Students at a well-known Japanese college of technology were frustrated. They had studied English for several years, but their English still wasn’t good. The school tried using native English-speaking teachers, language laboratories, and computer-assisted learning, but nothing seemed to help. To make things worse, students were bored with studying grammar and translating texts. Then the school introduced a program that changed everything.
Helping battered English learners
Battered learners are students who have had bad experiences in their second language classes. They haven’t improved as much as they had hoped. And they’ve been bored and frustrated by their class experiences even though they may have received high grades. When Dr. Jeff McQuillan introduced me to this concept a few months ago, he pointed out that these students need time to heal, to feel success, before moving on.
This is what Professor Nishizawa and his associates faced with their students. And they helped their students find healing and discover success by introducing a recreational reading program. This program, reported in a recent study, led to significant English improvement and helped students discover the joy and satisfaction of language acquisition.
Learning from the Japanese experience
We can learn a number of lessons from the Nishizawa study and other research on reading and language development:
1. Pleasure reading is the most effective, and certainly the most enjoyable, way to acquire language.
2. You have to be exposed to a certain amount of English, before the benefits of reading begin to have an affect. It takes time for reading (or listening) to work. In Nishizawa’s study, test scores began to improve after students had read about 300,000 words.
How much is 300,00 words? Two intermediate-level books that have been very popular with my students are Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Taylor) and Kite Runner (Hosseini). Roll of Thunder contains about 65,000 words; Kite Runner contains about 110,000. You could read 300,000 words by reading 3-5 books.
How long will it take you to read that much? If you read for 30 minutes five days a week @100 words per minute, you will read 780,000 words per year. If you read 20 minutes a day, you’ll read 520,000 words per year.
Remember, the more you read, the more your English will improve.
3. Many students develop the habit of quickly translating between their first language and English when they read (or speak). This often happens, for example, when you have memorized definitions of English words in your first language. This habit makes reading (and speaking) difficult and robs you of much of the pleasure. It also inhibits, or works against, the process of language acquisition.
To break this habit, begin by reading very easy texts, texts that are almost 100% understandable without depending on your first language or using a dictionary. They should be easy enough that you can read 100 words per minute or even faster. After you break the habit of switching back and forth between English and your first language, slowly increase the difficulty of what you read.
Some students in the Nishizawa study began by reading picture books for English-speaking children, then moved up to storybooks for children and books for young adults. After that, popular adult fiction would be a good choice.
4. Another effective way to break the translation habit – and a good way to acquire English even if you don’t have the translation habit – is to listen and read at the same time. Try the ESL Podcast and learning guide, VOA American Short Stories, or VOA News. More advanced learners could use young adult or popular adult fiction along with audio books.
5. Remember that natural language development takes place subconsciously: you don’t notice it while it is happening. And you often don’t notice it for some time after it happens. Often you become aware of it only when someone says, “Wow, your English has really improved!”
Also remember that there will be flat times in your English development, times when you feel like nothing is happening. There will be other times when your improvement is more obvious.
Do you feel like a battered English learner? If you do, learn from the Japanese students. Find something easy to read. Read for fun. Read every day if you can. Read as much as possible. And let reading become a habit, a permanent part of your life.
References: Krashen (2004) The Power of Reading; personal correspondence from Dr. Jeff McQuillan; Nishizawa et al (2010) The impact of a 4-year extensive reading program.