Read more, read better? Developing a reading habit with Stephen Cavan, Stephen Krashen and Brad Stulberg

When I teach students for whom English is a second (or foreign) language, they often express a desire to practice orally to help them become fluent as quickly as they can.

Less often, one will ask me what book titles I would recommend; when they do, they usually are interested in books on language skills (e.g. ESL textbooks), not books of fiction or poetry, written in English.

An advocate for reading by second language learners, my colleague (and a great ESL teacher, himself) Steve Cavan has recommended the writing of Dr. Stephen Krashen, an expert in theories of language acquisition and development.

Krashen has published hundreds of books and articles and given more than 500 lectures at universities world-wide to promote the “natural approach” to language teaching. By this he means to encourage students to read recreationally and for teachers like me (and administrators) to ensure that school libraries are well stocked.

Krashen says that “what is good for language development and literacy development is . . . pleasant [to] the acquirer and the teacher.” He has found that time spent free reading is more efficient for developing language skills than the equivalent time spent in traditional instruction.

Reading can (and should) be fun—and can help us learn new languages better.

So many readers and writers find life boring (even or especially in this digital age), when devices can leave us with minds feeling dry, uninspired, even cranky. What Krashen calls the “pleasure path” of reading often lighthearted fiction in a foreign language accelerates our learning of that language.

For instance, Krashen refers to one study in which new immigrants to the US who have progressed very slowly in learning English showed a remarkable spike in progress, due mainly to reading pleasant (potboiler) romance novels, such as the “Sweet Valley High” series. These students were not taking ESL classes at the time.

My colleague, Steve Cavan, has referred his students to free, online ebooks in English on the following site, where classics have been simplified to levels comprehensible to new learners:

Whether we are new to a language or native-speakers, however, reading deeply, what freelance writer and coach Brad Stulberg calls “full engagement in a book,” can be a joyous experience. When people’s attention spans are shortening by the day (or so it seems), Stulberg says that to be a deep reader “is also a competitive advantage in today’s knowledge-based economy.”

In a recent article in “Forbes” magazine, Stulberg argues that getting lost in a book “is good for the mind and spirit,” allows us to understand topics more deeply, to sustain attention for longer periods of time and to enhance our creativity.

Now, whether for non-English readers or the fully fluent, who would argue against all that?

Stulberg recommends six practices that can help us all read more and read better:

(1) Use a hardcopy book. Research shows that we understand and connect ideas better when we read physical (not digital) pages. There are fewer distractions than with digital media and our brains remember better knowledge acquired through “tactile experience.”

(2) Have no digital devices in the room. Even “the sight of these devices and everything they represent—not to mention the willpower it takes not to check them—is a huge distraction.  So find a non-tech room for reading.

(3) Read with a pencil, pen or highlighter. When we engage with books more deeply, actively responding to their ideas, we become more fully absorbed in the material, which improves our “associative thinking and subsequent creative insight.” (This will of course mean that you need to buy the book, which in time means you may wish to donate it to charities, through which others can benefit from it, too.)

(4) Keep a notebook nearby. Even when we’re closely engaged in a book, irrelevant thoughts can pop up in our minds (e.g. groceries to get; errands to run). Stulberg suggests that we right them down in a retraceable place, so that we can “off load [our] brains from trying to hang on to them.”

(5) Read for at least 30 minutes. Deep reading is similar to physical exercise. Our minds are muscles and need to be trained to read over a significant amount of time. Filling in brief moments of your day with an audiobook, though not terrible, cannot compare.

(6) Read as much as you can. Stulberg rightly says that “books are the best bargain there is” for sharing insights, wisdom and experience. As a professional coach who recommends reading, he has helped Olympic athletes to progress through life, post-sports; business founders through career-defining and challenging times; and has observed that wise leaders “from Bill Gates to Ruth Bader Ginsberg  . . . all read a heck of a lot.”

So why shouldn’t we, too? And that’s whether we are new to the English language or not.


And now it’s your turn. Do you practice deep reading in your professional or personal life? Has the thinking of Cavan, Krashen and Stulberg convinced you to get started?

