In this, the first of two articles for TeachingEnglish, Alan Maley considers the benefits extensive reading can bring to English language learners and teachers.

Extensive reading: why it is good for our students… and for us. - reading article - guest writers

What is Extensive Reading (ER)?
Extensive Reading is often referred to but it is worth checking on what it actually involves.  Richard Day has provided a list of key characteristics of ER (Day 2002). This is complemented by Philip Prowse (2002). Maley (2008) deals with ER comprehensively. The following is a digest of the two lists of factors or principles for successful ER:

  1. Students read a lot and read often.
  2. There is a wide variety of text types and topics to choose from.
  3. The texts are not just interesting: they are engaging/ compelling.
  4. Students choose what to read.
  5. Reading purposes focus on: pleasure, information and general understanding.
  6. Reading is its own reward.
  7. There are no tests, no exercises, no questions and no dictionaries.
  8. Materials are within the language competence of the students.
  9. Reading is individual, and silent.
  10. Speed is faster, not deliberate and slow.
  11. The teacher explains the goals and procedures clearly, then monitors and guides the students.
  12. The teacher is a role model…a reader, who participates along with the students.

The model is very much like that for L1 reading proposed by Atwell (2006).  It has been variously described as Free Voluntary Reading (FEVER), Uninterrupted Silent Reading (USR), Sustained Silent Reading (SSR), Drop Everything and Read (DEAR), or Positive Outcomes While Enjoying Reading (POWER).

So what are the benefits of ER?
Both common sense observation and copious research evidence bear out the many benefits which come from ER (Waring 2000, 2006). There are useful summaries of the evidence in Day and Bamford  (1998: 32-39) and The Special Issue of The Language Teacher (1997) including articles by Paul Nation and others, and passionate advocacy in Krashen’s The Power of Reading. (2004). The journals Reading in a Foreign Language and the International Journal of Foreign Language Learning are also good sources of research studies supporting ER. (see references for websites) And there is the indispensable annotated bibliography,

So what does it all add up to?

ER develops learner autonomy.
There is no cheaper or more  effective way to develop learner autonomy. Reading is, by its very nature, a private, individual activity. It can be done anywhere, at any time of day. Readers can start and stop at will, and read at the speed they are comfortable with. They can visualise and interpret what they read in their own way. They can ask themselves questions (explicit or implicit), notice things about the language, or simply let the story carry them along.

ER offers Comprehensible Input.
Reading is the most readily available form of comprehensible input, especially in places where there is hardly any contact with the target language. If carefully chosen to suit learners’ level, it offers them repeated encounters with language items they have already met. This helps them to consolidate what they already know and to extend it. There is no way any learner will meet new language enough times to learn it in the limited number of hours in class. The only reliable way to learn a language is through massive and repeated exposure to it in context: precisely what ER provides.

ER enhances general language competence.
In ways we so far do not fully understand, the benefits of ER extend beyond reading. There is ‘a spread of effect from reading competence to other language skills ~ writing, speaking and control over syntax.’ (Elley 1991) The same phenomenon is noted by Day and Bamford (1998: 32-39) but they even note evidence of improvements in the spoken language. So reading copiously seems to benefit all language skills, not just reading.

ER  helps develop general, world knowledge.
Many, if not most, students have a rather limited experience and knowledge of the world they inhabit both cognitively and affectively. ER opens windows on the world seen through different eyes. This educational function of ER cannot be emphasised enough.

ER extends, consolidates and sustains vocabulary growth.
Vocabulary is not learned by a single exposure.  ER allows for multiple encounters with words and phrases in context thus making possible the progressive accretion of meanings to them.  By presenting items in context, it also makes the deduction of meaning of unknown items easier. There have been many studies of vocabulary acquisition from ER (Day et al 1991, Nation and Wang 1999, Pigada and Schmitt, 2006). Michael Hoey’s theory of ‘lexical priming’  (Hoey  1991, 2005) also gives powerful support to the effect of multiple exposure to language items in context.

ER helps improve writing.
There is a well-established link between reading and writing.  Basically, the more we read, the better we write.  Exactly how this happens is still not understood (Kroll 2003) but the fact that it happens is well-documented (Hafiz and Tudor 1989) Commonsense would indicate that as we meet more language, more often, through reading, our language acquisition mechanism is primed to produce it in writing or speech when it is needed. (Hoey 2005).

ER creates and sustains motivation to read more.
The virtuous circle - success leading to success - ensures that, as we read successfully in the foreign language, so we are encouraged to read more. The effect on self-esteem and motivation of reading one’s first book in the foreign language is undeniable. It is what Krashen calls a ‘home run’ book : ‘my first’! This relates back to the point at the beginning of the need to find ‘compelling’, not merely interesting, reading material. It is this that fuels the compulsion to read the next Harry Potter. It also explains the relatively new trend in graded readers toward original and more compelling subject matter. (Moses)

So why don’t teachers use ER more often?

