Reading (and listening) is the key to language development. More specifically, the comprehensible input we get from reading and listening is the key to language development. Without it very little happens. With it, vocabulary grows, a feel for correctness emerges, and fluency increases. Comprehensible input is necessary and also sufficient to achieve your goal – better English.
Decisions you make – what you read and how you read – determine most of the language benefits you receive from reading. Here are some ideas from a recent book, Free Voluntary Reading, that can help you fine-tune your decisions and make your reading as effective as possible.
Effective reading is effortless reading
The best reading for language development is effortless – “easy reading that seems to be completely comprehensible without struggle.” Many students believe they need to challenge themselves, to read above their comfort level to improve. The opposite is true. One researcher, for example, found that your vocabulary grows faster if you know at least 95% of the words in the text you are reading.
Effective reading involves you in the text, not the language
You acquire, or absorb, more language when you get so involved in what you’re reading that you forget that it’s in another language or contains language you haven’t acquired yet. To do this, your reading must be effortless and interesting, or even compelling, so you can focus all your attention on the text and ignore the language.
This idea is related to the concept of flow. Flow is the mental state or condition you experience when you are “deeply but effortlessly involved in an activity. In flow, the concerns of everyday life disappear … our sense of time changes [e.g., time 'stops'] and only the activity we’re involved in seems to matter.” When we say we “got lost in a book,” we’re describing the effect of flow. Language acquisition happens most effectively when you experience flow.
Worrying about your progress makes reading less effective
Language acquisition takes place “behind the scenes.” As a result, you won’t usually be aware of the progress you’re making until sometime later, when a word you need suddenly “appears” or when someone comments about your improvement.
Many students worry too much about progress. They create stress for themselves by worrying about remembering and forgetting what they’ve read. Some manage to convince themselves that they’re not improving.
If you do what you need to do – become deeply involved in effortless reading – your brain will automatically and quietly do what it does well – acquire more language. And you will make progress.
Checking your comprehension makes reading less effective
When you stop reading to check your comprehension, you interfere with the language acquisition process and make it more difficult. This happens, for example, when you stop to look up a word or add it to a vocabulary list for later study.
Stopping to check a word or write it down takes your attention away from what you’re reading. It requires you to remember what you’re reading while you stop to do something else. The result? You’ll be focused on the language, you’ll be less involved in the reading, and you will experience less flow. You’ll enjoy the reading less and, most importantly, significantly reduce its benefits. The more you stay involved in the text without interruption, the more language you will acquire.
Dr. Jeff McQuillan recently wrote that language acquisition is both incremental – it happens little by little – and incidental – it happens as the result of another activity – reading. Your job, as an English learner, is to do the other activity – to read interesting, effortless English. To enjoy what you’re reading. And to get deeply involved in it. This is the greatest contribution you can make toward your ultimate goal – better English.
A final note: it works for listening, too
You should also apply these ideas to the listening you do.
References: Krashen (2011) Free Voluntary Reading; McQuillan (2012) Even better than you think: more good news for incidental vocabulary acquisition.