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I’ve always loved our bookcase at the school. It’s functional, it looks nice, and it actually draws in our students. None of my previous English teaching jobs in Taiwan have had anything even remotely like it. Some schools have had a mostly ignored bookcase full of things that are way too hard for the students, but not books that the students actually read.

In some ways our bookcase was a symbol of my long struggle to set up an extensive reading program. Ron, to his credit, was the most open and reasonable boss I’ve ever had. He actually read the entire Day and Bamford book on extensive reading that I lent him. In the end, though, I wanted to take reading a bit further than he did. After deciding to move to Pagewood, I finally had the chance.

Bookcase

It’s also a nice bookcase. It’s wide, it can hold a lot of books and it lays pretty nicely against the wall. That’s why it was worth it for Simon and I carry it all the way from our old building to the new one and then take it up to the eleventh floor via the stairs. I must have sweat out 3kg water during the trip and my forearms still haven’t recovered, but look!

Bookcase -500w

Our students have their old bookcase back.

I’ve been having great results with the Dr. Seuss books I’ve been using in my 1st and 2nd grader’s class. In fact, it almost feels like they were made to go along with the oral spelling drills I’ve already been doing. The kids love them, too.
continue reading…

Following up on what I’ve earlier written about the differences between intensive reading and extensive reading, it’s now time to talk about reading materials. For higher level students, this isn’t so big of a problem. For students with, say an IBT TOEFL of 70 (525 on the paper based version) or an IELTS band 5.5, there are numerous interesting extensive reading options. If your students are already at that level, then I suggest the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series. If your students aren’t yet at that level, then this article is for you.

Lower level students pose a real difficulty for extensive reading teachers. In the extreme case, extensive reading just isn’t possible at all. However, it is possible for students to start reading in bulk far sooner than most educators would believe. I’ll assume that your students have learned at least 1000 words (not counting each conjugation or form of a word as a separate entity). Here are the usual stumbling blocks:

  1. Many educators feel that it is important to give children “authentic” material designed for L1 speakers.
  2. Authentic material is entirely incomprehensible to EFL learners who only know a couple thousand words.
  3. While those materials could be glossed, and vocabulary lists provided, that would no longer be extensive reading.
  4. Authentic materials that are comprehensible to low level students are written for toddlers, and therefore not very interesting to EFL students.

Assuming that we’re convinced that extensive reading is worth the effort, and we aren’t going to give up, giving the students dictionaries and sending them off with difficult authentic reading materials is not an option. That leaves two choices, children’s literature and non-authentic reading materials.

Children’s Literature

In my essay about extensive reading I mentioned that one potential barrier to implementing extensive reading is the preconceptions of the learners. Many learners (and educators) feel that foreign language materials have to be difficult and involve slow dictionary intensive labor. Otherwise, they feel, it isn’t real learning. I can assure you that it is just those students who will complain reading children’s books. It’s all about ego. I myself, felt happy to write about and post the old Chinese poem from which the Chinese search engine mogul, Baidu, gets its name. My study from the 國語日報, a daily news paper for children, never made it into any of my articles. It just doesn’t feel that cool to be reading things meant for 7 year old children.

However, once people can get by the initial embarrassment of reading children’s books, they can be useful in a number of ways. First of all, it is almost impossible to read children’s books extensively without learning something about the culture of the people for whose children the books were written. Many learners have claimed that reading children’s books en masse helped them develop a strong interest in and affinity for the target culture. Affinity for the target culture is an extremely important trait for language learners in the long term, according to many prominent linguists.

Perhaps the largest difficulty of all with children’s literature is that for L2 learners who are adults, the books aren’t that interesting. Obviously, things that interest young children and things that interest adults aren’t necessarily the same.

Graded Readers

Graded readers are the other major option for extensive reading classes, besides children’s literature. Graded readers are categorized based on the size of the vocabulary needed to read them. Usually, the vast majority of words in a graded reader will be high frequency words. However, there are also usually a small number of low frequency words in each reader as well. For example, a science fiction story set in space can be written very simply, but no matter how simply it’s written it will need a few low frequency words such as “planet” or “space ship”. There really isn’t any way to avoid a few words like this and still tell interesting stories. These low frequency words are usually glossed and translated at the back of the book. The number of vocabulary words in the book, not including these low frequency words is totaled up, and the result is the number of “headwords” in a book. When deciding how difficult a book to give an EFL learner, it’s best to use the cloze test method I described previously. Generally speaking though, the following guide can be used to determine the number of headwords a student can handle.

