On 6 August 2022 I was privileged to be able to present an IATEFL webinar on my views on the application of Extensive Reading as a means of providing students with one essential that is often lacking from their English learning – the opportunity to practice what they have studied. Unfortunately, there wasn’t sufficient time to address the 30+ questions that had accumulated during my talk, so I’d like to cover as many as possible in this blog, within the strict word limit.
The rationale for Extensive Reading can be explained like this. In many classroom contexts around the world, there is an overemphasis on covering the material in the textbook and various forms of assessment which leaves little or no time in class for students to simply read for information rather than focusing on the grammar and vocabulary of what they are studying.
Dr. Paul Nation’s “Four Strands” concept advocates providing more opportunities for students to practice meaning-focused activities for all four skills, as well as time for fluency activities where they can use the language that they already know. Meaning-focused receptive activities (reading and listening), meaning-focused production (speaking and writing), and fluency activities on all skills should each comprise 25% of the students’ overall language learning time. This leaves only 25% for language-focused studythat in many classes comprises 90% or more of class time.
Definition of “Extensive Reading”
The basic concept is for students to read a LOT of material, focusing on the meaning rather than the language. This generally precludes reading material used in the standard texts since it is designed to expose the students to new language – vocabulary and grammar – with little time available for other 3 strands of language practice. Self-selection of reading material, reading at one’s own pace with material that it sufficiently easy to be read fluently with little dictionary look-up is the norm. These criteria are usually met by having students read from graded readers that they select themselves from a library with a wide range of topics and ability levels.
Below are the main categories of questions, with my responses.
Where can I find the extensive reading material?
“Graded Readers” are the best source since they have been written in graduated steps to make it easy for students to read fluently with little recourse to a dictionary. “Leveled Readers” designed for native learners are usable, although they often contain vocabulary and idioms that native children might know but our learners do not.
Online material is also available, but care must be used that it is suitably graded. Two sites that I recommend are:https://er-central.com and https://readtheory.org. Both are free and permit you to register and track your students’ progress, but of course this assumes that the students have sufficient online access.
Another site which has PDFs of some graded readers and lists of online material at various reading levels is https://freegradedreaders.com, much of which can be printed out and distributed to your students.
As a last resort, you might try taking some digital texts that are too difficult for your students and running them through software such as “Vocabprofile” on https://lextutor.ca which would flag the words that your student might not understand by comparing them to a prepared list of words commonlystudied or known by learners, such as the New General Service List. You can then simplify the text down to a level they might understand or perhaps provide a list of definitions for the difficult items.
Getting the students to read
When dealing with intact classes, not everyone will be excited to read – even if the books are at their own reading level and of potential interest. If you have a small number of students, you can talk to them regularly about their reading, but in the case of large classes or have multiple classes, this is not feasible. Often some kind of tracking, be it a reading log, feedback sheets requiring simple, brief responses or a wall chart will encourage many to continue to read. Setting a target, often based on each books’ word count will give them a tangible goal and a grade on their ER, pegged to the number of words read can be a great incentive.
Where to read
While some activity in class is needed in order acquaint them with the basic principles of selecting easy books, how to read quickly without worrying about perfect comprehension, etc., but having the students read outside of class is ideal since it does not interfere with the already overloaded curriculum. This, of course, implies that the students can take their reading home. ER can also be conducted in class where a specific period of time, perhaps 15 minutes is scheduled for it daily.
While students who become excited about their reading might continue to read without further pushing, most students would prefer to use their free time on other activities, such as other preferred subjects, sports or social endeavours.Follow-up activities will vary depending on whether they have read different books (the usual case) or the same one, such as when using a “class reader”. Either way, structured small group discussions will provide a handy way to increase their understanding of what they have read and sharing their thoughts might stimulate the others to read the same book. If their speaking proficiency allows, they can present the book in English (perhaps with a few days warning to make it an English fluency activity), but even a discussion in their own L1 can be beneficial. Bamford & Day (2004) contains a wealth of crowd-sourced ideas for follow-up activities.
How old do students have to be?
The earlier the better! Of course, the students must have recognition ability for the first 100-200 commonly taught words, but this is sufficient since many books for children are available that use limited vocabulary. Books in NGL/Cengage’s Foundations graded series start with a headword count of just 75 words.
Links to books and software mentioned in this blog are available here.
The original webinar: IATEFL members can watch the recordind of the original webinar by logging onto the IATEFL website, selecting 'My Resources' and searching for 'Extensive Reading'.
About Thomas N. Robb
Thomas Robb, Ph.D., University of Hawaii, is Professor Emeritus, Kyoto Sangyo University. He is a long-time user of CALL and the Internet, and has created a number of websites and applications for Extensive Reading, student projects, interactive learning and professional exchange. He has held numerous leadership positions in International TESOL, JALT (Japan) and PacCALL. He is now on the steering committee of the IATEFL LitSIG and is Chair of the Extensive Reading Foundation. He is also the Editor of TESL-EJ, the first online journal for ELT.
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