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)

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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.

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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: https://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2017/session/extensive-reading-foundation-reception-and-awards-ceremony