Level

Number of headwords they can handle

Students’ TOEIC score

Level 1

400

under 250

Level 2

700

310

Level 3

1000

380

Level 4

1400

450

Level 5

1800

520

Level 6

2500

750

The “levels” in the above chart refer to those used by what I feel is the best graded reader series around, the Oxford Bookworms Collection. My students have made very good progress with their selections and have responded very positively to the books as well. From levels 1-4, each book is about 50 pages long. Books from levels 5-6 can get quite a bit longer. Some books are adaptations of classics, and others are literature created specifically for learners. A few are actually unmodified stories that happen to use suitable vocabulary. The important thing is that these books, as a whole, are actually interesting to read.

Where to Buy the Materials

Considering that on average, Taiwanese people spend over 20% of their disposable incomes on learning English, either for themselves or their children, it is murderously difficult to find graded readers in Taiwan. Do date, I’ve gone to over 40 bookstores, including the gigantic one inside 台北101, and I’ve only found one store that sells them. The same store also has a decent selection of children’s literature and some books for foreigners learning Chinese! It is the Caves Bookstore in 台北 on 中山北路 near MRT雙連站. To get there, go to 雙連站 and then take the exit towards Mackay Hospital. When you get to the first light (中山北路), cross the street and take a left. In less than 5 minutes you’ll get to the Caves Bookstore, right next to a Subway sandwich shop. If you get to a KFC, you’ve gone a little bit too far.

Update: The bookstore mentioned above has closed. The best option now is the Neihu branch of Caves Bookstore, near Cosco.

Last night, while I was doing some Chinese reading online, I came across some pretty good comics. The down side of comics is that it’s all in picture format, so you can’t use Dr. Eye to translate it. So, I guess they aren’t that useful for beginning students. But, for an low-intermediate student like me, they’re great! Thanks to the simpler vocabulary in children’s comics, and the rich context provided by the pictures I can read them without cracking open the dictionary. That makes them nearly ideal for extensive reading use, maybe even better than the 國語日報 (Mandarin Daily for Kids). For example, consider this one I read yesterday.
http://tw.comics.yahoo.com/051119/98/2jsbq.html

Before I read it, I didn’t have any idea how to say “termite” in Chinese. But from the context of the comic, it’s very clear that that’s what “白蟻” means. Someone who didn’t know what “正義感” meant could probably figure that out from the context as well. Also, at least for me, I’m sure I’ll remember “白蟻” a lot longer from this limited exposure than I would have if I’d encountered the same word in a vocab list. Now if I could just put all time I put into blogging in English into reading Chinese comics… Anyway, here are some sites with free comics:

Extensive reading is most easily understood by contrasting it to intensive reading—the type of reading most often found in foreign language learning programs. Intensive reading materials are often hard for students and are packed with new vocabulary or difficult grammar. Extensive reading materials are easy and have few unfamiliar words and little to no new grammar. Intensive reading is slow. In many cases students spend an entire hour working through just a few paragraphs or pages. Extensive reading is fast. Students might read 20-40 pages or more of foreign language text in an hour.

Intensive ReadingExtensive Reading
Hard GrammarEasy Grammar
Many unfamiliar wordsUnder 2% of words are new
Read 1-2 pages in an hourRead 25+ pages in an hour

What kind of materials are suitable?

Extensive reading materials should be three things—easy, authentic and interesting. These goals conflict to some degree. As anyone who has had the experience of trying to read in a language they don’t know very well, nearly everything they want to read is too hard. At the same time, those few texts that are easy enough, are usually very artificial (e.g. textbooks) or very boring (e.g. books for three year-olds).

Get books the students can actually read without a dictionary

The most important thing about choosing extensive reading materials for a classroom is that they are easy enough. There is a tremendous pressure to accept a text with “just a few” extra vocabulary items since it feels like the students will learn more. This is a trap. While intensive reading is valuable and has its place, the benefits students get from extensive reading disappear quickly if students cannot comfortably read and instead find themselves decoding and translating.

The bar identified by L2 acquisition researchers is that at least 98% of the vocabulary in a text must be comprehensible to the students.  About one or two new words per page and maybe one new sentence structure per session is the goal to aim for. 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.