Please share your experience. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

A creative response to a late pandemic world, by Tomos Roberts (“TomFoolery”)

In May, 2020, Tomos Roberts (aka “TomFoolery”), a spoken word poet based in the UK, wowed our Covid-stricken world by composing and performing “The Great Realization.” (I blogged on the performance, some 15 months ago.)

In that “pandemic poem,” Roberts argued that the earth-shattering effects of Covid-19 offered an unparalleled opportunity to appreciate what matters–from one’s family to the environment that groans from our abuse. Other narrative poems have followed, all featuring Tom’s trademark rhyming couplets and indomitable cheerfulness, which coexists with his awareness of the injustices that fill the news.

Shortly after the success of “The Great Realization” (which American actor Jake Gyllenhaal  promoted as a future children’s story), Tom encouraged the Covid-weary by delivering another poem, “The Inventor.” When Covid continues to wear on us and when so many of us lament the ongoing degradation of our earth, Tom’s speaker’s exchange with the cynical “inventor” (an authority figure and naysayer) may offer us insight and thereby hope:

“Sat in a chair, with a desk in the way, he’s looking at me looking like I know what to say.

What would you like to be, he unloads to the air, with his steely hard, unhelpful stare.

An inventor, I say, as I hold his eye, there’s a smirk across his face that doesn’t fail to pass me by. “An inventor,” he exclaims and then giggling repeats. “Do you have a new invention that this planet really needs?”

I’ve held my tongue for long enough, the effrontery’s too great, but calmly I stay smiling like I’m talking to a mate.

I’m sorry, I’m not here to pitch your product. I’m sure you couldn’t comprehend but if I were you I’d cool down a touch and try not to condescend.

I haven’t reinvented the light bulb, there’s plenty of people making phones. I don’t have a shiny gadget or an appliance for our homes.

No, I picture a new society. One of freedom, and of beauty, where people aren’t given menial positions and where every member knows their duty. I picture one in which rights and freedoms are afforded every soul, and not dependent on arbitrary factors but with a humanistic goal.

I picture a place without such structures, where only a tiny few can win–a place where we don’t oppress one another based upon pigmentation in our skin.

Maybe we could get to a place where health and education are free, since they’re things of incalculable value or at least that’s how it appears to me.

Maybe we could work less, as I see no reason why, if we had the technology available, anyone should toil until they die.

I picture one where leaders are chosen for diplomacy and not selected for brute power, one with structures of support for those that meet their darkest hour.

I picture a place where big business would be tasked with innovation and we instilled societal guidance to deter from domination. Competition is good. If it drives us to improve. But the utility doesn’t last long, if all the rest of us must lose.

I picture a place where dance and art and poetry can be held in high esteem, where children are encouraged to be creative, to imagine, and to dream. I can see you rolling your eyes at this but telling me it’s not true that imagination and creativity are things that robots just can’t do. A place where justice learns to operate without such human bias, that we can enjoy the gift of music, and the calm effect of quiet.

I believe that this is possible. I believe this is where we’re heading. I believe that this isn’t  fantasy or just a story that I’m telling.

I believe that I have a part to play and I believe that so do you.

I believe that by believing it becomes more likely to be true.

I believe there are those who will slow us, due to lack of wisdom or private gain.

I believe that it’ll be hard to create and even harder still to maintain.

I believe we’re in touching distance, of being so much greater, because life’s a game, and a game will always be so much bigger than the player.

I know you don’t believe it’s possible. I can see you shake your head. But you know, the only reason we don’t already live in that world is because we haven’t invented it yet.”

Listen to Tom perform this poem, himself:

(c)  Tomos Roberts (TomFoolery)

And now it’s your turn:  Who is the “inventor” in your life, who challenges the value of your creativity, your inventiveness?  Could it be the pandemic, itself?

Please drop me a note; I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Precision sells: On its importance in stories, business copy, and other writing (with Henneke Duistermaat)

A few months ago, a colleague of mine commented that she preferred to read copy that was “less detailed” than mine, because less focus and concentration were involved. “Shortness sells,” she quipped, half jokingly, rewriting the age-old writer’s adage that “specificity sells.”

