What Makes Sense in Learning To Read (and Listen)

What Makes Sense in Learning To Read (and Listen)

By: Harumi Kimura

Two Proposals for the Language Classroom

More than ten years ago, in an article titled “The Case for Combining Narrow Reading and Listening” (2009), Vick Ssali and I discussed and promoted two ideas: providing multimodal text and limiting the content areas covered by input. Our first suggestion was that, as people naturally perceive and create meaning through different modes of communication (Bezemer & Kress, 2016), L2 learners will learn better when, for example, they try to assemble and integrate textual information (by way of reading) and auditory information (by way of listening) (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2018). Our second suggestion was based on the understanding that we can only process a limited amount of information at a time, for example when we read, but that contextual and/or topic knowledge (i.e., background knowledge) aids understanding (Grabe, 2009). When reading and listening about topics that come from the same, similar, or related areas of experience, readers and listeners gradually develop background knowledge. The same language items, such as vocabulary and sentence patterns, are likely to be repeated or used in similar contexts when dealing with similar topics. The familiar content and language help reduce readers’ and listeners’ cognitive load (see our Think Tank issue on Cognitive Load, December 2019), create space for learning new items, and eventually contribute to further linguistic development (Ur, 2016). We argued that putting together multiple modes of input fosters understanding and thinking, and that narrowing the content area aids language growth. Here, I’d like to revisit these two ideas with new examples and discuss what makes sense in learning to read in an L2. The main focus is on reading since this issue deals with reading, but the same will apply to listening as well: It is about what learners receive as input for language learning.

Examples related to the two proposals

Let’s take as an example this January’s big earthquake in Japan. The magnitude-7.6 earthquake struck the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture and its neighboring area. As is often the case with big earthquakes, and probably with any natural disaster, the news grew from bad to worse. The death toll and the number of people injured, evacuated, or relocated, buildings and roads collapsed and unusable, and houses destroyed by fires among other things, have been increasing. In fact, the extent of the damage remains unclear after three weeks (as of the time of writing). Numbers talk, but I need more than numbers.

I’d like to read or hear what people affected by the quake are willing or ready to share: their personal stories so that people like me, who have not been directly affected by the disaster, can learn, at least to some extent, what they are experiencing. Will people living in the temporary shelters be able to go back to their towns and villages when roads are cut off and destroyed, and houses have become like ruins after they collapsed or were burned down. The areas seem like ghost towns now. The fishing and tourism industries, on which the local economy depends, must have been damaged extensively, but how big will the damage be in the end? Junior high school children are going to be evacuated in groups, away from their parents. I know it was a rather common practice during World War II to send children away from cities, which were targets of large-scale bombings. After almost 80 years, the same practice is being implemented to ensure students can learn in a physically safe place, but what about the affective side of their safety? I’d like to know as much as I can about what people there are faced with. I’m getting what little I know from TV reports, web postings, and newspapers. From everything I have access to: text, talks, both moving and still pictures, among other things. I’m trying to find any other sources and resources available to update my knowledge.

Come to think of it, we live in a sea of multimodal information. When we want to know something or when we are curious (Leslie, 2014) about something, we seek out every source we can think of: newspaper and online reports to be read, TV and YouTube videos to be viewed, and phone calls to friends to be heard.

In learning another language as well, this is inevitably the way to go, making use of whatever is available. Therefore, even in reading classrooms, I think teachers should not hesitate to add multimodal resources other than written text. It would be better to combine written text with some other visual information such as video clips, photos, images, figures, graphs, and tables, for example, to spark and sustain learners’ curiosity and interest. We do the same in our daily life.

Icons symbolising a book, a picture, a video, and a graph in coloured circles.

I’d appreciate it if some readers remember one of my past articles for this magazine, which advocated the mind-body connection: Haptic Activities in Recipe Writing Project: Extras, or Something We Cannot Do Without? Students learned cooking verbs by way of miming. In the project, I also used YouTube videos for making potato salad and chocolate chip cookies. They are not made for language learners, and students seemed to be overwhelmed at the beginning, but they took notes when the verbs they knew appeared in the talk and when they noticed some other new verbs. The combination of actions they see and words orally produced seemed to have upgraded the learning process and produced something fun and real.

Now, choosing a much lighter topic in discussing our second suggestion, using readings with similar background content and style, let me share a personal story about a series of books, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” a series of more than twenty novels written by Alexander McCall Smith. The stories are set in Botswana and feature the main character, Mma Precious Ramotswe, a compassionate and easy-going female detective who solves mysterious cases for her clients, working with intuition, insight, and common sense. Common sense! This makes the stories enchanting. The novels are detective stories, yes, but they are written with deep understanding of human nature and, most importantly, understanding of their weaknesses. They are, in a sense, stories of human nature. And we read them for pleasure. A former colleague of mine introduced the series to me about twenty years ago when people here in Japan were generally more interested in Harry Potter. She said, “You should try these,” and I soon became hooked. I read the first five or six books back then.

