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What are the Advantages of Extensive Reading in Language Learning

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发表日期: 2004-12-02

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What are the Advantages of Extensive Reading in Language Learning

Naville Grant

1. Extensive reading can provide comprehensible input.

Krashen (1982) argues that one of the key elements in language learning is comprehensible input,among which he lists extensive reading. He argues that extensive reading will lead to language acquisition, provided that the texts include adequate exposure to the language, interesting material, and a relaxed learning environment. Krashen and others emphasize that the quality of the language to which the learners are exposed is very important if they are to learn from the input. Elley (1991) notes the existence ofan exposure gap between L1 learners and L2 learners, and reports on a number of relevant studies, showing that children between 6 and 12 years of age provided with extensive reading materials showed rapid growth in language development compared with other groups.

2 Extensive reading can enhance learners' general language competence.

There is much evidence to support this view. For example, the book flood project in Fiji revealed significant improvements in word recognition and reading comprehension after the first year; after two years, wider gains were recorded in both oral skills and writing. (Elley and Manghubai 1983). The studies cited by Elley (op.cit) indicated a spread of effect from reading competence to other language skills writing, speaking, and control over syntax.Similar points are made by Grabe (1991) and Paran (1996). Most relevant in China perhaps is the study by Tsang (1996) in secondary schools in Hong Kong.

3 Extensive reading can enhance students' general knowledge.

While developing the widely-used series Junior and Senior English for China, Liu Daoyi reported that time and again, one of the key motivating factors in English classrooms was the desire to increase the students' knowledge of the world, (Liu Daoyi, personal communication). The same applies to non-English majors in College, who have comparatively little intrinsic interest in learning English. One of the most popular elements in Active English, the series this author was involved in, was the Enrichment reading component. Students reported that they liked the texts provided because they were interesting, authentic, and enable us to learn about the world.(Gu Yueguo, personal communication.)

4 Extensive reading motivates learners to read

Motivations can come from many sources: the desire for general knowledge is one f them, but the intrinsic interest of the texts is another. Students in China greatly value authenticity, so if the text is written by a native speaker in good contemporary English, that in itself can be a big draw.

The issue of motivation has a large literature which cannot be explored fully at this time. Bell's account of work in Yemen (Bell 1998) provides some good evidence of how well-chosen books can motivate readers, though the students themselves were in an older age-group(17-42). More relevant is a very good South East Asian case study reported in Bell and Campbell (1996, 1997).

5 Extensive reading consolidates and increases knowledge of vocabulary

A study by Nagy and Herman (1987) claims that children between grades 3 and 12 in the United States learn up to 3000 words a year. Clearly, these words are simply, not formally taught in class: they are learnt by acquisition, largely if not exclusively through reading. It s possible that the time we spend teaching new vocabulary in China may be to some extent better spent by simply asking our students to read!

It is also the case that extensive reading can consolidate vocabulary and language forms already treated in the classroom. In the past, the emphasis has traditionally been placed on graded readers, which have a controlled grammatical and lexical load, and these certainly have the advantage of providing regular repetition and reinforcement of language forms. (Wodinsky and Nation 1988). However, the development of the real books movement, particularly in the UK,has led in recent years to an increased emphasis on real books written in authentic English, rather than the pre-digested, controlled reading diet offered by traditional graded reading schemes. Others have attempted to arrive at a compromise-real books written in authentic English roughly tuned to the likely language level of the readers. Grading, if it occurs, is as much focused on interest levels and relevance to the students, rather than language forms. This characterizes the approach used by the latest series published by the People's Education Press and Hong Kong Commercial Press. (PEPUPYE series 2002). An added impetus to this approach is provided by the increasing variations in educational policy across China, both within and beyond provinces and autonomous regions, as local curriculum initiatives make it increasingly difficult to adjust language levels to targeted segments of the student population.

6 Extensive reading can lead to improvements in writing

Krashen (1984) reviews a number of studies in an L1 learning environment to support this view, but more relevant in China are studies of L2 learners. Robb and Susser (1989) found that extensive reading seems to led to an improvement in Japanese high school learners writing skills, and Hafiz and Tudor (1989) reached similar conclusions in studies carried out in the UK and Pakistan.

