Chinese Extensive Reading Project

2014-01-16 18.15.19It’s been a while since I’ve blogged. Many things have happened in my teaching world. Here’s a rough breakdown:

  • got the Lecturer’s position at the University of Taipei in Taiwan
  • left San Francisco, moved to Taipei, Taiwan
  • just finished my first semester, teaching four different subjects, 7 classes total (whew!)
  • just began winter break

This is my first winter break in Taiwan. Many people have suggested that I should use these four weeks to travel, which seems kind of obvious for anyone in a foreign country. And so yes, I have some travel plans. I also need to finish grading and planning for next semester’s courses. On top of that, I have a few ongoing projects going on that I need to work on, projects related to research. In other words, there’s more than enough to keep me occupied this winter break.

One of my personal goals this winter break that hopefully extends to the rest of this year as a New Year’s Resolution is putting effort into improving my Chinese reading skills. This past semester, I found out from my students that my Chinese reading level is around that of a Taiwanese 3rd grader. I’ve realized that if I want to pursue a career in Taiwan and operate independently without having to rely on co-workers to translate emails, websites, official documents, and campus notices to me, I need to improve my Chinese reading skills.

I thought to myself, how should I approach this? I found myself asking the same kind of question many of my students have asked me. How can I improve at (fill in the blank – language)? The traditional method would be to enroll in a class – there are many well-established Chinese language programs geared towards foreigners in Taipei. But I’ve taken Chinese classes all my life that it doesn’t seem like it would help much. Another approach would be to buy textbooks, language-learning oriented software or magazines, and other materials specifically created for language learning and create a curriculum/schedule for myself to learn. I’ve tried that before and as you can imagine, what happens is that motivation drops within a few days and it ends up feeling like torture.

The question I really found myself repeating in my head was, “What would I tell my students to do if they wanted to improve their English reading skills?” The first answer I thought of, almost automatically, is doing extensive reading. While that answer comes to me almost automatically, it doesn’t come to me because it’s something I’ve experienced. Rather, it’s something I’ve read about in research that has been confirmed to work. So I figure, if I’m going to talk the talk about extensive reading, I should at least walk the walk once. And what a perfect opportunity this is. If I’m going to tell my students that extensive reading works, it should be something I’ve experienced first hand, rather than just repeating things I’ve read from academic research.

My goal by the end of this spring break is to finish reading a book that one of my students recommended to me. My hope is that the next time a student asks me about how to improve their reading skills, I can use my Chinese extensive reading experiences as an example and model of how improve your English without the traditional textbooks and classes.

One thing I’ve learned so far (a few days into winter break) about extensive reading is that it is extremely difficult. Here are some things I’ve come across that make me feel like extensive reading is a difficult project:

  1. People aren’t supportive – Many people seem to be skeptical about extensive reading as a way to improve reading and writing skills. Many people still revert to textbooks and classes and question the effectiveness of extensive reading. While it actually feeds my curiosity and drive to prove them wrong, it also gets frustrating having to keep explaining my rationale for extensive reading..
  2. Motivation and interest are key – What gets you started with extensive reading is all the academic hype built around it. It’s THE way to help students improve their reading and to some degree their writing. However, what keeps you going is your inner motivation towards the subject matter you are reading. If you care enough about the subject, you will want to keep reading more about it.
  3. Take it one step at a time – Reading in a foreign language is difficult. I’ve started with only reading one or two pages in one sitting, just so I feel the satisfaction of reading and discovering more about the story, while also not reading too much to overwhelm me.

I hope to keep up writing my reflections about extensive reading in Chinese and any insights, thoughts, or observations about the process of extensive reading in general.

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