Read well to write well

Weekender

By THOMAS HUKAHU
TIME after time we are reminded about the need to read, and read well.
Teachers tell their students to read more books to better understand the English language and become more confident in using it – as in writing, reading and speaking.
A fortnight ago, a Grade 12 student contacted me and said she was doing fairly well in her sciences and mathematics, however she was struggling a bit with her English – or Language and Literature, as they call it at her level.
This article serves two purposes.
Firstly, to help all the readers who have been following my articles for the past few weeks on ways of improving one’s writing skills.
Secondly, to help students like the Grade 12 student, who has done well in other subjects but is struggling in English.
Your reading shapes your writing
Any writing teacher or lecturer will urge his or her students to read to help in improving their writing skills.
The first book on journalism that I possessed (decades before I joined that media industry) had a comment made by the author. He made reference to a journalism professor who said something like: The person who is learning to write “must read well to write well”.
This point is vital not only for those of us using the English language, but for foreign language students who are keen on reaching a level of proficiency in their target language.
A person learning a language must do the same thing that English students in schools and universities do – they must read in English, write in English, and speak in English to get the structure of the language into their system.
For many of us, who are learning and working with English as a second or third language, it is going to be tough, but if we want to improve our writing skills (as well as speaking English confidently), we have to take that seriously.
So, if we want to polish our writing skills, we have to come up with a reading programme and possibly a writing one too.

My best lessons in writing
Before I get to a writing programme, let me share something personal with you.
The need to read well to write well came to me in an interesting way.
In my Grade 10 written expression examination I did very well – my effort in that and other assessment tasks had me eventually winning the English prize in my grade in that year.
For years afterwards I have thought about that special year and realised that my performance in the subject in Grade 10 (which startled me too) started when I did in Grades 7 and 8 in the high school at Bomana, in the 1980s.
Firstly, I was reading well at that stage.
The school had a good library where we were privileged to have read books (abridged versions actually) by Charles Dickens (Oliver Twist), William Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, A Merchant of Venice), Anne Holm (I am David) and the Famous Five series by Enid Blyton, among others.
Secondly, at home, at 12, I was reading my father’s copies of Agatha Christie’s detective thrillers featuring the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot as well as Exodus by Leon Uris, which recounted the birth of the nation of Israel.
And thirdly, the librarian at the school at that time, a nun, gave us a weekly assignment of writing a book report on the book we borrowed and read.
All we needed to do was jot down on a fresh page of our exercise books the title of the book that we read, its author, the number of pages it had as well as its publisher and the year it was published in.
Then for the rest of that page – and possibly a second – we summarised its content.
That is, we told in our own words what the story was about – if there was a main character (protagonist), his/her mission and the challenges that s/he went through in accomplishing the objective of the mission.
The task was that simple and my peers and I enjoyed it because we normally read three to four books (we exchanged books after completing the one that we borrowed) – but we chose to use only one to complete our writing assignment.
In those two years I must have written about 80 book reports (40 in each year) and read more than 100 books.
Writing book reports helped me hone my writing skills.
When I joined journalism decades later, I also learned to write news stories and feature articles, as guided by some of the best print journalists in the region.
But I know that writing book reports for my library lessons at the age of 13-14 had a big part in helping me improve my writing skills.

A reading programme
So, to write well you have to read well.
If you are a student reading this (or a professional) and has sensed a deficiency in your usage of English, it is time you start a reading programme.
My suggestion is to do what I did decades ago.
Go to the library and make a list of all the books that you can possibly read before this year ends.
You can check for those books that I read (when in high school) or ask your English teacher for a list.
That list must not include the books that you are studying in your English lessons, as in studying the novel.
Once you get the book list written, start by borrowing the first available book.
(For a working professional, you may get a book list from a friend who is an English teacher or tutor or a colleague whose hobby is reading.)
Try to complete reading a book within a week – or a fortnight.
Make time for reading. You can read before you go to sleep or read for half an hour in the morning before classes or work.
Do not think about your science, maths or economics homework while reading the book. After an hour or so of reading, then you can return to those.
(I have also found experientially that reading, as in reading a novel, helps your mind work faster. It stretches your mind and you can accomplish much in other work because your mind can process stuff better and faster. Incidentally, people who read a lot have a roomful of ideas.)
After you have completed reading that book, there is something that you can do. This is described in the next section.
Ensure that your reading list has a mixture of books – you can have novels, short story collections, poetry as well as non-fiction books on different topics of interest.)

Write a book report of each book that you read
In addition to reading a book a week, try to write a report on the book that you read.
If it is a non-fiction, you will not have a protagonist in the story but you can write about what you learned in the book, whether it is on starting photography, fishing in the sea, or about the pyramids of Egypt.
Be simple and describe as best as you can the content of the book and the parts that appealed to you the most – or things you learned.
If you continue at that rate, after two months you would have read about 20 books and written about 20 book reports.
That is a great achievement.

Other writing exercises for you
All writing students are urged by their lecturers or tutors to keep a diary (or journal) – to write on a daily basis, if possible, to improve their skills.
You should try to do the same.
The diary can be a simple notebook where you (as the student) jot down short lines of interesting things that happened in the day, or interesting thoughts and views on issues.
It could include quotes or even agenda items from a meeting.
To further improve your writing skills, take the time to write a letter to the editor of a newspaper on a topic of interest.
It could be a protest on what an MP has done in allocating funds for some initiatives but not the ones that you think are important.
If you are someone who airs your views on different themes on social media, make it an effort to structure your sentences and views a bit more carefully.
Refer to my editing tips from a past article and ensure that you avoid making simple mistakes.
Changes will not occur over night, but they will surely happen if you pay closer attention to your words and how you string them to create sentences.

Listening and speaking programme
To improve our general skills in using English, we need to also listen to people using the language.
Remember that language learning includes reading, writing as well as listening and speaking.
It is often the case that we make a judgement on a wrongful use of a sentence not so much by how sure we are about the grammatical rules involved but a bit like “it just doesn’t sound right!”
By listening to English – and I mean good English – you can be more confident in using the language.
For the past four years, I listened to BBC World Service on weekend nights – on Fridays and Saturdays, for four or more hours. (You can download different audio files from their website if you are interested. The same can be done with ABC or Radio New Zealand.)
I enjoy the news as well as other programmes in English.
I also like downloading videos of good speakers in business, education or writing and listening to them speak on various themes.
You can visit YouTube and ted.com to access such videos.
Often I take note of some important lines that they say. I write those in my diary.
As you are listening to those speakers, take note of the way they make good use of words and phrases to make their talk interesting.
In addition to listening to people using English, you must also improve the way you communicate when using the language.
For you, the student, keep to the rule of “always speaking English to your peers at all times within school”.
This is a vital rule. In the end, you will write what you speak.
If you cannot speak good English, it is likely that you cannot be confident in writing perfect sentences in the language.
For the professional, try to speak to all your co-workers in English, particularly if you are working in an environment that everyone is educated and understands English.
If you are switching to Tok Pisin to explain something to people who understand English, it is likely that your English skills are not that good.

Best wishes on your journey
As said earlier, changes in your goal to improve your writing skills will not happen overnight.
It will take time.
Whether you are a student, or a professional, take on the tips offered in this and past articles and start the effort to raising the level of your writing skills.

I wish you the best.

  • Thomas Hukahu is a freelance journalist.

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