7 Extensive reading can develop autonomous learning

The classroom focuses inevitably on shorter texts, and extensive reading provides learners with the opportunity of reading longer texts, on more varied subjects, on their own, and in their own way. This is a very important aspect of extensive reading: students do need to be liberated from dependence on the teacher, and reading gives them the opportunity to do so. Many of our students go on from Senior Middle School to formal on informal learning situations, where they may have to study extensively on their own. Extensive reading can give them the confidence and competence to cope with longer texts.

However, a word of caution is required on this issue: most texts selected for wider reading tend to be fiction; fictional texts are a very different genre from the non-fiction that learners have to use in academic study, and it is questionable how far the reading strategies and approaches appropriate for fiction are also appropriate for non-fiction. We cannot assume that there is transfer from one genre to another, and for this reason it is strongly urged that non-fiction as well as fiction-in fact, as wide a range of genres as possible-should feature in an extensive reading programme. For this reason, the PEPUPYE series already alluded to does include a wide range of genres, and a healthy infusion of non-fiction as well as fiction. It is to be noted that this is also one of the requirements of the latest Ministry of Education syllabus.

How to implement an extensive reading programme

Extensive reading can be approached on two fronts:

1 Shared reading: the class reader

The aim of the class reader is to enable the learners to improve the quality of their reading. (Grant 1975; Grant 1984) The class reader is a text that all the class read for a period, typically four or five weeks, both in class and out; selected parts are treated by the teacher in class, and it is the basis for numerous classroom activities, including (almost entirely oral) questioning, discussion, role-play, reading aloud (by both teacher and students) and creative writing. It is important not to spend too long a period on any one class reader; spending too long on one book can turn it into a bore, and the whole exercise can then become counter-productive.

The class reader has not been a common feature of many Chinese classrooms, but it can play a valuable part in helping to orchestrate imaginative response. As it is not directly related to examinations, it does not have to have any examination-style question types associated with it, and the teacher can send the students a number of crucial messages, including

* Reading can be fun.

* It is entirely acceptable to skim read-you don't have to understand every single word to get the gist.

* It is good to develop opinions and personal responses while you are reading, both social, ethical andaesthetic.

2 The Individual Reading Scheme-The IRS

If the class reader is concerned with the quality of reading, the IRS is concerned with both quality and quantity. The aim of the IRS is to get the learners to read as widely as possible, as enjoyably as possible. How this is done depends very much on the resources that a school has available. It can approached in a number if different ways:

Using the school library

Students go into the library once a week, and select the books they want to read. During this period, the teacher monitors what books they are reading, helps them to choose, and carries out personal interviews with learners who have just completed a book-usually to find out their response to it (and in a perfect world to find out if they have in fact read it.) Students and teacher keep a record of titles read, with dates.

Forming a class library

This operates in a very similar way, but this time the library is a smaller selection of books, and is available to the class in a book box, or cupboard. The books are carefully selected so that they are suitable for the class (one of the problems with a school library is that students sometimes select books that are inappropriate for one reason or another.)

Forming an invisible library

If the resources of the school are limited, it is sometimes possible to get individual students to each buy one book, or share in the cost of buying books, and exchange them every week. By purchasing one book, a learner then has access, potentially, to 50 or more, depending on the size of the class.

Developing personal libraries

It may be possible in some areas to encourage the learners to purchase their own books, and build up their own individual (or family!) libraries. If such schemes are to be successful, teachers have to persuade parents that such purchases are a worth-while investment.

Practical suggestions on approaches

Experience suggests that a number of features can assist in developing a successful IRS.

1 Maximizing learner involvement

However the IRS is organized, there are always practical problems-organizing books, maintaining lists, sharing experiences of individual books, and so forth, and experience suggests that the more learners are involved, the better. Much better than asking the teacher to do everything!

2 Learners' presentations

Every week, a small number of learners should be invited to give a short presentation on the book they have just completed. Learners love to hear what others think of individual books, and these presentations play a useful role in helping others to choose books they are likely to enjoy.

3 Reading aloud

Reading aloud is often disparaged as a special skill which has little transfer to the key skill of silent reading. Reading aloud-especially in the intensive reading lesson-seldom plays a major role, but students like doing it; and they also like to listen while the teacher reads specially selected stories or extracts from stories aloud. (The books I remember most from my own secondary school days were those read aloud to me by my teachers!) This can play a powerful motivating role.

