When, as enthusiastic university students, my girlfriends and I asked poet and Nobel Prize laureate, Seamus Heaney, what he would advise aspiring writers, his answer was simple: "Read!" His answer is universally affirmed by writers, educators, and researchers alike: Reading (and being read to) is the "number one" indicator for becoming a good writer.
As a highschool writing teacher, I often suggest paper books, audio books, and family read-alouds with discussion. Folks often get more from a book when hearing it aloud, and no one is ever too old to enjoy hearing a good story.
Another reason read-alouds and audio books are such a great idea is related to the fact that language is primarily spoken and heard and only secondarily written down. When we write, we are writing what sounds good "in our head." If students will listen to great poetry, stories, speeches, and essays frequently and repeatedly (e.g., while they're doing chores, exercising, riding in the car, resting in bed, etc.), they will start to get the sentence structures and rhythms "in their head." Once the patterns are in, they will naturally start to come out in their speaking and writing. This is how we first learned to speak, and it is how we learn to write with a skillful ear.
When it comes to literature, repeat listening is great.
Narration—having the student tell back orally what he heard—can also
help quite a bit with observation, comprehension, and memory. Likewise, discussing books may be the most important and effective way to
develop comprehension and thinking skills, two very important aspects of
A healthy diet of books includes a breadth of classic literature from different genres and time periods, with large helpings of poetry, the King James Bible, and great speeches. The King James Bible—regardless of one's religious persuasion or opinions regarding biblical translations—is also classic literature and is foundational to our English language and cultural heritage.
Memorization and recitation of beloved poems and prose
passages cements the verbal patterns even more firmly while providing
the scholar with a long-lasting source of joy. Poetry—and poetic
prose—is, after all, a sensual thing meant to be heard and enjoyed for
the way it sounds, the way the words feel in the mouth, as well as for
the images the words evoke in the mind. Before television and movies, before even books and the printing press, there were poems and stories recited around the hearth. These poems and stories still give us life.
"Nobody but a reader ever became a writer."
HT: Sally Clarkson for the video link.
If this topic interests you, you might want to check out Andrew Pudewa's article, "The Arts of Language," on the Institute for Excellence in Writing website, which spells out more fully how listening and speaking are the foundation for reading and writing. (There is also a corresponding audio download here.)