An illustration of the face of a black woman with natural curly hair. In the hair, the title of the novel and its author are written: “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” Alexander McCall Smith.

Recently, a friend and colleague, Marc Helgesen, brought to me a heavy paper bag full of books and CDs by Alexander McCall Smith. “Would you like to read these? There are audios as well,” he offered. Did he know I’m a big fan of the series? No, but it looks like he sensed that I would love the stories. The contents of the bag came as a happy surprise! I’ve read all the books and listened to all the CDs in that precious paper bag. I enjoyed every story and every episode just like I devour food when I’m really hungry. I just couldn’t stop. I like Mma Precious Ramotswe not just because she is wise, insightful, and compassionate, but because she is as fallible as I am. I also like most of the other characters in the stories, for the same reason. Each of them shares some traits and tendencies with me, both positive and negative.

I believe I’m not the only one who reads story after story in the same series by the same author. Obviously, Marc is another. It is like an addiction. In most cases, the main character(s) and the setting are the same. Each story in the series follows on from the previous one in one way or another, but usually new characters join and new stories unfold. This is narrow reading as well as pleasure reading. We do not usually do this with the goal of developing reading fluency, but I have a hunch that we read later stories faster than the first one since we become familiar with the characters and setting, in addition to the author’s writing style. Narrow reading is what we often do in our daily life.

For the purpose of learning new languages, narrow reading frees brain power from figuring out the basics of the situation so that more of it can be used in language processing. If you use graded readers in your class, recommend other works by the same author. “Let Me Out” is one of the award-winning classics among hundreds of graded readers. The author, Antoinette Moses, has written other great books such as John Doe and Jojo’s Story. I recommend these to my women’s college students, who liked “Let Me Out.” The characters are not the same, in this case, but there is something in common among her books: an understanding that humans are complex creatures. If a particular student enjoyed one, she may come to like the others as well.

In conclusion

Let me repeat the two main ideas: In learning to read (and listen) in another language, (1) making use of different modes of communication makes sense, since multimodality is the norm rather than the exception in the real world, and (2) limiting the topic of input also makes sense, since that’s what we often do when we read either for fun or for information.

By the way, you may wonder if I’m arguing for authenticity by saying that the two ideas make sense in light of what we do in our daily life. Not really. The idea of authenticity is elusive, not to say deceptive, and there has been considerable disagreement among researchers and practitioners about both the definition of authenticity and the effectiveness and usefulness of using authentic materials in L2 classrooms (Zyzik & Polio, 2017). I’d like to stay away from the complexity of that issue, but if you are interested, consult Brown and Menasche (2003) for a thoughtful discussion. Besides, pedagogical tasks, such as split information, picture ordering, ranking, and problem solving (Nation & Newton, 2021), make sense to me when learning outcomes are real in terms of the particular learner group’s needs AND learners are engaged or immersed in what they are doing. Sorry about this digression, but I recommend using “making sense” as a yardstick in planning and accessing learning activities. You can work on the “when” part yourself.

Learners learn to read while reading to learn (and learn to listen while listening to learn). Consider making use of the merits of using multimodal text and promoting narrow reading (and listening) when you plan future courses, tasks, and activities, if you also think they make sense.


  • Bezemer, J., & Kress, G. (2016). Multimodality, learning and communication: A social semiotic frame. Routledge.

  • Brown, S., & Menasche, L. (2003). Defining authenticity: Input, task, and output. Manuscript based on a paper presented at Three Rivers TESOL Fall Conference, Pittsburgh PA. https://helgesenhandouts.weebly.com/uploads/1/1/2/5/11251138/brown_menasche_final.pdf

  • Grabe, W. (2009). Reading in a second language: Moving from theory to practice. Cambridge University Press.

  • Kimura, H., & Ssali, V. (2009). The case for combining narrow reading and listening. The Language Teacher, 33(6), 9-14. https://jalt-publications.org/sites/default/files/pdf-article/33.6_art2.pdf

  • Leslie, I. (2014). Curious: The desire to know and why your future depends on it. Basic Books.

  • Nation, I. S. P., & Newton, J. (2021). Teaching ESL/EFL listening and speaking (2nd ed.). Routledge.   

  • Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2018). Neuromyths: Debunking false ideas about the brain. Norton.

  • Ur, P. (2016). Penny Ur’s 100 teaching tips. Cambridge University Press.

  • Zyzik, E., & Polio, C. (2017). Authentic materials myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. Michigan University Press.

Harumi Kimura (EdD.) is a professor at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University. She studied L2 listening anxiety in her doctoral study, and her academic interests include second language acquisition, learner development, learner psychology, multilingualism, and cooperative learning. She thinks that her mission is “to make learning another language less intimidating and a bit more rewarding plus fun.”

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