English reading comprehension

The importance of reading in the English class


by Andrew Rossiter

Reading and writing are the two vital sides of literacy – but reading is key to developing them both.

Reading is one of the very best ways of learning a language, even for beginners.

    There's a well-known expression in English, that says "Don't try to run before you can walk". It could easily be re-expressed as "Don't try to write before you can read."

    When very small children begin learning a first language, they do so by listening to sounds, and making their own sounds. They soon learn that some sounds have clear meanings (we call most of these sounds words), and others don't. They hear new words, and quite quickly associate them with meaning. The words they learn are relevant to their life and to their immediate environment.. Later on, they start to acquire more vocabulary and more complex means of expressing ideas; they do this by listening to stories, hearing what people around them are saying, and mimicking what they hear.... or even adapting it by combining different elements that they have acquired, in order to express different ideas.

    This learning process is not completely spontaneous. In most societies, parents make an effort to help their children develop speaking skills, and later writing skills, by deliberately teaching them new words and new collocations, with the help of songs, video, and reading; and while the songs and the video help the small child to develop their speaking and listening skills, it is the reading that is key to developing children's writing skills.

    Generally speaking, alert parents try to give their small children the right things to read... not just any old text. For young children, reading skills are developed with the help of images that reinforce the message. Unless they know all the words already, very few small children will work out meaning of the sentence "The elephant is enormous, but the mouse is tiny". But set the sentence beside an appealing image, showing a huge elphant and a very small mouse, and the meanings of the words are easy to grasp, especially with parental help. Similarly, the meaning of "Uncle John was very old, and had been a sailor for most of his life" will be more easy to follow when the words are illustrated by a picture of an old man on or beside a ship. Without the illustration, the sentence could cause problems for young readers. Parents know this almost by intuition, as do the writers and designers of books for young children.

Reading in the EFL / ESL class

    When children grow older, they may then start to learn another language, which we refer to as a foreign language or a second language or an additional language. For simplicity's sake, we'll use the term second language for the rest of this article.

    While some aspects of acquiring a second language are the same as for learning a native language, others are not. Second language learning is a far more concentrated process, on which the learner usually works for just a few hours each week (or a few days in the year); and in second language acquisition, learners are expected to move very quickly from oral language to written language. Indeed, in many contexts, learning the written language may come first.... in which case the process of second language acquisition is very different from that of learning a mother tongue.

    Yet however different the process of second language acquisition may be, some aspects of the learning process remain the same. Learners will still need to acquire new terms and new forms of expression (words and grammar) before they can use them in their own speech or writing; and the acquisition process will be more effective when learners are effectively guided in their learning process by teachers who are familiar with the difficulties, and aware of what the learners need to achieve. This is what language teaching is all about.

    The importance of reading in the successful teaching and learning of a second language is far too often underestimated. Some teachers imagine that just reading texts is somehow old-fashioned, not at all trendy, and unlikely to motivate their students. In the twenty-twenties, there are so many other ways of teaching / learning a language, through video,  games, interactive online creation, and more – and yes, often they will have more immediate appeal to learners, and even to teachers. But having more immediate appeal does not necessarily mean being more effective. While listening and interacting may indeed require the  authentic use of a second language....  learners can only use what they have already acquired, and hearing and interacting are not necessarily the best way of developing students' literacy.  Many language teachers will have had the experience of students who are able to chatter quite convincingly in English, but quite incapable of understanding a written text, let alone writing coherently; and it is reading and writing skills that are at the heart not just of literacy, but of most English language certification schemes such as TOEFL and IELTS.

    As for motivating students to read, that is a job for the teacher – and teachers who take a negative attitude to reading risk failing their students when it comes to developing their essential writing skills. Student motivation will not be helped - and indeed may well be hindered - when teachers present reading texts that are too hard, too simplistic, or even quite irrelevant to students'  interests. Finding the right texts can be a serious challenge, notably for  classes where students or pupils are of mixed ability and attitude;  yet it is a challenge that has to be taken up, and failure to do so will only exacerbate teachers' problems,  by further demotivating the least motivated students and those who have most difficulty.

Graded reading and authentic English

    The use of graded reading texts can play a valuable part in the successful teaching of reading and writing skills. Graded reading texts are - or should be - documents that are written in a style of English that is at, or slightly in advance of, the presumed level of the target readers... whether this is their native language or a second language. Reading in general is an activity that allows learners to discover and acquire vocabulary and grammar used in context.  In the framework of the EFL / ESL class, the use of graded reading texts does this more efficiently, and is a valuable ingredient in the development of core language skills. 

