, else it might impact them negatively.”

I feel that young learners should begin with fiction books first to enhance their existing creativity applicable in most aspects of their lives. And as they mature, we should gradually introduce books of other genres to them, but always being mindful of their interests.

But that’s not to mention that learners should read within a niche area.

“In fact, they should read widely, a practice and habit commonly encouraged by teachers and educators. One reason I feel that this should be so is that learners are then able to enhance their creativity through associative thinking, where they are able to draw links between disparate elements or entities. This will in turn give them the creative edge when they enter the workplace in the near future.”

Teachers and parents can also use social media to their advantage. Some Facebook fan pages are educational pages which learners can “like” such that they can read the updates. For example, if they love travelling, they might consider “liking” certain country’s tourism fan pages, such as Visit Japan Now, an official government Facebook page on Japan’s places of interest. Over time, they will get to learn new places in countries of their interest while learning English at the same time!

One has to note that there are different learners, so not all learners take well to reading. There are other learning methods and approaches, so this is no cause for concern.

For visual learners, I often encourage them to learn by watching videos (TED.com is a great source).]

“In fact, whenever possible, enable subtitles such that learners can learn the pronunciation and the right way to spell the words. Pronunciation and spelling are often two major hurdles in language learning. Even reading doesn’t enable one to learn pronunciation.”

For auditory learners, audio books also come in handy.

“These audio books can easily be borrowed via public libraries in Singapore with a simple basic membership. These discs can be played on most audio players and one can simply close one’s eyes and relax while seated to listen to the audio content. Doing so relaxes the eyes while learning, so it’s applicable to other types of learners as well should they wish to be experimental and try other modes of learning.”

They can also invest in electronic dictionaries whereby pronunciations are provided for words new to them. If learners reside in Singapore, I recommend Besta dictionary, which are commonly sold in most Popular Bookstores in Singapore.

As for kinesthetic learners, they need to do something to learn. They are hands-on people learners, so lectures for sustained period of time is out.

“What I often do is to have them read a passage, and use a iPad to pen their writings while I discuss with them on the ways to write well, the latter which often involves grammatical fluency and content management. Then we exchange ideas and verbally analyse the issues together. Most importantly, ask them questions to get them thinking. Most of these kinesthetic learners love it!” 

You have mentioned about using iPad for writing and learning. Interestingly, more learners are turning to such tablets and smart phones for reading. What are your thoughts on this?

Well, we have to adapt ourselves to global and technological changes, and not go against the tide. At least that’s how I feel. This has always been a part of ancient wisdom.

Just look at business trends.

The current direction towards lucrative profits is now networking. Think LinkedIn and MLM business models. On the educational front, there is TED.com and Socrative.com, the latter of which educators are able to share quizzes with just a code. In addition, edudemic.com enables educators to come together to share their expertise and skill sets.

“There is also an inclination to move towards creating interactive websites, where one can sell for a profit. Think Zappos.com (which was sold to Amazon for $1.2 billion in 2009) and  OkCupid.com (which Match.com bought over for $90 million in 2011). The same goes for Groupon.com and Hungrygowhere.com, where the two websites are subsequently sold by their owners.”

Sales of websites do not work so well for blogs, possibly because it may be challenging to change ownership. It also needs to be maintained by the blog owner for authentic continuity, as well as the fact that blogs usually do not generate as much sales as interactive websites where sales transactions are made (Think ebay.com and alibaba.com).  Taobao.com and Tmall.com, part of the Alibaba Group, is doing great too.

“The key to lucrative website sales is to have an interactive website that caters to the masses within a niche area, and where profits can be generated through the users’ usage (often through free registration and/or paid subscriptions) and advertisements.” 

Apologies for digressing.

Coming back to your question, iPads and tablets (such as Samsung’s Galaxy Tab) are great devices for reading, the same of which can be said for Amazon’s Kindle (which is less common in Singapore).  The National Library Board (NLB) in Singapore also enable its members to borrow ebooks and read them on their mobile phones using OverDrive, a mobile phone app. Library members can then read at their own time. NLB has also created a mobile app whereby members are able to borrow books from the libraries just by scanning the barcodes of the library books they wish to borrow.

Technology has, hence, increased the availability of hardcopy and softcopy books for reading. So, there’s really no excuse for not reading now (laughs).

Nevertheless, I am pretty old school and thus prefer a book as I relish the flipping of pages. Moreover, with an old-fashioned bookmark, I am able to note the reading progress I have made per day, and take delight in the fact that I have enriched myself for yet another day.

It’s really up to the individual learners’ preferences really (Laughs).

Thank you so much for your insights on reading for language learning. I hope that parents and educators will be able to glean some insights from your responses. 

I hope so too. Here’s wishing all educators and parents all the best in their teaching! May all learners excel in their studies and release their full potentials in life!

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