Reading always helps

Picture this. A boiling balcony of a huge block of flats some time in a July afternoon. Tiny table with a small parasol. Tiny person. A girl. Sitting at the desk in her bathing suit. And working. Hard. Ploughing her way through her very first English book. As she has never heard nor learnt a word of English before, every single word (even the small a and the) has to be looked up in the heavy dictionary. The English book and the dictionary are gifts from her grandfather who himself is an English teacher.

Alright, poetry stops here. And no, I probably didn’t finish the book, and no, it was not a moment of sudden revelation where the stars aligned and I knew I was going to be a teacher or a writer. However, that hot afternoon on the balcony is my earliest memory of my love of dictionaries and understanding that to learn a language you should work on it. And what better way to learn, to bathe in the language, to learn its rhythm than to read it.

During the weeks leading up to the proficiency exam in English I read all the Economists I could get my hands on. And I am fairly certain that the high score I got in the writing paper was very much thanks to all the hours spent rocking in the English rhythm. As it worked so well for me, I keep telling my students to do the same. Every year, before the final exams I tell them to take an English book or a magazine, and read it, even if just a page a day. Okay, I harbour no illusions as to the number of students who will follow my precious advice 😉 but at least I didn’t keep it secret, right?!

However, reading is not something I only suggest my students do in order to get ready for their final exams. It is one of the instruments in my How-to-survive-in-mixed-level-classes toolbox. As I have already mentioned in previous posts, I teach extremely mixed-level classes. And what’s more, every class has only two 45-minute lessons per week. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that barely the classroom hours are far from enough to boost my students’ English vocabulary. Not only are they way too short but having many different levels in the same class also means that acquiring new vocabulary (which is truly NEW for everyone) becomes a real challenge.

“A good part of vocabulary learning has to be incidental. Incidental learning is facilitated through exposure to language input, in the form of extensive reading, for example.” (Thornbury 2001: 22)

Hence, read a book a semester policy in my classes. From the beginning I decided to let students choose their books. Firstly, they aren’t necessarily all into English classics. Go figure, right 😉 Secondly, having their say in what they are going to read might sparkle a valuable interest. Thirdly, having so various levels, reading task is something where everyone’s needs can be met on the level they’re at.

When I introduced the reading in my first year, I was a tiny bit afraid of the reaction. Will they protest, will they moan about the workload, will they blatantly state they hate books and reading. None of that! Quite the contrary, actually. In the end-of-the-year feedback forms the majority of students point out reading as one of the activities that helped them the most. And at one precious moment, a guy walked up to me and confessed he had never read a book before but actually quite enjoyed doing it now.

In order to keep track of their reading and mark it too I have tried and experimented with various tasks throughout the years. I have fallen into stupid pitfalls and created monster projects, which took me more time to evaluate than for them to complete. However, this year I did something new and it worked really well.

Here are the guidelines:

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

George R.R. Martin

Reading – spring semester 2012-2013

Once you have finished reading your book, take the time to digest it … and then prepare your presentation.


Create a collage out of your book. Find pictures from magazines, Internet or take your own pics. Next to the pictures write key words, which help to explain the images and also help you during your presentation.

You could talk about the following (choose at least 4):

  • Describe a character from the book
  • Describe a place from the book
  • Describe the period when the story takes place
  • Describe the atmosphere of the story
  • What kind of music do you associate with this book and why
  • Describe a relationship between some characters
  • Describe how a character develops / changes during the story
  • Describe a special moment in the story
  • Describe your own feelings when reading the book (explain them!)
  • Think of the questions you would like to ask the writer, explain why these questions.

Or anything else that comes to your mind and that you would like to share.

And here are some of the posters:


Most of the students told me afterwards that making a poster helped them gather their thoughts and think of how to structure their talk. It was also a kind of safety belt they could hold on to during the presentation.

