The Life of the Mind: Extensive Reading for Language Learners

“He so buried himself in his books that he spent the nights reading from twilight to daybreak and the days from dawn till dark; and so from little sleep and much reading, his brain dried up and he lost his mind.” (Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes)


Language Learner Literature

In April 2017 I hosted the Language Learner Literature Awards (known–by me anyway–as the Lalalas) for the Extensive Reading Foundation of IATEFL*. These awards are given to the best adaptations or original works of literature for students.

This year, the winners ranged from a Sherlock Holmes story miraculously made comprehensible for Beginners to an original tale about a Native Canadian girl who goes to live in a tree to stop loggers from cutting down the forest. My favourite winner was Vera the Alien Hunter, for Very Young Learners. It’s about a girl who hunts aliens while being mentored by a blue alien cat called Luca. OK, it wasn’t Dostoyevsky, but it was a whole lot of fun to read.

During a conversation before the ceremony began, someone mentioned that extensive reading is an endangered species. Does anyone, including language learners, read extensively these days? Many parents would attest that their teenage children read nothing longer than 140 characters. The current President of the United States, according to his biographer, has rarely finished a book in his life. Investigative journalism and extended essays, in all bar a few periodicals such as The New Yorker and Atlantic magazine, are being given less and less room in newspapers around the globe.

Extensive Reading Works

Extensive reading (ER) is hugely beneficial for language learners. It has a number of names with silly acronyms – Positive Outcomes While Enjoying Reading (POWER); Free Voluntary Reading (FEVER); and Drop Everything and Read (DEAR) – but there’s plenty of research that tells us it’s a serious business: big readers are big winners in terms of second language acquisition.

Stephen Krashen has long argued the benefits of extensive reading. He emphasises the gains students make in vocabulary, writing and spelling. In a 2007 meta-study of the research, Krashen concluded that “in-school self-selected reading works.” Nation (1997), Day & Bamford (1998), Elley (2001), and Waring (2006) all concur.

The wise owl Alan Maley identifies seven benefits of ER: learner autonomy, comprehensible input, general language competence, general knowledge, vocabulary growth, improved writing, and motivation to read more.


Why don’t schools have ER programs?

Bearing in mind the effectiveness of ER, why isn’t it used more in language schools? The main reasons are cost, time, and the attitudes of teachers and students.

Cost: Schools need to put aside money and space for books, and many decision-makers, not seeing the immediate benefits, choose to spend the money elsewhere.

Time: Teachers never have enough time to cover everything on the syllabus, so unstructured activities such as ER get dropped.

Attitudes of teachers: There’s a feeling that learning needs to be measurable, i.e. testable. For school decision-makers, it’s difficult to quantify the benefits of ER, so ER becomes an optional extra.

Attitudes of students: Students tend to be grounded in internet culture, which encourages short reading experiences. It can be tough to convince them of the value of spending days reading the same book when exam results aren’t riding on it.

How can schools implement an ER program?

Here are some suggestions:

1. There should be a wide selection of books available in a variety of genres and at different levels, including graphic novels and comic books.

2. Students are free to choose what they want to read, with no obligation to finish anything.

3. There are no comprehension questions, tests, or progress checks.

4. The goal is to enjoy reading the book.

5. The students read alone and in silence or, if timetabling doesn’t allow this, at home.

6. The teacher models the process as co-reader, reading and periodically reporting back what he/she read.

7. All pedagogical activities are to enhance the reading experience and not to focus on language. So story maps, time lines, student illustrations, reading logs, journals, mock trials, Readers’ Theater (reading and dramatizing a script based on a story), literature discussion circles, etc., are optional.

Pleasure and Privilege

Extensive reading is a privilege. As Gavin McLean, Business Development Director for Europe, Middle East and Africa at National Geographic Learning, put it during his acceptance speech at IATEFL:

“We think of reading for pleasure and we think that it is something that all parents do with their kids, but in many parts of the world, it doesn’t happen at all. And the work that we do in developing English language teaching readers is so crucial in building up the confidence of children and parents, to get that sense of reading as not just an activity for learning, but for social interaction and a joint enterprise that can benefit both generations.”