A good question. When I conducted an inquiry among teachers worldwide, the answers came down to these:

a) Insufficient time.

b) Too costly.

c) Reading materials not available.

d) ER not linked to the syllabus and the examination.

e) Lack of understanding of ER and its benefits.

f) Downward pressure on teachers to conform to syllabi and textbooks.

g) Resistance from teachers, who find it impossible to stop teaching and to allow learning to take place.

Oddly, the elephant in the room: the Internet culture of young people, was not mentioned. There is work on the non-linear reading required by Internet users in Murray and Macpherson (2005), and articles on hypermedia by Richards (2000), and Ferradas Moi (2008) and some interesting reflections in Johnson  (2006).  The ‘non-reader’ issue will not go away but it is too important to deal with here and needs a separate article.

Extensive Reading for Teachers
My contention is that reading extensively, promiscuously and associatively is good for teacher, and for personal development. ‘The idea of the teacher having to be someone who is constantly developing and growing as a whole human being as a prerequisite for being able to truly help his or her pupils to be able to do the same, is such a core truth of teaching, yet it is typically ignored in FLT. (Peter Lutzker)

ER helps teachers to be better informed, both about their profession and about the world. This makes them more interesting to be around – and students generally like their teachers to be interesting people. For our own sanity we need to read outside the language teaching ghetto. For the sake of our students too.

It also helps teachers to keep their own use of English fresh. As we saw, the research on language learner reading shows how extensive reading feeds into improvements in all areas of language competence. (Krashen 2004) If this is true for learners, how much more true for teachers, who risk infection by exposure to so much restricted and error - laden English or who only read professional literature? Regular wide reading can add zest and pleasure to our own use of the language.

Teachers who show that they read widely are models for their students. We often tell students to ‘read more’ but why should they read if we do not? Teachers who are readers are more likely to have students who read too.

Furthermore, the books we read outside our narrow professional field can have an unpredictable effect on our practice within it.  So much of what we learn is learned sub-consciously. Its effects spread more by infection than by direct injection. And it is highly individual.  Individuals form associative networks among the books they read. This results in a kind of personal intertextuality, where the patterns form and re-form as we read more different books. This gives us a rich mental yeast which we can use to interact with others, while still retaining our individual take on the texts and the world.

So Extensive Reading has a lot to offer - both for our students and ourselves Read on!.


  • Atwell, Nancie. (2006)  The Reading Zone: how to help kids become skilled, passionate, habitual, critical readers.    New York: Scholastic
  • Bamford, Julian and Richard Day.  (2004)   Extensive Reading Activities for Teaching Language.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Day, Richard, R. (2002) ‘Top Ten Principles for teaching extensive reading.’   Reading in a Foreign Language.  14 (2)
  • Day, Richard, R , Omura, Carole, Hiramatsu, Motoo.  (1991) ‘Incidental EFL vocabulary learning and reading.’  Reading in a Foreign Language.   7 (2)
  • Day, Richard, R  and Bamford, Julian.(1998)  Extensive Reading in the Second Language Classroom.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Elley, W.B  (1991)  ‘Acquiring literacy in a second language: the effect of book-based programmes.’   Language Learning.  41.  375-411
  • Ferradas Moi, Claudia.  (2003)  ‘Hyperfiction: Explorations in Texture’ in  B.Tomlinson (ed)  (2003)  Developing Materials for Language Teaching.  London/New York: Continuum,  pp 221-233
  • Hafiz, F.M and Tudor, I. (1989)   ‘Extensive reading and the development of language skills.’   ELT Journal 43 (1)  4-13
  • Hoey, Michael  (1991) Patterns of Lexis in Texts.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hoey, Michael  (2005)  Lexical Priming.  London: Routledge
  • Johnson, Steven (2006)  Everything Bad is Good for You.  New York:  Riverhead.
  • Krashen, Stephen  (2nd edition. 2004 )  The Power of Reading: insights from the research.   Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Kroll, Barbara (ed) (2003) Exploring the Dynamics of Second Language Writing.: Chapter 10 Reading and Writing Relations.  New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Maley, Alan (2008)  ‘Extensive Reading: Maid in Waiting’ in B. Tomlinson (ed)  English Language Learning Materials: a critical review.  London/New York: Continuum  pp133-156.
  • Moses, Antoinette, (2004)   Jojo’s Story.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Murray, Denise and Pamela McPherson  (eds) (2005) Navigating to Read – Reading to Navigate.  Teaching in Action (series)  Sydney: NCELTR, McQuarie University
  • Nation, Paul  (1997)  ‘The language teaching benefits of extensive reading.’  The Language Teacher.  21 (5)
  • Nation, Paul  and  Wang Ming-Tzu, Karen  (1999) ‘Graded readers and vocabulary.’ Reading in a  Foreign Language.   12 (2)
  • Pigada, Maria and Norbert Schmitt  (2006) ‘Vocabulary acquisition for extensive reading.’  Reading in a Foreign Language.  18 (1)
  • Prowse, Philip.  ‘What is the secret of extensive reading?’  (accessed 4 April 2007)
  • Prowse, P.  (2002)  ‘Top ten principles for teaching extensive reading: a response.’ Reading in a Foreign Language.  14 (2)
  • Richards, Cameron (2000)   ‘Hypermedia, Internet communication and the challenge of re-defining literacy in the electronic age.’ Language Teaching and Technology.  4  (2,) 59-77.
  • Scmidtt, Ken   Lower level Extensive reading Opportunities for Lower-level Learners of EFL/ESL.  on
  • Waring, Rob  (2000)  The ‘Why’ and ‘How’ of Using Graded Readers. Oxford University Press, Japan
  • Waring, Rob  (2006)  ‘Why Extensive Reading should be an indispensable part of all language programmes’.  The Language Teacher  30 (7): 44-47

