English Corner – The Building Blocks of Reading Materials

“When you are first starting out in reading the English language, it’s important to incorporate reading materials into your weekly habits.”

When you are first starting out in reading the English language, it’s important to incorporate reading materials into your weekly habits. It is a necessary complement to your learning and will help flex that muscle needed to retain both the grammar and the vocabulary that can drive your overall proficiency forward. It is not so much which reading material you choose but the fact that it should be appropriate for your reading level as a whole.

For example, it would not make sense to try something very difficult because you think you will advance that much quicker. Often times, if you go beyond your reading level in English, it will often cause an unnecessary step back and you will waste precious time in trying to understand a level of vocabulary and grammar that you are not yet ready for. It is often better to be err on the side of caution in terms of selecting multiple reading materials that you find yourself comfortable with and will challenge you yet you know for sure what the material is about and you can interpret the meaning and explain it to a teacher or a colleague.

If you are a beginner in the English language, I would start off your reading adventure with short poems and short stories, not more than a couple hundred words. Even if you are an adult as well, children’s books are a great way to get more familiar with the language level that you are currently at with basic vocabulary, phrases, and grammar principles. You may also want to read fliers and short email examples as well to become aware of the structure of those forms of writing.

I would also recommend short letters written about different subjects such as sports, weather, the daily habits someone has, and about going shopping or out to eat. It is key to read these short pieces of writing twice or three times to really understand the full meaning of what is being written. You may also want to read the story, the poem, or the letter out loud to work on your own pronunciation too to feel more comfortable absorbing the vocabulary that you are learning. A beginner should not be reading anything more than a few pages in length and at a very low vocabulary level. Preferably, a children’s book, a short email, or a quick poem are best for beginners in this sense.

For the intermediate learner, it is important to challenge yourself more and depending upon one’s age level, there are different options to consider. I encourage students who are younger to choose comic books, short stories, and even short mystery novels as well. Older students may enjoy reading magazines about sports, news, and even fashion depending upon their interests. I also encourage becoming more familiar with reading current events and news articles and being able to explain them to the teacher or to a friend.

Adding on to the difficulty means reading longer reading passages as well as longer letters or poems as well at any age group. You want to make sure that the reading level is higher so instead of at a 1st or a 3rd grade level, you should try to read materials that are at a 5th or an 6th grade level and perhaps up to an 8th grade level. Perhaps most importantly, at the Intermediate level, you should be able to hold a conversation about the topic you just read and to explain the main ideas and supporting ideas of the piece you read. Lastly, with your vocabulary, I would encourage being able to explain too your point of view for an article, what you thought about it.

The advanced learner should be at the point where they can read full books, magazines, and longer-form pieces of writing of at least a few thousand words or more. They should be able to understand and interpret vocabulary at the high school level. Depending upon which English-speaking culture they would like to learn more about, they should do their best to become familiar with writers of different backgrounds and be able to read successfully in a few genres, both fiction and non-fiction.

Reading and interpreting different kinds of texts that deal with different subjects and modern-day issues is also a key part of advancing in the English language. You should be a flexible enough reader at this point to be able to handle different types of reading that is longer than the other levels. From a 500-word poem to a 2500-word article to a 100-page book, being able to handle these types of reading at a high level will set you apart from the beginner or intermediate levels that you used to be at.

Another key to this advanced reading level is one’s ability to speak and write about what you just read with accuracy and by utilizing some advanced vocabulary and phrases learned from these reading exercises. If the professor or teacher were to assign you a persuasive, narrative, or argumentative essay for you to write about your reading assignment, you should feel comfortable by this point in doing so across a number of genres.

‘Building blocks’ take time to assemble and the same goes for building up your reading prowess. Again, it is necessary to start slow with short forms of writing from poetry to a short story to a quick email and then work your way up to a long article or a magazine and then on to the full novel or book that may take a month or two to finish. Getting better at reading in English is a key skill to have and is necessary to boost your proficiency and to do so in a comprehensive manner. It is not only true that your reading skills will get better the more consistent and driven you are with each page but your speaking skills should also improve and your writing abilities will be complemented if you can analyze, interpret, and describe what you have just written in your own words.

Patience is a virtue and reading are the biggest part of that quality when it comes to developing your English language skills. You may show quicker gains with speaking or writing but the long-term success of your English proficiency will be determined about how well you read, how you understand the reading, and what you can tell others about what you have read.

Book Recommendations – Volume IV

Wintertime is often the best time to settle down with a cup of hot coffee / tea and open up a new book or fire up your Kindle to catch up on some reading. When it’s cold and snowy out, there is no better way to pass the time than to sit down with a good book in order to learn something new or to be entertained by a particular story. If you’re looking for some good recommendations, here are three books that I have read recently that I think avid readers would enjoy especially if you like non-fiction material. If you happen to read any of these three recommendations, please let me know what you thought of these books in the comments section below.

