Extensive Reading: What is it and Why should we be doing it?
Jun 19, 2009 Reading 4854 Views
In the following paper I will examine the concept of extensive reading and discuss some of the key features, principles and benefits associated with it. In order to define extensive reading it will be necessary to contrast this with what is commonly called Intensive Reading.
The first part of this paper consists of a brief, but fairly comprehensive introduction or explanation of what is meant by extensive reading. This introduction consists of not only some basic definitions, but also a discussion of various areas relating to implementing a program within an institutional language teaching context. The introduction includes a number of my own personal beliefs which have been supported by definitions from a number of leading authors on the subject.
Secondly, the various benefits of extensive reading to language learners will be examined. This will be followed by a section outlining some ideas and principles relating to the introduction of extensive reading programs within an academic or institutional setting and some practical ideas that can be used by teachers working with, or planning to implement an extensive reading program in their own teaching contexts. Next, there will be a brief discussion of some of the reasons why extensive reading has so far failed to be widely adopted by language education institutions and teachers alike.
This paper is by no means definitive, but it is hoped that it could serve as a concise, easy to read introduction on the subject of extensive reading for teachers and administrators of English as a foreign or second language. It is also hoped that it will provide some alternative, yet practical and solid ideas and suggestions on how to deal with some of the common problems facing language teachers and administrators; predominantly in an academic context
Intensive Reading versus Extensive Reading
Much has been written on the issue of extensive reading in a foreign language learning and teaching context. Before moving on to other discussions on the subject it is necessary or beneficial to start with a clear definition of what is meant by extensive reading. To do this, the area of intensive reading must also be briefly considered. Intensive Reading is a process whereby students read materials which is usually above their linguistic level. The material usually contains a large number of unknown vocabulary items and grammatical forms that are difficult for, or unknown to, the learner. The purpose is usually to have learners explicitly study new vocabulary and use a host of reading skills such as skimming, scanning, and guessing meaning from context. Bruton (2002) characterizes intensive reading as “having comprehension and language-focused tasks completed communally by the whole class.” (para 2). Brown (2007) similarly states that intensive reading is usually “a classroom-oriented activity in which students focus on the linguistic or semantic details of a passage. Intensive reading calls students' attention to grammatical forms, discourse markers, and other surface structure details for the purpose of understanding literal meaning” (p 373). Another similar but useful description is given by Bamford and Day (1997), who state that intensive reading “often refers to the careful reading (or translation) of shorter, more difficult foreign language texts with the goal of complete and detailed understanding is also associated with the teaching of reading in terms of its component skills.”.
After defining intensive reading, it is possible to contrast this with extensive reading in order to get a firm idea about what it involves. Extensive reading involves a learner reading a large quantity of material which is within, or quite often below, their linguistic or comprehension level. “For extensive reading to be possible and for it to have the desired results, texts must be well within the learners' reading competence in the foreign language.” (Day and Bamford, 2002, p 139). It is important that learners read regularly and cover a large quantity of material. However, it is not necessary for the reader to understand each word in the text, as the purpose is for the reader to comprehend the overall message and gain a general understanding of the text. Bamford and Day (1997) refer to these points when they state that extensive reading is “generally associated with reading large amounts with the aim of getting an overall understanding of the material. Readers are more concerned with the meaning of the text than the meaning of individual words or sentences.” (p 6).
