Language skills can develop naturally.

Language acquisition comes under the field of psycholinguistics: Children learn L1 without any active intervention. It is a natural process… (Magrath, D., October 12, 2016).

Reading is an important part of L2 acquisition. The more students have access to interesting reading material outside of the textbooks, the faster L2 acquisition will take place.

But materials may not always be available (Sook, K., December 2017). A case in point is a Korean student, Sodam, who excelled in English, winning awards and speaking with native fluency, according to her teachers.

“Sodam had no special advantages. She did not go to cram school and had the same exposure to English in EFL classes that other Korean children have. She had never lived in an English-speaking country. The difference was that Sodam was a reader.”

Her mother reported that Sodam read extensively and not have to attend a “cram school” like so many of her peers.

“Sodam’s mother said that English seemed to be easy for Sodam, and she attributed this to Sodam's pleasure reading habit: ‘Sodam seems to express, read, write and listen comfortably in English. She acquires English from reading. The pleasure she gets from reading has helped her improve her English…’”

Practical application

Extensive reading is the best way for learners to improve their skills. They read for pleasure or to find specific information. They read because they want to, not because an assignment is due.

“According to many studies, the establishment of independent reading programs in schools, such as allotting free, uninterrupted, independent reading time, can improve various reading skills. Some of these skills include increasing students’ fluency and comprehension, as well as increasing vocabulary (Brown, B., July 5, 2018).”

As students read, they gain new experiences, learn about new cultures and enhance their understanding of the world outside of their ESL classroom.

Through independent reading, students increase their creativity and, hence, increase their awareness of experiences, are more inspired, and invoke personal and emotional reactions.”

Students should be encouraged to go to the library and choose books that interest them. Lower level students can benefit from a special ESL shelf in the library, or a classroom collection where they can sign out books. Teachers can make a short handout that students fill out after they read the book based on the level. They can cite author, title, and so on and write a brief impression.

“Independent and recreational reading is an important aspect of a reading curriculum. It is essential that educators, including ESL instructors are up-to-date and informed of the various practices, strategies, research, and programs that support independent and recreational reading.”

Reading and other skills

Reading enhances vocabulary skills better than just the memorization of vocabulary lists.

Students select the readings themselves for their own enjoyment, not just for an assignment. The results are enhanced L2 acquisition.

“Moreover, the finding that the amount of free reading was strongly related to gains in literacy and language development is highly consistent with many previous studies (Krashen and Mason, 2015).”

Students learn L2 reading by understanding the content reading passages, not by breaking them down grammatically as if they were in an applied linguistics course.

“The program is based on one central concept: we acquire language and develop literacy in only one way—by understanding what we hear and what we read, that is, by receiving comprehensible input. The best input is compelling input: extremely interesting content that involves us completely in the message. This is what good stories do (Krashen, S.,April 17, 2019).”

Krashen suggests several ways to make the stories comprehensible in advance and as students listen to the reading while following along in their books.

They include providing background information (telling listeners something about the story in advance, telling stories that have familiar settings or characters) and providing visual information (pictures and drawings) and linguistic information (synonyms, descriptions, translation for second language acquirers).”

Students do not need to understand 100 percent of everything as the stories are read or they listen to the audio files that often come with the books. Comprehension of vocabulary and grammar occurs naturally.

For this to happen, listeners need not understand 100% of the story, nor do they need to understand the complete meaning of each unfamiliar word; each time listeners hear a new word in a comprehensible context, they acquire a small part of the meaning. If they hear enough stories, and the stories are reasonably comprehensible, substantial vocabulary growth will take place.”

Students may be aware of things that they don’t know, and they wish they could find out more information. Encourage them to read what they can and learn how to find out information by reading. Provide some background knowledge if necessary, but not too much.

“A certain amount of background knowledge needs to be delivered by direct instruction; then a combination of guidance, self-direction, and curiosity can propel learning indefinitely. If you can lead a student to recognize that she knows something about a subject, and that she’ll be better off if she pushes herself to learn a little more about it, curiosity will kick in and motivate her to make that extra effort (Abla, C., January 22, 2019).”

In situations where students are in content area classes, reading becomes more important since the assigned reading are not just for English practice. The content teachers need to work with their ESL counterparts.

“Do identify the content that the English language learners (ELLs) need to learn, how the content teacher intends to teach it (the process), and the product that students are supposed to create to demonstrate understanding. After identifying these three things, you and the content teacher can collaborate to scaffold resources, differentiate the learning experience, and offer alternative ways to demonstrate the same learning outcomes (Huynh, T., February 1, 2019).”

The two working as a team can help the students learn the content as they acquire English as their second (or third) language.

Help the learners focus on comprehension. Reading is more than recitation. Readers need to actively understand the text. One can memorize a poem or a song in Latin, for example and recite it, but is that person really comprehending?

“Comprehension is, of course, the whole point of reading. As proficient readers read, they make meaning, learn new information, connect with characters, and enjoy the author’s craft. But as students begin to transition in their skills from cracking the sound-symbol code to becoming active meaning makers, they do not always monitor their understanding of the text as they read or notice when they make errors (MacKenzie, B., March 7, 2019).”

Students may make a variety of errors. They may add words or delete them or miss important punctuation, such as quotations.

“There are several categories of errors that students tend to make as they read. They may insert words where they don’t belong, substitute words as they read (this tends to happen with smaller sight words — reading the as a), make phonetic errors, or omit words completely. They may also make fluency-related errors, such as not attending to punctuation, which can lead to confusion about which character is speaking, for example.”