*You can see watch the ceremony here:

A wish list for ELT in 2016

I asked teachers, teacher trainers, Directors of Studies, materials and methodology writers, and the President of IATEFL to make one wish for the English Language Teaching profession. Here are their wishes:


“Can I have three wishes, please, like in all good fairy stories? (1) I wish we could shake free of the creeping colonialism of testing – help learners learn rather than preparing them for the test. (2) I wish we could restore more decision-making to teachers rather than trying to control them ever more closely. (3) I wish I could live long enough to see my other two wishes fulfilled.” Alan Maley, author

“I’d like language teachers to create stronger links with subject teachers, in order for students to do more cross-disciplinary projects, e.g. EFL and Arts, EFL and Science, etc. I also think it would be good if more teachers (of any subject) were trained in performance arts, improvisational theatre, voice coaching, creative writing, etc. Finally, and speaking more broadly, I wish ELT continues to develop its “T”, what it means, what it does – and does not.” Willy Cardoso, teacher trainer

“My wish is for people to stop arguing about whether we should use course books or not, and accept that, like everything else, they have pros and cons.” Rachael Roberts, teacher trainer, author

“My New Year’s wish for the ELT profession in the coming year is that it becomes more valued by our government, my fellow teachers who lack motivation and by most students who lose sight of the key life changing experience education represents.” Humberto Baltar, teacher, consultant

My wish for ELT in 2016 is that all of us – teachers, writers and publishers – don’t miss the wood for the trees: ED-Tech is a means to an end (maximizing learning), not an end in itself. José Luis Morales, author

“My wish for 2016 is that education is valued more (by governments, institutions, students and teachers), and that we teachers are appreciated more for our contribution to society. Education should not be seen as a luxury but should be free and accessible to everyone. And we teachers should feel and be more respected for offering our services and making an impact on our students’ lives, often for a very low salary.” Vicky Papageorgiou, lecturer

“My New Year’s wish for the ELT profession is that teachers are not considered professionals in name only. Schools, employers and educational authorities need to respect teachers’ professionalism by providing them with the necessary autonomy, valuing them as decision makers, and paying them a salary commensurate to true professionalism.” Daniel Xerri, teacher trainer, author

“My wish for 2016 is to stay in our centre , find and express the gems of love and light from within us. Let’s keep in mind that patience and endurance are virtues which help us all write our story in the book called life. After all, we may be the only book someone else is reading silently. Love, hope and bliss. Let’s evolve from human kind to kind humans.” Vassiliki Mandalou, teacher

“I believe that education must include global citizenship and ethical decision making, therefore my ELT wish is that educators should keep an eye on what is happening in the world today and – although this sounds like an oxymoron – find inspiration in the negativity that surrounds us. Recession, war and its aftermath, crises in civilization and values worldwide, the fear of terrorism, all could be used as excellent opportunities to raise awareness of social issues and help the students promote peace and social justice. My wish is for the ELT community to use creativity and human resources in a conscientious effort to substitute bigotry, intolerance and bitterness with respect, open-mindedness and hope; and I have great faith in our power as educators to achieve it.” Julia Alivertis, teacher

“My wish for the future of ELT in 2016 is a UK based one. I wish that ELT would be acknowledged as a profession crucial to our economy and reputation as a country. ELT in the UK currently generates £1.2 billion yet the situation in the UK at present means that genuine hardworking students keen to learn English and enhance their future careers are being caught up in immigration issues that do not belong to students.” Fiona Dunlop, Director of Studies

“I would like ELT to go beyond ELT. I would like to learn new and interesting things. I would hate to become like those eye-specialists who can only talk about the retina, the sclera and the optic nerve. I would like ELT to learn from advertising. I imagine myself leaving an ELT event, then going to the pub to meet my friends dying to share new, exciting stuff.” Nick Michelioudakis, teacher trainer

“I would like to see more friendly knowledge and understanding being shared between cultures around the world.” Graham Stanley, teacher trainer, author

Let this year just beginning be the year we quiet our urge to be right, set aside our professional differences, and remember that every teacher matters. In this coming year, let us work together in ways that support & encourage teachers everywhere.” Chuck Sandy, teacher trainer

“My 2016 suggestions are for non-native speaker teachers of English working in their own countries; in other words, the vast majority of workers in our profession: (1) If you get a chance to attend a presentation by some old native speaker guru, ask them how much they know about the working conditions in your school system. If they know nothing, enlighten them. (2) Engage in random professional development. Follow interesting trails on social media and see where they take you. (3) Try to read as many ELT-related blogs as you can. You may find some of them boring. If they are, don’t feel obliged to read them a second time. (4) Never EVER feel inferior to a native speaker. Research suggests that teacher enthusiasm is more important to students than ability with the language, so be more enthusiastic than your native speaker colleagues.” Ken Wilson, author

“My wish for 2016 is that we continue to support one another as best we can within the ELT community. Volunteering for a teaching association is a wonderful way to give back and the more people who get involved in this, the better. I hope that the work that has been started such as raising awareness of the importance of gender diversity within the profession, following anti-discrimination guidelines when posting jobs, giving first-time presenters a chance to speak at international conferences, providing a wide range of free-of-charge web events and live-streamed talks to global audiences, and carrying out programmes to provide training to teachers in their local contexts will continue to grow. Initiatives such as these make me very glad to be a member of the ELT community.” Marjorie Rosenberg, President of IATEFL


Storytelling in ELT

The Boyhood of Raleigh by Sir John Millais

The Boyhood of Raleigh by Sir John Millais


Two weeks ago I was interviewed at the ACEIA Conference in Spain. My interviewer – knowing that I’d just published a novel – asked me what role narrative plays in teaching. For a second, my mind went blank. Then I managed to bluster my way through an answer: something about storytelling being used in education for thousands of years. I waffled on that theme for a minute and then concluded “story is essential to the human condition and therefore it’s part of education.” Phew.