Some Basic Principles of Extensive Reading
Now, after providing a brief definition of extensive reading, a number of other principles related to the teaching of extensive reading in a language learning setting will be discussed. Day and Bamford, (2002) set out ten points which provide a set of clear principles that will both help further define extensive reading and act as a guide for teachers interested in including an extensive reading aspect within their own teaching contexts. Firstly, they discuss a point which has already been dealt with above; the fact that the reading material should be easy. An additional point highlighted is that a wide range of material covering a variety of topics should made available to learners. They state that material should ideally include not only fiction and non-fiction books, but also texts such as newspapers and magazines. However, although there is undoubtedly a broad range of graded readers available which cover a wide range of genres, topics and writing styles, there is at present only a very limited number of newspapers and magazines of a sufficiently low level available to learners. Websites such as www.breakingnewsenglish.com and
www.bbc.co.uk/learningenglish offer a variety of news related articles but they are mostly suitable for intermediate level learners and above. A good selection of magazines, for English learners, offered at a number of levels, can be subscribed to from www.2maryglasgowmagazines.com. There are also a number of online magazines available for English learners, which can be found by doing a simple google search. These types of resources are making it easier for teachers to expose learners to a wide choice of reading in a variety of formats, but still more is needed. A comprehensive list of available reading resources for learners can be found on the extensive reading website; www.extensivereading.net.
Another important principle highlighted by Day and Bamford (2002) is that the material or text should be of high interest to, and therefore ideally chosen by, the student who is to read it. They go on to say that it is also important that learners feel free, or are even encouraged to stop reading a text if they find it too difficult or of low interest to them. Therefore, the fact that the material is interesting to the reader can be seen as being of key importance, and this is why the name 'pleasure reading' is often used to discuss this type of reading. A number of authors including Day and Bamford (2002) and Renandya and Jacobs (as cited in Richards and Renandya, 2002) mention that for extensive reading to be most beneficial to learners, they must read large amounts, and do so regularly. This will be much more likely to happen if the students are given the choice as to what they read in order for them to select topics, authors and genres of books that are interesting to them. There is no set amount of reading specified 'as the minimum' but a number of authors and researchers recommend one book a week as a minimum. In addition, there seems that there is no upper-limit to how much students could read as the more that is read the more benefit it will have.
Another key feature differentiating extensive reading from intensive reading is that extensive reading is usually not followed by comprehension questions or explicit exercises or tests. The process of reading for pleasure and gaining a general understanding is seen as paramount. The fear is that if students are tested on what they have read it will no longer be seen as a pleasurable activity, which of course would be fatal to any extensive reading program. However, there are a large number of follow-up activities that learners can complete, some of which will be discussed later in this paper.
A further point raised by Day and Bamford (2002) is that of reading speed. It is expected that reading speed in extensive reading should be “faster than slower” (p 138). The goal is to increase reading speed and reading fluency which are closely related to enjoyment and understanding. Due to the lower level of the materials and the fact that speed, general understanding, fluency and enjoyment are key, it is suggested that readers use dictionaries as little as possible, if at all. Furukawa (2006) refers to this point by stating that “excessive use of dictionaries puts too much stress on students and hinders them from leaning English.”
The eighth principle supplied by Day and Bamford (2002) is that extensive reading should be individual and silent. Learners should read silently and at their own pace, whether this be on their own, at a time and place of their choosing or within a classroom setting. This process allows learners to “discover that reading is a personal interaction with the text, and an experience that they have responsibility for.” (p 139). If done in the class, it is essential that the teacher allows enough time for silent reading, and remain silent themselves; not interrupting the class by talking or asking questions. I feel the best thing the teacher can do during these silent reading periods is to act as a 'good example' to students by silently reading a book of their own. This leads on to the next principle of teaching extensive reading; the role of the teacher. The teacher should guide the students and clearly introduce the benefits of extensive reading to them. Teachers should introduce the methodology and practices related to extensive reading, explain the differences from other forms of reading and outline the benefits. Additionally the teacher should act as a role modal for the students. The teacher should be enthusiastic about reading, be frequent readers themselves and also should try to read the materials that their students are reading. This is sometimes difficult if the school does not have sufficient copies, but the teacher should still be able to read the book either before or after their students. If the teacher is not seen to have embraced reading and have a passion and enjoyment for it, then how can we expect the students to do so?
After discussing the above issues, it is felt that it would be beneficial to outline the ten principles of teaching extensive reading given by Day and Bamford (2002).
The reading material is easy.
