The benefits (and underpinning) of extensive reading

On a language teachers’ list, a post recently said:

So when I wanted to learn Spanish, I started by reading all the Blaine Ray novels and all the TPRS novels and then I progressed to young adult books like Holes and then I read all my favorite sci fi books in Spanish, all the Ender’s Game, Hunger Games, the Host etc. In less than a year (November to September) I was able to start studying Spanish at the 300 level at a university, which is like 5th year Spanish in a High School.

This is a powerful testimonial for the power of reading in a foreign language. My own experience in Chinese is quite similar — living as a single woman in Taiwan in the 1990s, I spent a lot of time alone in tea houses reading all sorts of non-fiction books, which paid off in the long run as a solidly acquired technical vocabulary and very unconscious control of Mandarin grammar.

But is this the best way to go about learning a new language?

Starting from very, very easy, very comprehensible, very repetitive materials is key. In the absence of a live teacher who can provide TPRS input (which is the most optimized form of immersion, since the comprehension level is as close to 100% as possible), this kind of reading is obviously the next best thing. Of course, it assumes that the language is a phonetic script, and that there will be a chance for the student to “catch up” in terms of the sounds and accent of the language. (My experience going directly into French III featured a lot of quizzical looks from the teacher, since I had only seen French in writing prior to that. To this day, my French pronunciation is, um, not so good.)

Extensive reading of compelling materials is being recommended widely these days, and it does have value…if someone has done the foundation work of giving the student a basis for reading. Someone who is very motivated may be able to learn a language from reading simple things, assuming the reader can manage to understand. In Spanish, with 40% cognates, this might not be such a big issue, especially when the beginner is reading books that specifically leverage those cognates. In Chinese…the story might be somewhat different. This is why I stress using Cold Character Reading, which is tied closely to acquired language, until the students have a basic set of characters that they can recognize unconsciously and immediately. After students have experienced Chinese reading and have the most frequent characters under control, it’s much easier for them to be handle “interruptus dictionarius” (the necessary evil of stopping to look up unknown words, since there’s no way for a beginner to know how they are pronounced in Chinese without doing so) without losing the thread of the reading and turning reading into a lengthy flash card exercise.

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