Is reading more the answer to everything?

I believe it was Marge Piercy who said, “If you want to be a writer, be a reader.” I think there is much practical, as well as inspirational wisdom in this statement.  The visual component of language is very important from a number of perspectives. How can you master punctuation, for example, if you don’t spend time seeing it in action? How can you learn to pronounce properly if you don’t have the image of the word in your head? As a writing center tutor at DePaul University, I feel there have been a number of times I have encountered problems from writers that might not have become problems if they had looked at words more rather than primarily hearing them.

I’ve noticed with some conversation partners who are learning to speak English, an emphasis on basing their speaking styles on cues they get from Hollywood movies. This is not in itself bad, but I can hear a sloppiness of diction that implies they are trying to repeat what they hear, rather than calling up an image of the word in their head. Now, it is certainly true that English is full of exceptions to pronunciation rules (think of “to,” “too” and “two,” or “tough” and “through” and you’ll know what I mean. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of words that ARE spoken as written (think “hamper” or “skirt” ). One technique that has been effective for me in conversation partner appointments when diction is a major point, is to write the word on a piece of paper and sound it out together. One student who had a difficulty pronouncing “L” enjoyed saying the word “lollipop” back and forth with me after I had written it down.

I personally believe grammar is better from writers who spend a lot of time reading. How many of us have believed we discovered an error in writing initially because it “didn’t look right?” Certainly we carry the image of good writing in our heads, and we do so because we have spent so much time looking at words in print or visually in digital media. Certainly some of us retain visual information more or better than others, but I personally think reading makes everyone better writers and speakers.

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  • jblock52 says:

    David, it sounds like the technique you used of writing the word down (visual) and then repeating it back and forth (auditory/kinesthetic) engaged three different learning styles, which may be why it worked so well. I think learning styles are something to be as aware of as possible in all tutorials, but they may be particularly helpful in ESL/conversation partner appointments because language acquisition is a multi-sensory process. A primarily auditiory learner may learn to speak a word best by hearing it spoken in a movie, for example, but that does come with the pitfalls you describe–they speak the word as they hear it pronounced, with all of the accents, slurs or truncations that may come with another speaker’s sloppy diction. On the other hand, a visual learner might be able to read a word on paper and sound it out, but may wonder if his or her pronunciation is natural, or may not inherently understand that certain combinations of letters may be pronounced differently, with few or no visual cues indicating the difference, depending on the word (e.g. “tough” and “through”). By combining the auditory and the visual with the interactive practice (in which you could, for example, talk about how to position the mouth to make the desired “L” sound), the conversation partner you worked with had many sensory perspectives from which to draw their understanding of pronounciation.