Ideas for next year: I will definitely continue with the reading activity. However, I’m thinking of introducing reflections on reading earlier and more often into the classroom. I might ask them to keep a reading diary or maybe write an email to someone else in the class about what s(he) is reading at that moment, or bring some interesting vocabulary into class to introduce to the others …

What about you? How have you introduced reading into your programme?


Thornbury, S. (2002) How to Teach Vocabulary, Harlow: Pearson


14 thoughts on “Reading always helps

  1. Thank you, Sirja for this lovely post. I haven’t introduced reading as a part of my regular program yet. So far I have given my students graded readers, but it has been on a voluntary basis. I didn’t want to pressure my students who have up to fourteen other subjects at school.
    There are no final exams in our school system. Students are graded periodically. Less ambitious among them are satisfied if they pass the year, and I can’t seem to convince them that nowadays speaking English is a must.
    However, I might even try to implement some of your ideas and suggestions. Your experience has intrigued me. Who knows, maybe they would enjoy reading as much as your students did. :
    Thanks once again,
    Gordana 🙂

    • Hi Gordana,
      I guess you should give it a try! If it becomes part of the programme and they know they’ll be assessed too, well, that would make them stretch out their hand and grab a book. And you never know, someone will say thank you one day 🙂
      Good luck!

  2. when I was reading your post I was somehow a bit sorry I was not one of your students. because I love reading. But as most of my students are busy adults, it’s quite a task to involve them into reading, no matter how interested and eager to read they are ( in most cases they want to reaвб but very often after some weeks they stop doing that as ..exactly, they are too busy!)
    but I am still happy to admit that those of my students who were not that terribly busy
    (or simply loved reading) reached great success and enjoyed their English-learning-process…

    • In case of busy adults, why not introduce an article a week!? They do have time for newspapers or blogs or something similar, so why not do it in English instead. You might help them at first by giving links to English newspapers, blogs etc. And then every week one of the students could talk about what s(he) read or present some interesting vocabulary, that sort of thing.
      Best of luck!

  3. Hi Sirja,
    I really like your reading project ideas. I’ve started encouraging my students more and more to read, and I’ve even had one students who’s still reading a year after I took his class to the library 🙂 Living in Switzerland, where do your students get their books? Does the school have a library? Or is there a good bookshop? Do students ever complain about the cost?
    Keep up your great blog Sirja – I might not comment often, but I really enjoy reading it!

    • Dear Sandy,
      I thought of adding the “where they get their books” into the post, but then felt it made it too long. So it’s great you ask 😉 yes, our school has a library and I have had the liberty and financial tools to create an English corner there. First year I ordered some 100 graded readers and have been updating the collection gradually. Students can thus either borrow a book from there or buy one themselves. Stronger students, the ones I suggest they read original versions, often prefer buying their own copies. As for the cost, no, no one has ever complained. After all, the money they spend every month on trivial things adds quickly up to a remarkable sum, so I tell them that saving some of it for a book is a good investment 🙂
      Hugs from the Alps

  4. Sounds really nice Sirja and the posters are so cool.

    Only very few of my Ss are readers and I have always been afraid of implementing book reading as compulsory. Your project certainly makes me think again. OnestopEnglish has these graded readers series. I have used twice, but it was hard to use it while having to cover the grammar. The students though loved the storytelling moment and activities that involved listening, reading, speaking and writing. Do you know this series? I wish that back then, when I was a member of onestopEnglish, I had used those tools much more.

    Here is the link in case you haven’t seen:

    • Dear Rose,
      This immediately caught my eye, “only very few of my Ss are readers” well, that’s exactly why we should propose 🙂 i became a bookworm only at university and thanks to a professor who spoke about literature in a way that made me rush to a bookstore immediately after his first lecture … i haven’t stopped since!
      Maybe it’s your next project that will convert some of your Ss 😉

      Thanks for the link, will go and discover
      And a big, special hug for your support, Rose.

  5. Pingback: Summer Round-up | Creativities

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