Finding reading resources for people learning English


About a year and a half ago, I was working in a Saudi university and wanted a wide range of books that students with different levels of ability could use to supplement their learning. There were many difficulties.

In the first place, the books had to be popular among twenty-year-old men but most of the students had low levels of English. When I looked at what was in the shops, nearly every book with beginner or elementary English was written for twelve-year-olds. There were stories about robot teachers, for instance. My students didn't have much English, but they weren't children and were more interested in action, comedy and even romance - definitely not in kids' stuff.

The next difficulty was that everything in the shops in both Riyadh and London was only available in printed book form with a CD stuck inside the back cover. But nearly all my students were reading from their phones or I-pads or Kindles. The publishers did not seem to have kept up with the technology necessary to engage with modern learners. Of course, printed books were important - I'm a good example of someone who doesn't feel comfortable without a book in my hand before I fall asleep at night, for example. But it seemed strange that I could listen to any music I wanted to, catch up with the news and read the latest bestseller using modern technology, but my students couldn't use these to learn English by reading or listening.

Another problem was that many of my students didn't have much money to spend on buying book after book after book. They could not afford to spend $10 on something that they wouldn't find interesting because it was poorly illustrated, did not have much information in it, proved to be much harder than they'd expected or, maybe, was just too long. If this was true in the capital of Saudi Arabia, it must be the case in many, many countries around the world where schools and universities can't afford libraries. And, of course, it's not only a question of expense but also one of availability. I've lived in many cities around the world where there simply aren't bookshops selling to students of English.

Another point was that even the books that were available did not seem to make reading easy for students. They had glossaries where difficult words were explained at the ends of the books, but this was not so much more convenient than using a dictionary. And we all know that having to go to a dictionary again and again to understand key words in a text puts off readers who are just starting to read for pleasure. It's just too much trouble.

It seemed to me that what I needed for the students was a range of stories and articles that were not too long; had difficult words explained in a way that didn't interrupt the reading experience; were available to read digitally; and were not aimed at kids.

There had to be material on science and economics, history and technology for people who needed English to help with their studies at high school or university as well as to get on in their jobs, but also lighter pieces of writing on crime, murder cases, animals and fashion. And we had to have stories too. Of course, we would also need audio files so that people could read and listen - if they wanted to - at the same time.

I needed something accessible, flexible, affordable, wide ranging and aimed at adults. I looked hard but I couldn't find anything. It is hard to understand, all the evidence shows us that reading often and for pleasure is the best way of improving our vocabulary and spelling, of doing better on multiple choice grammar tests, of becoming better writers, and so on. The list goes on and on.

I decided to see if I could do something about this situation and over the course of the next eighteen months, I got together with some colleagues to develop a service that provides a convenient and cheap way for adults to improve their English.

That's what ReadListenLearn is going to be. We are addressing the problems I encountered and developing a new way to help people learn English, develop fluency and enjoy doing so.