Are Your ELLs Getting Enough of This Crucial Source of Language Input?

Pardon the clickbait phrasing of the title, but it seems to have gotten you reading, and this post is all about just that: getting students to read. Below, I’ll be talking about extensive reading (ER), a practice that researchers and theorists unanimously endorse, but which too seldom makes its way into the classroom. First, I’ll talk about what ER is and why it’s so important, then we’ll proceed through the remaining wh-s and wrap up with a how.

What is Extensive Reading? So, extensive reading is a technical term, but it’s actually rather descriptive as well: It means reading at great length. We can get a little more specific than that, though. It’s reading a lot of easy texts of one’s own selection, primarily for pleasure. If we want to put some numbers on it, an “easy” text is one in which 98–100% of the vocabulary is known, and “at great length” means at least 20 minutes at a stretch, but really as much as possible.

In understanding what ER is, it’s important to contrast it with intensive reading (IR). IR is reading dense, challenging texts, often with an objective, such as paraphrasing or scanning for a particular piece of information. The distinction from IR is so important because English learners generally get plenty of IR. Virtually all the reading sections in a student’s coursebook are IR activities. And IR is great; it has plenty of benefits, but those benefits are emphatically not the same as the benefits of ER, which we’ll discuss in the next section.

Why is ER Important? One of the key factors in language acquisition that we see again and again is comprehensible input. In order to develop their language, students need to be taking in and understanding that language, the more of it the better. Pretty much everyone agrees that comprehensible input is a necessary condition for language acquisition. Some—such as Stephen Krashen, originator of the input hypothesis—go so far as to argue that comprehensible input like ER is both a necessary and sufficient condition for language acquisition. In other words, forget teachers and textbooks and all that—the comprehensible input alone is enough for language acquisition to occur.

Personally, I’m also convinced that ER is a key to addressing the issue of plateauing. Learners often plateau around the 3,000-word level, and it’s around 2,000 words that we use in day-to-day speech. Though I’m speculating here, this makes a lot of sense to me. All English learners are getting that 2,000 words of comprehensible input from spoken language. They aren’t all getting the thousands of others that we find primarily in written English. How can we expect acquisition to continue if the stream of comprehensible input is suddenly cut off?

Who? Everyone. Native speakers and ELLs; young learners and adults; those whose L1 uses a Roman alphabet and those whose don’t. There’s a whole lot of research into the benefits of ER, and it benefits pretty much every one of us.

When? All the time, as often as possible, now. What are you doing here! Stop reading this and go read something!

Where? On the subway, on the couch, in bed, in a rocking chair, on the porch, at a cafe, Everywh—alright, not everywhere; it is inadvisable to read extensively while driving or operating heavy machinery, but self-driving cars are just a few years away…

How to make ER happen? As I said, despite all its benefits and all the research, ER simply isn’t happening enough in the language classroom. The reasons for this can vary from context to context, and as a teacher it’s worth investigating and considering the particular obstacles that your learners face, but there are some general observations and recommendations we can make.

One of the first things you need to provide your students with is access to a wide range of appropriate reading material. The best option for this is graded readers, which you can read more about in this previous post.

It is also important to incorporate classroom activities that encourage extensive reading. To reiterate, these will not be reading for the main idea or reading to paraphrase or any of the reading activities that we most often see. ER activities should be designed to help students to understand the importance of ER, to find material that is level-appropriate and of interest to them, to set reading goals for themselves, to find more opportunities to read, and to apply what they have read after the fact. Here are a few quick examples of effective ER activities:

  1. After reading their books, students circulate in class, speed-dating style, telling each new partner about the book they have read. Partners record title, brief notes, and whether they would like to read this book.
  2. Groups are given five to seven copies of book cover illustrations and the five to seven corresponding back cover synopses. In small groups they are to discuss and match each front and back cover.
  3. Students learn about and apply the five-finger reading test to three to four books from the library, determining and recording which books are best matched to their fluent reading level.

These examples come from Bamford and Day’s excellent Extensive Reading Activities for Teaching Language, a fantastic resource for anyone hoping to put together an extensive reading program. Another great resource is the Extensive Reading Foundation, which even organizes an Extensive Reading World Congress (how many pedagogical practices have entire international conventions dedicated to them!?). Finally the publishers of graded readers have actually put together some really solid teacher resources for ER. Oxford has a great set of placement tests free for download (login required), Macmillan has this great guide for using readers in class, and Cambridge has a whole mess of stuff from reading certificates to lesson plans if you create a login.

I’m currently putting together an extensive reading curriculum at our community English program, and I’ll be sure to share more on that in the future. Until then, happy reading!

from TESOL Blog


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