Why READ? Why NOT? - Results of an Adult ESL Students’ Informal Reading Survey

What is the value of reading? What does reading have to do with ESL learning… you know, vocabulary and comprehension, spelling and writing skills, listening and speaking skills, etc.? How does it boost confidence in learning and your ESL aptitude?  Well, in a nutshell…

Reading is an act of civilization; it's one of the greatest acts of civilization because it takes the free raw material of the mind and builds castles of possibilities. – Ben Okri, Nigerian poet and novelist

About the Survey

Recently an informal reading survey was made available to the students studying ESL through talktocanada.com, an adult English as a Second Language online company that offers individual and group English lessons.  This article shares some of the key findings from this reading survey.

The survey asked 3 questions:

1. What languages do you like to read?

2. What do you like to read? (For example, books, magazines, newspapers, fiction, non-fiction, types of books specifically business-related or books dealing with helping to write or converse better, or books about exam preparation)

3. Can you recommend one book that will help other ESL learners? Why did you pick this book?

Question #1

The students who filled out the survey indicated that they liked to read in German, Russian, Bengali, Japanese, and English. Some clarified that they read texts in several languages daily. Others specified that they like to read certain texts in English (like technical or business-related articles/books, textbooks, and international news and stories on websites). Many of these students clarified that they enjoy reading fiction and local/national news in their native language/translation.

Question #2

  • Reading about business, personal skills, social aspects, fiction, newspapers, forum discussions, technical documents

Some of the students enjoyed reading business planning books, personal skills books, and social books. Others cited an enjoyment in reading fiction books and newspapers, forum discussions, and technical documents – either in print form or on-line. Other students mentioned specific types of favorite books to read. These consisted of E. Hunter’s Warrior Cats, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and the magazine Costello.

Schoolchildren sitting together at the table and engaged in lessons. Isolated over white.
  • The Warrior Cats

The Warrior Cats is a series of juvenile fantasy novels written by authors Kate Cary, Cherith Baldry, and Tui Sutherland. The plot is developed by Editor Victoria Holmes, who uses the pseudonym Erin Hunter. The series follows the adventures of four clans of wild cats in their forest and lake homes. The series is made up of five sub-series with six books each. Warriors is the first book. Additional books have been released in addition to the main series. There is also an e-book format. There are several major themes within the series: forbidden love, nature vs. nurture, and the reactions of different faiths that intertwine. It has been on The New York Times’ Best Seller List.

Warrior Cat
  • Harry Potter

Harry Potter is a series of seven fantasy novels written by J.K. Rowling, a British author. The series details the adventures of a young wizard, Harry Potter and his friends who are students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The main goal is for Harry to overcome the Dark wizard Lord Voldemort. It is one of the best-selling book series ever. The books have been translated into 73 languages.

harry potter
  • Costello

Costello is a leading Russian expatriate culture magazine which features articles about fashion, the arts, and literature.

  • A “voracious reader”

One particular student who filled out the survey stated he was a“voracious reader” who …believed that reading is imperative to developing the command over the English language. [Thereby, he went on to say…] I read books, well written newspaper articles, fiction, self-development books, and business-related books. Sounds like a good plan to me. This particular student already knows the great benefits of reading. Joseph Addison, an English essayist, poet, playwright, and politician believed that reading was all important, too. He claimed that…reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.Question #3

  • Dan Brown

As for recommending one book to help other ESL students learn English, the survey participants had many things to say. One student mentioned the author Dan Brown. He found these books in English to be quite good and not too difficult to read.  Dan Brown is the author of several bestselling novels, among them The Da Vinci Code, which has become one of the best-selling novels of all time. His books are published in 52 languages around the world. The themes of Brown’s books concern his fascination with science and religion.  Some other titles that may be of interest to you include Inferno, The Lost Symbol, Angels and Demons, Deception Point, and Digital Fortress.

