There’s strong agreement among the writers, teachers, and researchers I know best: good writing comes from reading. Many students, however, have trouble accepting this fact. In this article – a case study – I describe the effect that reading has had on one student’s writing.
The path to better writing
Most of the students who ask me to help them improve their writing assume that I will teach them grammar, give them writing assignments, and correct the mistakes they make. They are surprised when I begin by talking to them about the relationship between reading and writing and insist that they set up a regular reading schedule. The writing assignments come later.
During the last year or so, I’ve written several articles about the important relationship between reading and writing. If this idea is new to you, I encourage you to read some of them. Here are three links to help you get started:
- The power of reading and listening – Describes the relationship between reading (and listening) and better English – a good place to start.
- Learning to write – introduction – Four articles that provide a good overview for those who want to become better writers; links at the end of each article take you to the next.
- Better writing, part 1 – Two articles about improving your writing ability and developing a good process for writing; a link at the end of the first article will take you to the second.
A case study: the effect of reading on one student’s writing
A case study – one student’s experience – does not prove a theory. But a case study can effectively illustrate a theory that’s already supported by a significant amount of research and the experiences of a large number of writers and teachers.
This case study describes the writing improvement of a student I’ve worked with since February 2010. A few days ago, he showed me an email he recently wrote to an American professor. In it he wrote about their first meeting and shared some ideas about academic research and publication. It was immediately obvious that the writing in this email was much better than his earlier writing.
I found an email he had written to me shortly after I began working with him and compared it with the one he wrote last week. They are similar: both are longer than most emails and the style is a little more formal, more like academic writing than the casual writing style you usually find in emails.
I marked the errors in both emails, counted them, and put them into three categories:
- Incorrect verb forms – correct verb, incorrect form or tense: for example, “Then I register(ed) myself at a regular English course for adults….”
- Missing words – for example, “For me (it) was really uncomfortable.”
- Incorrect word choice – for example, “I was studying to make (take) a test.”
In 2010 he made 1 error for every 12 words; in 2011 he made 1 error for every 21 words – almost 50% fewer errors. In 2011 he had 85% fewer verb-related errors (2 compared to 12) and made almost 60% fewer incorrect word choices (7 compared to 17) than he did in 2010.
In 2010, almost 25% of the errors gave his writing a native-language accent. They were errors that language learners make when they aren’t sure what to do in English, so they borrow from their first language (for more about this, see It’s not broken!.) There were none of these errors in last week’s email.
Finally, his recent writing was more sophisticated – it ranked higher on a common scale (Flesch-Kincaid) that measures the complexity and difficulty of academic writing.
What’s the point?
Since I met him in 2010, this student has never studied grammar, never practiced writing, and no one has corrected any of his mistakes. I’m sure of that because I’m the only English user he has regular contact with. He and I meet once a week to talk about articles and books that he has read and other interesting topics. We also talk a lot about how language is acquired, or picked up, and what he can do to improve his English acquisition. He has become very knowledgeable about language acquisition and uses this knowledge to improve his efforts.
Two things set this student apart from many other students. First, he reads almost every day and he reads (and listens) a lot – often two or more hours a day. Second, he thinks of English as his language and takes great delight in the time he spends in it even though his personal and professional lives are spent almost totally in two other languages.
When I sent him an early version of this article, he wrote back with two important observations: first, that reading and listening have helped him begin to feel very comfortable with English. Second, he writes: “…I’ve been writing without thinking too much about the words that I use; in that sense I am more focused on the message….” Doing the same things he does could help you significantly improve your English – and your writing.