In my last article, I talked about intensive reading. Hopefully, I’ve convinced some of you that languages are too complex to learn properly by memorizing new vocabulary and grammar structures. Now, I’ll describe extensive reading. What is extensive reading? In short, extensive reading is everything that intensive reading is not. It is not “hard” material. It is not tedious. It is not slow. Unfortunately it is also not very common in the ESL classroom, either.

What kind of materials are suitable?

The most important thing about choosing materials for extensive reading is that they are at least 98% comprehensible to the students. There should be very little new vocabulary and very little new grammar. One or two new words per page and maybe one new sentence structure per session would be ideal. If the students can already understand that much of the text, new words can often be learned entirely through context. If these few new words appear again and again through out the text, all the better. Words learned like this aren’t learned all at once, of course. Students start with a fuzzy understanding of a new word, which gradually gets clearer and clearer as they encounter it again and again in new contexts. This may seem like a slow way to go, but as I argued in my intensive reading article, there really is no short-cut. Translations accompanied by a few example sentences are never enough alone.

When choosing books for your students, one good test is to take a page from the text you are considering, give it to your students for a few minutes, and ask how many words they don’t know. Depending on how honest your students are, you’ll get a good idea of whether or not they could read the text. If you are worried they won’t admit what they don’t know, then cover up about twenty words scattered throughout the page, and photocopy it. You can then give the students a cloze test. If they can complete over 80% of the sentences with the correct words or reasonable alternatives, use the text. If they can’t, pick an easier one.

How much should they read?

Assuming, as I did in my last article, that they have an hour a day, they should read at least 25 pages a day. If they only have half an hour to spend on reading, then they need to read at least 10 pages. This may seem like a lot and, if the students are at a level where they can read normal paperback books with few pictures, it is. A native reader typically reads 40 to 100 pages per hour. There are two reasons for requiring so much. First of all, it forces them to use dictionaries sparingly. As any student of Chinese knows, every 5 minutes spent looking through a dictionary is another 5 minutes in which very little language is acquired. The second reason to read so much is that reading too slowly interferes with comprehension. In normal reading, there are certain neurological processes at work that depend on sufficient reading speed (Day and Bamford, 1998). According to Nuttall, “speed, enjoyment and comprehension are closely linked with one another” (1996: 128). When adults read in their own languages, they take in entire phrases at a time, not individual words. If an L2 learner reads too slowly, word by word, it is even possible to forget the meaning of the first few words in a sentence before reading the last.

What are the benefits?

It seems obvious that it is better for a student to learn 20 new words while reading 20 pages of a fairly easy and interesting text, than it is to spend 20 minutes memorizing the same words and then struggle through 2 difficult, boring paragraphs and then do various grammar and translation drills. (For a look at one such difficult text look at page four of this report.) However, I’ll outline the main points below:

  • It can provide “massive comprehensible input”
  • It can enhance learners’ general language competence
  • It can increase knowledge of previously learned vocabulary
  • It leads to improvement in writing
  • It can motivate learners to read
  • It teaches learners about the culture of the target language users, which will allow learners to more easily join the L2 speech community
  • It can consolidate previously learned language
  • It helps to build confidence with extended texts
  • It facilitates the development of prediction skills

How can these benefits be maximized?

Remember that newly acquired vocabulary is fragile. Therefore, the most important vocabulary to use is the vocabulary just learned. Obviously, you don’t want to introduce too much new vocabulary at one time, either. Aside from making sure that the difficulty of your texts is appropriate, it is also important to make sure that they are interesting to the students. The more interesting the texts are, the more the students will like reading (and the language in general), and the sooner they will start doing voluntary reading on their own. See this diary of a JFL (Japanese as a foreign language) learner’s extensive reading experiences.

What are the difficulties?

Using extensive reading in a classroom is, by nature, a difficult thing to do. Different students are at different levels. It takes some work to make a viable curriculum in which not everyone is necessarily reading the same thing at the same time. Some students, who have been studying a foreign language for a while in traditional a class, resist extensive reading at first. They feel that if it isn’t hard, it isn’t “real learning”. It is absolutely vital to explain the rational and benefits to them. Most difficult of all, particularly in an EFL as opposed to an ESL environment, is getting the appropriate reading materials. They can be expensive, hard to find, or simply unavailable, depending on where you are. It also takes some planning to effectively keep track of which students have which books and make sure they are all returned. In my next article on language learning, I’ll talk about some of the extensive reading materials that I have found useful.