Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read. – Groucho Marx
It’s a common English phrase. “A dog is man’s best friend.” Dogs tend to love their masters without conditions. A good dog just wants to be with you. In the above quote, the comedian Groucho Marx is making a point and a joke. We see the joke in the word play with “outside” and “inside.” In this sentence, “outside” means “Besides or second to a dog, a book is man’s best friend.” But when we get to the word “inside,” we see the joke. Now Groucho is talking about being inside a dog, where there is no light and where it is too dark to read.
Okay, it’s a silly joke. But it reminds us that books can be our friends. In today’s world, many people act like their smart phones are their best friends. They would rather text their friends, update their Facebook page, and play games on their phones. To be fair, smartphones are great, and I use mine a lot! But maybe a book can be a better friend than a smartphone. Why? For one, when we read a book, we can actually be with the author and the characters in the story. I may never meet J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter stories. I may never meet my favorite singer, Bob Dylan. I will never meet Gandhi, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Shakespeare, Martin Luther King, and many other people that I admire. But I can meet them in books about them and the words they have written.
The author C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know we are not alone.” With a good book, you can sit in a comfortable chair all by yourself and enjoy a wonderful evening. If you are reading a good story, you might forget about the time; you might even accidentally stay up way too late because you entered the world of the characters and the mind of the author. Readers often say that they enter a state of “flow” when they read (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). With flow while reading, we experience focus, joy, clarity, motivation, and timelessness (forgetting about the time). One simple way to explain this is that reading for pleasure is like play. In fact, it is play.
Though we can honestly say that pleasure reading is play, we can experience many other kinds of rewards from reading besides enjoyment. Of course, we can get these rewards when we read in our native languages. But language learners can also reap many rewards from what we call extensive reading (ER).
For language learners, ER has three rules. The first rule is “Read easy.” You should know 95% to 98% of the words in a text. This helps you read without a dictionary and makes reading more enjoyable. ER books are graded into levels, so you can find books at the right level for you. The second rule is “Choose freely.” You are free to choose what you want to read. The third rule is “Read big.” This means read a lot! What happens when you follow these rules? You get results!
Dr. Hitoshi Nishizawa teaches English at the Toyota National College of Engineering. His students improved their English just by doing ER. Students who read 3 million words increased their TOEIC scores as much as those who studied abroad for one year in an English speaking country.What is more, students who read 6 million words improved more than those who studied abroad for one year! This shows that ER can equal or even beat study abroad! Reading 3 million words in one year is challenging, but you can do it in 45 minutes a day, or in 2 years, you can read 3 million words in about 20 minutes per day.
ER, Traditional Study, and Literacy
Now, some people doubt that ER can be so effective. “English requires complicated study,” they say. “Maybe ER works, but traditional study, such as language drills, or deliberate grammar study is more effective.” But that simply is not true. Research by Dr. Beniko Mason (2011) shows that ER alone can improve TOEIC scores around 0.75 points per hour. In some cases, readers improved 3 times faster with ER than by traditional study.
ER can improve your English skills, but reading still does much more. Reading also increases global wealth, health, and equality for women. If a girl is born to a mother who can read, that girl is twice as likely to live past the age of five. If all children in poor countries could learn basic reading skills, 171 million people could leave poverty behind.
Literacy — the ability to read and write — can defeat poverty. Perhaps no one is working harder on this problem than Mr. John Wood. Formerly a top executive at Microsoft, Wood left his high-paying job after a life-changing experience. While hiking in Nepal, Wood visited a village school. He loved books, so he asked the headteacher to show him the library. But to his surprise, the library had no books! Wood asked, “Where are the books?”
The teacher replied, “We don’t have enough money. We can’t buy books for the children.” Wood remembered his childhood, his weekly visits to the library, and reading with his mother and grandmother. The teacher spoke again. “Perhaps, sir, you will someday come back with books.”
John Wood and Room to Read
One year later, John Wood returned with 3,000 books. He saw the joy on the children’s faces; he saw the hope in their eyes, and he was moved. Eventually, he left his job at Microsoft to start an organization that brings books to children. Today that organization is called Room to Read. Room to Read has built 18,689 Literacy Program Schools. It has delivered 18 million books, benefiting 10.7 million children.
Wood says, “If we don’t reach these young children, we plan their poverty.” That’s why in 2014 John Wood and his team raised 42.9 million dollars in cash donations for Room to Read. The money will buy books and build libraries for children. It will help little girls and boys stay in school. Room to Read provides native-language books for children. Then, after students learn to read in their first language, they learn to read in English. John Wood explains: “English is the uniting language in the world. If you speak English, you can speak to 3 billion people.”
Reading is Smart
Learning about Room to Read, we see that literacy and reading are keys to international development, but reading does much more than that. Reading also makes you smarter. It builds knowledge and skills that help you live. This useful knowledge is called general or “crystallized intelligence,” and studies show that reading builds it.
Reading builds your verbal intelligence. Strong readers have bigger vocabularies than those who read little. Books use rarer words than television and adult conversation. Thus, reading is more important than listening and speaking for growing vocabulary. Reading builds your social smarts. By reading good fiction, you can better understand your feelings and the feelings of others. This is called “emotional intelligence,” and research shows that reading good fiction improves it.
Reading can get you a better job. An Oxford University study showed this. High school students who read outside of school were more likely to get managerial or professional jobs as adults. Reading was the only out-of-school activity to explain this difference. Reading makes you smarter. It gives you word power. It can help you to get a better job. Reading increases wealth, health, and equality in the world. And extensive reading can greatly improve your English!
But Reading is Boring!
Even if we know about the rewards of reading, some people still say that “Reading is boring!” This is true. There are many boring books in the world. But there are also many wonderful books and stories. The BBC reports that the Harry Potter books have sold over 450,000,000 copies. If these books were not really interesting, they would not have sold this much. The key then is to find the books that you like. If you haven’t found the joy of reading, then try comic books, books for children, science fiction, murder mystery, or love stories. Just be sure of this: an amazing book is waiting for you. You just have to find it, and when you do, you can begin to reap the rewards of reading!
Note: This is an updated and revised version of an article I wrote for the Asahi Weekly, published June, 29, 2014.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: the classic work on how to achieve happiness. London: Rider.
Mason, B. (2011). Impressive gains on the TOEIC after one year of comprehensible input, with no output or grammar study. The International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, 7(1), 1–5.