Useful Websites

Please note Alan's now finished writing on the site and will not be able to reply personally to your comments.



Hi Alan!1.  I experienced  the benefits of extensive reading on myself  when I was a student. It  gave an immense boost to my vocabulary  and broadened my  outlook . Unfortunately , I don't read  fiction  much these days being busy with methodology and     I  feel its negative impact on my vocabulary  and the need to read more . Students learn the language not only from books , but from their teachers where the exposure to the language is great . They   remember    the words they pick up from their teachers   much better than the words they are forced to learn  which is another advantage of extensive reading.( Here    we might compare it with "effects of an injection and infection"--   thanks for  the comparison)2. Why are we unwilling to teach  extensive reading ?I agree with the reasons given by teachers and   will  expand on one of them. You can hardly find  a modern  novel  which is provided with different interesting activities and which might help you to   get feedback from your students and keep up their interest throughout the reading course.Teachers have a hard time of making up  and improvsing activities that might keep the students on the track.                 NeliBatumiGeorgia

Dear Neli, 1. I do so agree with you about the power of extensive reading as a way of building vocabulary incidentally.  Also the effect on students' self esteem when they realise that they can actually read a whole book in the foreign language.  That's what Krashen calls a 'Home Run' book, that is a kind of psychological milestone on the road to learning the foreign language. 2. Where I have some doubts is your contention that students need 'interesting activities' to accompany the books they read.  If the books are chosen by studenbts foir their intrinsic interest, there is no need for activities. (Please see the list of characteristics of ER above)  There are now plenty of such books, written specifically for FL learners, with rivetting story lines and accessible language.  I think it was Krashen again who made the point that any time spent doing activities is time taken away from actual reading.  Of course, teachers alwasy feel they have to have activities but they mmay not always be right...activities may come inb the way of reading rather than fostering it. Best wishes Alan  

Hi Alan
Thanks for the timely reminder of the value of extensive reading.
One think that I've come to appreciate as both a language learner and a language teacher is the value of repetition. I used to see it as boring to reread a book, but especially for learners, there can be great value.
One benefit is that  on a second or third reading, we may understand something that we missed earlier. Additionally, sometimes a repeat encounter with a language item in a natural context deepens our understanding. Furthermore, we can read with different purposes each time.
One twist on rereading is to read the same book again in our second language. I did that with 'Treasure of the Sierra Madre' by B. Traven, reading first in my native language and then in a second language. Without the first reading, i probably never would have made it through the second.
All the best --george

Dear George,Thanks for this.  I couldn't agree more that re-reading a book in the new language nearly always reveals new layers of peeling an onion, you get closer to the core each time.Your second point is a wonderful way of enhancing control of the second language.  If you read a familiar book in an unfamiliar language, much of the burden of following the story is lifted, leaving you only with the issue of interpreting the new language.Thanks for making both points.BestAlan  

I think that many teachers are unwilling to try extensive reading because the orthodox form, using graded readers, requires that a large variety of readers to be available to suit the various interests and levels of the students.  Obtaining and managing such a collection is something that takes true dedication.  Now, if the school adminstration can be convinced of the merits of ER, so that the school library purchases and maintains the collection, it then becomes much more do-able.  So perhaps the biggest challenge is to convince those with power within your school administration of the essential worth of ER.One argument that I have found useful, is that to improve in overall English proficiency, a large number of contact hours with the language is essential -- much more than the students will ever get in their classes alone.  Extensive reading affords them extra time outside of class hours to get a good deal of that extra practice that they need in order to consolidate what they have already learned, and to experience English grammar and vocabulary in new contexts so that they can get a firmer hold on how it is actually used in the living language.