But that moment stayed with me, since most writers are neurotic about the effectiveness of their writing and because it is not specificity per se (or brevity) but precision that should win the day.

To answer my colleague, I’d say that yes, brevity can be useful, but unless we’re talking about aphorisms and taglines or other hard-core, digital marketing, brevity won’t sell.

One of my favourite copywriters, Henneke Duistermaat, recently blogged on why longer-form copywriting is useful—the form in which I have specialized for the past 10 years (e.g. writing blog postings, articles, media releases, case studies, website copy, etc.).

Length, when written well, can be more precise, vivid and, in her words, “full of zest” than its shorter counterpart. “Even if your text becomes longer,” Henneke writes, “precision captivates readers.”

Business-to-Business copywriting (B2B) is a good example of this, as it is often longer than its Business-to-Consumer (B2C) counterpart. The former features more detailed content and research.

The non-writerly colleague I mentioned at the outset of this post disputes the need for detail in business writing. I certainly strive to avoid long, rambling, boring writing. But I disagree that detail means doldrums. Writing should not aim to be brief, but sufficiently long to express its insights and engage its audience. As Henneke comments: “Brevity can suck the spirit out of your writing. Writing that’s too brief is soulless. It lacks the power to engage and inspire.”

In a recent blog posting on her website, Duistermaat shows what short copy can lose, when she cites a seven-word, newspaper description of American Arthur Ashe’s serve in tennis:

“Arthur Ashe started the match on serve.”

By contrast, she cites a 165-word depiction of that same serve, written by Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, John McPhee:

Arthur Ashe, his feet apart, his knees slightly bent, lifts a tennis ball into the air. The toss is high and forward. If the ball were allowed to drop, it would, in Ashe’s words, “make a parabola and drop to the grass three feet in front of the baseline.” He has practiced tossing a tennis ball just so thousands of times. But he is going to hit this one.

His feet draw together. His body straightens and tilts forward far beyond the point of balance. He is falling. The force of gravity and a muscular momentum from legs to arm compound as he whips his racquet up and over the ball.

He weighs a hundred and fifty-five pounds; he is six feet tall, and right-handed. His build is barely full enough not to be describable as frail, but his coordination is so extraordinary that the ball comes off his racquet at furious speed. With a step forward that stops his fall, he moves to follow.

The precision of McPhee’s depiction of how Ashe serves, the statistical detail it includes of Ashe’s size, the reference to his previous practice and so on, all elicit readers’ interest and pull us into the story. As Henneke says, “When you read McPhee’s description, you feel like you’re on court watching the match unfold.”

Precision (rather than unwieldy length) is also better at eliciting the reader’s emotion. The detail of the above sample is persuasive and intensifies its drama.

And through these qualities, the writing also makes the writer (i.e. McPhee) more credible. We sense that McPhee is an expert about tennis and understands the significance of the performance he’s describing.

Now not all writing can provide such detail. Henneke observes that writing must cycle between an “ebb and flow,” or else it will risk being long-winded. But the alternative to that is not (or not only) brevity.

But when length coincides with precision and all of its ensuing power, we all (as writers) become more likely to serve a winner.

And now it’s your turn. Do you agree that precision can make longer-form copy more powerful than its shorter counterpart? Please include your samples! I’d be delighted to hear from you

Do you think too much? How to free yourself from overthinking with Pea Callesen

July 2021  Vol 3 Issue 7

Tell Your Story Newsletter (TYSN):

Specializing in Entrepreneurial and Organizational Storytelling

Let me tell your story!



ARTICLE 1: Do you think too much? How to free yourself from overthinking, with Pea Callesen

STORYTELLERS’ CORNER: Word nerd alert! The case of pall and pallor




Welcome Mid-July, 2021!

Another week-long heatwave has blanketed Western Canada, punctuating these late days of the Covid pandemic. The heat has brought some needed stillness, it seems to me, amidst the discovery of yet more unmarked graves from Indian Residential Schools and amidst other stories of suffering and loss, such as the devastation of the collapsed condominium tower in Seaside, Florida.

