Q & A: Encouraging reading among language learners



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!

Click here for  more insights into education and global issues.


Success factors of Storytelling (PART 1): Start with the “WHY”

The art of storytelling is not new.

But some do not understand why storytelling is necessary when reporting the mere facts of something will do. We see this happening all the time, especially in email correspondences in the workplace. As work pace increases, there is greater need for information to be concise, precise, succinct and brief – so everything else is cut off except for the cold, hard facts. However, this also means that all emotions – including positive ones – are cut off too. There are some who will even advise on eliminating all kinds of formality, such as “Good day”, “Have a nice day” etc. Saving one’s time and effort are the reasons for the advice. But unknown to them, emotional detachment and loss of interpersonal rapport with others are the price we pay. Taking some time to tell others the reasons (which is the “why”) for requesting or doing something may at times be time-consuming and tedious but what one gets back in return is mutual understanding and respect. And when the “why” is complemented with a narrative story when time permits, the positive emotional impact on others can be extremely powerful and at times – life-changing.

Similarly, when parents educate their children, they are often direct and to the point. “Do not watch TV while eating”, “be quiet when you are studying”, “do not come home late tonight” and “greet your elders” are some of the basic social etiquette that are commonly taught to the kids. However, because the children do not understand the “whys” behind the “hows”, they often refuse to obey or find the rules too ridiculous to even abide by them. “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” is a great read to inspire oneself to explore and understand why the understanding and acceptance of the “why” behind our every actions in all aspects of our lives are important. We should question if every aspect of our inner motivation for doing things are positive for others and to do so, we need to investigate the “why” of our everyday lives. More importantly, we should encourage and motivate a child to explore the “whys” of his or her every action. And using stories is among the best ways to achieve this.

The same goes for short story or novel writing. Why would reader want to read a short story or novel? What would attract reader to a story? What elements of a story would readers be interested in? Other than the first question, we will address the second and third questions in subsequent posts.

A lot of writers commit the fallacy of engaging the “what” instead of the “why” first – unaware of the fact that it’s the “why” that precedes the “what”. If the readers do not understand the reason for reading the story, why would they be interested in the types of literary devices used in constructing the story? Think about this.

Therefore, to start a story, all writers should ask themselves this questions before penning the story, starting with the “why” before progressing to the “who”, ‘what”, “when”, “where” and “how”:

WHY would I want to write this story? 

WHAT do I want readers to take away by reading this story?

HOW would I want my story to reach out to my readers?

WHERE would the setting in which the story takes place be in?

WHO would be great characters to include in the story?  

WHEN would be a great time period to set the stage for the story?

Out of the six questions above, the first question is the most important. Answering the first question will not only provide one with the intrinsic motivation to continue writing the story, it will also establish a basic reference point for one to refer back consistently when writing the story.

So, the “why” should be connected with an inner aspect of a writer, emanating from his or her inner essence and through this connection, what resides in the inner psyche should in turn manifest externally in the form of stories. All great stories in the world probably originate from this source.

What great stories do you have to tell the world?

Let’s continue here.

Personal Recount Writing #1: Analysis

This article is an analysis of the personal recount writing in my previous post (“A Daring Venture”). You can either view the previous post directly below or you can click here.

It will be great if you are able to read the short story first before reading further in order to have a better understand of how literary devices work in narrative writing.

For this post, I will like to highlight three primary elements that make this story stands out on its own:

Human nature: Non-fiction writing can allow technicalities to take precedence and overrides the need to emphasise human values but a great fictional or personal recount story cannot overlook the important and influential role that human nature plays in a narrative.

Values such as respect, love, betrayal, disappointment, happiness, sadness and the multitude of human emotions are great literary elements that relate and bind people together through stories. Think  Shakespeare.  Narratives are meant to soothe the heart more than stimulate the mind. Leave non-fiction writing for the latter.

Intersection of time: If you have read the story “A Daring Venture“, you would have realised that the story moves among the past, present and future. In addition, the movement is not linear but sporadic. This has the effect of attracting the readers into the core of the story through the movement of time. However, the narrative must move in such a way that the past, present and future merge into one seamless flow.  This cannot be taught literally but can be learnt through consistent and continuous writing exercises.

The trade off is that much effort has to be put in to ensure that the right tenses are used and this usually is challenging to achieve under tight time constraints.    Should students choose to adopt this form of writing, intensive practices and guidance are required prior to mastery of this writing style. However, once this skill is mastered, it will enable students to maintain consistency of tenses for all if not most forms of writing.

Psychological elements: These elements relates closely to human nature but what sets them apart is the fact that while human nature talks about qualities and values, psychological elements may take the form of literary advice (as in the case for this story where snippets of page extracts are used as guiding devices for the author), a motif  (such as the use of a doll whose photos are taken in various countries with it sitting on a bench, signifying change or mobility),  the deep, inner thoughts of the writer, and many more.

Psychological elements are wider in scope and hence easier to use and elaborate than those espoused by human nature, which tends to be more intangible and requires the use of scenarios and scenes to bring out their essence.

As we explore more writings in the near future, I will provide more literary tools for you to explore and use in your writings.

Stay tuned.

Personal Recount Writing #1

Out of the various writing genres, personal recount writing (that is, writing that uses the first-person perspective using the pronoun “I”) is – more often than not – the more interesting writing style. While the story may be contained or even confined within the psyche and understanding of the main protagonist who is the writer, the personal narrative adds a personal touch to the story seldom seen in other writing styles.