Aim for natural text—something native speakers (perhaps children) might actually read

There’s nothing worse than studying a language from materials filled with strange, wooden-sounding phrases that native speakers would never actually say. And yet, these kinds of materials are pretty common in foreign language instruction. Sometimes this is due to pressures to teach certain grammar structures or to prepare students for an examination. In isolation, that may not be a terrible decision since learning core grammatical patterns does help bring more authentic materials within a language learner’s reach. Extensive reading is not the time, though. When extensive reading, keep to the most natural texts possible. Reading a lot will improve a learner’s grammar but that’s not the primary goal.

Choose the most interesting books possible

At very low levels, there aren’t a lot of reading options that are easy for a second language learner. However, within the constraints of what texts are usable, it is imperative to choose the most interesting ones possible. In a classroom setting, very low-level students may need help from a teacher and need to go through the same story together. In this case, choose something with as broad of an appeal as possible. As students get more comfortable with books in the target language, they can and should be choosing their own. In my own experience teaching over a thousand students, I haven’t yet encountered one who didn’t start wanting to read specific books after having read a dozen or so at a given difficulty level. As long as students have had several successful reading experiences in the language and there are interesting choices, it’s almost inevitable that they’ll start finding themselves comfortable with more and more complex books over time.

How much should an L2 learner read?

Assuming, one free hour per day, aim to read at least 25 pages per day. If there’s only half an hour to spend on reading, then read at least 10 pages. This may seem like a lot and, for students who are reading normal paperback books with few pictures, it is. A native reader typically reads 40 to 100 pages per hour, so this is a bit over half the rate of a native reader on the slow end of the normal range.

There are two reasons for reading so much. First of all, it forces you to use dictionaries sparingly. As I encountered in a very painful way when learning Chinese, 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 of Extensive Reading (ER)?

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 a few difficult, boring paragraphs followed by 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:

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

This piece is about ways in which Intensive Reading can be employed in the EFL classroom as well as in children’s native language classes. One way to understand Intensive Reading is by contrasting it with extensive reading. The goal of one exercise is to push oneself to build specific skills by taking on difficult material in a focused session, while the goal of the other is to spend as much time as possible reading and building a strong language base.

Intensive Reading

Nearly anyone who has taken a foreign language class in North America is familiar with intensive reading. Maybe you have to read a paragraph, or maybe you have to make your way through Le Petit Prince, like I once did. In either case, you’d be reading something with a great deal of vocabulary and/or grammar that is beyond your current reading ability. If your instructor is kind, maybe the vocabulary and grammar that is new to you will be glossed page by page. If not, you’ll be spending more time looking up a dictionary than reading. Assuming vocabulary is supplied for you, the most efficient way to do this kind of reading is to first drill yourself on the new vocabulary for an hour or so, and then read. Diligent students will be able to use the reading to learn 10 or maybe even 20 vocabulary words within a couple of hours. However, even they will probably be reading word by word rather than taking in the language a phrase at a time as they would reading in their native languages.

Advantages

Intensive reading has two key advantages. For low level readers, intensive reading is possibly the fastest way to build vocabulary. Some foreign language students are able to successful add 10 or more comprehension words per day. Additionally, reading difficult material forces a learner to develop strategies for for dealing with texts that are too hard to read comfortably.

Reading Strategies

When deciphering a difficult text, readers are forced to use a variety of strategies that they wouldn’t need while engaging in extensive reading. While these strategies don’t build overall language skills, they are very important for a learner’s ability to use what they do know. Skimming is critically important. Even travelers who may have only a basic knowledge of a language may need to read menus, look for an apartment or fill out forms. In fact, classroom exercises in doing just these tasks is an excellent way to build students ability to skim partially incomprehensible text. For younger learners, TV listings and search engine results are good tools. Dictionary use is another skill that can be developed through intensive reading. Equally important is guessing. Both children and foreign language learners often learn what words mean gradually as they make educated guesses when seeing it in context.

Drawbacks

The biggest drawback, by far, is the large amount of time spent reading a small amount of text. Intensive Reading Drawbacks- translating nose into Japanese or MalayWhile most people assume that this is necessary in order to be “learning”, it isn’t necessarily the case. Many studies have shown that the only way people really learn how to use new grammar or vocabulary correctly is by encountering them in a large variety of contexts. In other words, even after you have “learned” a word, it is still extremely beneficial to keep reading material which includes it. Words frequently don’t map one to one from one language to another. Take for example the word, “nose”. It seems like a simple enough word. It’s a noun and it refers to a body part that everyone in the world has, regardless of mother tongue. However, like many things in language learning, the word “nose” is much more complicated than it appears.

