English is not an easy language to learn – not well anyway. Although we teach many rules for it, English breaks those rules often and repeatedly. That makes it difficult not only to learn English but also to tutor it, especially parts that involve vast amounts of memorization. That’s why English tutoring should include reading (and not just from a dictionary!).
How Reading Enhances English Tutoring
You’re probably expecting me to talk about vocabulary, writing, or comprehension skills. Yes, reading helps with all of those. It’s true. It’s not, however, always easy to communicate why or how reading helps with all vocabulary, writing, and comprehension skills.
Today, I want to talk about a few specific examples that we learn from reading books and stories. Examples that are vital to using and understanding the English language well.
Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases
Of all the confusions found in learning English as a second language, preposition switches are one of the most common. And it makes sense – there are simply so many prepositions that learning them all is difficult. In fact, the English club says there are at least 150 prepositions in English. Even supposing you could memorize all of those with drills alone, how on Earth could you expect to understand all the differences between them?
The fastest way I know to learn all those prepositions and when to use one versus another is to read. Read often, and read many different types of written works. Understanding which preposition to use in a specific situation comes from seeing which one is used in that situation. Otherwise, there are plenty of similar prepositions you could choose.
For example, both of the prepositions below can be used to show that someone is the topic of conversation:
- talking of someone: This version’s a bit archaic. It’s not technically wrong, but it sounds stuffy and formal.
- talking about someone: This is the more common version today.
Both have the same general meaning, but using the second blends into regular conversation and writing. Using the first one will be a bit jarring and historic-sounding. That’s not a distinction you learn from a dictionary. Not easily, anyway. (Not to mention all the other uses for both words…)
Idioms and Colloquialisms
Common phrasing and sayings used in one language often make little or no sense in another language because they’re not a straight translation of grammar. They’re more a question of style and the language’s history.
That makes learning them a lot like learning prepositions – there are so many that trying to learn them directly is pretty hard. By reading regularly, however, students can pick English sayings up a little at a time, and by seeing how they’re used, students understand them better, too. The best tutors will point out and explain these phrases whenever they come up in the required reading.
For example, if the reading included “eating three square meals a day,” the tutor would explain that, no, it doesn’t mean that the meals were square (which is what many students think). Instead, it means that the person ate pretty well – he or she got three full meals each day.
Other sayings students might encounter include
- twist my arm
- hit the books
- sit tight
- beat around the bush
- burn the midnight oil
Like the other example, none of these mean what they seem to be saying (literally, anyway). And the origins are so historic, that the students wouldn’t get the literal meaning anyway. That’s another reason that it helps to see them in context.
Figurative and Descriptive Language
When students are taught only grammar, they tend to write the simplest sentences possible. Or they’ll imitate whatever sentence the teacher used to teach them the topic. That’s ok when they’re young, but over time you want them to be able to write more varied, descriptive sentences. Sentences that are more interesting to read.
How do they learn to do that? Well, while drills can help, that same instinct for imitation is the key.
Students who read more become familiar with more ways to write sentences. More ways to describe the same topic. They tend to become more comfortable with using different words than students who rely on class alone. And while they may still be imitating what they’ve seen to a certain extent, they’ll write with more variety simply because they’ve seen a wider variety. That means they know more options.
Here’s an example of what most students try to do with almost every vocabulary word (with the vocabulary word underlined):
- Bob had a mansion.
Not very interesting is it? But that’s the type of students will write when they don’t read much. We want them to write more creative sentences like…
- Bob’s cavernous mansion echoed with each step they took.
And which students are more likely to write more interesting sentences? The students who read more.
Character Behavior & How a Story Goes Together
When writing and interpreting stories, students rely on 1 of 2 things:
- what they’ve seen, heard, or experienced personally in life, and
- what they’ve read or watched in fiction.
While the first method is good for understanding realistic behavior and emotions, it’s not as good for understanding how a story goes together or what needs to be written to convey the story.
After all, true stories don’t always have a strong beginning, middle, and end. And, sometimes, people may do things for no apparent reason (from a student’s perspective, especially). Stories, on the other hand, shouldn’t have either of those issues.
Reading well-written stories not only helps students get better at interpreting what they read but also organizing and improving what they write. Simply discussing these differences and trying to write them is much harder when the student hasn’t actually read many stories. That’s why students do much better when they can compare the exercise directly to something they’ve read or watched.
Long story short: not all of English can be taught by memorization and drills. There’s simply too much variation and too much that is hard to define (especially in terms kids will understand). Reading regularly as they grow up and study English teaches students subtly and slowly, building on what they know.
And that’s why any long-term English tutoring should always include reading.
What part of English does your child struggle with? Do you think regular reading could help?
Author: Elizabeth F., Writer and Teacher at A Grade Ahead