Later, when the interview was over and I was able to breathe again in the comfort of my hotel room, I asked myself: why are stories so powerful as teaching tools? Here are ten answers.



*Stories are the world’s oldest technique for teaching and memorizing, and they still retain their magic. They are how we read the world. We tell our life “story”. We gossip – another form of storytelling. We watch films, soap operas and the news, read novels, short stories and comics. Why? To experience a story.

*Stories exercise the imagination. When we hear or read a story, we co-create it in the mind. It becomes a little film playing inside our heads. If we’re lucky, we may feel as if we’re living two lives.

*Stories involve emotions like fear, sadness, and joy. These engage us and help us to empathize as we inhabit the lives of others.

*Stories are usually chronological. They contain a beginning, a middle (or sometimes a muddle) and an ending. This structure helps to guide students as they follow the sequence of events.

*Stories use formulas that translate across cultures. In all languages, stories contain conflict and a hero who braves obstacles to find his/her salvation. Stories also use linguistic formulas: “once upon a time” … “and they all lived happily ever after”.

*Stories contain rich vocabulary: adjectives to describe wizards and witches, powerful verbs to invoke battles and bust-ups, and vivid descriptions of mountaintop castles or crepuscular caves.

*Children’s stories often use the three Rs: repetition, rhyme and rhythm in lines such as “fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman”; “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”; “What big eyes you have! What big ears you have!” These lines are like ritualistic incantations, and they reinforce language.

*Stories contain language play. Fairy tales and folk stories often contain playful words, puns, and riddles. They also include names that invite readers to enjoy language for its own sake: Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Tom Thumb. For Charles Dickens fans: Ebeneezer Scrooge, Oliver Twist, Pecksniff, Fagin, Magwich.

*Stories are multi-purpose: in language-learning terms, they can involve all four skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening); can be long or short, funny or sad; and can use an inexhaustible range of grammar and vocabulary.

*Stories express cultural beliefs and values. In religious texts, stories such as the parables in the Bible are a vehicle for moral guidance. But non-religious texts often contain a moral, too. In fairy tales, the good live happily and the bad die horribly. In noir fiction, everybody loses, even the winners. And in all fiction, the hero teaches us how to behave when the walls are caving in and the vultures gathering.



After considering the above, I thought about all the approaches to storytelling that I’ve used in class or heard about over the years. They come under three categories:

(1) Students read a story or listen to a recording or watch a film clip.

(2) Teacher tells a story. Students listen.

(3) Students tell a story. Everyone listens.

Within those categories there are many variations. In recent years, the options for (3) have widened. Digital storytelling may involve animation and story-boarding software, or it may combine audio, video and graphics. The icing on the cake might be to publish stories digitally.

Many classes benefit from the idea that, like dance and music, storytelling is a performance art. It comes to life in front of an audience. The current trend is to focus on students telling anecdotes about their lives, because these are personally meaningful to them, but there are numerous types of story – film or book plots, biography, and folk tales, to name a few, all of which can be used in class.



How do you make a complex story easier for students who have a very low level of English? Here are some ideas:

*Use bilingual storytelling. This only works if your students all speak the same L1 and if you speak it, too. You code-switch while telling the story. For example, if your students are Spanish speakers: “one day there was a rabbit, un conejo, who lived in a campo, a field. The rabbit had fifteen brothers, quince hermanos, and ten sisters, diez hermanas.”

*Use pictures to support the story. Students are given several pictures, Before listening, they try to put them in order and guess the story.  I saw this done with photos illustrating the life of Nelson Mandela. The act of manipulating pictures motivated the students to listen carefully.

*Use key words from the story. As with pictures, these act as advance organizers for the students, who predict what happens in the story.

*Use TPR (Total Physical Response). The students act out the story. For younger learners, simple repetitive gestures can be effective. I saw one teacher recount a fictional tale of an epic kayak journey. Whenever the hero was in the kayak, the students did a rowing movement. They loved it and it kept them involved throughout.

*Use jigsaw stories. The students read or listen to only a part of the story. Their partner has the other part. They come together to piece together the whole story.