When so much of our planet is dogged by strife and loss, I am especially grateful that many of us (including me) are blessed to have safe homes and communities in which to live and work and have our being.

As we ease back into life after the lifting of restrictions last Sunday, do you feel trepidation, relief, or both? And as high summer brings holiday time to many, what are you most grateful for?

In this month’s issue, I discuss the challenge of overthinking–something which so many of us are prone to, especially in recent times, and which can precipitate anxiety and depression. Psychologist Pea Callesen weighs in on what we can do to stop mental rumination.

And in “Storytellers’ Corner,” we visit “word nerd”  Bryan Garner’s blog posting, where he differentiates between the use of  the ominous terms of “pall” and “pallor.”

Although technically, our daylight hours are shortening and although rain is desperately needed across the province, I remain aware of the beauty of nature that surrounds us: Early morning birdsong and resplendent peonies all greeted me on my morning walk, today. Once again, we are reminded of the miracle of our seasons.

To all of my readers, Happy Summer!




Storytelling Communications


Article One: Do you think too much? How to free yourself from overthinking, with psychologist Pea Callesen

The May 2021 issue of the journal, “Psyche,” featured a fascinating article by the Danish metacognitive psychologist, Dr. Pea Callesen, called “How to stop overthinking.”

Although the article spanned several pages (and I recommend it to you), Callesen’s main argument was that persistently worrying, “stewing” and ruminating about one’s problems can yield unhealthy results. These include insomnia, trouble concentrating, a loss of energy, all of which can propel one’s worries further, “creating a vicious cycle of overthinking”(6).

Callesen writes that for many, overthinking results in anxiety and depression, which are exacerbated in pandemic times, when physical and mental isolation from family and friends intensifies our vulnerability to mental illness.

Given the times we live in, almost everyone has experienced overthinking at some point. Most of us also want to stop it, so Callesen’s insights are timely and relevant. But the world of overthinking is not a level playing field: People who have been overthinkers for many years sometimes feel ambivalent about stopping, afraid to let go of a familiar “crutch or coping mechanism.”

Callesen recommends that we confront the assumptions that underpin our fears, such as  “ ‘If I worry about what could go wrong, I’ll be able to do better next time.’ ” Ask yourself, she says, “if your ruminations have ever led to better decisions, fewer symptoms and more control?” Instead, worrying increases “tension, restlessness, . . . anxiety” and brings no better decision-making.

Callesen identifies five aspects of overthinking that clarify why we would do well to free ourselves from it:

(1) When we overthink, she says, we use defensive strategies to try to reduce our already present anxieties and worries, such as monitoring “threats, . . . seeking answers and reassurance, and excessive planning.” Such rumination is unfruitful and ends up “backfiring.” It “often leads to a heightened sense of danger, more worries and will maintain your belief that worrying is out of your personal control” (7).

Callesen reports from her clinical practice (some of which is conducted online from her clinic in Denmark) that many laypeople assume that thinking too much is “an innate personality trait; something we can’t change. However, the worry and rumination brought on by overthinking are a learned strategy that we choose—consciously or unconsciously—[when we try] to deal with our thoughts and feelings.”  We’d be more accurate to think of ruminating as “a bad habit we fall into” and one that we can learn to change (7).

(2) While overthinking is triggered by a particular thought, Callesen says that “it’s not the trigger thought in and of itself that causes unpleasant symptoms, nor is it the [number] of trigger thoughts we might have. It is the time we spend engaging in these thoughts, ruminating and worrying, that weighs us down” and burdens our minds (7).

(3) Trigger thoughts are automatic and can’t be stopped, but we can choose not to engage in  them—not “to ‘answer’ that thought and follow it up with more related thoughts,” and just to let it be.” We forget that thoughts are “ephemeral” and will go away, “if we don’t expend energy on them.”

(4) We can challenge the belief that overthinking is beyond our control by exploring “whether we’re able to postpone worries and ruminations” for a specific time of day (say one-half hour, late in the afternoon). Callesen says we can tell ourselves: “I’ll deal with this later.”