Below is a piece of writing which I will like to share with all of you. I hope that you enjoy this.  In my next article, I will provide some insights on the ways that this writing works in terms of literary writing devices and the style that the writing is structured.


A Daring Venture

I am an introvert by nature.

I like solitude and I love staying in my room reading books or listening to Jazz or New Age music. I get to have a world of my own without the intrusion of others. I relish the moments of insights as I agree with the thoughts of an author or meditate under the tune of soft music. Yes, this is my world – and I am loving it.

However, there is a hefty price that I pay.

My social circle is small, as I do not socialise often. My friends do not know me well, as I did not put in the effort to know them well.  I do not get invited to parties often because I almost always turn down every invites that I receive. I do not know how to communicate as I only communicate with myself in my head.

And then, one day, everything changed.

Or rather, you can say that a book that I have read changed everything.

I can still recall the title of the book vividly despite all these years.  The title is “How to have a chance encounter that will change your life”. When I first set my eyes on the title in the library prior to borrowing it, I thought the title was plain, simple and almost self-explanatory. I did not know what attracted me to the book but somehow, I was mesmerised by it.  I did not know what effects the content of the book would have on me but I loved it anyway. Psychology is never my forte but still, the title held my interest.

Perhaps this is preordained. I do not know.

I have a strange feeling about this book. As mentioned, I am not new to books. I have read books of almost every topic available but most merely increase my knowledge.

This title is different. It mesmerised me like never before.

I placed the book on the table and flipped to the first page:

“Observation skills are not only to be learnt but to be practised. You must act on what you have learnt. Then the skills you learn will change your life – forever. “

The sentence stared back at me and I felt a sense of anticipation.

Change my life? How is that possible?

I began to read the first paragraph.

Perception wraps reality. We are trapped by our mental conceptions until we free ourselves from them by observing reality and understanding the formation of perceptions through them. And being observant is the bridge joining the two…..

From that day on, I began to practise my observation skills.  And I began to notice things I have never noted before – the type of clothes that others wear, the colour of the tie that matches a shirt, the different type of greeting gestures that others display, the various types of smiles that either reveal or hide emotions. And through these, I began to map out the various perceptions I have of them, as well as having a good gauge of the perceptions held by them. In other words, I began to understand the worlds of others and how my world relates to theirs. Over time, I began to connect with them psychologically, but not in a interpersonal kind of way, if you know what I mean.

Then one day, it happened.

I was sitting on a seat in a train when I noticed that a lady dressed in a yellow dress was seated across from me. She is in her early twenties. Her yellow dress was prominent but that was not what attracted my attention.  Rather,  it’s the ruby necklace she wore that was interesting. I have seen that necklace before, at a jewellery store. It was from Paris, France. I always have an interest in stones, and ruby is among them.

“Observe aspects of others carefully. What stands out is the obvious. But it’s the similarity that connects.” 

I am beginning to understand this sentence.

The lady suddenly noticed me looking at her and she returned the gaze, smiling while doing so. It was awkward to have somebody looking at me with interest as that has not happened to me for quite a while.

But the distance between us was far. There are many passengers standing and moving along in the train and our eye contact is constantly being cut intermittently by the passing bodies. I noticed that she has the tendency to look away and then back at me again, as if we are caught in a game of hide-and-seek.  It was not long before I did the same. The passing crowd between us becomes our hiding posts and for a while, we indulged in a match of peekaboo.

Instant and continuous connection is fleeting. Intermittent communication with silences and absence in-between is key to sustaining a resilient relationship. We need to give each other space to rejuvenate and to recharge. Observe this in your interactions with others. 

True to its words, our switching attention from the moving crowd to ourselves are – in a strange way – sustaining our continued interest in each other. But still, none of us make a move to go forward and start a conversation.

A connection is not deliberate. A connection just happens. There are people whom we are meant to meet in this life but we have to notice them through our astute observation if we are to really meet them. Placing your eyes on the pages of your book won’t do. Closing your eyes and listening to the music blasting out of your earphones is worse. Open your eyes and look around. See who is attracted to you and why you are sustaining their attention. That is the point.

As the train neared my stop, I stood up sadly and headed for the exit door to her right. How many times have I brushed shoulders with someone whom I have a connection with but never have the opportunity to connect? It’s uncountable. I sighed with disappointment with my eyes glazed over and looking at my own reflection in the glass panel in front of me.  And then the image of the lady appeared behind my left shoulder, looking at me and smiling.

I smiled back.

No matter how great is the possibility of an encounter, there will come a point where you have to initiate contact. Shyness will impede you at this stage. Hesitation will destroy your courage.  Fear will draw you back.  Only confidence and a desire to know someone new will push you forward to take that initiative to start that life-changing conversation.”

“Hi!” I greeted her.

“”Hi!” She greeted back.

“I like that necklace of yours. I know where you have bought it.”

“Is that so? Haha! So, where did I buy it?”

“Well, is there a prize if I got it right?”

Both of us burst out laughing.

And the rest is history.

Humour is the prescription for nervousness. A right dose of it at the right moment can work miracles for any new social interactions. The trick is to know what to say, how to say, how much to say and when to say it.

Today, Jenny is my best friend and we still go out often. I am not sure if I can call these dates but for now, I know that if I had not put in the effort to read the book, I would never have found a soul mate.

When you have known somebody through a chance encounter on your own initiative, you know you have the  power to widen your social circles and create change in your life.

And when you have done it once, you know – deeply in your heart – that you can always do it again.”