Thoughts for serious language learners
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Reader mail: Reading aloud to improve your English

Craig Peters writes:

I am an English teacher (primarily of English literature) who currently runs a tutoring company in Hong Kong. However, I have also taught students to improve their English, strengthening students who are intermediate or even beginner learners of English to become much stronger.

Your Antimoon resource is quite valuable. What you teach there accords with my findings. The biggest thing students need is good English inputs, and those indeed come from reading, especially.

Something that you may want to consider drawing more explicit attention to: it’s worth encouraging students of English not only to read, but to read aloud.

The problem with just reading quietly is that it does not necessarily help you improve your grammar and expression that much. As an example of this, I had a professor at university whose third language was English. Although he could publish his articles in academic journals, he still made some grammar mistakes when speaking, and undoubtedly when writing, too.

By contrast, when you read aloud, you are actively engaging with the material. You are practicing physically producing the different words with a proper syntax and correct expression. Over time, the gradual result is that both your spoken and written grammar will be naturally improved, because you are both practicing correct English grammar, and hearing yourself as you speak it.

Just as an anecdote to illustrate this, I am currently helping a student who goes to a local school in Hong Kong (where the style of English teaching is pretty bad – lots of grammar-focused instruction, rather than genuine reading). She also rarely needs to use English at home, further hindering opportunities to practice. Nevertheless, our lessons have focused upon lots of reading aloud. She is becoming better at naturally correcting sentences to include things like articles, which, as you may know, simply don’t exist in Chinese, whether Cantonese or Putonghua.

I think it would be worth adding this recommendation to your website. I know lots of students struggle with grammar and good English expression. Reading aloud is a way to fairly rapidly improve, depending upon how frequently one reads aloud. If someone read aloud for 15 minutes a day for about a year and a half, the difference in their grammar and expression would be dramatic.

When I was learning English, I didn’t use reading aloud as a technique to improve my grammar, so I cannot attest to its effectiveness. For me, what worked best was being mindful of the grammar in the English sentences that I read or produced. Simply taking a moment to notice that someone said he went to the doctor, rather than a doctor, for example.

Speaking purely theoretically, I am not convinced that reading aloud is a road to grammatical progress. In my experience, reading aloud can put your mind in a kind of thoughtless state where you simply pronounce the words like a robot, without thinking about the meaning, never mind syntactical nuances. When I read aloud, I certainly feel that I can understand less of what’s on the page, probably because my brain is busy recalling how to pronounce each word. Am I the only one who’s had this experience?

It is perhaps worth mentioning that reading someone else’s words aloud is a very different activity than speaking. The latter involves doing the actual hard work of choosing the correct grammatical structures and putting them together. If you can avoid making too many mistakes, speaking will let you learn much more.

Is there something magical about physically producing sentences, something that outweighs the “mindless robot” effect that I discussed earlier? There could be. Perhaps it would be worth combining quiet, mindful reading with reading aloud. Or perhaps quiet, mindful reading is always better.



7 Comments so far ↓

  • Ivana

    I totally see eye to eye with Tom on this. Reading aloud never worked for me, be it studying a language or any other subject , back in my school days.

    • dang quangnd

      Plus one here,

      I’m still an English learner as a second language. When I read text aloud, it’s difficult for me to consume the content of a book or text. I have to pause and reread in quiet.

      Thought that there was a problem with myself. Feeling better about this post. Thanks!

  • Craig Peters

    Hi Tomasz,

    Yes, agreed, mindfully reading aloud accelerates your progress significantly.

    However, another factor is the amount of time you put into doing it. Think of it this way: when learning most skills, being self-aware and critically evaluating your progress will definitely speed things up a lot for learning. However, if you put time into a skill, you will also eventually develop a fairly strong competency with enough time invested. Yes, true, you might get stuck in a plateau for a lot longer, but even then, persistence tends to lead to eventual breakthroughs.

    The reason I say this is because the particular student I am referring to does not especially like English that much. She is not a mindful reader. Nor is she particularly motivated to learn English. Nevertheless, her grammar has improved significantly over the past few years I have been teaching her. This has also been consistent with other students whom I have taught, regardless of their motivational levels.

    Now, you may argue that I started teaching this particular student I referred to at a young enough age that her language acquisition abilities were still strong. Nevertheless, I have also taught students in their teenage years where their grammar has improved over time as well, and I certainly have not been able to control how mindful they are.

    The reason why I write all of this is because learning English can be fairly stressful and overwhelming for students, especially if they are not strongly self-motivated or feel ashamed about their ability. If you add the additional demand, “You have to be mindful as you read,” it can actually be demotivating for these students, because you’re just adding another layer of “something else they need to do” on top of an already unpleasant task. That, in turn, can lead to students avoiding the stressful task.

    By contrast, by lowering the challenge of the task [if appropriate], you make it less stressful and demanding, and therefore have a better chance of the person doing it. And, as I have mentioned, I have found that students will get invariably much better over time. It’s pretty much impossible to read thousands of sentences aloud and somehow fail to internalize grammar structures. The very fact that your mouth has to keep producing the right words, expressions, and structures over and over again means that you will internalize them, one way or another. Mindfulness just accelerates that process.

    • Hans

      Thanks for your great point of view as a teacher. I’m a learner, I read a lot, almost in quiet. I heard that reading aloud will help my speaking skills. But I have a concern that if you don’t know how to pronounce a word, and connect words as a full sentence, I might repeat a lot of mistakes. Too many mistakes repeatedly maybe cause a bad factor in English speaking.

      So, do you have any idea to help me overcome this point?

  • Waters

    I feel like I should add my own experience to this, not just as a language learner, but as someone who has done a fair amount of reading aloud just because I consider it a useful skill to have.

    Yes, the average person will find that they struggle to focus on the meaning of what they are reading when they read aloud. But that’s not something inherent to reading aloud. It’s just a sign that they’re unskilled at it. All activities that you’re unaccustomed to will require more focus, which in the case of reading aloud reduces the amount of attention you have left over for absorbing the message of the text itself. But only until you get better at it, which with regular practice doesn’t take that long.

    As for the benefits Craig states, I have no doubt that they are genuine. Reading aloud forces you to pay attention to every last detail, lest you accidentally skip words or syllables, or gloss over words whose pronunciation you’re not sure about. It’s like being mindful, except there’s no room for laziness or self-deception.

    Is it strictly necessary? Probably not, but it’s certainly a useful tool to keep in the language-learning toolbox.

  • Estella

    Reading aloud is good in ESL classroom.

  • Sergio

    Even though reading aloud might benefit some people, it is important to know that when you are doing this activity (or reading in general), you are creating habits of how the words and overall sentences are pronounced.

    This can be dangerous, especially in English, since the way the language is pronounced differs so much from how it is written, which can cause tons of bad pronunciation habits that will be hard to remove later.

    Having said that, if anyone is still interested is reading out loud, and I have done that myself a couple of times, it is crucial to have a deep knowledge of the spoken language with its phonetic features to make sure you are pronouncing the words correctly or at least to know when something you pronounce sounds weird or incorrect.

    I would also recommend recording one’s voice to have some feedback that you could listen again, and if necessary, send to a native speaker to give their opinion.


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