This article looks at extensive reading and aims to answer the following questions: What is extensive reading? Why is extensive reading valuable for learning? What types of reading can be done? How do you incorporate extensive reading into your teaching? How do you find out what the students have learnt? And what about using audio books?
In two previous articles on reading (What is reading? and Reading strategies), I’ve looked quite closely at what we actually mean by reading, beyond the type of reading activities that we tend to find in coursebooks. I’ve also mentioned that reading texts are often used as a vehicle for introducing vocabulary or grammar, rather than for the value of the text itself. In this article, I’d like to go even further and talk about extensive reading and reading for the sake of reading itself – in other words, reading for pleasure.
What is extensive reading?
Put simply, extensive reading is reading for pleasure or reading simply because we want to read. However, I think it would be useful to give a more detailed explanation of what is actually meant by extensive reading.
The first thing to remember is that reading is its own reward – there are no questions, tasks or tests. Reading is individual, and students choose what they want to read. Wherever possible, the texts are within the language competence of the students (which is one reason why graded readers are such a good resource). The hope is that the reading is engaging and leads to students wanting to read more.
In many ways, reading mirrors the type of reading we do in our own L1, at least outside formal literature classes at school. We read out of interest, and any resulting benefits are merely an unanticipated bonus.
Why is it useful for our students?
There is no doubt that reading improves a student’s vocabulary and grammar. Well-written books provide a wealth of input, where students will encounter language being used to communicate ideas. This increased exposure will lead, in the end, to a marked improvement in a student’s writing and speaking abilities. It might appear strange to say that reading will lead to better writing and speaking, but students will notice patterns, they will notice how words and phrases are used, and they will see grammar in context. All this, in turn, will enable them to express themselves with a wider range of vocabulary and grammatical structures.
If you can encourage your students to read a wide range of genres, then this, in turn, will increase their general knowledge and their understanding of the wider world. I’ve found that once students develop a reading habit, they start being interested in more text types. They start reading newspapers, notices, the internet – reading starts to build up a momentum of its own.
Extensive reading is a fairly individual activity – and it helps develop learner autonomy. Students read at their own pace, they read in their own time, they read when they want to, they can start and stop when they decide. You’ll find students sitting on a bus reading, waiting for a friend and reading, or sitting down to read a few pages just before class. Extensive reading often leads to a thirst to know more – and this can only be beneficial for learning in general.
What kind of books should my students read?
Anything and everything!
Students have often heard of a particular series or author. Think, for example, of the Harry Potter craze or the many Jane Austen adaptations. It’s great that these trends make people want to become readers, but for many of our students these books are simply too difficult.
The obvious solution, if you want to get your students reading in English, is to use graded readers. These are either simplified versions of books that were originally written for native English speakers, or books that have been written especially for students learning English. You can find a list of Macmillan graded readers here.
How can I incorporate extensive reading into my teaching?
The first thing to remember is that extensive reading is something that takes time. This is one reason why some teachers are reluctant to get students to read in the classroom. However, I do think this is the place it needs to start, as students need to see that you (the teacher) really value reading and are not simply setting it for homework. Personally, I set one lesson aside to focus on reading, where we start by talking about reading in general: Who reads? What do you read? When do you read? Do you read in English? If you don’t read, what are you interested in? Do you watch films or TV? What type of films or programmes do you watch? By asking these questions, you get a feel for the types of book that each student is likely to enjoy. Next, take the students to the library or bring out the Readers Box, and get them to choose one book. Encourage them to read the blurb on the back to get an idea of whether or not they are likely to find it interesting. Then, spend around 20–30 minutes in the class all quietly reading – you should take out your own book (in English) and sit and read as well. In this way, you set a good example.
The other thing I find really useful is to get the students to write a book review after they have finished reading a book. These can be posted on the wall, and other students can read the reviews to see if they might want to read the book. I found that after a few weeks my students weren’t only reading and writing reviews, but they were also discussing the books and whether or not they agreed with the reviews. In the end, extensive reading took off and became an integral part of my class.
One concern that teachers sometimes have is finding out what the students have learnt. If there are no tasks and no comprehension questions, how do you know if your students have understood what they read or learnt anything new? Well, the first thing to remember is that extensive reading is not about checking: it’s about helping our students enjoy reading and enjoy learning. If you start checking whether or not they’ve understood something, you will end up putting them off reading – exactly what you don’t want to do. Secondly, after a while, your students will start using new words and more complicated structures both in their speaking and in their writing. You’ll find them saying or writing things that you know you haven’t taught or weren’t in the coursebook. It’s quite likely that these are things they will have picked up while they have been reading – it’s certainly what happens with people when they read a lot in their L1.
How can we build up a reading library?
If you’re lucky, you’ll already have a collection of books in your school or language institution. However, if you don’t, there is one very easy solution. Ask each student (or their parents) to buy one graded reader (at the appropriate level) that they will donate to the class, and then collect these in and keep them in a box – this then becomes the class library. If you have thirty students in your class, you’ll have thirty books in your library that they can borrow.
But my students hate reading
Of course, reading books is something that some people are simply not in the habit of doing. But be wary of making sweeping statements about reading habits. I often hear teachers complaining that their younger students don’t read. Well, that just isn’t true. Firstly, young people do read, but it might be a different type of reading. For example, if they use social networking sites, they are reading a lot. It’s just that it’s short texts rather than novels. Secondly, not reading books is not limited to younger students. I know plenty of people my age and older who rarely pick up a book. Often, it’s a habit we learn when we are young from our parents and friends, and I’ve visited plenty of houses where there isn’t a book in sight.
What we need to do as teachers is to try to engage our learners by finding things they like reading. This might mean trying different types of texts or finding out what they are interested in. I remember once taking a group of students into the library of the college where I was teaching and asking them each to pick a graded reader. One young man picked up a reader that was about a football team – he read it and loved it. The following week, he found a reader about sharks. He was hooked! From then on, the range of books he read grew and grew.
Another alternative is to use audio books. I first came across audio books when my mother used to play a book as she drove to work. Often, this is a good way to get students interested in a story and, hopefully, encourage them to pick up a book and read. You can find some interesting serialized readers with accompanying exercises here.
Of course, if you can catch your students when they’re young and help them to establish a reading habit early, so much the better. There are audio stories and poems for children available on onestopenglish here.
Every year, the Extensive Reading Foundation hands out prizes to graded readers: http://erfoundation.org/wordpress/awards It’s almost the ELT version of the Man Booker Prize! Unfortunately, such awards seem to get little recognition, and the value of extensive reading is often overlooked. As an avid reader myself, I think that the importance of reading and the benefits of reading as much and as widely as possible simply can’t be overestimated.
Now, time to pick up that latest book I’m reading!