A variety of reading material on a wide range of topics must be available.
Learners choose what they want to read.
Learners read as much as possible.
The purpose of reading is usually related to pleasure, information & general understanding.
Reading is its own record.
Reading speed is usually faster rather than slower.
Reading is individual and silent.
Teachers orient and guide their students.
The teacher is a role modal of a reader.
Perceived Benefits of Extensive Reading
Next, we will move on to the numerous perceived benefits of extensive reading which will hopefully prove useful to teachers and administrators alike when justifying the need for an extensive reading program.
First some of the reasons attributed to the benefits of extensive reading will be briefly considered. Elley (1991) (as cited in Nation, 1997, para 9) attributes the success to five factors.
Extensive input of meaningful print.
The integration of oral and written activity.
Focus on meaning rather than form.
High intrinsic motivation.
Bell (1998) discusses ten key benefits to learners of extensive reading, which are listed below.
It can provide 'comprehensible input'
- It can enhance learners' general language competence
- It increases the students' exposure to the language
- It can increase knowledge of vocabulary
- It can lead to improvement in writing
- It can motivate learners to read
- It can consolidate previously learned language
- It helps to build confidence with extended texts
- It encourages the exploitation of textual redundancy
- It facilitates the development of prediction skills (Adapted from Bell 1998)
- As can be seen from above, the benefits of extensive reading are numerous and widespread. By reading a large amount and rich variety of materials that are within the learners’ linguistic ability, they are being exposed to significant quantities of what Krashen referred to as comprehensible input. The ten points above seem to be able to be summarized as increasing not only vocabulary and reading ability, but also fluency in a number of areas including writing and possibly speaking. Through the volume of language covered, learners are offered a great deal of repetition and consolidation of language, which many authors including Laufer, Meara and Nation see as key to improving vocabulary retention and fluency. For further and more detailed information on the above ten points please refer to the article listed in the reference section.
- Waring (1997) approaches the subject from a different perspective when he poses the question of what happens if students don't do extensive reading. In his article he concludes that if students do not do extensive reading, but are only asked to decode texts through intensive reading activities, they will be unable to gain practice in skimming over the text and therefore will not be able to move up to the 'ideas' or general understanding level. It is these kinds of reading skills; reading quickly and understanding general meaning that users of a foreign language are most likely need in daily life, whether it is study or work.
Why are so few of us doing it?
- After presenting the various principle and benefits of extensive reading, the question seems to be as above. This is a point of major concern to many researchers and teachers who support extensive reading and ask themselves why extensive reading is not being readily adopted by language education institutions. It seems that there is distinct value in all forms of reading, including intensive and extensive reading extensive and intensive reading. However, at the moment, while intensive reading is carried out in almost all academic language institutions, very few seem to offer or encourage intensive reading. Although there is not too much available literature on why this is the case it is my belief that this is largely due to administrative constraints and expectations. This is due to the fact that creating an effective and broad extensive reading library is a costly undertaking. It is also closely linked to recommendations from authors such as Day and Bamford that as teachers, we should not test or set too many comprehension activities based on the readings. Given this recommendation, it is somewhat understandable that administrators are not rushing to create extensive readings programs or accepting them with open arms. However, if the benefits are well put forward; such as the fact that it will improve all aspects of learners' development in a language and that this in turn will eventually filter through and positively effect their performances on tests, hopefully this situation will change. Perhaps we could use authors such as Waring (1997) to help our case; “As Extensive and Graded Reading will help students to process words faster and they will be better able to read intensively. They will also learn to learn from reading … they are constantly practicing the "guessing from context" skill, so vital for work with the difficult texts that appear on tests.”. (para 6). It now lies to both researchers and front-line teachers to help make the positive changes necessary in order for the idea of extensive reading to be adopted on a widespread scale. In the next part of this paper some practical ideas, which can be used by anyone planning on implementing an extensive reading program, will be provided.