  • Cambridge English in Use series

Another student recommended the Cambridge English in Use series of educational books. This series contains many different books for different areas of English focus (grammar, vocabulary, idioms, etc.) across different levels. Cambridge University Press is one of the world's leading publishers of English Language Teaching material. They sell multi-media products to almost every country in the world. Their advertising materials claim… the products exemplify the leading edge of English teaching methodology. The quality of the Cambridge ELT list is universally acknowledged by the teaching profession for American, as well as British-English. Some of their materials include:

English Unlimited Elementary Course Book with e-Portfolio

English Unlimited Pre-intermediate Course Book with e-Portfolio

English Unlimited Starter Course Book with e-Portfolio

English for Business Studies Student's Book

English Idioms in Use Advanced with Answers

Intercultural Language Activities with CD-ROM

Grammar for Business with Audio CD

face2face Advanced Student's Book with CD-ROM

face2face Starter Student's Book with CD-ROM/Audio CD

  • Ursula Moray Williams’ Gobbolino, the Witch’s Cat

One student mentioned he likes to read Ursula Moray Williams’ Gobbolino, the Witch’s Cat, because it is written in both English and Russian and he can understand both; and knowing the native language of Russian helps with his learning of English. For those of you who might know this story, “Gobbolino” is from the Italian word for “little hunchback”. In the story, Gobbolino is a little, black kitten born in a witch’s cave high on a mountain. He longs to be a kitchen cat and goes out on an adventure first to a farm, and then an orphanage, and then the mayor’s house. His magic gets him into trouble and he goes through many different homes until he loses his magic and returns to the farm where he began his journey. This is where he finds his old friends, and becomes the farm’s kitchen cat, the answer to his wish, after all.

  • Works by Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald

Yet another Russian student cited stories written by Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald as easy to read and understand. He went on to say… and although these stories are not ESL language materials [per se], they still afford an opportunity to learn English.  This sounds good to me, too. Ernest Hemingway wrote well over 170 books in his lifetime. He is credited with many popular books, among them: The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, The Garden of Eden, To Have and Have Not, and The Complete Short Stories. Likewise, F. Scott Fitzgerald authored over 100 books to include popular favorites:  The Great Gatsby, Tender if the Night, This Side of Paradise, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Love of the Last Tycoon, The Short Stories, and The Crack-Up.


  • Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living

One particular student credited Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living as… a great read to help stop the worries for exam preparation and to start planning for a better life without constant worrying. The book covers fundamental facts about “worry”, basic techniques about analyzing “worry”, how to break the worry habit before it breaks you, seven ways to cultivate a mental attitude that will bring you peace and happiness, the perfect way to conquer worry, how to keep from worrying about criticism, and six ways to prevent fatigue and worry and keep your energy and spirits high. Sounds pretty comprehensive to me. You may be interested in some additional topics by this author.

  • “Pick up a book on the basis of content and literacy style”

A response from another of the participants offered this advice:  Pick up a book on the basis of its content and literary style which one is comfortable with rather than [only an] ESL book to help in reading, speaking, and expanding [your English] vocabulary. Another great suggestion from a student. So this would mean that many, many different types of books (of all types of genre: adventure, comedy, fantasy, historical, horror, mystery, philosophical, political, realistic, romance, science fiction, etc.) would match this description.

  • Any book that helps form a habit of reading”

Maya Angelou, American author, poet, dancer, and singer who published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning more than 50 years proudly claimed:

Any book that helps [someone] to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him/her.

Angelou passed away at the end of May 2014, but her love of poetry, of books, and of reading are a huge part of many of our lives. She inspired others to be lifelong readers. She knew the power of books.

Maya Angelou

In Summary

In other words, you can learn a lot from reading, in general. It doesn’t matter the type of book; books of all kinds can have rich content and a quality literary style. You need to find books on your independent reading level (e.g. those that you can read with about 95% accuracy) that interest you so you can gain from them. You will not only gain content, but also reading skills which play a significant role in impacting your overall language skills from spelling and writing to vocabulary and comprehension. In time, you will see a significant boost in your listening and oral speaking skills because you will have built up these language skills. You will see increased confidence, too.

William Gordon, an American lawyer turned writer, would agree. His words, He that loves reading has everything within his reach.

Concluding Remarks – Read, Read, Read.

So there you have it, a quick breakdown of the informal survey. I want to thank those of you who took time out of your busy schedules to fill out the surveys and for the teaching staff for their time in explaining the survey. I learned a lot from these students, and I am sure you did, too.

I hope this article inspired you to either check out some of the suggestions from other students or to read more on your own. Writer William Faulkner, an American writer and Nobel Prize laureate, would be pleased. His favorite quote was simply… Read, Read, Read.


Please write to me about this article in the space below and send your comments about reading my way. I would be happy to share any suggestions of books with the readers of this article.  Additional recommendations of good reads or suggestions of books that will boost your ESL goals are most welcome. Until next time, pick up a book and Read, Read, Read.

Close-up portrait of young Asian student study

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