*Use the teacher’s voice. The voice is the storyteller’s most valuable tool. Through it, the teacher controls volume, emphasis, pace, vocabulary and grammar, length of utterances and length of story. For more on this, see Alan Maley’s book The Language Teacher’s Voice.



In 1984, linguist Thomas Sebeok was presented with a daunting challenge. A nuclear waste repository was under construction beneath Nevada’s Yucca mountain. The mountain would remain radioactive for thousands of years. How could people be warned not to go near it? The Department of Energy planned to erect a huge fence with warning signs in six languages. But Sebeok pointed out that no languages remain comprehensible over many thousands of years.

His solution (which was rejected) was to start an “atomic priesthood”, a team of oral myth-makers who would spread the legend of the radioactive mountain. They would tell this tale so powerfully that it would live on from generation to generation. How telling that in this hi-tech world, the best bet for longevity did not lie in technology, which dates so quickly, or even in language itself, but in the power of story, the most ancient tool of all.

Creativity in English Language Teaching

The theme of the 4th ELT Malta Conference this year was creativity. Here are some of the ideas that emerged.


Creativity is for everyone

“Creativity is seeing what everyone else has seen, and thinking what no one else has thought.” (Albert Einstein) 

Anyone who has managed to use up the last carrot in the fridge or got a recalcitrant child to bed on time or improvised a bookmark from a bus ticket reveals creativity. But this is creativity with a small c – the unrecognized type that isn’t sponsored or rewarded by society. The first thing most of the conference speakers in Malta recognized is that creativity isn’t just Shakespeare and Einstein and Mozart. It’s everyday people. Teachers and students. That’s us.


Creativity is about play

“The struggle of maturity is to recover the seriousness of a child at play.” (Friedrich Nietzsche)

It’s about mental exploration. At the Malta conference, Alan Marsh asked us to write poems; Antonia Clare used 6-word life stories (my favourite: “Never really finished anything, except cake.”); and Alan Maley got us to create new and random metaphors. In all of these activities, there were no right or wrong answers, no predictable outcomes, and no qualitative judgments. The only issue was how much the activity inspires and awakens student interest.


Creative language use is inherent

“Linguistic creativity is not simply a property of exceptional people but an exceptional property of all people.” (Ronald Carter, linguist)

Creative language use is all around us. It’s in jokes. It’s all over advertising. It’s in the names of stores. It’s on public notices and graffiti. It’s even on tombstones. This is in addition to the neologisms and word blends that we invent every time a new concept or machine enters the world. Yes, that’s right: chillax, bromance, frankenfood, and screenager all count as examples of creativity.



In case of fire Indiana Bones so far so good Tequila mockingbird
























Creativity is about finding new connections

“Creativity is just connecting things.” (Steve Jobs)

Can you think of fifty uses for a cardboard tube? What’s the connection between marriage and a sailing boat? How can you bring your hobbies to the classroom to benefit students? (Think … cooking, reading magazines, playing card games.) There’s more to creativity than Steve Jobs said, but making unusual connections is a good start.


Creativity likes constraints

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” (Pablo Picasso) 

Sometimes complete freedom is unhelpful. Constraints and limitations give us frameworks. Take the haiku. The taut structure of a 17-syllable poem liberates the poet. For students, an exact word count or a theme or an opening line can guide their writing, just as a time limit can focus the mind. The task then becomes a puzzle to be solved. One group of Intermediate students, given this framework:

I’ve never …

But I’ve always wanted to.

I’ve never …

And I’ve never wanted to.


came up with this:


I’ve never eaten caviar

I’ve never travelled very far

I’ve never been on TV

I’ve never learned to ski

But I’ve always wanted to.


I’ve never worn a skirt

I’ve never eaten dirt

I’ve never seen a ghost

I’ve never eaten snake on toast

And I’ve never wanted to.


Creativity uses feeder fields

“Steal from anywhere that fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs …” (Jim Jarmusch, film director)

Science & technology, sports, advertising, literature, design – all of these provide inspiration for new ways of teaching and learning languages. Many of the exercises we use in classrooms came from elsewhere. Role plays, gap-fills, language learning apps … all of these were born of another mother and were only later adopted by educators.


Creativity is hard work

“It was a flash of inspiration. Kind of a thirty-year flash.” (Charles Eames, U.S. designer and architect)

To produce anything original and of value, one needs to give it thought and shape, refine it again and again, and throw away the parts that don’t work. This isn’t the “flashing lightbulb” image of creativity. It’s the “scientist in the lab/writer in the attic” image – working year after year in solitude and anonymity. Nothing will work unless you do. That applies to teachers and students as much as inventors and artists.