Dear Tom, Many thanks for your helpful observations.Getting the school administration and leadership on side is a key to developing an ER programme. And, as you say, it requires tremendous determination.  ER is not sexy, like some other teaching resources.  It's just, well, books... That may be one of the reasons that make it less appealing to administrations.  We simply have to keep plugging away to convince the powers that be that what looks like such a humble and unspectacular activity has the potential to achieve astounding results. And you are absolutely right that ER is a wonderful way of extending learning out of class time.  And without this, the students will never have enough exposure to the language in context to acquire it.  Most learning takes place outside the classroom anyway, so we should capitalize on that fact. very best wishes Alan

      Dear Alan, 1. Thanks for the ideas of hooking students which are excellent ways of attracting students to reading . I agree with you that sometimes activities might distract students from  reading    and  turn it into a routine.But when you have extensive  reading in your curriculum  and there are time- constraints   and pages , we have to think of activities   , testing and  the program.2. On the other hand ,  I feel we have to change  the program or do something so as to turn extensive reading into exciting and attractive reading , something that might make them want to read , share and re-read.        With best wishes,                              Neli 

Extensive reading - reading in quantity and in order to gain a general understanding of what is read. It is intended to develop good reading habits, to build up knowledge of vocabulary and structure, and to encourage a liking for reading. (Richard & Schmidt, 2002, p.193-194, 443)Most of the authentic materials for extensive reading can be compiled from newspapers, magazines, or unabridged novels or fictions together with hypertexts from websites, which can cause frustrations and discouragement for readers who don't have enough background knowledge required for comprehension. Unsimplified texts include texts written for native speakers who read for pleasure and information rather than in order to learn a foreign language with pedagogical purposes. No one can deny L2 learners can have a chance to get exposed to the real world of L1 language via authentic materials."Good L2 readers can compensate for a lack of English proficiency by increasing awareness of reading strategies and how to use these strategies while reading to enhance comprehension". Mokhtari & Sheorey (2002)Among the 3 groups of reading strategies classified by Mokhtari & Sheorey (2002, p.4), Support strategies not Global Reading Strategieis and Problem Solving Reading Strategies are explicitly aimed at L2 learners.Non-native Teachers are also the ones who need support in giving instructions and motivations to L2 learners to read more in the classroom as well as outside.Giving assignments for L2 learners to read more at home and following up with their work is so tough if teachers cannot inspire students or make them interested in extensive reading.But How can I inspire my students and get them involved in extensive reading voluntarily?

Dear Thuy, Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments on ER.One thing I would say is that unsimplified material would have to be very carefully chosen if it is to be useful.  'Authentic' is a double-edged blade.  undoubtedly, authentic texts have a role to play but exposure to accessible authentic texts may not be itself enough.  For ER, we need texts which learners will find easy so that they can read a lot, and fast. There is also quite a lot of counter-evidence on the value of explicitly teaching reading stategies.  (see some of the other blog entries in this site.) As to how to inspire your students to want to read, there is no single answer.  However, I suggest that some of these things will help: - show your own enthusiasm for reading.  Bring books you are reading yourself into class and talk a bit about them.  You are a roole model for your students, never forget that.- make an attractive display of books in the classroom and talk about each one briefly.  Then allow students to choose one they think they might like, and to browse through it.- with students help, choose a book they think they might like.  Read aloud to them for a short time in each lesson.  Once they are hooked, they will never let you stop! There are many other ideas to stimulate ER in Julian Bamford and Richard Day's book 'Extensive Reading Activities for Teaching Language (Cambridge University Press).  It is a highly practical book with lots of clearly-explained activities drawn from teachers all over the world.Enjoy your reading! Best wishesAlan

Dear mr Alan Maley,                             I agree that extensive reading is a must for all teachers for their professional development. But the present generation has lost the habit of reading good books because of technological explosion like internet, e-mail, twitter and so on. Nobody even cares to write letters these days. Thanks a lot for referring to good books and websites on extensive reading.. I hope you will refer to my two poems 'two angels from the west' and 'My dear bard' which are published as my blogs under the name of jvl narasimha rao. I am eagerly waiting for your precious comments on the 2 poems very soon. With kind regards, jvl narasimha rao


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