Helping battered English learners


in Beyond the Basics, Tools & Techniques

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.

Warren Ediger

Related reading: The power of reading and listening; Finding books for intermediate readers

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.

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David Monteiro May 25, 2011

Hi, dear Warren Ediger!

Thank God I have the habit of reading very much in English. In fact, I do it more than I should! Even when I’m at work, I try to make some time to read. But I certainly don’t let this habit damage my performance at work. I read at least 4 hours a day, and to tell the truth, I have more pleasure reading in English than I do in Portuguese. I can’t explain why, I just love doing it! But I think I’ve got some problems:

First, articles give me more satisfaction than books, for example. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but when I start to read a book, I become impatient. Maybe it’s because it isn’t the most appropriate kind of book for me, as you wrote in another article.

Second, I know it isn’t an excuse, but I live in the countryside of the countryside of my country, and I think the news reach my hometown via ‘donkey wagons’ because we’re the last ones to get them. Of course I’m kidding. But the one library in town has just Grammar books. And I can’t go to the shopping mall and buy interesting books (except when I’m in the Capital, Salvador) because there are only small stores here that don’t offer a big variety for English learners. But fortunately, we’ve at least got internet! And due to these difficulties, I’ve gotten used to reading only on the internet. But, off and on, I buy some books. Do you think I should change my habits and try to read more books?

Third, owing to that fact that I’m an independent English learner, it’s hard for me to try to find out the meanings of certain words without checking in the dictionary. I’ve tried to do it without looking them up, but most of the time, I couldn’t. Even though I think I have a good amount of vocabulary, I sometimes come across unknown words. I know it’s natural, but again, do you know any efficient method of finding out the definition of unknown words without inhibiting the process of language acquisition?

And finally, today, thanks to you, I’m sure about what I’m going to do to improve my reading and listening more and more. All your suggestions have worked for sure! It’s because people like YOU that I started to love this language! Thanks a lot for sharing your heavenly knowledge with us!


David Monteiro (Brazil)

Warren Ediger May 25, 2011

David – First, the important thing is to read and listen to things you enjoy. I believe fiction gives you more exposure to things like conversation or cultural practices, but the important thing is to consume as much interesting, understandable English as possible.

Certainly it’s going to be more difficult to find reading material for some people than others. One of my students lives in a country where she has trouble finding English books and the government doesn’t allow online purchases from places like Amazon. When a friend or relative travels outside the country, she sends a shopping list – books that she discovered by looking at bestseller lists at the NY Times or Barnes and Noble web sites – and an envelope full of cash! Sometimes you have to get creative!

Many language students find it difficult to be patient and give word meanings and other language elements time to “grow”, or develop, in their brain. I wrote about this in an article called Meeting a new word. Let me give you an example:

Last year I read Hosseini’s book A Thousand Splendid Suns. In it he occasionally uses Afghan words, which I didn’t know at the time. Rather than finding an Afghan/English translating dictionary online, which would have been easy enough to do, I decided to continue to read. Before I reached the end of the book, I had acquired most of the words. Each time I saw a word, I added to my understanding of the word, when it’s used, and how it’s used in different situations. I didn’t stop to study the words, I just allowed the language function of my brain to do what it’s designed to do. This is one of the most important, but sometimes most difficult, lessons for a language student to learn.

Thanks for your comment!

Sanaz May 26, 2011

Dear Warren,

I was a battered English learner. Before I knew you, I stopped learning English and swore to myself never start it again…. But after reading your articles, I decided to try my … luck and it amazingly works!! As I’m following your advice, now I’m a bookworm! I can’t live even one day of my life without reading. Alongside learning English, it has opened a new world to me. Reading books has changed my point of view to the world, life, and everything.

As David wrote, it’s interesting that I don’t like to read in my native language anymore!!

I live with my books. They are my treasure! Thanks a lot!

David Monteiro May 26, 2011

Hi again, dear Warren!

The article ‘expert answers – meeting a new word’ you suggested was very, very enlightening to me, as always! And it also describes my problems:

I usually don’t want to miss anything! That is, I always want to learn every single unfamiliar word and stop continually to check its meaning. But that’s a bad habit that I’ll have to sweat out to break! This eagerness for immediate “translation” often happens because I’ve been preparing to take a trip to an English-speaking country at the end of this year (the States or Canada)….

Well, thank you very much for giving us room to express our thoughts and opinions!


David Monteiro

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