4 Discouraging slow-motion reading

SloMo reading is what takes place in the intensive reading classroom, where every word is sometimes taken apart and put together again; this is frequently counter-productive in the intensive reading lesson, and is doubly so in an extensive reading programme. The crucial skills of Infski should be developed as an important reader's survival strategy. Infski is not a Russian Psycholinguist! It stand for Infer or Skip.

So dictionaries should very seldom be used, and good extensive reading materials will typically provide instant glosses of any key words that may cause readers to stumble. (This is a strategy employed in PEPUPYE.) Actually, one feels ambivalent about providing these bilingual glosses, but research suggests that this is what both students and teachers wanted, and if it makes the reading process easier, and quicker, and more motivating, so be it.

5 Monitoring the students' reading

Teachers should keep track of what the students are reading-and how much they are reading. Backsliders may need a pep talk! Or maybe, as I have frequently found happened, the students may have chosen something highly unsuitable. When I was teaching in Dar-es-Salaam I once found that one of my students, normally a high-achiever, seemed to have ground to a halt in the IRS lesson. I found that he had chosen an original version of a Charles Dickens novel, and had got totally bogged down in chapter 1 for weeks on end!

Records of students reading can be kept in a book or on catalogue file cards, or even (in the case of a class library) on a wall chart (done by students!) big enough to list all the books available on the reading scheme down the side, and all the students' names along the top. The date a book is completed is then entered on the chart. At the end of each semester stars can be awarded if desired, and can be converted to marks, if that is found to be motivating.

On the whole, tests, as such, should be avoided; Davis (1995) suggests that extensive reading programmes should be without the pressures of testing or marks. However, in our experience, in China, a task done with no visible trace is seldom regarded as a real task, and it is advisable for texts to be accompanied by short, gist-type questions of one sort or another. Remarkably, it seems, students actually like these questions, and so, once again, in PEPUPYE, we have included them, and some other question-types, though many of them are optional.

Short pieces of written work, as appropriate, may also be done-a good text frequently acts as a useful stimulus, as we saw with the young woman from

6 Teacher's promotional activities

These are essential, and can take many forms. Enthusiasm for reading, and about books, can be infectious; and teachers are urged to develop such enthusiasms-and to demonstrate them in action (see below, section 3). Among the promotional activities suitable are:

pep talks

reading aloud

the use of multi-media (videos, CD-rom, audio tapes, film etc.)

enrichment activities (anecdotes, theatre visits, film visits, exploiting posters, indeed, exploiting anything that is relevant to what they have been reading.

awarding marks as appropriate to students as a reward for their reading efforts (efforts-not achievement!)

Sustained Silent Reading Programmes

SSR, and its numerous variations-USSR (Uninterrupted Silent Reading) DEAR, (Drop everything and read) and POWER (Positive Outcomes While Enjoying Reading) and FEVER (Free Voluntary Reading) is another procedure which we can all learn from. It has been tried out in Hong Kong, with some success (, and would be worthy of classroom research in China.). We shall call it SSR: SSR provides students with a block of time during the day (typically twice a week) devoted to reading. During SSR time, everyone in class reads a book of their choice (including crucially the teacher). There are no interruptions, and, usually, no assignments, or other activities related to reading. Pilgreen (2000) indicates that in order for it to be effective, it needs to be carried out over a period of at least six months, and that time be needs to be allocated on the basis of at least two sessions of between 15 and 30 minutes per week.

SSR is not that new: as far as I know it was first introduced by Hunt (1970) and has since attracted much research, both in L1 and L2 situations. The results have been mixed, partly because many adaptations to the approach have been made. The research is reviewed in Chow and Chou (2001). An exhaustive account of SSR and its ramifications can be found in Pilgreen (2000). The consensus seems to be that it can work with some linguistically disadvantaged students, or ESL students, but that there are doubts as to the value of such a program with no testing or monitoring involved; this applies particularly to L2 students. This whole subject needs more research in China! And in keeping with Gertrude Stein, I leave you with a question, rather than an answer!


Experience from across the world suggests that extensive reading programs can play an important role in promoting language improvement and development. They require a certain amount of investment in both time and resources, but the benefits far outweigh the costs. With the new introduction of a new syllabus in China that gives due weight to the importance of extensive reading, we can look forward to a nationwide change in attitudes to reading, and to wonderful opportunities for progress.

(Adapted from the author's lecture The Theory and Pratice of Extensive Readling.)

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