Using popular fiction to improve your English


in Tools & Techniques

In The power of reading and listening, I emphasized that comprehensible (understandable) input from reading and listening gives us most of our fluency. One of the best sources of comprehensible input is popular fiction – books and stories that people read simply because they enjoy them so much.

Why popular fiction?

There are several good reasons to use popular fiction to improve your English. Popular fiction is a good source of comprehensible input. When we understand what we read or listen to, we acquire new language. We acquire more language when we enjoy what we’re reading so much that we get “lost” in the story. And we acquire more language when we can read easily, without stopping. Popular fiction gives us so many choices that it’s usually easy to find both: the fun and the ease of reading.

Second, popular fiction teaches about culture. Language is more than vocabulary and grammar. A language is an important part of the culture of the people who use it. Language cannot be separated from culture. It’s what the people in a culture use to understand and share their lives, ideas, and beliefs.

If you want to be able to say that you know a language, you must know something about the people who use the language. You need to know what they talk about and how they talk in different situations.

Reading and listening to popular fiction is one of the best ways to get to know the people who use the language you’re learning. And as you begin to know them, it’s easy to begin to imagine yourself becoming a part of that group.

Finally, I want to repeat something I said in The power of reading and listening. Popular fiction – in printed books, e-books, and audio books – is better than watching television and movies for language development. Why? Popular fiction 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. And we learn how to describe people, actions, objects, and ideas.

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

What you should read

When my students ask me what they should read, I usually answer with a question: What do you like to read? This is the first, and perhaps most important, question to answer. This is reading for pleasure, for fun. Many of my students have read and enjoyed English books that have been translated into their languages. Often, one of those would be a good place to start.

Popular authors

What can you do if you’re not familiar with American authors? Here is a list of popular authors that my students and I have enjoyed or that I have heard about from other teachers. Each author’s name is linked to his or her web site.

Finding and choosing authors and books

If you have the name of an author that you might be interested in, try this: Do a Google search with the name of the author and the word “excerpt”. Your search results will include books by the author and pages that have excerpts, usually one chapter, from the book. Your search should look like this:

  • John Grisham excerpt

You can do the same if you have the title of a book that you have heard about. Do a Google search with “the title of the book” in quotation marks and the word “excerpt.” Google will give you web pages that have excerpts from the book. Your search should look like this:

  • “Memories of Midnight” excerpt

Using bestseller lists to find books

Finally, another way to find popular fiction is to look at bestseller lists. There are many of these, but I am going to suggest one and show you how to use it. The most famous bestseller lists in the U.S. are those published by the New York Times. Here’s one way to use the Times’ lists:

  1. Go to the Best Sellers page.
  2. Click on either Hardcover Fiction, Paperback Trade Fiction, or Paperback Mass-Market Fiction.
  3. In each category, you will see a list of titles and other information with a very short description of each book.
  4. When you see a book that looks interesting, click on the title and read the longer description of the book. Some of the descriptions include excerpts or audio files to listen to if they are audiobooks.
  5. Go back to the list page. At the top of the page you will see buttons for Amazon and Barnes and Noble. If you click on one of them, you will see the same list at the Amazon or Barnes and Noble web sites.
  6. To read or listen to excerpts click on the cover of the book and look for Look inside! (Amazon) or Read an excerpt (Barnes and Noble).

You can also go directly to the Amazon or Barnes and Noble best seller lists.

Print books, e-books, or audiobooks?

Yes! All of them are good sources of popular fiction. Some of my students have read books and listened to them at the same time. If you want to do that, be sure that you get an unabridged audiobook. Unabridged means complete; something that is abridged has been shortened.

I hope you enjoy your journey into popular fiction, wherever it takes you! And I hope you discover the power of reading – and listening – to improve your English!

Warren Ediger

Related reading: The power of reading and listening

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