   Some teachers imagine that  texts graded for language content and their use of grammar are not authentic. Nothing could be further from the truth. A well written text in graded English is as authentic as any other text.  Authentic English does not mean English that has been written solely for native English speakers, and with no attention paid to the readers' understanding of vocabulary or the subtleties of grammar. Even less true is the idea, popular in some circles, that "authentic English" means spoken English, not written English. Besides the fact that there are hundreds of different varieties of "spoken English", spoken language, with all its quirks, omissions and a-grammaticality,  is actually far harder for a second language learner to acquire beyond the level of basic communication, than written English. Both are authentic.

    When it comes to reading as an activity for language learners, authentic English is English that is written by a competent writer who masters the English language and its subtleties, and who knows how to relate to readers by taking account of their presumed knowledge of English vocabulary, style and grammar.  It follows, for example, that a text specifically written for B1-level learners is intrinsically no less authentic than a technical text written for nuclear scientists, or an article written for a newspaper. In all cases the writer will choose (or should choose) vocabulary, concepts, expressions and grammar that are considered to be appropriate for and understandable by the target readers.  Each context requires a different use of English, and no one context is any more or less authentic than any other.

    Graded reading does not mean reading texts whose vocabulary and grammar have been rigorously limited to a set of approved words and structures. This approach would lead to artificially contrived texts, not authentic texts. Texts that are both authentic, and correspond to a given level of language difficulty, are documents in which there is a majority of words and grammar which are accessible or familiar to  readers at that level, but some phrases that introduce new vocabulary, new structures, and/or new grammar, as circumstances require. Graded texts allow language learners learn new words and structures in the same way that people discover new vocabulary and new structures in their native language, i.e.in context. When we read a book or  magazine or an article in our own native language, we frequently come across new words, but we rarely stop to look them up in a dictionary; we acquire them in context, their meaning being obvious or logically implicit from the narrative. The same is true in language learning, and the use of graded reading texts, written specially for language learners, is thus one of the more effective ways of letting students consolidate and develop their vocabulary and grammar skills not just for reading, but also for writing.

    Reading is one of the vital components of second language learning and of literacy in general, insofar as it is through reading that learners can most effortlessly acquire new vocabulary and develop their writing skills. At levels between A2 and C1, the use of appropriate graded authentic reading texts can help teachers teach and learners learn, especially when the texts are relevant to students' interests or course requirements, and of interest .

CopyrightCopyright LInguapress.com  .  If you want to share this article with other teachers, please note that it a copyrighted teacher resource. You are welcome to link to it from Facebook, from your blog, website or school website, but do not copy it. A clickable link is quite sufficient for sharing with others.

Website and texts © Linguapress.com 2024 except where otherwise indicated
Contact: Use the form on our get in touch page

Linguapress; home Découvrez l'Angleterre (en français) Discover Britain


Learn English with Linguapress - A selection of other resources in graded English
Selected pages
Advanced level reading : a selection
Who killed Martin Luther King?
with audio
USA - Nevada's extraterrestrials
USA - The man who made America
A rose by any other name - words and meaning
with audio
The Queen who almost wasn't
with audio
Mississippi Music
with audio
Advanced level short stories:
A few good reasons
with audio
And lots more:  More advanced reading texts  
Intermediate resources :
Alcohol, prohibition and Al Capone
Is Britain really different ?
with audio
Who is James Bond ?
Sport: Sports, American style
Big red London buses
with audio
USA: Who was Buffalo Bill?
with audio
USA:  Still looking for gold...
And more:  More intermediate reading texts  

CopyrightCopyright information.
Linguapress reading resources are free to view, free to share,  free to use in class, free to print, but not free to copy..
If you like a page and want to share it with others,  just share a link, don't copy.

All articles published on this website remain the copyright © of Linguapress.com and/or their individual authors.

Multi-copying of  resources is permitted for classroom use., including use on a school's  own limited-access internal intranet. Copying to
any publicly accessible Internet site is not permitted

Linguapress respects your privacy. Cookies are used for purposes of statistics, interaction with social media, and some advertising. No personal details are tracked. If you are OK with this click otherwise find out more about cookies