(5) It’s tempting to avoid situations that provoke trigger thoughts, but it’s more effective to practice letting go of those thoughts, rather than avoiding situations or settings.

Callesen and her mentors and colleagues have found that metacognitive therapy (and not cognitive behavioural therapy of the past, CBT) is the most effective way to deal with overthinking. And their research shows that it works effectively to counteract anxiety and depression.

She has published a book on metacognitive therapy, called, Live More, Think Less: Overcoming Depression and Sadness with Metacognitive Therapy (2020). She describes it as an “easy read” for laypeople that focuses on depression but applies to “overthinking in general.” Other online resources, including online treatment, are available from her and her colleagues on Zoom, YouTube and social media.

Callesen recommends that we train our attention to move from obsessive “interior inputs,” like trigger thoughts; and that we restrict “outer inputs” that come from external stressors. She recommends that overthinkers practice a 10 minute, three-step “attention training” exercise:

(1) Tune in to three or four environmental sounds, such as traffic, birdsong, chatter on a nearby radio, renovation noise, etc. Seek a setting where “some of the noises you select are nearer and louder, while others are further away and quieter.”

(2) Of the three or four sounds you’ve selected, practice tuning in to just one at a time, for about 10 seconds each (use a digital timer to help you). Let the other sounds fade into the background. After 10 seconds have passed, switch your focus to another of your sounds.

(3) After two minutes have passed, repeat the exercise, but switching more quickly between the sounds, allowing only 2-4 seconds for each one.

This exercise will help us to shift our attention between thoughts. Callesen suggests introducing a recording of a trigger thought into the exercise, to switch our attention toward and away from the sound of that thought.

With repetition, we can learn to let go of overthinking as a defensive strategy. Callesen says that with it comes “a great relief, and . . . the decisions you make won’t suffer from it.” If this and related exercises don’t provide much relief, she recommends a course of Metacognitive therapy (MCT) as a more intensive way to reduce anxiety and depression.

And now it’s your turn: Do you tend to overthink your way through life? Do you think that MCT could help? Please weigh in; I’d be delighted to hear from you.



A visit from “word nerd” Bryan Garner: Should we say “pall” or “pallor?”



In a recent blog posting,  American etymologist, Bryan Garner, explained the difference between the terms “pall” and “pallor.”

A “pall” means (1) a piece of cloth draped over a coffin or tomb; it can also be (2) a shortened form of  the word pallium, a robe worn by a bishop or by a monarch at a coronation.”

Garner says that the set phrase to cast a pall over (a situation) figuratively reflects the first meaning, above, to have gloom and defeat settle in.  By contrast, “pallor” refers to “a paleness of face, esp. a deathly lack of color.”

He writes that both words suggest that things “aren’t right!” But there the difference ends: a pallor is a paleness in the face, while a pall is something that causes gloom. Only a pall, not a pallor, is cast or hung.

Garner jokes that one “grows pallid” when reading the misuses of these terms that he cites:

“The strong-arm tactics cast a pallor [should read pall] over the once-lustrous Espy name.” Charles Whitaker, “Mike Espy: Bruised but Unbowed,” Ebony, 1 Apr. 1999, at 98.

Garner also cites this sentence: “Commerce students said the noontime fights cast a pallor [should read pall] on the rest of the day.” Mary Ellen O’Shea, “5 Arrested at Commerce After Fights,” Springfield Union News, 19 Oct. 2002, at B1.

What are your linguistic bugbears, these days? Please send them to me for future issues!




I am grateful this month to be immersed in a 32 hour practicum, teaching English as a Second Language to several new, Middle Eastern Canadians. Special thanks to the staff of Nevy’s Language (Toronto) for keeping the teacher resources and bookings as highly functioning as possible.

And thanks to my Ontario – and Quebec-based  students who show up faithfully for our Zoom-based lessons, despite the temptations of nearby beaches and parks!

I’m also delighted to have begun professional coaching, as I broaden the scope of my storytelling services, from Saskatchewan’s own, Deanna Litz, of Powerful Nature Coaching & Consulting.