In Japanese, the word 鼻 (はな), means nose… sort of. Consider this sentence:


elephant

as for

nose

be
長い
long
が 
but

pig

as for

nose

be
短い
short

.

“Nose” and “鼻” aren’t quite the same. Japanese doesn’t have any one word that means exactly the same as “nose”. The word for “nose” in Malay, “hidung” is different from both “nose” and “鼻”:

Gajah
elephant
panjang
long
belalainya
trunk.its
tetapi
but
babi
pig
pendek
short
hidungnya.
nose.its.

As we can see, “nose” applies to people, but not pigs or elephants; “hidung” applies to people and pigs, but not elephants; and “鼻” applies to all three.

Intensive reading, by it’s nature takes a lot of time. Reading material with a lot of new vocabulary and grammar is a slow and tiring process. As a result, even if you spend an hour a day reading (which quite a bit for a language student), you will only get 3 or 4 pages of input. As a result, you won’t encounter the word “nose” in enough contexts to realize when it’s used. This may seem like a small problem, but consider the fact that many, if not most, words cannot be mapped 1-1 from one language to another.

The nose example may seem to be a hand picked, but I can assure you it’s not. While I was learning Japanese I encountered literally thousands of words that were just a little bit different than the English words into which they are commonly translated. Here’s one more thing to consider: The more common a word is, the more likely it’s usage (and conjugation if it has one) is irregular. Think of all the different meanings of the extremely frequently used word, “get”. Is there any other language in which “get up”, “get even”, “get better”, “get a new bike”, and “get to go on vacation” are all translated the same way? Worse yet, the forms of “get” are so irregular that not even American and British English agree on them.

What can be done about these misunderstandings? In most classrooms I’ve seen, intensive systems are used. This means that students not only have to try to memorize 50 words a week, but they are also told to memorize rules. “Nose” can be used for people, but not pigs, elephants or birds. If the “get” in your sentence means 變得 (biàndé), then you use an adjective to modify it (ie. get mad). If the “get” in your sentence means 到 (dào), then you have to use an adverb to modify it (ie. get home quickly). Can you remember all of these rules while memorizing new ones? Maybe. It’s sure not the most efficient way to go about learning a language, though.

Ideally, a small portion of reading time (10%-15%) is intensive and the remainder is extensive.

This article is an updated version of one originally posted in 2005
The Malay example is from the 1999 ALT-J/M paper

One of the largest failings I see of EFL education in general, including some of the best schools, is the total disregard for modern 2nd language acquisition pedagogy. Linguists have demonstrated time and again that a purely skills-based approach to teaching a second language does not work very well. And yet, a skills based approach is what is practiced in over 99% of all EFL classrooms in Japan, Taiwan and Korea.

Perhaps the most influential L2 acquisition linguist, Stephen D Krashen, has long maintained the importance of massive comprehensible input for language learners. Mountains of research make it quite clear that no matter how many vocabulary words and grammatical structures students of a 2nd language memorize, they will not be able to write well until they have done a considerable amount of reading. Likewise, students will not speak well until they have heard a great deal of the target language. The most important thing, however, is that the input be comprehensible.

In nearly all big EFL cram school chains, native English speakers teach at least half of each class. Students do receive massive amounts of authentic English input. The problem is that far too little of it is understood. In order to be acquired, new vocabulary and grammar structures must be encountered hundreds of times in contexts where they are fully understood. Very few schools will give their students this opportunity. Memorizing and reciting difficult speeches may impress parents, but it does little for the language development of the students. The same problem exists with the reading included in EFL curriculums, if it is included at all. Despite the overwhelming evidence in support of extensive reading, most curriculums focus exclusively on intensive reading.

In most big chains, students receive massive incomprehensible input, and the results are terrible. At the better schools, the students receive a modest amount of comprehensible input, and the results are better. I’m convinced that the results would be far better, if the students had reading homework after every class, starting towards the end of the first year of their study. Ideally, they would have to read a paragragh per class at the beginning, would be reading 20 pages a week by the end of the second year, and 50 pages per week by the time they graduate. Provided the reading material is at a level such that it can be read at good speed without a dictionary, they would receive large amounts of comprehensible input and improve much more quickly.

Fortunately, my boss agrees. I think we have a good chance to make the best English educational program in Taiwan. I’m psyched. My next article will be on extensive reading.