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Extensive reading: why it is good for our students and for us
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:
- Students read a lot and read often.
- There is a wide variety of text types and topics to choose from.
- The texts are not just interesting: they are engaging/ compelling.
- Students choose what to read.
- Reading purposes focus on: pleasure, information and general understanding.
- Reading is its own reward.
- There are no tests, no exercises, no questions and no dictionaries.
- Materials are within the language competence of the students.
- Reading is individual, and silent.
- Speed is faster, not deliberate and slow.
- The teacher explains the goals and procedures clearly, then monitors and guides the students.
- 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).
What are the benefits of extensive reading?
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, http://www.erfoundation.org/bib/biblio2.php
So what does it all add up to?
Extensive reading 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.
Extensive reading 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.
Extensive reading 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.
Extensive reading 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.
Extensive reading 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.
Extensive reading 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) Common sense 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).
Extensive reading 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 extensive reading 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)
Extensive reading 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?’ http://www.cambridge.org/servlet/file/store7/item620590/version1/CER_LALL_ART_PhilipProwseExtensiveReading.pdf (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.
- Schmidt, Ken Lower level Extensive reading Opportunities for Lower-level Learners of EFL/ESL. on http://tesl-ej.org/ej13/int.html
- Waring, Rob (2000) The ‘Why’ and ‘How’ of Using Graded Readers. Oxford University Press, Japan http://extensivereading.net/docs/tebiki_GREng.pdf
- Waring, Rob (2006) ‘Why Extensive Reading should be an indispensable part of all language programmes’. The Language Teacher 30 (7): 44-47