- Practical Ideas Relating to Implementation of an ER Program
- Next, some pedagogical ideas of how to implement, manage, or run an extensive reading program will be briefly discussed. There are many useful and detailed ideas to be found, but for the purpose of this paper I have chosen to use a summary of ten ideas supplied by Bell (1998) along with some of my own ideas along with occasional recommendations from other authors. Although by no means definitive, hopefully the ideas presented here will offer an interesting starting point for those interested in implementing an extensive reading program.
1. Maximize Learner Involvement
This point mainly deals with the logistic work to be carried out when setting up a program. Collection and transportation of books, paperwork such as card file systems, reading records, and creation of book report forms etc. Bell recommends having students take an active role in the setting up and administration related to these areas as it will give students a sense of involvement and ownership.
2. The Reader Interview
Bell stated that regular conferencing, between teachers and students, plays an important role in motivating students and allows for effective monitoring of individual progress. It also provides opportunities for the teacher to show interest in what students are reading, encourage them to read more and act as a reading role modal.
3. Read Aloud to the Class
The teacher reading sections of books in class can be motivating for students by giving them opportunity to hear correct pronunciation, give chance for them to verbalize sounds and increase participation by weaker readers. He said that it is far from the bad practice that it is often thought but can play a large part in motivating emerging readers to overcome the fear of decoding words.
4. Student Presentations
Student presentations (and/or discussions) can give students an opportunity to share information and feelings about the books they have read, giving other learners enough information to decide if they want to read the book themselves. It also help to integrate reading, listening and speaking in the classroom which will only increase the overall benefits. Renandya and Jacaobs (2002) mention the idea of students role-playing the story which I feel could have some of the same benefits as student presentations.
5. Written Work Based on the Reading
This is the most common form of post-reading task but although it can prove very useful, because it is time-consuming and often disliked by students it should not be over used. Having students design posters, bookmarks, write a short letter to the author or prepare short presentations could be used as alternatives.
6. Use Audio Material in the Reading Program
The use of audio materials provided by the publisher seems to have similar benefits to having the teacher read aloud. All books now copy with an audio CD to be used by the teacher.
7. Avoid the Use of Tests
This point has been mentioned in this paper previously; tests can demotivate students and take away the pleasure factor, discouraging students from extensive reading. Instead use more informal measures such as book reviews, posters etc.
8. Discourage the Over-Use of Dictionaries
This point was also covered previously so will not be further developed here.
9. Monitor the Students' Reading
To run an extensive reading program successfully, Bell states that “effective monitoring is required, both to administer the resources efficiently, and to trace students' developing reading habits and interests. Card file system can be used to record titles and the dates the books were borrowed and returned”. (para 22).
10. Maintain the Entertainment
This involves the teacher being continuously enthusiastic, incorporating the use of DVDs to support the books, providing the students with a continually updated and interesting body of materials. Guest speakers could be invited to the school, competitions could be held; basically any means necessary to keep the students interested, motivated and enjoying the readings.
- In conclusion, it is clear that both extensive and intensive reading, are distinctly different but both offer numerous benefits to learners and are therefore necessary if not vital to our students reading development. However, while the benefits of intensive reading seem widely known and accepted, extensive reading is not yet commonplace within language programs. Although extensive reading seems to offer many educational and social benefits such as; increased reading confidence and fluency, increased enjoyment and motivation, high levels of comprehensible input, increased learner autonomy, increased vocabulary retention, and improved fluency in areas such as writing and speaking, it seems that many administrators and teachers are either unaware of these benefits, or in denial of them. This may not be so much about denial but more due to administrative constraints such as factors pertaining to assessment and testing, financial investment, resource management, and various other significant logistical issues. Only through further research, and passing on this research to ground-level teachers and administrators, will it be possible to place extensive reading in the position of importance that it deserves. When this happens we will be in a strong position to offer our students a broad and effective learning experience which allows them to make greater improvements in their reading skills and quite probably many other areas of language learning.
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