Over the past 12 years, Deanna has been the main facilitator and coach of the startSMART program, through the Praxis School of Entrepreneurship. Deanna is a seasoned veteran with so much to share; I look forward to learning from her insights and guidance!

Many thanks again to the Saskatoon Health Region for ably managing and dispensing second vaccinations, when Pfizer supply temporarily waned (last month) and when the variants raised local anxiety. Particular thanks go to lifelong friend and medical librarian (extraordinaire), Erin Watson, for informing me about a clinic that would expedite the process.

Special thanks as well to cousins and old friends in Ontario (from both university and copywriting days) who continue to write or call at holiday times, even when time is a limited commodity.

And a shout out to all colleagues and friends who (like me) are major caregivers for their elderly relatives in Saskatchewan’s flawed senior health care system, navigating challenging paths when resources are scarce.

A heartfelt thank you this month to the Drebit family and to Gisele Stodola for their generous friendship toward an aging family member.

And to my loyal readers who continue to read this newsletter, now 10 years since I first began it, thank you for your loyalty and interest!



Between 2011 and December 2018, Elizabeth Shih Communications chronicled the stories of B2B marketing and communications on the Prairies and across the country.

Effective January 1, 2019, I rebranded as “Storytelling Communications.” Under the umbrella of assisting others in telling their stories, I help new- and economic immigrants to secure better jobs by improving their language skills; I help small- and medium-sized businesses to close more sales by communicating more effectively; and I help major companies to tell the stories of their legacies.

Interested in learning more? Please contact me through my CASL-compliant website (

After I receive your message, I’ll be pleased to discuss projects with you!

Please visit my website for more information (


What does it mean to have adaptability as an entrepreneur? Here’s one answer . . . .

For the past 10 years (under two different names), “Storytelling Communications” has been dedicated to helping others tell their stories.

So I’m happy to announce that officially on September 1st (2021), I will take  adult learners of the English language as new clients!

As I have indicated in previous postings and in my monthly e-newsletter, during earlier Covid days I earned ESL teaching accreditation from the UK company, Tefl.Org.

Armed with that training, I have since begun teaching three learners through the not-for-profit organization, Nevy’s Language (based in Toronto, via Zoom). The students I work with are in differing ways enthusiastic and committed, challenging and, at times, withdrawn; they require me to be adaptive to their needs.

The concept of adaptability has been seen as key to success in freelancing and (more broadly) in entrepreneurship. American copywriter Ed Gandia recently blogged on the concept of adaptability. He defines the concept here:

“Adaptability is the ability to tackle business challenges by thinking critically and creatively about the problem and its solutions. It’s about being resourceful.  Learning from what worked and what didn’t. Keeping an open mind. Not giving up easily. Taking calculated risks. It means being willing to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.”

Adaptability, Gandia adds, allows entrepreneurs to “better navigate life’s challenges,” both in business and personally.  It allows us to be “more aware, perceptive, compassionate and vibrant.”

Teaching ESL for me, then, is not a new line or a deepening of my services, but a growth in scope of prospects and clients and of adaptability to elicit the stories they have to share.

For the past decade, I have been crafting language to help people tell their stories—whether they are a fifth-generation farmer near Punnichy, SK, or a recent immigrant opening a cafe in Riversdale, who wants to tell others about his/her new life in Canada.

So I continue to interview, write and edit “success stories.” But the scope of my clients is widening.

Through Nevy’s Language, new immigrant students share with me their hopes, dreams, fears and language woes, on a regular basis. And I witness (and encourage) their resilience and determination.

Seth Godin says of the world of marketing and communications that “marketing is no longer about the stuff you sell; it’s about the stories you tell.”

When I teach ESL and when I write persuasive copy, I tell others’ stories in different ways. I have begun to help new and economic immigrants to secure better jobs by improving their language skills. I also help small and medium-sized businesses to close more sales by communicating more effectively. Finally, I help major companies to tell the stories of their legacies.

These activities are focused on telling subtle, complicated and previously untold stories.

What stories do you have to share? Please be in touch; I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Stay tuned for more updates from Storytelling Communications!