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1.) The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck by Mark Manson is a current New York Times bestseller and is not your typical self-development book. I have been following Mark’s writings for a couple of years now and I hold him in high regard. He has helped change my life for the better with his unconventional life advice and his second book is a great read. Contrary to some self-help books that advertise a philosophy of feeling good all the time and always being positive, Mark instead advocates for a more balanced approach to life. It’s important to embrace the negatives and setbacks in life because you’ll be a stronger and a more mature person for it.

It’s a common truth that not everything will go well in life so it’s better to make due with that than to have a ‘pie in the sky’ attitude all of the time. Mark asks the reader to think about the fact that going through negative experiences is actually a positive experience and can teach us a lot about ourselves. Having solely positive experiences without any adversity or setbacks is itself a negative experience as well because you didn’t struggle and fight for it, which means that it wasn’t that much of a big deal in retrospect. Learning from our past mistakes and our failures is just as important, if not more so, as having massive success according to Mark’s thesis.

The title of the book itself, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, doesn’t imply that we as human beings shouldn’t care about anything going on in our lives but rather that we should be more selective about the things that we can truly control and have some input in. You shouldn’t give a f*ck about everything, only the things that matter the most to you and that truly impact your life in some way. Overall, this book is a really thoughtful perspective on living one’s life in a mature and thoughtful manner and has some really practical advice for any demographic of reader.

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2.) Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath by Ted Koppel is a well-researched, thought out look about the cyber security challenges facing the United States especially when it comes to the national energy grid that makes it possible for Americans to live a 21st century lifestyle. I remember watching Ted Koppel on ABC’s Nightline when I was a child and he always impressed me with his ability to look at a story he was reporting on from all angles and do a thorough job with interviewing different people involved with the issue. This book written by Mr. Koppel is no exception. Mr. Koppel does great investigative reporting on what is being done and what isn’t being done to prevent such a cyber attack from happening.

With the increasing amount of focus being put on cyber security as it affects different businesses, individuals, and governments, this book is a must-read as it considers the areas in which we are most vulnerable to attack. Mr. Koppel looks at how we can address the current gaps in cyber security such as when it comes to our different energy grids across the United States and what should be done about it in order to prevent an attack from happening in the near future. Mr. Koppel interviews a wide variety of people involved with cyber security from the Secretary of Homeland Security to leaders of the Mormon church in Salt Lake City to ‘preppers’ across the U.S. who make it a lifestyle habit of preparing themselves and their families with emergency supplies and goods in case a cyber attack happens and the electric grid goes down.

The frightening possibility of a regional and national blackout happening in the United States is discussed in detail as to what would be the consequences and how long it would take for the electric grid to go back online. The current picture isn’t very rosy and a lot of work needs to be done according to Mr. Koppel. Hopefully, the policy makers and leaders of government take notice of this book as it is both a warning and a call to action for those people in power to do more about this situation and to help protect against such a potential disastrous scenario.

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3.) Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance was one of the most important books of 2016 for its’ insight into a part of the United States that rarely gets much in-depth coverage. This book is a mix of a personal memoir of Mr. Vance’s life who is a native of the hills of Kentucky and who grew up in southern Ohio and also a retrospective on the economic and social conditions that are affecting Appalachia to this day. Mr. Vance goes into great detail about the struggles of the white, working class, both self-inflicted and those wounds placed on them by economic decline and societal decay that’s out of their control. It’s a community that doesn’t get much fanfare but who still have a political impact as showcased in the recent 2016 election.

Even with a troubled family that both uplifts him and casts him down, Mr. Vance through his hard-work and intellect makes it out of Appalachia and was a member of the Marine corps, a law school graduate and now a successful writer. However, it could be argued that he is the exception and not the norm when it comes to the current state of Appalachian communities. Upward mobility can be hard to believe in for today’s America with stories like Mr. Vance’s becoming less and less common. For this course to reverse itself, economic vitality has to come back to forgotten regions like the Rust Belt and Appalachia. The current social malaise and dispirited communities may be able to improve if the local economy were to improve for families like the Vance’s.

You root for the people of Appalachia highlighted in this memoir who have been dealt a bad hand in life but still try to make the best of things and want to help their family members achieve the American dream, even if it appears out of reach to most. One such example that sticks in my mind from this book is ‘Mamaw’, Mr. Vance’s grandmother and one of the few steady and pragmatic influences in his life that helped make him who he is today. To change a community and a society, it starts with the family but it doesn’t end there. Families in these communities need a future and they need prospects, both educational and job-wise. Let’s see if this book has an impact as well on the policymakers, think tanks, and government leaders. It’s a must-read and I highly recommend it.

