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Reading to Activate Second Language Skills

Reading to Activate Second Language Skills | ITTT | TEFL Blog

The use of reading in the course of language acquisition is valuable and often underrated. Before undertaking a detailed explanation, I will first offer a general example to demonstrate the problem of teaching without it. Imagine you are teaching the word “ball” to an older student. You could ask them to say “ball, ball, ball” in a drilling manner. This can be inefficient and above all, boring for the student. But suppose that you do teach it enjoyably. How many words might they learn?

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Peter C. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.

Course Structure to Accept English Vocabulary

For most teachers, they will give one or sometimes two classes per week. In terms of vocabulary that might boil down to 12 new words per lesson (and you have a fun way to teach it). Time will also be spent on grammar and pronunciation. But let’s say 24 new words per week. Over a year they would technically know 1248 new words. Of those, I would expect a student to possibly forget around half of them if they are not continually refreshed. That makes 624 known words in a year. To be considered comfortably conversational in most languages (including English) around 10,000 words would be recommended. At that rate, it will take over 10 years for the student to be considered comfortably conversational. Language differences and other factors can affect this of course.

This sounds shocking and depressing, but it can happen. At Canadian schools, native English speaking children are commonly taught French every week, but at the end of 5 years work less than 1% can speak at a B1 intermediate level (the study of Steve Kaufmann, thelinguist.com).

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I make this example to demonstrate a problem. Teaching single vocabulary works, but it is slow and inefficient. Even a hard-working learner consistently learning 5 new words a day will make slow progress despite excellent intentions and attitude.

The key here is to make the vocabulary acquisition efficient. Instead of drilling “ball”, we can introduce short sentences like “The ball is yellow” “Here is the ball” etc. This is a simple example and of course, it should be made more enjoyable by the teacher.

A language expert, Stephen Krashen, once said “Language acquisition does not require extensive use of conscious grammatical rules, and does not require tedious drill.” and since then has built upon this with a theory of Massive Input through reading and listening.

With a style like this, we have a keyword and indirectly introduce other words that the student will see more often. Much language acquisition can be learned indirectly like this.

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Stephen Krashen Reference:

Krashen, Stephen D. Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Prentice-Hall International, 1987

With reading, we accomplish several things. Learning the new vocabulary of course being one, and today it is so much easier. Compared to the old days of manually checking a dictionary each time a new word is encountered we are swamped with various reading apps and websites that can translate a word in your story with the click of a mouse (or tap of a finger). Through this, we can continually experience massive input of vocabulary, and importantly, we are refreshing words in our minds that we have already seen before. A great benefit of reading also is that many commonly used words can be viewed in context. Some words used such as “like” in English can be viewed in a context that might otherwise be difficult to explain. For example “...and he was like, you know, so unhappy.” - here the word “like” has a strange, but real-life usage, and through reading and input it will be encountered again and again.

Through this continual use of exposure through reading, a student can easily learn 25 new words a day. This dramatically shortens the learning period. Through conversations with other experts and teachers, it is a technique becoming more and more popular now. I can attest to this myself and give some validity to the argument as it is a technique I used to teach myself German, my first foreign language, in which I made rapid progress. I am now moving on to my 4th language with the same technique. I do not attribute this to “natural talent” and firmly believe anyone can learn efficiently through reading. Care should be taken though to select material appropriate to the learners' level and make sure its something engaging and enjoyable. Around 20 to 30% of unknown words in a story is a comfortable figure to aim for when choosing material. Naturally, as the student progresses the material can become more complex.

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As much as this practice is gaining ground around the world, two major drawbacks should be assessed.

The first is that not everyone enjoys reading, more so in a language, they don’t fully understand. They may respond to more of a speaking based approach or other techniques. In this case, the reading technique should not be forced upon the learner and other ways of teaching should be approached.

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The second, and unfortunately, probably most important, is the private study system itself. Often parents will spend a great deal of money on their teenager to prepare them for university or something in later life. The reading technique builds a great deal of vocabulary but it is difficult to assess the knowledge gained. Even if a balanced reading approach is reached, it is difficult to quantify how much has been learned. In some language training schools, I have seen in east Asia the students are given the end of unit tests every 2 or 3 months. The biggest reason is to show the parents how their child is doing and keep them paying to have their child in the school. Without something to show the parents, the parents may leave. Without customers, the school cannot survive. As widespread (and efficient) as this reading technique is becoming, it is not something designed to survive in a private teaching system. And this, unfortunately, is it’s the greatest downfall.

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