“The more, the merrier”: extensive reading in the classroom

The more I talk to my students and colleagues, the more I am convinced that good readers make good language learners across the skills. One recent and somewhat surprising discovery was that some students credit their excellent pronunciation to the quantity of books they read. Although our primary purpose in reading classes might not be improving pronunciation, it is clear that reading reaches areas that might not even come into mind. In other areas of language development, it is almost a universally accepted truth that people who read a lot become more knowledgeable, better writers, more creative thinkers and expressive speakers. However, in second language development, extensive reading is not yet widely adopted as a methodology.

Helbling Readers Catalogue 2018 cover illustration by Gabriella Giandelli. © Helbling Languages

Does speed really matter?

One exciting area of research informs us about practical aspects of the inclusion of extensive reading in any language course ranging from elementary level young learners to advanced learners in business and third-level education. Reading fluency, and within that reading rate development has become the focus of several studies informing us not only about the benefits, but also about the most practical approaches to extensive reading.

As Beglar, Kite and Hunt (2011) explain, reading rate is one aspect of the complex construct of reading fluency, and it informs us about reading performance time. As they report relying on a series of studies, 180 word-per-minute is the threshold between mature and immature reading. They cite various sources to review the reading rate in different settings and at different levels (p. 8):

  • “Weigle and Jensen (1996): advanced-level international students studying at UCLA began a reading program reading an average of 184 wpm”;
  • “Nuttall (2005, p. 56) stated that English-as-a-second-language (ESL) students often read at 120–150 wpm before training;
  • Anderson (2008, p. 67) used 200 wpm as the reading rate goal for intermediate-level ESL readers.”

When you think about reading rates and reading comprehension, a number of factors naturally occur to all of us. What might influence our reading rate? First of all, what we read matters. Imagine reading a newspaper article, a simple narrative or a text about theoretical mathematics. Second, imagine why someone is reading. Your reading purpose can be personal as well as professional (or even both at the same time!). Of course not only the genre, complexity and purpose of the reading matters, but our first language reading will also influence our second language reading rate. On top of all of this, psycholinguistic factors such as age, motivation and anxiety will also affect our reading rate. Still, empirical research shows that aiming at a reading rate between 120 and 200 words per minute is a good objective for almost every reader.

Reading a lot = reading faster and better?

Our short answer is YES, the more students read, the better and faster reader they become. It seems common sense, so why don’t we encourage students and create activities to motivate them to read more?

As I see it, the response is in the misinformed thinking that there is a magic method, which means focusing on either grammar translation, spoken communication or intensive reading followed up with exam-style reading comprehension. Alhough any of these methods provide great opporunities for language development, the exclusion of reading large amounts of texts from the curriculum will lead to less-able students who struggle with reading comprehension, writing production, vocabulary development and general reasoning in a second language.

Empirical research within the fields of applied linguistics, language pedagogy and cognitive science also confirms the claims that extensive reading leads to all-round language development. Among many studies we would like to highlight two research papers. The first was written by Beglar, Hunt and Kite in 2011, and the most recent one was written by McLean and Rouault in 2017. Not only do these studies support the inclusion of extensive reading in the second language English curriculum, they also inform us about practices teachers can pay attention to when designing their programmes.

Practical advice on extensive reading in class

Based on their detailed empirical evidence backed up by statistical data analysis in experimental research designs, the authors provide us with ideas on how a successful extensive reading programme might work. First, they remind us of the widely known basics of extensive reading we learnt from Mason and Krashen (1997), Day and Bumford (1998) and Grabe and Stoller (2002), which highlight the importance of providing students with large quantitites of simplified texts within their linguistic competence. Second, they also point out that reading one book every two weeks or one book every week is an effective in promoting reading rate development, and it can be more effective than reading short texts intensively. Another important aspect of the extensive reading programme described by McLean and Rouault (2017) is that students can aim at a reading goal of 60 minutes of homework every week. In their design, each extensive reading group participant was required to read an average of 4000 running words a week over two academic semesters at a Japanese university. The students were also asked to read beyond the set goals. These measures resulted in the development of reading rates while maintaining their reading comprehension rates as well.

All in all, we can see empirical evidence that consistency in reading large quantities positively influence students’ reading abilities, without mentioning their vocabulary development rates that followed the reading development rates. As the research indicates, reading a large amount of well-designed and carefully selected books over a long period of time will make your students more successful learners of English. What’s more, if they read for pleasure, they will probably become more motivated and relaxed about reading, which is an extra benefit.

References

  • Beglar, D., Hunt, A., & Kite, Y. (2012). The effect of pleasure reading on Japanese university EFL learners’ reading rates. Language Learning, 62, 665-703. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9922.2011.00651.x.
  • Day, R., & Bamford, J. (1998). Extensive reading in the second language classroom. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
  • Grabe, W., & Stoller, F. L. (2002). Teaching and researching reading. Harlow, England: Pearson Education.
  • Mason, B., & Krashen, S. (1997). Extensive reading in English as a foreign language. System, 25, 91 e 102. https://doi.org/:10.1016/S0346-251X(96)00063-2.
  • McLean, S., & Rouault, G. (2017). The effectiveness and efficiency of extensive reading at developing reading rates. System, 70, 92-106. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.system.2017.09.003

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