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  • The Secret Method ESL Students Can Use to Absorb More from Any Book

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    When you read like a writer, books should weigh twice as much because of what you can see inside the book.—Isoke Nia, literacy consultant

    One important strategy to boost your ESL writing skills is to look carefully at how writers craft their art. You can start by preparing a chart with three columns: Content (Facts), Process (Thoughts), and Craft (Writing). Then use this chart when you read any type of text. You might have something to read for a class or your job. You might have some recreational reading that you like to do. It might be helpful for you to practice this strategy once a week or even more often with a tutor.

    This reading-writing strategy should help to improve your reading skills, writing skills, and English language skills.

    Factual content

    In the first column, write down factual content—things that are interesting or important. Writing these facts down will help you remember them and also improve your spelling, vocabulary, and overall English skills.

    Thinking process

    The second column captures any thoughts you have as you read. Maybe you have a question about how a specific word is used. Maybe you wonder why a particular character said a certain phrase or behaved in a special way. Write down how you feel about what is happening, or even analyze part of the text and compare it to something in your own life (text-to-self), or with another text (text-to-text), or compare it to something broader (text-to-world). Each of these comparisons will help build reading comprehension.

    Quality writing

    The third column is where you write down anything that strikes you as quality writing. Did the author use strong word choices? Does the author “pull you into the story”? Does the author use any special techniques (foreshadowing, flashback, rhyme, figurative language, etc.) that are noteworthy?

    After a read-through

    Then, after you have completed your reading (and your chart), you can review it. By reading through the facts, you can build your knowledge and also use the chart as a guide to help with retention. This is a great tool for preparing research for a paper or studying for a test.

    When you move to the next column, you can skim down to see if you have any questions that still need answering. How can you go about finding the answers? What about any thoughts that need clarified? Are they clear now? And finally, you can review the comments in the writing column. Is there something about this author’s writing style that you can apply to your own writing? It could be something like using a new vocabulary word or phrase, figurative language, or a specific writing technique.

    The next time you read something, it will be easier for you to apply this strategy. Keep a notebook or folder of your completed charts. You can review them from time to time, tracing your ESL progress. Most importantly, you can apply anything you learn to your future writing.

    I thought it might be helpful to show you an example of this strategy and to apply it to a #1 fiction book on the New York Times Best Sellers List (Feb. 13, 2014). Donna Tartt’s book The Goldfinch is about a thirteen-year-old boy in New York City named Theo Decker. Decker survives a terrorist attack in an art museum that unfortunately takes the life of his mother.

    Content (Facts) Process (Thinking) Craft (Writing)
    Carel Fabritius is a Dutch painter and one of Rembrandt’s most gifted pupils. Why does the author use The Goldfinch for the title of this book?
    “But sometimes, unexpectedly, grief pounded over me in waves that left me gasping.”—WOW!

    The Goldfinch is an oil painting of 1654 that hangs in the Royal Picture Gallery. How is Pippa related to the old man? His hug was strong and parental, and so fierce that it made me cry even harder.”—I like the word choices of “parental” and “fierce.”

    I hope that this strategy of reading like a writer will be helpful to you in seeing inside a book. And in doing so, you can take your English language skills to the next level.

    Do you know ESL readers who could benefit from this guide? Share it with them.

    Alysia Bartley is a co-founder of TalktoCanada, an online English teaching company. She has taught over 2,500 hours of online classes and managed large and small English training projects around the world.

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