 

 

Book Recommendations – Volume II

Being the voracious reader that I am, I have a couple of great selections for my readers out there who are looking for some excellent books to devour through during this upcoming winter. Hopefully, you’ll find Volume 2 of my recommendations as enjoyable and as entertaining as I did. Thank you.

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1.) Modern Romance: An Investigation by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg is an intriguing and insightful new book that looks at how romance and dating has been affected by the digital age. I have been a huge fan of Aziz’s comedic talents for a few years now but I was skeptical when I first purchased this book believing that he wouldn’t be able to dive that deeply into a subject as complicated as examining human relationships in the 21st century. However, he pulls this challenge off with the help of renowned sociologist, Mr. Eric Klinenberg.

Part of the appeal of this book is that its authors are serious with their research using surveys and graphs to push the argument forward but it’s not too dense so as to confuse or bore the average reader. The levity and humor added by Aziz every now and then to lighten up a heavy subject is also appreciated and is enough to keep you flipping through the pages. In addition to exploring the rise of dating apps such as Tinder and OKCupid, Aziz and Eric also travel to different countries like Argentina, Japan, France, and elsewhere to examine the cultural dating differences and similarities when compared to the U.S. For anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of today’s dating climate and how its’ vastly different from that of your parents and grandparents, then this book is for you.

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2.) Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan, PHD and Cacilda Jetha, MD is an extremely fascinating book with an underrepresented and well-argued take on how and why humans mate with and stray from each other. Diving deep into our ancestral origins, Dr. Ryan and Dr. Jetha argue that in pre-agricultural / hunter-gatherer societies, men and women were more suited to sharing everything with each other such as food, water, child care, and even sexual partners.

‘Monogamy’ was not the basis for how early humans acted towards one each other in expressing sexuality. In addition, the authors’ conduct detailed research on how close humans in our physical and physiological makeup are to our closest genetic relatives, the Bonobos and the Chimps. The mating system of early humans before agriculture was very close to the way bonobos and chimps mate as well. What I found most reasonable from this book was the conclusion that the deep communal, close bonds between pre-agricultural human tribes was a less stressful, more peaceful, and overall a better way of living than what would come later in history as a result of agricultural and industrial development.

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3.) Purity by Jonathan Franzen is another excellent offering by this well-renowned and talented author who previously wrote ‘Freedom’ and ‘The Corrections.’ Unlike his other novels, ‘Purity’ is a truly global novel in terms of its settings and its characters. From a squatter house in Oakland, California to a secretive compound in the highlands of Bolivia, Mr. Franzen jumps from locale to locale while following the characters that make up this intriguing story.

Without giving away too much of the details, our main protagonist is Pip ‘Purity’ Tyler who begins the novel seeking a direction and purpose after graduating from college with $130,000 in student debt. Seeking to escape from her neurotic mother and wanting to find out the identity of her unknown father, Pip makes contact with Andreas Wolf, a German man who is the founder of The Sunlight Project, an organization similar to Wikileaks who acts at the novel’s fictional competitor to Julian Assange. Pip and Andreas come into contact with each other through the wonders of modern technology leading to much more details about how their paths in life are intertwined along with those of their close family members. ‘Purity’ is a true page-turner that has deep characters with unique personalities. For fans of Mr. Franzen who enjoyed ‘Freedom’ and ‘The Corrections.’ I highly recommend ‘Purity’ as a must-read for all.

Book Recommendations – Volume I

As the Fall season turns into Winter and people start going into hibernation mode as the weather gets cold and snowy, here is my 1st volume of book recommendations that will last you through the next few months:

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 1.) Catch 22 by Joseph Heller is my favorite book of all-time and has been ever since I read it at the young age of 16. This was the first novel that I had read which was satirical in content and utilized the concept the dark humor, which made it an enjoyable and fun read. Main characters such as Yossarian, Orr, Chaplain, Nately, Snowden, etc. were all really well-developed so you know who they were and their individual backgrounds before the end of the novel. It did help that for the first part of the book, each of the first eleven chapters were told from a different character’s perspective rather than focusing on Capt. John Yossarian for every chapter.

Describing the events from different points of view through the third-person in a non-chronological order really made it unique in a way. This made Catch-22 an easier read as this kind of format gave me as the reader the chance to put the different events together into a singular plotline rather than spell it all out for me as other non-fiction novels usually do. This novel also introduced to me several important themes that I have thought about or come into conflict with in my own life. Examples of some of these themes being: Absurdity, ridiculousness of bureaucracy, questioning one’s religious faith, and the power, influence of greed and capitalism over others.

