Extensive Reading Research: Language Development

Not only is reading the best hobby in the universe it is also one of the top ways to help develop literacy and language skills both in first and second language learners. As language teachers we need to encourage our students to read more and to make the most of their reading. Among the various approaches to reading, extensive and intensive reading are two perspectives we can rely on to introduce reading tasks in school. Although both approaches have practical implications, extensive reading (ER) has immense benefits ranging from the pleasure factor in reading, vocabulary enrichment, grammar knowledge building, increased cultural understanding and all the advantages of  learning from context.

We have taken a look at some of the latest studies in ER in a language learning setting and share some of the findings and their implications here. In this first post we concentrate on ER and second language vocabulary/grammar development. In the next article we will discuss research on classroom implications of ER.

Various aspects of second language proficiency

How does ER contribute to the learners’ language proficiency development at various levels? The top ten principles of ER were compiled by Day and Bamford in a 2002 (click on the link to check them out), based on the theoretical grounds of Krashen’s input hypothesis, which recommends that comprehensible input is the sufficient condition for second language acquisition. Basically, the more you read and the more you encounter the language, the more you are likely to learn. Of course it matters what kind of reading materials our students are exposed to, and different texts might lead to different outcomes. Yamashita (2008) provides a rich review of the research on the benefits of ER on various aspects of second language ability:

  • reading comprehension and reading speed (Bell, 2001)
  • vocabulary (Grabe and Stoller, 1997; Horst, 2005; Pigada and Schmitt, 2006)
  • grammar (Yang, 2001)
  • reading and writing (Hafiz and Tudor, 1989)
  • writing (Tsang, 1996)
  • disparate skills (Elley and Mangubhai, 1983)
  • general L2 proficiency (Mason and Krashen, 1997).

It is also reported that ER is the easiest way of pedagogically implementing the input-rich learning environment. We also learn from his report that ER has a different impact on different aspects of L2 ability, but in a short period of time we cannot expect ER to provide explicit involvement with linguistic features.

Incidental learning

Futher research was conducted on the implicit nature of ER, highlighting the benefits of ER and language development. Interestingly, knowledge in general grammar is an aspect of language knowledge we rarely expect to develop in an ER setting. However, Lee, Schallert and Kim (2015) found that both extensive reading and translation activities (which is a form of intensive reading) contribute to the development of general grammar knowledge after a year of study.

We must highlight that the groups which participated in the research had a good school library and read one graded reader per week. They also received regular instruction, but one session was dedicated each week to extensive reading (or translation in the other group), without explicit grammar teaching. The researchers found significant learning gains from extensive reading where the students were simply asked to read a large number of books. The conclusion of the research (which was carried out through the inclusion of control groups, pre-and post-tests and statistical analysis) is that incidental learning of general grammar may occur from reading large amounts of text for meaning (not for form).

An interesting aspect of the research is that 80% of the general grammar features tested did not appear in regular classroom instruction. It is important to add that some explicit instruction can support the incidental learning of difficult gramatical features such as prepositions. In summary, we can positively state that reading has widespread effects not only on reading achievement but also on grammar knowledge.

Vocabulary development

We often hear the criticism that graded readers work with such low-level and simplified vocabulary that they cannot compare to reading authentic texts. This issue was addressed by Rachel Allan (2016) is her research examining lexical bundles in graded readers.

Lexical bundles are recurrent sequences of words, and a useful list of phrasal language is provided by the Martinez and Schmitt’s PHRASE list from 2012 (follow this link to see the list). Allan found that lexical bundles occur with greater density in graded readers than in authentic fiction and they largely reflect authentic language use. When graded readers are created or original stories are adapted for language learners, most of the phrases which are important and useful are well-represented, especially at B1 and B2 levels. Although the range and the grammatical type of these lexical bundles are affected by simplification, graded readers still contribute to several aspects of language development. We learn from this research study that ER of graded readers supports students with acquiring new words and lexical phrases and enriching vocabulary.

An important recommendation is that phrasal vocabulary should be systematically included in texts below B1 level as these reflect authentic leanguage use, and they have frequencies equivalent to (and even higher than) the words learners are expected to know. At B1 level the common lexical bundles are intensified and at B2 level the readers reflect authentic language use.

Similary, this beneficial aspect of ER on vocabulary development is supported by another research study published in 2016 by Daskalovska in The Journal of Educational Research. The findings indicate that lexically rich graded readers can contribute to substantial vocaulary learning. According to this study, the ideal language instruction combines explicit vocabulary learning with incidental learning from context. In other words, formal instruction and reading graded readers contribute to vocabulary enrichment and the acquisition of the most frequent words in English. The researcher concludes that the extensive reading of graded readers can lead to an important next stage of development in which the graded readers are replaced with authentic texts.

Bringing it all together

The more our students read in English, the more they are exposed to the langauge. If they do it with pleasure, based on the ten principles of extensive reading, they are more likely to develop a reading habit and a love of reading in English. It is not only preference and the love of reading that supports the inclusion of extensive reading in a language programme, but several research studies focussing on different language abilitites also support this idea. As Paul Nation (2005) also recommends, graded readers can help learners remember previously met words as well.

It does matter what students read, as not only do they have to be interested in the books they read, these books also have to be at the right level of reading difficulty, containing a complex selection of vocabulary and grammatical features, which provide the right level of scaffolding for their language development.

Our advice is that you should keep encouraging your students to read, read at the right level, and it is important to provide enough time to become familiar with the fun of reading in a second language.


  • Allan, R. (2016). Lexical bundles in graded readers: To what extent does language restriction affec lexical patterning? System. Volume 59.
  • Daskalovska, N. (2016). Acquisition of three word knowledge aspects through reading. The Journal of Educational Research. Volume 109, Number 1.
  • Day, R. & Bumford, J. (2002). Top ten principles for teaching Extensive Reading. Reading in a Foreign Language. Volume 14, Number 2.
  • Lee, J., Schallert, D. L. & Kim, Eonsil. (2015). Effects of extensive reading and translation activities on grammar knowledge and attitudes  for EFL adolescents. System. Volume 52.
  • Nation, P. (2005). Teaching vocabulary. The Asian EFL Journal. September 2005. Volume 7, Issue 3.
  • Yamashita, J. (2008). Extensive reading and development of different aspects of L2 proficiency. System. Volume 36, Number 4.

For this overview we consulted the latest issues of SYSTEM, An International Journal of Educational Technology and Applied Linguistics. Do read this journal as the articles are informative, scientific, peer-reviewed and research-based. The studies comply with high academic research standards and provide objective discussions of the research and its limitations and implications. We also recommend The Journal of Educational Research and ELT Journal among other academic journals.

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