What should you read in English?
We should probably think about two things when choosing things to read in English – interest and usefulness. When we decide to read a book, a magazine or newspaper article, we do so because we think it will be of interest to us. When we choose to read an instruction manual or a train timetable, it’s not because we think it will be enjoyable but rather that it will be instructive or useful to us in some way.
Purpose is another element of our motivation for reading. When we read the news we do so for a purpose – keeping up to date on political and economic events.
The other main element in our motivation is expectation – we have a sense of what to expect before we read a certain magazine, a book by a familiar author or a brochure for a holiday resort.
There are lots of skills we use when we read.
Predictive skills are used to predict the content of a text from the expectations we have based on the title or headline, the source, the context, the genre etc. Our predictions may change as the text unfolds and more information is received.
Extracting specific information. We often ‘scan’ a written text for specific details, it might be the director or actor in a film review or the scorers in a football match report. We disregard most of the information and pay attention to specific details.
Getting the general picture is where we are receptive not to specific targeted information but rather to the overall ‘gist’ of a text. This skill is referred to as ‘skimming’.
Extracting detailed information is a skill which seeks to answer questions which often begin: ‘How many…?’, ‘How often..?, ‘Why…? etc. We might also look at the author’s intention, tone and attitude. It is a complex level of function that attends to implicit meaning in texts.
Recognising function and discourse pattern concerns the ability to recognise standard patterns in language which introduce a particular function in language, such as introducing explanations, examples, conclusions etc.
Deducing the meaning of words from context is a really important and useful skill in reading. It can be important when ‘reading for pleasure’, for example, where we don’t want to be constantly checking words in a dictionary while following a story.
All these skills are unconscious habits in our own native language but are often suspended or hampered when operating in a second/non-native language.
Ten things to think about when choosing a book to read in English
1. Research into reading shows that when students read, they become better listeners and speakers and their fluency improves.
2. It’s a lot easier reading a good story or something you are interested in than learning words from a word list. Sitting and reading takes no more time and it gives your language a lot more power.
3. A good story has the power to hold a reader’s attention, to surprise, to engage, to intrigue, to entertain.
4. One of the pleasures of reading fiction is meeting people, places and cultures outside your own world.
5. In the classroom, you often study short difficult texts. This is intensive reading. It teaches you vocabulary and grammar, but you would not usually read a book in this way. With reading for pleasure, you read at your own speed. You should find you enjoy reading and want to read more.
6. It is difficult to resist the power, the suspense, the what-happens-next of a good story.
7. Personal choice is important. We don’t all like the same books.
8. When you learn to play an instrument such as piano or guitar, you start with tunes that are appropriate for your level. When you start reading in English, you need a book that’s written for your language level.
9. When you read in English, you use everything you have learned about grammar and vocabulary to understand the story. You see the same words again and again in different contexts and so you become more confident in recognizing them and using them. That means your listening, speaking and even you spelling skills improve.
10. One of the best measures of success in reading is when you go on to read another book, and then another, and another.
And finally… Ten classic Irish novels to read
For a small country, Ireland, has produced a large number of world-famous writers. Here is a list of ten classic Irish novels.
- James Joyce – Dubliners (1914). Dubliners is a collection of fifteen short stories, comprising a naturalistic depiction of Irish middle class life in and around Dublin in the early years of the 20th century. The stories were written when Irish nationalism was at its peak, and a search for a national identity and purpose was raging; at a crossroads of history and culture.
- Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). The novel tells of a young man named Dorian Gray, the subject of a painting by artist Basil Hallward. Basil is impressed by Dorian’s beauty and becomes infatuated with him, believing his beauty is responsible for a new mode in his art. Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton, a friend of Basil’s, and becomes enthralled by Lord Henry’s worldview. The Picture of Dorian Gray is considered a work of classic gothic horror fiction with a strong Faustian theme.
- John McGahern – Amongst Women (1990). Amongst Women tells the story of Michael Moran, a bitter, aging Irish Republican Army (IRA) veteran, and his tyranny over his wife and children, who both love and fear him. It is considered McGahern’s masterpiece.
- Flann O’Brien – At Swim Two Birds (1939). At Swim-Two-Birds is a novel by Irish author Brian O’Nolan, writing under the pseudonym Flann O’Brien. It is widely considered to be one of the most sophisticated examples of meta-fiction. The novel was included in TIME magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005.
- Jonathan Swift – “Gulliver’s Travels” (1726). ‘Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships’, better known simply as Gulliver’s Travels, is is both a satire on human nature and a parody of the ‘travelers tales’ literary sub-genre.
- Bram Stoker – Dracula (1897). Dracula has been assigned to many literary genres including vampire literature, horror fiction, the gothic novel, and invasion literature. Stoker did not invent the vampire, the novel’s influence on the popularity of vampires has been singularly responsible for many theatrical, film and television interpretations since its publication.
- Patrick McCabe – The Butcher Boy (1992). The Butcher Boy is set in a small town in Ireland in the late 1950s. It tells the story of Francis ‘Francie’ Brady, a schoolboy who retreats into a violent fantasy world as his troubled home life collapses.
- C. S. Lewis – The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950). This is the first published book of ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ and is the best-known book of the series. Although it was written and published first, it is second in the series’ internal chronological order, after The Magician’s Nephew. Time magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. It has also been published in 47 foreign languages.
- Edna O’Brien – The Country Girls (1960). The Country Girls tells the story of Kate and Baba who have spent their childhood together. As they leave the safety of their convent school in search of life and love in the big city, they struggle to maintain their somewhat tumultuous relationship.
- Sally Rooney – Normal People (2018). Normal People follows the intersecting coming-of-age stories of two Irish teens Connell and Marianne, as they move from their small town in rural Ireland to university in Dublin and eventually further afield. Normal People deals with several universal issues facing young people today and many others that are more specific to life in Ireland.
Do you agree with the list? What’s your favorite piece of Irish literature?