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2.) Freedom by Jonathan Franzen is another favorite and an excellent fiction novel focusing on an American family, the Berglund’s, and the complex relationships that they have with each other, their friends, and their lovers. Their story takes place over the course of one generation from the late 1970’s up until the beginning year of the Obama administration, in 2009. Each family member is well represented in Franzen’s novel with the narrative flow going from Walter (the father) to Patty (the mother), and then on to the children of Joey and Jessica. Franzen also develops his supporting characters to be an integral part of the story such as Richard Katz, Lalitha, Connie, and Jenna who all play a role in the unfolding of the novel. Freedom also successfully goes back and forth from first-person to third-person narrative quite easily and without any major hiccups.

One of my favorite things about this novel is that incorporates into the plot the major events in American history and society that have happened over the past generation. Examples of these events in the book include the burgeoning environmentalist movement, 9/11, the Iraq war, and the rise of social media. I believe Franzen does a great job of bringing out the peculiarities and absurdities that encompasses American suburban life and he really shows you how the family changes over the years due to these outside events but also the changing relationships that mark these people’s lives. A fascinating novel overall, I highly recommend it.

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3.) The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer is my favorite non-fiction novel and a book that should be read by any American who wants to understand the current state of our society, culture and our politics. Packer is an excellent reporter for The New Yorker who previously wrote a book about the struggles of the U.S. endeavor in Iraq in The Assassin’s Gate. Packer got the inspiration for writing this novel after he comes home from Iraq and witnesses the 2008 financial crisis and the collapse of the markets. Along with the auto industry, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, he realizes that the major institutions that have held America together with a sense of unity were falling all around him. The author does an excellent job of focusing on three ordinary Americans and detailing their personal history from the beginning of ‘The Unwinding’ in the late 1970’s up until the 2012 election.

These three people are Dean Price, a struggling tobacco farmer in North Carolina who wants to revitalize the farmland by providing biofuel to school buses; Tammy Thomas, a black woman from Youngstown, Ohio who becomes a community organizer after losing her job multiple times from the closure of the factory plants along this rust belt city; and Jeff Connaughton, who comes to Washington as a staffer for Senator Joe Biden but becomes disillusioned by the lobbying, big finance levers that are pulling the strings of our politicians and leaders. One of my favorite things about this book is that Packer contrasts these three ordinary Americans with the giants of American pop culture, politics, music, and society by giving brief chapters devoted to the success of individuals of Oprah, Peter Thiel, Sam Walton, Jay-Z, Newt Gingrich, Alice Waters, etc. A must read in my opinion.

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4.) The Social Animal by David Brooks is another great non-fiction novel that I have read and re-read over the past couple of years. Out of all the books on this list, it has probably influenced me the most as a person. I usually disagree with Brooks’ op-ed columns in The New York Times due to his conservative leanings but when it comes to sociology, human psychology and understanding the sub-conscious, Brooks has done the research and it really shows through in this book. The most fascinating aspect of this book is how he sets it up as a fictional novel with a male and a female character named Harold and Erica respectively.

Mr. Brooks uses a lot of recent research and findings to assert conclusions and summaries while charting an imaginary course for these two characters’ lives from Birth/Early Life to Death. My favorite chapter of the book and an area that relates to me personally is when Brooks describes the recent phenomenon of ‘The Odyssey Years’ or a person’s twenties where they are deciding what to do with career, marriage, and whether or not to have children. Brooks contrasts the ‘On The Road’ vs. ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ type of lifestyles that young people often choose between as they come out of the Odyssey years. He details the differences of how to live such as ‘Single v. Married’ and decides its better for a person to establish roots in a community rather than going from place to place indefinitely. He makes a compelling argument using recent research for explaining what molds us into who we become in each major stage of our lives.

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5.) A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn should be mandatory reading for any high school student in America who’s enrolled in a U.S. history class. Unfortunately, it wasn’t required reading for me in my Advanced Placement course which was a shame. Luckily, I was able to read it during my senior year of high school when a family member recommended the book to me and left me with a copy. The lasting appeal of Zinn’s novel is that unlike many other history books, it deals with the lives of ordinary Americans struggling through the different, tumultuous periods of our short history and the author does an excellent job of relying upon interviews, data, and statistics to give their side of the story.

Learning about the struggles of the Native Americans, the Women’s Rights movement, Civil Rights movement and other marginalized Socialists and Labor Rights activists like Eugene V. Debs was illuminating for millions of readers and myself. If only more politicians and the elite would read Zinn’s words, perhaps we as Americans would learn not to repeat the mistakes of the past and truly realize the notion of “Equality for all.” Lastly, one chapter of A People’s History that I continue to believe is very prescient even today is titled, “The Coming Revolt of The Guards” where Zinn hints at the discontent of American society even back in the early 2000’s due to the collapse of organized labor, growing wealth inequality, and the marginalization of the poor. Even though it’s a non-fiction book rooted in the past, Mr. Zinn had a lot of words of warning for our collective future.