The power of reading and listening

01.28.2010

in The Basics

Scientific research tells that most of our fluency – our ability to use a language – comes from what we read and hear. Reading and listening have the power to improve vocabulary, grammar, reading comprehension (understanding), writing, spelling, TOEFL scores, and more.*

The most important thing you can do to improve your English is to read and listen to as much interesting, easy-to-understand English as possible. Here’s why.

An explanation

Learning a language is a natural process. It’s something our brains do very well. When we read or listen to language that we can understand, our brains acquire, (pick up, or absorb) new language – new vocabulary, new ideas about grammar, new ideas about how to use the language.

This process – acquiring new language – has several interesting characteristics:

  • It’s automatic; we don’t have to decide to do it.
  • When it happens, we aren’t aware of it; we don’t know it’s happening until someone says, “Wow! Your English is so much better!”

If we do what we need to do, it will happen. We can’t avoid it.

What’s the secret?

The secret is something called comprehensible input.

While you are reading this article, you are receiving input, ideas from the words and sentences that I am writing. If you understand what I am writing, even if you don’t know all of the words, the input you receive is comprehensible. Comprehensible is simply a technical word for understandable. When we receive comprehensible input, our brains acquire new language.

Do you remember how you acquired your first language? When we were young, we acquired our first language from comprehensible input. Our parents and other people used simple language when they spoke or read to us. They used one word, then phrases (short groups of words). They spoke and read slowly. They used gestures (body movement), pictures, and objects. They did everything they could to help us understand our language, to make it comprehensible to us. When they did, our minds acquired, or picked up, the language. One day, when we were ready, we said our first word. And everyone got excited! You acquired your first language because your parents and other people surrounded you with comprehensible input – understandable language.

When we begin to learn a new language, we need to do the same thing. We need to surround ourselves with comprehensible input. We need to read it. And we need to hear it (If you’d like to learn more about comprehensible input and related ideas, look at The Basics.).

The advantage of reading = more language

Students often ask about watching television or movies. They can be helpful, but not as helpful as reading (or other kinds of listening). Reading has a significant advantage for language development. Here’s why: reading is full of language.

That may seem like an obvious, perhaps even a silly statement. But take a moment to think about it. When we watch a movie or television program, we listen to the dialogue (the conversation between characters). But we see the location and the action. The only language we hear is what the characters say to each other. But when we read a book or story, we read the dialogue and we read the writer’s description of the location and the action. We receive more language – more comprehensible input – than we do when we watch a movie or television program.

Think of it this way. When we watch a movie or a television program, it’s like having a language snack. When we read, it’s like sitting down to a full language meal, plus dessert!

Reading and listening that get results

If you want to read and listen to improve your English, here’s what you need to do:

  • Read and listen a lot and do it often

Read and listen every day, even if it’s only for 15 or 20 minutes. If you can do more, it’s even better!

  • Read and listen to anything that gives you pleasure

How can you tell that you’re reading and listening for pleasure? You are reading for pleasure when you don’t want to stop because you enjoy it so much. When you forget what time it is. When you don’t notice the people and activity around you. When you feel like you are inside of the story.

  • Read and listen to things that are easy to understand

It’s easy enough when you know almost all the words. When you can read and listen without stopping. When you can understand the story or ideas without looking up words in the dictionary. When you don’t have to read slowly.

Some Suggestions

  • Read and listen without stopping. If you are curious about some of the words, look them up after you finish reading or listening, but don’t stop in the middle of something!
  • Read and listen more than once. If you enjoyed something so much that you want to read or listen to it again, do it! Each time you will acquire more English.
  • Read and listen at the same time. There are benefits to seeing and hearing new language at the same time.
  • Read and listen to things written by the same author. To articles, speeches, or lectures on the same subject. To the same genre (kind) – for example, historical fiction about World War II. This is called narrow reading or listening and it is very helpful.
  • Read English books that you first read (in translation) in your own language. If you read a book in your language, you will understand it better – and acquire more – when you read it in English.

Begin today! And make it a habit. The sooner you begin, and the more you read (or listen), the more your English will improve.

Warren Ediger

Related reading: Using popular fiction to improve your English

*If you want to look at a summary of the effects of reading, look at Dr. Stephen Krashen’s list of 81 generalizations, or statements, that can be made about the benefits of reading. These statements are the result of more than 40 years of scientific research.

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